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Behavioral Health Treatment Centers Help Teens Overcome Addiction and Substance Use


Do Teens Need Behavioral Health Treatment for Drug Abuse?

The teen years are filled with challenges.

Teenagers go through radical physical, emotional, and social changes in just a few short years. Parents of teens know the difference between their 12-year-old and their 16-year-old is enormous. Before adolescence and the onset of puberty, most children live in kid-land: superhero pajamas, snuggles with mom and dad, and a life focused mainly on family, friends, and having fun.

Then along comes middle school, when, for most kids, many of those things change. The 12-year-old becomes a thirteen-year-old. They become a teenager, officially. Teenagers go through a process called differentiation, wherein they form an identity separate and distinct from their parents. This identity is often separate and distinct from the identity they embraced as a child, but not always.

Teens may change their peer group, their interests, the way they dress, and their hobbies. Or, they may not: it all depends on the teen. These changes can scare parents because it’s almost impossible to predict which way the changes will take their kids. They don’t know if the changes are permanent, will pass quickly, or gradually fade and change over time.

Two more things challenge – and can scare – parents of teens during adolescence.

The first is that many teens experiment with alcohol or drugs for the first time during their teen years. Although this is typical teen behavior, parents worry because they know experimentation can lead to drug addiction and abuse.

The second is that the teen years are the age of onset of many mental health disorders. Teens with nascent mental health disorders may not understand their emotions and might turn to alcohol and drug use in order to mitigate the painful emotions associated with their mental health disorder. This is called self-medication – and can also lead to drug addiction and abuse.

Why a Behavioral Health Treatment Center for Teens with Addiction?

When parents find out their teenager experiments with intoxicants, they may shrug it off and label it typical teen behavior. However, when alcohol or drug use crosses the threshold to addiction and abuse, their attitude often changes quickly. They wonder what they can do or what they should have done. They have a thousand questions. And they need reliable answers quickly because they understand addiction and abuse are dangerous, whether the addiction is to alcohol, illicit drugs, prescription drugs, or marijuana.

This brings us to a point we’d like to clarify. In 2021, we call alcohol addiction alcohol use disorder (AUD), and we call drug addiction substance use disorder (SUD).

That’s more than a random point we make, for the sake of staying current on our clinical terminology – which we do like to do, but that’s beside the point. That new terminology includes the way we talk about people with AUD or SUD. Although many people – both professionals and non-professional alike – use the old terms like alcoholic or addict, there’s a reason why those terms are fading from the common professional lexicon.


They’re attached to an old approach to treating these conditions, an approach which, in many ways, perpetuated the stigma around the disorders themselves and the stigma around seeking treatment for those disorders.

Rather than alcoholic, junkie, or drug addict, we now say a person with an alcohol use disorder or a person with a substance use disorder.


Because we now recognize AUD and SUD as mental health conditions that respond well to integrated treatment. Integrated treatment means we treat the whole person. Where AUD and SUD are concerned, the person in treatment has a co-occurring mental health disorder.

And the best place to receive integrated treatment is at a behavioral health treatment center.

How Integrated Treatment Helps Teens with Addiction

In the past, parents knew what they do when they learned their teen received a diagnosis for AUD or SUD: send them to drug detox and then drug rehab.

While that is, generally speaking, not entirely wrong, the reality of treatment in the 21st century is much more complex. Which is a good thing, because as we mention above, we now understand that addiction is a much more complex phenomenon than we thought for generations. It’s not simply the result of a moral failing, a lack of willpower, or a series of unhealthy choices on the part of the teenager.

Addiction – i.e. AUD/SUD – is part of a dynamic array of biological, psychological, and social factors. It’s one possible outcome of all the elements that affect the life of the teenager. It’s true that for some teens, the first step in treatment is medically monitored detox. In some cases, detoxification managed by physicians and nurses is essential for the health and safety of the teen. Once the drugs of abuse have cleared the body, and the teenager is both physically and psychologically safe, treatment begins.

And that’s where things are different than in the past – at least at a behavioral health treatment center that specializes in helping teens overcome addiction.

That’s when expert clinicians begin treatment for AUD and SUD. One essential part of treatment is recognizing, diagnosing, and treating co-occurring disorders. A co-occurring disorder, in this context, means when a teenager has both an AUD or SUD and a mental health disorder at the same time. Clinicians will often discover that a mental health disorder is at the root of AUD/SUD, and evidence shows that adolescents – or people of any demographic – have the best chance of recovery when any co-occurring disorder is diagnosed and treated at the same time as AUD/SUD.

Here’s a list of disorders that frequently co-occur with AUD/SUD.

Mental Health Disorders That Most Commonly Co-Occur with AUD/SUD

In addition, teens with behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at increased risk of developing AUD/SUD. The frequency of co-occurrence and the relationship between the co-occurring disorders themselves mean that the integrated treatment offered at behavioral health treatment centers for teens gives teens the best possible chances of a full recovery.

What Teens Learn at Behavioral Health Treatment Centers

When a teenager receives treatment at a behavioral health treatment center that specializes in integrated treatment, the most important thing they learn is a set of practical tools that allow them to manage their addiction. If they have a co-occurring disorder, clinicians teach tools that synchronize and help them manage the co-occurring disorder and the addiction disorder.

Treatment at an integrated, behavioral health center typically involves:

Individual Therapy

  • Teens explore the roots of their AUD or SUD
  • Teens explore the roots of their co-occurring disorder, if present
  • Therapists help teens understand the relationship between addiction and mental health

Group Therapy

  • In a supportive group of recovery peers, teens learn the basic facts about addiction and mental health
  • With their peers, teens learn skills they need to handle their AUD/SUD, including:
  • Social skills
    • How to talk about their addiction or mental health disorder with others
    • How to manage – i.e. identify and avoid – social events where there may be drugs or alcohol
    • Tips on how to build a supportive, sober peer network

Family Therapy

  • Teens, therapists, and family members explore the role family dynamics play in their addiction or mental health disorder
  • Therapists work with teens and their families on healthy, productive ways to communicate, rebuild trust, and redefine family life
  • Teens and their family members learn how they can collaborate to build a sustainable, supportive, sober environment

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

  • Teens learn skills to handle stress, avoid relapse, and manage emotions

Experiential Activities

  • Teens get outside, exercise, appreciate nature, and rediscover what a healthy, active life feels like
  • Teens participate in expressive therapies like drama, music, or art
  • Therapists plan and chaperone appropriate trips and excursions to help teens learn (or relearn) how to have fun without alcohol or drugs

Community Support

  • Treatment center staff introduces teens to support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Alateen. These groups become essential when teens complete treatment

In essence, what teens learn at a behavioral health treatment center – in addition to basic education on addiction and mental health – is how to rebuild their lives without alcohol and drugs. They learn what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, and develop a toolbox of skills ready for use when they finish treatment.

Individualized, Custom, and Adaptable Treatment

Since each teen is unique, each treatment plan at a high-quality behavioral health treatment center for teens is unique. In these treatment centers, plans are tailored to meet their individual needs. A teen with an opioid addiction alone will learn a set of skills that differs slightly from a teen with co-occurring AUD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A teen with a cannabis addiction and co-occurring depression will follow a treatment program and learn skills that are slightly different than a teen with AUD and no diagnosed co-occurring disorders.

The treatment programs will be similar, but because of the collaborative nature of integrated treatment, teens have a voice in the process. They let therapists know what works and what doesn’t. Therapists will adapt, leverage the strengths of the teen, and alter the plan as time passes and as the teen progresses in treatment. Teens learn to do this themselves, too. They’ll learn how to adapt their sobriety program and aftercare plan – which refers to their plan for how they stay healthy and sober after the end of official treatment – because they see how their therapists do it during treatment.

In that way, treatment at a behavioral health center empowers teens to take control of their addiction, their mental health disorder (if present), and ultimately, their lives. They learn skills, they make peer connections, and they learn that they have the inner strength to overcome addiction, manage their co-occurring disorder, and live life on their terms.

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