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Help! My Teen Relapsed During the COVID-19 Lockdown

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

The coronavirus pandemic has our society at a virtual standstill. But some things don’t stop for a virus.

One example: recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder.

Recovery is an ongoing, life-long process that takes the work, care, and diligent attention of the person in recovery. It also takes the care and attention of the people around the person in recovery. By that we mean their social support network: their counselors, recovery peers, and their family. Recovery is the primary responsibility of the person in recovery – no one can recover for them – but the role of family and social support is crucial.

In the life of a recovering teen, family support often plays a greater role than in the life of a recovering adult. That’s why it’s important for parents of teens who’ve received any kind of treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder – outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), or residential (RTC) – to keep a close eye on them during this challenging time.

The stress of social distancing and stay-at-home orders can lead to relapse. That’s a fact parents of teens in recovery need to know and understand.

What is Relapse?

When we talk about relapse, we assume the person relapsing has developed an alcohol or substance use disorder, started recovery, and then returned to alcohol or substance use. The return to use – known as relapse – might be a one-time event, it may happen over several days, or it may last longer. It all depends on the person and the circumstances.

Bouncing back from a relapse is never easy.

However, for a person who’s already received treatment and taken one or more steps down the recovery path, it’s important to know that relapse is not the end of the world. Relapse happens: it’s part of recovery. Go to any 12-step meeting around the country and you’ll find people who’ve relapsed, returned to recovery, and are willing to share their experience.

We’ll get to them in a moment.

First, we’ll offer a short list of actionable items to help you manage this challenge.

What You Can Do

If your teen has received treatment and subsequently relapsed during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, please understand that there are simple steps you and your teen can take to get them back on track.

Here’s a list of action steps:

1. Talk through it with your teen.

Be compassionate and empathetic. Listen to what they have to say and support them to the best of your ability. Right now, the best of your ability may be simply listening. In the immediate aftermath of a relapse, that’s a big deal.

2. Contact their therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or treatment center.

Get on the phone with the center where they received treatment and set up a telehealth session with someone they know and trust.

3. If your teen has not received treatment, contact a treatment center that specializes in adolescent alcohol and substance use disorders.

They exist, they know how to help, and they’re an essential service, which means most are open and accepting patients during the pandemic. Arrange a virtual assessment and follow the advice of the medical and mental health experts who evaluate your teen.

4. Review their recommendations and make the choice that meets your immediate family needs.

If the evaluation indicates residential treatment (RTC), consider that as an option. If the evaluation indicates a less immersive form of treatment, such as intensive outpatient (IOP) or partial hospitalization (PHP), then know that those are possible during the pandemic, as well. Most IOPs and PHPs now offer virtual treatment, and they can begin helping your teen right away.

5. Find online social support groups.

Recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have robust virtual, telephone, and email support options. It’s likely your teen will need this type of support in addition to formal treatment. Read our article here for details on how to find an appropriate online support group for your teen.

Go through this list and complete each step. Be mindful of emotions: your teen is probably ashamed about the relapse, and you may be angry about it. Whatever emotions you feel, wait until they pass before you make any decisions. A solid recovery plan depends on calm, calculated, rational decisions, as opposed to those made in the heat of the moment.

Support is the Answer

A person who relapses needs support. A teen who relapses needs support most of all. Believe us: people who relapse beat themselves up about it, figuratively, more intensely than anyone else. That means your role is to help them move forward, rather than censure, criticize, or express anger about their past decisions.

They feel bad enough already: they do not need external help feeling worse. They need help rebuilding, rediscovering, and returning to their life in recovery. From you, that means they need your love, support, and help finding professional support – making appointments and finding professional treatment is an adulting thing, not a teen thing. From professionals, they need help retooling their recovery plan to avoid future relapse.

And if you’re worried your teen won’t get any tough love about their relapse – don’t. Remember the people in those social support groups we talked about earlier? Those who relapsed and returned to a life in recovery?

They have the tough part covered.

You handle the love.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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Connect with Other Parents

We know parents need support, too. That is exactly why we offer a chance for parents of teens to connect virtually in a safe space! Each week parents meet to share resources and talk through the struggles of balancing child care, work responsibilities, and self-care.

More questions? We’re here for you.