It hardly seems possible that someone who isn’t yet 18 could develop a substance use disorder but it happens surprisingly often. Despite some positive trends in teen drug use in recent years, there are about one and a half million teens who meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. Even if a teen doesn’t technically meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, frequent drug or alcohol use can have serious consequences, such as delaying cognitive development, increasing the risk of accidents, legal problems, and increased risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life. Everyone entering addiction treatment has a different set of circumstances to work with and different challenges to overcome and teens are no different. However, there are a few challenges that are more common among teens that an adolescent treatment program needs to address.

Their brains aren’t fully mature yet.

One of the most significant problems teens have in recovering from a substance use disorder is that their brains aren’t yet fully developed. We now know that the human brain isn’t fully mature until about age 25. What’s more, the very last area to develop is the prefrontal cortex. During adolescence and early adulthood, the brain goes through a process of pruning unused connections and insulating neurons with fatty white matter that increases the efficiency with which signals are passed from one part of the brain to another. Since the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, teens are more likely to be weaker in cognitive skills primarily controlled by the prefrontal cortex. These include executive functions like judgment, planning, attention, self-control, emotional regulation, and foresight–all essential skills to have when trying to recover from a substance use disorder. Until the brain is fully mature, people can have difficulty controlling their emotions and refraining from impulsive behavior. This is why a teen might get good grades in school and still make bad choices. The bright side is that teen brains are still very malleable. While older adults have to work harder to change their habits of thinking and behavior, teens are more adaptable and can internalize positive habits more easily.

Peers exert more pressure.

Although we may like to believe we think for ourselves, we are all vulnerable to social pressure to some degree. However, teens are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. The adolescent years are when people typically shift from spending more time with family to spending more time with friends. During this time, they are especially sensitive to social approval, especially for risky behavior. While they don’t yet have the cognitive ability to use mature judgment, they are also more prone to being swayed by the judgment of their friends. This attachment to friends and their opinions can be a challenge for teens recovering from addiction since it’s important to stay away from people who encourage substance use. The good news is that if teens can feel connected to a sober peer group, that positive influence is likely to be powerful as well.

Teens deal with a lot of stress.

It’s easy for adults to forget the tremendous amount of stress teens feel. They have to adjust to new social conditions such as making new friends and dating, they may feel a lot of pressure to excel in school or sports, and they have to start thinking about life after high school. That’s a lot of stress and uncertainty and they don’t yet have the mature ability to regulate their emotions. It’s crucial that teens recovering from addiction feel supported, both by their families and friends. That’s why it’s so important for families to participate in treatment. Poor communication and dysfunctional family dynamics often contribute to substance use issues and correcting those problems can turn the family from a liability into an asset.

Teens have a higher risk of mental health issues.

Because of the high-stress levels teens experience and the fact they are not yet cognitively mature, they are more vulnerable to mental illness than adults are. For example, more than 19 percent of adults experienced and anxiety disorder in the past year and more than 31 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. However, nearly 32 percent of adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder between the ages of 13 and 18. And similarly, about seven percent of American adults experienced an episode of major depression in the past year compared to more than 13 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17. Unfortunately, mental health issues in teens are underrecognized and undertreated. While about 65 percent of adults with major depression received professional help, fewer than 40 percent of teens with major depression received treatment.

Teens are less likely to get proper treatment.

As noted above, teens are far less likely than adults to receive treatment for a mental health issue, which not only prolongs their suffering but also increases their risk of developing a substance use disorder. What’s more, teens who have substance use issues are likely to have more trouble finding appropriate treatment. Fewer than 10 percent of American adults with substance use disorders receive treatment. That’s depressingly low but matters are even worse for teens. Of the one and a half million teens with a substance use disorder, only about seven percent receive treatment. Few treatment programs accept teens and of the ones that do, many rely on the faulty assumption that teens respond to treatment the same way as adults. In reality, a treatment program for adolescents must account for the above factors to be effective.


At Fort Behavioral Health, we offer a safe, nurturing, and healing space for adolescent females to find recovery from the multifaceted disease of addiction. Our team believes in inspiring each client to face their challenges, discover the root of their problems, and reclaim their lives. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, call us today at 817-381-9741 or contact us through our admissions page to learn more about our female-only adolescent treatment program.


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