Teenagers can be just as vulnerable to substance abuse as adults, but they may not be as prepared to handle the consequences. If you have a teenager, concern about substance abuse is a valid concern. Many treatment options exist to help treat teen substance abuse problems.

Teen addiction can be treated the same as addiction in adults but may be more difficult to recognize. The friends of teens will be more reluctant to report addiction in their friends if they are equipped to recognize it at all.

Teen treatment involves inpatient or outpatient treatment. The difference between teen treatment and adult treatment is that the first is more heavily focused on therapy than the second. Medications have a bigger role in addiction treatment for adults.

What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

Teen substance abuse is more accurately labeled substance use disorder (SUD). Essentially, SUD is a diagnosis involving destructive and unmanageable substance problems. Over the years, the medical community updated terminology as treatment and diagnostic criteria advanced.

An individual may abuse substances — overindulging in drugs or alcohol from time to time — or develop an addiction, a chemical or psychological dependence towards a certain substance. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) introduced SUD to identify and treat people who struggle with drug and alcohol addictions.

Substance use disorder requires patients who abuse or depend on a substance to show impairment or distress when under the effects. While any relationship with drugs or alcohol can exhibit negative consequences, some people manage the effects of drug abuse better than others.

In contrast to substance abuse, SUD is more obvious and detrimental. If your teen has SUD, the consequences can spread to all aspects of their life. Some people who experiment with substances believe that they will not get addicted. While this may be true for some, no one can accurately predict whether they will develop SUD or not.

Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder

Signs of substance abuse in youth can be difficult to spot.

When an addiction specialist diagnoses SUD, they categorize it depending on the substance that is used (e.g., alcohol use disorder, marijuana use disorder).

Additionally, SUD is also classified as mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder. To meet the criteria for a mild substance use disorder, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association, people must exhibit at least two or three of the following 11 symptoms.

Symptoms of substance use disorder include:

  • Continued substance use even if it makes other mental health disorders worse, like anxiety or depression
  • Continued substance use, even when it disrupts relationships with friends or family
  • Developing a tolerance, or having to use more to get the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms without the substance
  • Putting themselves in dangerous or risky situations because of the substance
  • Spending most time high (or drunk) or recovering from using the substance
  • Spending most time thinking about getting or using the drug
  • Stopping other activities to use the drug
  • The drug(s) cause(s) problems with work or school
  • Tried to quit without being able to
  • Using more or for longer than intended

A person with moderate SUD has four to five symptoms and severe cases have six or more. However, any substance use disorder may require professional help. If you notice signs of substance abuse, consider seeking treatment.

Teen Substance Abuse Facts and Statistics

Teen substance abuse statistics are changing all the time in the United States. For example, the largest increase in substance abuse amongst high schoolers is vaping. After alcohol, vaping is the second most common form of substance use in 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students.

Other teen substance abuse facts include:

Overall, the statistics around teen drug abuse are encouraging. With the exception of vaping, most drug use among teenagers is at an all-time low.

Teen Dual Diagnosis and Co-Occurring Mental Health Problems

For many teens, drug or alcohol abuse might be only part of the problem. Sometimes substance use problems are a symptom of preexisting mental health problems.

A teen mental health disorder in addition to SUD is classified as a set of co-occurring disorders, regardless of which condition developed first. Another synonymous term is a dual diagnosis.

Dual diagnosis cases require a specialized approach that integrates treatment for both issues simultaneously. In an ideal scenario, a parent can address any single problem in their teen before a second one develops. However, many families are not this fortunate.

Mental health disorders and substance use are inextricably tied together. While the medical community has no definitive answer on how one causes the other, doctors do know that people with mental health disorders often self-medicate their symptoms with substances, and substances can trigger mental health issues in people with a genetic predisposition. The exact relationship of SUD to mental health varies from person to person.

Is Teen Drug Rehab Effective?

Yes, but the results vary from person to person. Teen drug rehab can be highly effective, and in some cases, it can be a major turning point in their lives.

In rehab, full teen recovery is never completely guaranteed. Even with addiction treatment, a high number of people experience a relapse, where they use substances again after becoming sober. Despite this fact, rehab can change lives and help people become more resilient to relapse in the future.

Even if a teen relapses, this does not mean their treatment failed. A common fear among parents is that teen addiction treatment will be all for naught if their teen uses again. However, relapse only means that re-treatment should be considered with some slight adjustments. Abuse of drugs or alcohol can seriously damage the teenage brain.

Teen Substance Abuse Treatment Process

Substance abuse programs for youth are broken down into a few main categories: detox, withdrawal and medical treatment and therapy.

The first step of substance abuse treatment is detox, or when the substance is cleared from the body. Detox is usually followed by symptoms of withdrawal, which might require medical care. In cases of alcohol abuse, for example, medical staff must be on hand in case of seizures, tremors or dehydration.

After initial treatment, substance abuse treatment plans focus on the long-term. Long-term treatment usually involves different types of therapy.


Drug detox is the period of time that it takes for a drug to leave the body. Most drugs clear the system within a few days. Some, like marijuana, can take up to a week. Others, like heroin, will completely metabolize within 30-60 minutes.

For mild cases of substance abuse, detox usually happens before treatment is initiated. More serious cases of substance abuse require medical detox interventions that can be provided in an inpatient setting.


Substance abuse therapies revolve around talk therapy and teen drug counseling. Whether a teen is placed into inpatient or outpatient rehab, the program will offer several different forms of substance abuse therapy, which may be offered as both one-on-one or group settings.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for addiction is a treatment option that uncovers thoughts driving a teenager’s addiction and work towards reshaping these thought patterns. Essentially, CBT is based on the idea that thoughts cause behaviors and the way we perceive, interpret and assign meaning to our environment.

An example line of questioning in CBT might be:

  • Why do you use marijuana?
  • If you smoke marijuana to relieve your anxiety, does it always help or can it sometimes make it worse?
  • Are there activities besides smoking marijuana that help relieve your anxiety?

Teen cognitive behavioral therapy is effective, and often the first-line treatment for drug addiction.

Family Based Therapy

Family-based therapy emphasizes the role of family members in a young person’s substance abuse.

Sessions of family therapy bring in family members and address issues like poor family communication, cohesiveness and problem-solving. Family can be any person that plays a supportive long-term role, regardless of blood relation.

Family therapy for addiction centers on the premise that family members deliver a profound and long-lasting influence on development. Family members model both good and bad behaviors that develop into habits later in life.

For example, in the case of alcohol abuse treatment, family therapy may bring up the role of alcohol in the household. If the parents are casual drinkers and have not discussed the risks of alcohol use with their children, this may be a major influence in a teen’s drinking problem.

Contingency Management

A relationship with drugs or alcohol can rewire certain functions of the brain, specifically reward centers. For example, if someone smokes marijuana to relax at the end of each stressful day, they are training their brain to expect that reward.

Contingency management therapy, or motivational incentives, is a less common form of substance abuse treatment for adolescents. This form of therapy tracks each patient’s progress in rehab, including each day they succeed in staying sober and rewards them with a prize. Prizes might include gift certificates, electronics, clothing or even cash. Non-drug rewards may help rewire the brain to accept more realistic rewards.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing for substance abuse, or brief intervention, techniques use a person-centered, non-confrontational style in assisting the patient to explore various facets of their substance habit.

During sessions, the teen patient is encouraged to find their unique motivation to quit abusing substances. With the help of their therapist, they create goals to help them achieve a healthier lifestyle.

While the patient’s freedom of choice regarding their substance use is respected, the therapist will provide personalized feedback to help them realize the consequences of their actions.

Brief intervention therapy for substance abuse has grown significantly more popular in recent years, especially in addressing teenage substance abuse.

Recreational Therapy

Recreational therapy, or therapeutic recreation or TR, engages teen rehab patients in active leisure activities like sports, arts and crafts and games.

Healthy leisure can benefit someone recovering from SUD in several ways, and TR emphasizes treating the whole person and not just the mind. With severe cases of SUD, a teenager can easily forget how to enjoy life outside of drugs or alcohol.

Recreational therapy encourages them to rediscover the positive traits of their personality through activity. Additionally, TR also allows them to bond with other recovering teenagers and relearn how to interact with others healthily. They may learn new skills, improve their physical health and feel a boost to their self-esteem and self-worth.

Medication for Addiction Treatment

Prescribing medications during substance abuse treatment can reduce cravings, restore health or address underlying psychiatric disorders.

Pharmacotherapy, or treatment using drugs, is more common in adult treatment patients than teenagers or children. In some cases, an addiction specialist may consider medication beneficial and add it to your child’s treatment plan. You may find that medication is more common in a dual diagnosis.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a specific type of opioid withdrawal treatment used in people with moderate to severe opioid addiction. Heroin or prescription opioids are the most commonly abused drugs in this category. However, MAT is uncommon in teenage patients because treatment is lifelong and the medications themselves have the potential for abuse.

How Long Does Treatment Take?

There is no set time frame for rehab for each person, and SUD treatment varies in length based on each individual’s needs. A teen’s substance abuse treatment plan may be mapped out for 30 days, 90 days, six months or longer.

If the teen needs treatment for substance use disorder, do not expect results in a matter of days or weeks. The most severe cases may take months of treatment. For many teens, the path to recovery extends beyond the treatment phase.

Follow the doctor’s recommendations and have a teen’s progress evaluated each step of the way. Do not end teen drug addiction treatment abruptly or prematurely.

Treatment Within the Criminal Justice System

A teen may not get help until their problems land them in trouble. Prevent this issue from happening by getting the teen the help they need before they experience legal trouble.

About 77% of juvenile offenders report using substances in the last six months, mostly marijuana. Keep in mind this does not mean the offense was substance-related or that the offender has SUD. This data only suggests that criminal behavior and substance abuse are associated, not that one causes the other.

About 10% of juvenile drug arrests are for drug abuse or underage drinking violations. Despite this fact, drug and alcohol abuse screening should be considered for every juvenile offender. Jail may be the first time they have access to treatment options.

How to Help Your Teen Stay Sober

Family plays an enormous role in teen sobriety. Begin by setting a positive example for your child by quitting any substances yourself. Encourage them to attend all treatment sessions and teen support groups, and take them there if they need transportation.

Make the treatment process a positive experience and your teen will notice. If you are not invested as much as you ask them to be, they will notice and may not take addiction recovery seriously. Treatment can’t work when the person in rehab is not fully invested in the healing process.

Spend time with your children in positive and sober activities that they enjoy. Do not force activities they do not enjoy, as this might have the opposite of the intended effect.

Help equip your teen with the right tools for relapse prevention by taking a positive, realistic, and firm but not overbearing approach.

Does My Teen Need Rehab?

If your teen meets at least two of the criteria for SUD, consider seeking treatment. To understand whether your teen faces addiction, you can start by:

  • Having a conversation with your teen about drug or alcohol use
  • Speaking with their pediatrician or a doctor
  • Talking with a mental health professional
  • Speaking with a representative at The Recovery Village

Addiction treatment may help stop substances from damaging a teen’s physical, mental and financial life for years to come.

If you think your teen needs help, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative. We can help guide you down a treatment pathway that meets the needs of your child.