Teen substance abuse Treatment: A comprehensive guide for parents seeking treatment

Substance abuse starts young. In fact, a recent study found that 11.6 percent of males and 6.9 percent of females aged twelve and older use illicit drugs on a regular basis. Those are scary numbers, considering how young children are when they start abusing drugs. Having a child with a drug or alcohol addiction is any parent’s worst nightmare. It’s difficult to keep children away from drugs and alcohol because of the prevalence of illicit substances passed through school and the social circles of young people. If you believe that your child is struggling with substance use, a teen substance abuse treatment center may be able to help.

Most teens start using drugs and alcohol recreationally. They think, “I’ll try this a few times and move on with my life.” However, for some teens, this will not be the case. Making sure your teen does not fall into addictive patterns of drug and alcohol use can save their academic future, their career, and even their life.

The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.


Table of Contents

What does Drug and Alcohol Use look like?

Teens are good at hiding things from their parents. Drug and alcohol use is not something your teen can easily hide from you. Why? Because there are so many signs and symptoms of habitual teen drug use. Looking out for these symptoms can help you get your teen help and back on a path towards success. For many parents, overcoming the idea that their child could be using drugs is a huge hurdle. No one wants to believe that their child could possibly abuse drugs. That’s not something a parent wants to hear about their child. However, you need to address the issue by identifying signs that your child is abusing drugs.
Symptoms of drug and alcohol use can come in three forms: physical, emotional, and behavioral. Different drugs elicit different symptoms, however, there are some tell-tale signs that your teen is using some type of drug.

Common Physical Symptoms:

  • Changes in weight: If your teen has suddenly lost a dramatic amount of weight, it may be due to their drug addiction. Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can cause a decrease in appetite, leading to weight loss. On the other hand, marijuana causes weight gain because it stimulates a person’s appetite. 
    1. Deterioration in appearance: Teens, especially boys, are not known for their overall cleanliness. However, if your teen completely stops caring about what they look like and does not take care about their hygiene or appearance at all it may be a sign of drug use. 
    2. Bloodshot or red eyes: If your teen constantly has red eyes or carries around eye drops (without it being allergy season), they may be abusing marijuana or some other illicit drug. Their pupils may also be smaller or larger than they normally are. 
    3. Odd smells: If your teen’s hair, clothes, and possessions all begin to smell of something you can’t quite place your finger on, it’s probably drugs. Marijuana has a very distinct smell which is easily detectable once you know what it is. 
    4. Changes in sleep patterns: If your child is not sleeping at all or sleeping all the time, it may be a sign that they are using drugs and alcohol. Sleeping at odd times is also a symptoms of some drugs (heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, etc). 


Common Emotional Symptoms

  1. Change in personality and attitude: Although it is normal for teens to go through “phases”, many parents can tell when their child isn’t behaving normally. If your teen has gone from “good” to “bad” in a matter of weeks, it may be a sign they are struggling with drug abuse. 
  2. Sudden emotional outbursts: Whether they be mood swings, temper tantrums, or angry outbursts, drug abuse can make a teen’s emotions go even more haywire than they are normally (even though teens are generally emotionally all over the place). 
  3. Constantly lethargic and spacy: If your teen has turned into a space cadet seemingly overnight, it’s definitely a sign they are using drugs. 
  4. Constantly paranoid: Marijuana causes paranoia in many individuals. If your teen is constantly fearful and anxious about the world around them, it may be because they’ve been using drugs.

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Common Behavioral Symptoms

  1. Unexplained financial problems: This is a very telling symptom for teen substance abuse. Your teen needs money to buy drugs. Because of this, if your teen has been caught stealing money or constantly spends their entire allowance or job earnings, it may be because they are spending it on their drug fix.
  2. Drop in school performance: Teens who abuse drugs on a regular basis don’t typically do well in school. Some drugs can make teens feel unfocused and spacy, which makes it hard for them to pay attention in class. Other drugs make them hyperactive, which causes them to want to be anywhere else. 
  3. Change in peer group: If your teen has started hanging out with the “stoner” kids, there’s a good chance they’ve started using drugs. Peer pressure is a serious issue and it’s hard for teens to resist. 
  4. Strange speech patterns: If your teen slurs their speech on a regular basis, or says strange, unintelligible things on a regular basis, it may be because of the drugs they are using. They may also speak at a rapid fire pace.

Teen Substance Use Statistics

In a recent report on drug, alcohol and tobacco use among teens in the U.S., the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University finds that 75% of all high school students have used alcohol, tobacco or either legal or illicit drugs and that 20% of these adolescents are addicted.

The data also support previous studies that link early substance use to addiction later in life: 90% of Americans who are currently addicted started smoking, drinking or using drugs before age 18. A quarter of those who begin using addictive substances at these early ages become addicted as adults, while only one in 25 who start using these substances after age 21 does.

What causes teen drug use?

Most teens don’t use drugs thinking it will become an addiction. It often starts with a friend asking if a teen wants to try a certain type of drug. Peer pressure is a major component to teen drug use because of the social aspect of some drugs. However, there are a variety of reasons why a teen would start using drugs. These include:

  1. Coping mechanism: Some teens use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress, depression, and other complicated feelings. The rush individuals get from drugs and alcohol can make teens forget all of their worries. This is appealing to many teens dealing with emotional turmoil.
  2. Curiosity: Sometimes a drug problem starts with a teen’s desire to experiment. Their thought is, “you’re only young once, why not try drugs while I have very little responsibility?”. However, sometimes experimentation turns into addiction if it becomes a habit. 
  3. Pressure to perform: The pressure to perform well in academics and sports can lead teens to use stimulants in order to enhance their performance. These stimulants can be highly addictive and can cause major issues later in life. 
  4. Ignorance: The drug education programs in school have failed many teens in giving a thorough description of how dangerous drugs can be. Sometimes teens don’t understand what they are taking, which can lead to addiction and negative consequences.

Helping teens dealing with drug and alcohol use at home

If your teen is expressing any of the above symptoms, it’s time for you to work on getting them help. Here are some ways you can help your drug abusing or addicted teen at home:

  1. Be open and honest. Your teen needs to know how their drug use is affecting you and your entire family. They should know that their actions have serious consequences and that if they continue down the path they are on, they will have a bleak future. Make clear your opinion of drug use. If you’ve dabbled in drug use yourself, they need to know about that too. That way they know about it’s negative effects. 
  2. Set consistent rules and expectations. Your teen needs to know that their behavior is unacceptable. These rules should not be unreasonable ones that your teen can’t possibly follow. They need to know that their actions will have clear consequences.
  3. Talk to your child about underlying issues. You need to understand why your teen is using drugs in the first place. By having this conversation with them, you’ll be able to better understand what treatment they will need in the future (if it’s come to that). 
  4. Get them involved. Have your teen join a club, theatre, or a sport. Exposing them to fun, healthy activities might stop their drug use entirely. 

Getting Professional Help

For most teens struggling with drug abuse, it’s important for them to get professional help. The baby steps you make at home won’t help them entirely overcome a drug or alcohol abuse problem. That’s when an inpatient program such as a wilderness therapy program can help. Wilderness therapy removes a teen from the distractions of everyday life and allows them to gain critical life skills that can help them in the future. Accompanied by substance abuse experts on a daily basis, your teen will have time to work on the underlying issues causing their substance issues.

BlueFire Wilderness Therapy is a wilderness therapy program based just outside of Boise, Idaho. BlueFire offers a comprehensive therapeutic plan for each individual client. At BlueFire, teens learn how to cope with whatever is causing the substance abusing behavior. 

Why choose wilderness therapy for teen substance abuse treatment?

Focused on building relationships. During the wilderness therapy process, teens spend time bonding with peers and staff members in their small groups. These healthy relationships and the communication skills they pick up along the way, help students better understand how their behaviors affect others. This insight can motivate teens to work on rebuilding their family unit.

Stepping Outside Their Comfort Zone in a Healthy Way: For some teens, substance use all began with taking risks and relying on substances as a healthy coping mechanism. Wilderness experiences may teach them that healthy risks, like meeting new people, participating in outdoor activities, and traveling, can meet similar needs in a more sustainable way. Adventure therapy involves a variety of physical activities and team-building initiatives that help young adults develop perceptions of trust, empowerment, and teamwork. The goal of adventure therapy is not mastery of a skill, but rather building confidence in your learning and problem-solving abilities. 

Resolving Family Conflict. Some space from family can be helpful for everyone involved when families have reached a moot point in arguments with their teen. blueFire encourages parents to stay involved in a parallel therapeutic process, featuring our Family Spark Workshop near the middle of your child’s stay. In addition to the great work that will be done on-site during this workshop, families enjoy reconnecting with their child and witnessing the changes underway. Our goal is not to blame anyone for problems that have occurred but to help facilitate independence and family reconciliation for teens.