By | December 15, 2016

Children, teens and young adults under age 25 are more likely to abusing illicit substances than adults over age 26, reports Unfortunately, specific data are often unavailable on which substances are being abused because of parental refusal to provide information, inaccuracies in data collection or other problems. However, those issues only serve to further strengthen the argument in preventing, addressing and treating children and teens with addictions.

Since children living with addictions are at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts or actions, lower self-confidence, social problems, difficulties in healthy brain development and overall inhibited health, you need to understand what factors contribute to youth addiction and how it is best managed.

Certain Traits of Children May Increase Risk for Addiction

Addiction is a disease, so  like many other diseases, the key to successful treatment begins with prevention. The lack of data on childhood substance abuse, which affects teens as well, makes prevention seem impossible. However, a new program, Preventure, reports The New York Times, tackles the difficult-to-identify addiction risk.

Preventure focuses on making educators, parents and children understand how the following traits increase risk for addiction:

  • Sensation-seeking behaviors. This is the age-old definition of addiction. Those with an addiction seek to change how they feel through substance abuse. In other words, sensation-seeking behaviors include “wanting to get high.”
  • Impulsiveness. Impulsiveness breeds likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, including risky sexual activity, criminal activity and drug abuse.
  • Anxiety sensitivity. This trait is among the most complicated to understand. Teens and children who are reacting severely to high levels of anxiety, such as added stress during semester finals or problems interacting with peers, are more likely to turn to any outlet to address the anxiety.
  • Hopelessness. Hopelessness is the gateway to depression, creating a self-fulfilling, positive feedback loop leading to substance abuse.

The last three traits have something else in common: they all describe possible symptoms of mental health disorders. This provides a deeper connection to pre-existing mental health problems as a key risk factor in substance abuse. As a result, Preventure must go further into the realm of education and prevention.

Importance of Education and Prevention Early in Addiction

Children and teens who have abused drugs or alcohol previously are not necessarily addicted yet. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse can range from problematic, non-addicted drug abuse to full-blown addiction. In other words, even so-called “experimentation” needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Every experimentation increases the risk of repeat use and subsequent dependence. Since the mental health and cognitive abilities of teens and children are still developing, this is where education becomes an integral part of prevention. Some of the primary ways of “checking” a teen’s or child’s use of drugs or alcohol include the following:

  • Having routine, annual medical visits to ask about drug abuse.
  • Attending workshops, like Preventure, to address problematic traits that contribute to addiction risk.
  • General addiction interventions to promote treatment for any amount of drug abuse.
  • Family or legal pressure to enter addiction treatment tends to be the preferred way of encouraging teens to go to drug abuse treatment.

Speed of Treatment and Key Treatment Concerns Determine Its Success

The speed of treatment can determine its success as well. If drug abuse treatment is delayed, it gives teens and youth an opportunity to “talk their way out” of it. Unfortunately, opening the discussion on treatment options adds to a person’s stress levels, further heightening the risk for future drug abuse.

In 2014, the NIDA identified several key concerns in youth treating youth addiction, which continue to ring true today and include the following:

  • Side effects of medications can do more harm than good. Some medications, such as naltrexone, can have dangerous side effects for children, teens and young adults. This includes risk for suicidal thoughts or actions, reports
  • Possible interactions can impede healthy development. The types of drug abuse treatments available can also interact with healthy development. In other words, treatment must consider the age-specific needs of the person with an addiction, and if medication may increase risky behaviors, another treatment option must be used. Ultimately, treatment must focus on the whole person, not just the specific form of drug abuse.
  • Psychotherapy provides a side effect-free form of treatment. Because of its non-invasive nature, psychotherapy is a common tool used to address teen and youth addiction. Furthermore, psychotherapies involving behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tend to be more effective than other treatments in adolescent drug use by motivating change.
  • Social support is essential. While some adults with addiction do not have family members or friends to turn to in the time of addiction, a social support system is critical to successful teen drug treatment. Treatment should also serve to strengthen communication and relationships between children with addictions and others.
  • Treatment must address co-occurring health disorders. As explained above, the symptoms of mental health disorders directly influence risk of drug abuse. Consequently, any treatment program must be comprehensive in treating all other mental health symptoms and any possible, physical health problems.
  • Plan for relapse. Children and teens who return to drug abuse, even once, require more-intensive treatment measures, and re-asserting the importance of treatment when relapse occurs is a defining moment in maintaining. It is easier to address relapse when it first occurs than to wait until it progresses into full-blown addiction.

Final Thoughts

Take a moment to think about how damaging the consequences of drug abuse can be when drugs are used even once. A teen or child could face legal penalties or incarceration for drug possession. He or she could suffer permanent brain damage, or unaddressed health problems could lead to death from drug interactions.

These risks are real. Regardless of personal beliefs and hopes, children and teens do abuse substances, and acknowledging this threat is key to helping those suffering. In your role, you can raise awareness about this problem, encourage community involvement or create programs similar to Preventure in your area.

Children and teens who abuse drugs tend to have a dark history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse or trauma, so they may not be as willing to discuss their problems. But, it is your duty to do something and provide the shoulder they need to make it through the struggles and dangers of drug abuse and addiction.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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