Teen Addiction - Understanding and Treating Drug Addiction in Adolescents

Dr. Purushothaman
November 29, 2013

Teenage drug addiction has become more prevalent in today's culture than thirty years ago. Then alcohol and marijuana were the primary substances used by adolescents. In 2009 however, the prevalence of teen drug addiction has become alarming.

The number of adolescents undergoing drug addiction counselling has increased rapidly. Many centres have begun to accept patients younger than eighteen seeking help with addiction because the demand has become so great. However, adolescent drug abuse is a delicate subject as the psychology of teenagers is extremely complex and external factors are often influential in drug use in this age group.

Adolescence is not easy
Adolescence begins at approximately age 10 for girls and 12 for boys with the further development of their reproductive organs and sexual maturity. Hormones develop and behavioural changes begin to occur as well as physical changes. Individuals experiencing puberty and adolescence are going through one of the most difficult times of their lives. The physical and emotional changes play a large role in the confusion and the need for acceptance which adolescents feel at this time.

Peer pressure is a big motivator behind the increased use of drugs and alcohol. Adolescents are experiencing a stage where they struggle to find their identity whilst emerging from the safety blanket of their parents. They are beginning their preparations for adult life and self-esteem can suffer in the confusion which adolescence brings.

Drugs and self-destructive behaviour
To a teenager, it seems that only their friends understand them. The need to be accepted can involve participating in the same behaviour as their circle of friends, which can be experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Alcohol and marijuana are commonly used by teenagers, as are 'party' drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy), Acid (LSD) and magic mushrooms. Harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, crack-cocaine and crystal methamphetamine are sometimes used by adolescents but less frequently. Solvents such as glue, paint thinners and aerosol gases are also a popular choice of drug for teens.

Professionals are generally hesitant to label a teenager as an addict for two reasons: Firstly, addiction is a disease - if a person is using drugs regularly, this does not mean that they are a drug addict. Secondly, teenagers are developing psychologically and it can be dangerous to diagnose someone as an addict before they are at least 20 years old.

Disease of Addiction
The disease of addiction is incurable, grows progressively worse and is fatal unless arrested. It can be stopped by the application of drug addiction counselling and a programme of recovery. The disease concept states that an addict is sick and that their drug use and other compulsive behaviours are symptoms of this 'sickness'. Either someone has the disease or not.

Those addicts that do start drinking and using can experience a 'honeymoon period'. This is a phase when an alcoholic/addict is at the beginning of their drinking/using career: an enjoyable time when the disease has not progressed yet. Addicts generally begin this phase of addiction in their teens.

It must be emphasised that many teens who do not have the disease of addiction will try drugs and may use them regularly until they decide they do not need them and want to stop. An addict will not be able to stop - this is the difference between addicts and non-addicts. Addiction sees those with the disease continuing to drink or take drugs for the rest of their lives until they receive help. It is also the reason why many professionals will not label a teen as an addict as they may just be going through the adjustment to adulthood.

Getting help
A teenager may not qualify for diagnosis as an addict yet drug use and compulsive disorders such as eating disorders, self-harm, promiscuity and other risky behaviours are a clear message that there is a problem. Whether it is addiction or not, help is available.

Signs to watch for if you suspect your child is taking drugs are:

Declining school marks and truancy
Weight loss or gain
Large or pin-prick sized pupils
Secretive behaviour
Abandonment of old friends for a 'new' group
Lack of finances, never having money, borrowing money
Money going missing in the house
Disappearance of their expensive personal possessions
Isolating, spending a lot of time in their room or out of the house
Violent outbursts and rage
Lack of interest in things which used to please them
Smell of solvents or thinners on their clothes or in their mouths
Glass pipes, burnt/broken light bulbs, rolling papers, tinfoil, hypodermic needles, melted lighters, plastic 'bankies' in their possession

Help is available for teens using drugs. It can be very beneficial for them to undergo drug addiction counselling at a drug and alcohol treatment centre if the problem is serious. A centre which encourages clients to follow a 12 Step programme of recovery (such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous), and provides one to one counselling and therapy groups and a healthy lifestyle will have the best results.

It is never a good idea to force a teenager into recovery from drug addiction or other compulsive behaviours, neither is it a good idea to put them into a rehabilitation programme simply if you discover your child has taken drugs - this may do more harm than good. If your child has begun to develop a serious addiction problem and cannot cease their use of drugs and other compulsive behaviours, then treatment is a good idea.

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