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How Teen Drug Rehab Programs Help Prevent Relapse


The highest quality drug rehab centers or dual diagnosis treatment centers for teens have two goals:

  1. To help teens recover from addiction.
  2. To help those teens prevent relapse.

That second goal is very important.

Even if a teen stays sober while in a drug rehab center, the true challenge comes after discharge from the substance abuse treatment center – once a teen returns to the world outside of treatment, where they may encounter drugs again.

For this reason, the highest quality substance abuse treatment centers make relapse prevention one of their primary goals. Below are several ways the highest quality drug rehab programs or dual diagnosis treatment centers limit the chances of relapse after discharge.

Experiential Therapies

Most drug rehab centers or dual diagnosis treatment centers offer teens various experiential therapies during treatment.

Experiential therapies include:

This list is far from complete, but offers an example of the types of experiential therapies common at teen rehab centers.

When offering these various activities, the goal is to help teens find activities they connect with and find exciting. The hope is that they continue participating in these life-affirming activities after they leave the substance abuse or dual diagnosis treatment center.

In this way, the experiential therapy becomes a healthy, fun, and rewarding outlet that can replace drug use or other maladaptive behavior.

It’s important to understand that experiential therapies always occur as a complement to – rather than a replacement for – traditional therapeutic approaches.

Support Groups

Substance abuse treatment centers often make it mandatory for teens to attend 12-Step meetings or support groups. When teens attend Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and local SMART Recovery meetings during treatment, they often continue attending after discharge from treatment.

Evidence shows these types of support groups reduce the chances of relapse. One thing it’s important to understand about these support groups is that it’s crucial for teens in recovery to create a network of non-drinking and non-drug using peers. As the evidence cited in our article (follow the link) shows, even having one non-drinking peer or friend can reduce risk of relapse.

Coping Skills

Teens often turn to drugs to relieve stress or manage negative emotions. They may use drugs or alcohol when they’re angry, under pressure, or upset. Drug and alcohol use can become a habitual – albeit counterproductive – coping mechanism. At dual diagnosis treatment centers, teens learn how to replace this maladaptive behavior with more effective skills.

Teens who receive treatment at a dual diagnosis treatment center that incorporates Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) will learn practical skills in the following areas:

  • Emotion regulation
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • Distress tolerance
  • Mindfulness

Each treatment center – and the DBT therapists there – will adapt these skills to the needs of the teen. Though these categories are broad and inclusive, the way they work for each teenager is unique. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario: these skills work best when teens, therapists, and families collaborate to find what works best for each teen, and exactly the teen will apply these skills when they leave treatment.

Talking About Relapse

Many dual diagnosis treatment centers for teens talk about relapse directly. Some drug treatment centers incorporate Relapse Prevention Therapy. This type of cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches teens to anticipate scenarios that could trigger their addictive behavior.

Triggers might include:

  • Internal cues
    • Mood and emotions
      • Anger
      • Depression
      • Anxiety
      • Fear
  • Environmental cues
      • Friends (i.e. peers who still use alcohol or drugs)
      • Places (i.e. locations the teen used to use alcohol or drugs)
      • Sounds (i.e. songs, etc.)
      • Activities (i.e. things the teen used to do before/during/after alcohol or drug use)

Treatment center staff teach teens the skills to cope with these triggering situations. Therapists trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) may teach the skill called Coping Ahead  to help teens handle potential scenarios. Teens will also learn what to do when they crave drugs or experience withdrawal. In this way, teens are not surprised when they encounter these scenarios upon leaving treatment. Since they’ve anticipated the scenario and practiced what to do when it arises, they’re better equipped to prevent relapse than teens who don’t learn this skill.

Discharge Plans

The highest quality drug rehab centers provide teens with discharge plans when they leave the teen treatment center. These discharge plans often include strategies for relapse prevention. When it comes time to create the discharge plan, therapists discuss proactive ways to limit relapse with teens, such as cutting off contact with harmful friends and deleting the contact info of individuals who could be harmful to their recovery.

Relapse prevention plans also include a review of their most helpful and/or favorite coping skills, medication management tips, and a weekly schedule of support groups/activities that they’ll participate in once they leave treatment. With a discharge plan in hand, teens leave the drug rehab center with a clear understanding of the schedule they should follow and the strategies they need to limit their chances of relapse.

For more on relapse prevention, read: My First Sober Spring Break: I’m Scared of Relapse

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