Supporting Teens in Recovery

Families often ask how to support a loved one in opioid addiction. Stopping drug misuse and entering a treatment program is only the beginning of the recovery journey. Parents supporting teens in recovery need to understand that successful treatment is multi-faceted to address physical, social, spiritual, and emotional needs.

Understand the Different Aspects of Recovery

The treatment process begins with removing the drug from the body. A detox may need to be carried out in a supervised medical environment due to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Supervision also combats the temptation to use drugs when withdrawal symptoms become very uncomfortable.

Next, counselors develop treatment plans that address underlying issues in the teen’s life that led to the addiction. The teen may have academic problems, underlying mental health disorders, or social difficulties. Some teens may need to work through traumatic experiences.

Family counseling is included to support family members and change relational patterns that feed into the addiction. Family members often enable addictions or exhibit codependent behavior. Within the neutral, safe container of therapy sessions, families can work through problems and plan to prevent relapse. Families often need to learn new communication skills. Parents and siblings should use “I” statements to share with the teen how negative behaviors have impacted them.

Teenagers’ brains are still not fully developed. We do not have full rational reasoning capacity until we reach our mid-twenties. While the frontal cortex continues to mature, teenagers tend to act according to emotional impulses driven by the amygdala. Therefore, an important part of treatment includes learning strategies to regulate emotions. Teens need individual therapy to learn to take a deep breath and consider the ramifications before engaging in risky behaviors.

Parents should consider individual therapy for themselves to manage the stress of working with teens in recovery. Remember that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else.

Integrate School Into the Recovery Plan

Returning to school or starting a new educational program can support the goals of recovery. Schooling provides positive activities to fill a teen’s time. Teens set goals and increase their confidence as they master new skills. At the same time, school programs can be intense and significant sources of stress and anxiety. The stress can provoke a downward spiral back into addiction. Managing school life while in recovery requires striking a balance between healthy challenges and excessive strain.

Encourage teens to socialize with peers in structured activities such as after-school clubs, theater, music, and student government. Teens are susceptible to peer pressure. Peer pressure can take both positive and negative forms. Teens in recovery need to plan to avoid negative influences and surround themselves with friends who will support their sober living goals.

Form a self-care plan for how your teen will manage stress and anxiety. Ideas include regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and meditation. Set a good example for your teen by following these habits yourself. Share with your teen the difficult situations you face each day and how you successfully manage your emotions.

Consider starting with part-time school attendance. Your teen will have to devote a lot of energy to outpatient counseling for a while. It may help to allow your teen to take on more responsibilities and face life stressors gradually. During this process, your teen should regularly check in with professional treatment staff and trusted adult mentors.

Talk with your teen and the school counselor about what information to share with teachers. Many teachers will keep information about drug treatment confidential and use this information to better support students. A teacher who understands the full picture of a student’s stressors can respond with empathy to behavior and academic challenges. However, teachers are also human and may harbor negative perceptions about people struggling with addiction. The school counselor should be familiar with the teachers and provide advice.

Teens will also appreciate discussions about how to handle questions from peers about why they miss school for appointments, why they were absent for several months, and why they only attend part-time. Advance preparation will help teens react better in the heat of the moment when faced with challenging questions.

With proper planning, parents and families can successfully help their teens navigate the treatment process.

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