All individuals experiment and push the limits at some point in their lives, especially as teenagers. During the developmental years, parents hope their children will learn to become responsible, independent and productive adults by exploring their interests and developing skills that will serve them in life. Involvement with drugs, alcohol, gambling or even sexual behaviors can seriously work against these goals of growing up to be mature adults, and can lead to addiction as adults. This growing experimentation stands as one of the greatest threats to the future of American society, and is the source of great sadness for many of our families.
Addiction is an obsessive-compulsive disorder, with a dominating set of behaviors and attitudes that are focused on specific activities. Addiction can involve drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, shopping, internet use, overeating or dieting. These compulsions create a destructive cycle of behaviors that an individual will maintain despite highly negative consequences. An alcoholic may miss work or school excessively, or isolate from the family, or stay out to all hours, or show inconsistent mood swings and personality fluctuations, and usually will manifest shortages of money in order to support the addiction. All addictive acts can be described as risk taking, and can be accompanied by anxious and paranoid characteristics.
Adolescents share many of these problems. Due to the complexity of adolescence and their mental and emotional immaturity, teenagers more easily succumb to addiction that may have begun as experimentation. Clinical studies have shown that adults who begin drinking about age 21 will typically take between 5 and 15 years to develop an addiction. On the other hand, adolescents may develop a dependency within 5 to 15 months of the beginning of their use of drugs or alcohol. It is very clear to clinicians that the impact of alcohol or drugs on the adolescent will stunt their emotional and emotional maturity to a very significant degree.
As with all diseases, addiction has symptoms that are consistent, especially in teenagers. Some characteristics are sudden isolation from family and friends, decrease or loss of interest in formerly favorite activities, and sudden lowered performance and misbehavior in school. Arguments with adults, particularly parents, will escalate; especially if the adult attempts to direct the teenager away from activities associated with dependency. Newly addicted adolescents will frequently adopt a new peer friendship group, and will tend to be secretive about this association. Impulsivity and poor judgment will be manifested. Criminal acts may arise, from possession and use of illegal substances to shop lifting or gang involvement. Conflict, turmoil, acting out, and all the negatives associated with these behaviors can be the result of teen addiction, and can have a terrible impact on the family as a whole and the teen in particular.
As with adults, adolescents develop defenses to protect themselves, to hide their secret and to maintain the addiction. The most powerful defense mechanism is denial, which is a very common teenage means of coping. The strength of craving an addiction creates a corresponding denial of its existence. There is self denial, and there is denial to the authority figure. Teens frequently use rationalization as well; we have all heard the rationale that “everyone does it” as an excuse to continue engaging in intoxication dependent behavior. Drugs are often called study aids or socially acceptable as a means of justification of their use.
Just as common is minimizing the habit, such as stating that it is no big deal to engage in risky behavior. Ultimately, when confronted with the issue, the adolescent will turn to projection, or blaming. It is not unusual to blame the law, or school, or parents rather than admit to wrongdoing. All of these defense mechanisms are utilized to deflect attention and to take the focus off the individual that is the focus of scrutiny. It is simply easier to point to others as the problem than for the adolescent to confront their own feelings of shame or guilt.
Counseling and treatment of adolescents focuses on assessment of problematic behaviors identified in individuals that indicate an addiction issue. Some of these behaviors, as identified in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) include:
1. Tolerance – an individual has to use increasingly greater amounts of alcohol or drugs to get the same results.
2. Withdrawal – not engaging in the use of the dependent substance results in any of a number of adverse reactions, such vomiting, sweating, shaking, insomnia, etc.
3. Preoccupation – the person spends an excessive amount of time dealing with the addictive behavior, such as acquisition, use, and hiding the habit.
4. Attempts to quit – the individual has tried to quit and failed, despite promises and strong effort.
5. Escape – the use of alcohol or drugs is used as an escape from reality.
6. Dishonesty – lying is used to cover up usage.
7. Illegal acts – criminal behavior is a common result of addiction, usually to support the habit.
8. Relying on others for financial support – habitual debt is a possible indicator of addiction.
Treatment of the addicted adolescent is based on the 12 Steps, using Alcoholics Anonymous and the Big Book as the basis for sobriety. Counseling, guidance and support are crucial for success. Probably the most vital aspect of treatment and recovery for the adolescent is involvement of the family. Family visits and family counseling are essential for the adolescent to reach stable sobriety. Addiction has been termed a family disease, and for this tender age group it is so important for the family to be directly involved in treatment and recovery. The adolescent must learn the severity of the disease called addiction, and to understand that recovery is a lifelong process. An addict can recover, and so can the family by learning to begin life again at the fullest, one day at a time.
Please contact Origins Recovery Center if you or your loved ones are struggling with such issues by calling 1-888-U-GET-WELL or by clicking the contact button below.