Parents of teens who live with alcohol or substance use disorders face an additional challenge during the coronavirus pandemic. On top of everything new happening, such as telework, virtual school, shelter-in-place orders, and all the details related to COVID-19 that now make up part of their lives, they’re concerned how recovery is going for their teen. Before things changed, parents of teens in recovery knew their teen could get support from their therapist, counselors, and social groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
Now, though, parents of these teens may feel on the back foot: they’re not professional addiction counselors, so while they may know quite a bit about addiction and recovery, they may not know exactly what to watch for in their teen while they’re at home doing virtual school.
For instance, they may ask themselves the question in the title of this article:
How can I tell if my teen is experiencing drug cravings?
That’s a good question.
It also does not have one, single, black and white answer. We can help, however. First, we’ll talk about what cravings are, then describe what they might look like when someone has them, and finally, we’ll offer some tips for helping teenagers manage cravings without relapsing.
What Are Cravings?
The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines craving this way:
Craving, noun. An unrelenting desire, urge, or yearning. It is often the criteria for the diagnosis of drug or alcohol addiction.
Merriam-Webster Standard Dictionary defines craving this way:
Craving, noun. An intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing.
Those definitions agree with how most people think of cravings: a craving is when you want something so bad it takes over your mind and it’s all you can think about. A craving for alcohol or drugs is no different. For someone living with addiction, a craving is more powerful than when someone without an addiction craves, for instance, something specific for dinner. Whereas a person without an alcohol or substance use disorder may go out of their way to get that specific something, they probably will not pursue that craving at the expense of their physical, emotional, or mental health. A person living with addiction might do just that: pursue that craving despite the negative consequences.
That’s why the question in the title of this article is important. If you’re the parent of a teen living with addiction, how can you tell if they’re experiencing cravings? What you’re really asking is this: is my teen in danger of relapse? If so, how can I tell, and what can I do to help?
We’ll start with how you can tell.
Signs of Cravings
The signs of cravings are similar, but not identical to, the signs of addiction. They overlap because the inability to manage cravings is a hallmark of the disordered use of substances. They differ in that the signs of cravings do not overlap with the signs of being intoxicated. Also, cravings are subjective. They’re internal feelings, different for each person. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to attach a specific external sign to a subjective state like a craving.
That’s why you can look for some, but not all, of the psychological and behavioral symptoms of alcohol or drug addiction when you’re trying to determine if your teen is experiencing drug or alcohol cravings, such as:
- Withdrawal from family
- Unusually high or low energy
It’s important to understand that all of these things may also be typical reactions to being cooped up in the house for weeks or months on end. In and of themselves, they’re all examples of teen behavior. IF your teen has been diagnosed with an alcohol or substance use disorder, though, these signs take on a new meaning.
They could be cravings.
The good news is that cravings can be managed.
How to Help Your Teen Manage Cravings
The first thing to do is talk to your teen about what you see. Tell them you think what you see means they’re experiencing cravings – but you could be wrong, so you’re checking in with them to get an idea how they’re feeling. If your teen has received addiction treatment, you probably have an agreed upon format for talking about things like cravings. Use that format if you have one. If you don’t, and you’re unsure how to bring up the subject, call the treatment center where your teen received treatment and ask for advice.
If you have an agreed upon format, you bring up the subject, and your teen says they are in fact experiencing cravings, then here’s what they can do:
- Refer to the aftercare plan provided by the treatment center where your teen received treatment. Remind your teen the plan was created for circumstances just like this one.
- Talk through the cravings. Cravings tend to happen in waves: they appear, crest, and then subside. You can talk your teen through a craving or let them talk themselves through it.
- Ride the wave. That phrase, ride the wave, is often used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as a metaphor for experiencing – but not reacting to – difficult emotions, impulses, or urges.
- Practice music, make art, and encourage expression. Initiating an expressive activity in response to a craving can help manage that craving. So can listening to music, looking at art, or reading. Sitting still to read may not work for some teens, but it will for others.
- Get outside and exercise. Physical activity is one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce cravings. It gets the mind off the craving and directs it toward immediate physical sensations, which is a good thing. Exercise also triggers a cascade of internal chemicals that can improve mood and well-being.
There is no magic bullet to stop cravings. Each person has to learn what works for them. One person may need intense physical exercise, while another may need meditative peace and quiet. One person may need to talk through the craving until it passes, while another may want to talk about everything on earth but the craving until it passes.
Work Together and Be Ready to Adapt
The way you help your teen find the best way to manage their cravings it through trial and error. You can’t manage cravings for them: they have to do that themselves. What you can do is understand what they’re going through and give them the time and space to deploy their go-to craving management techniques.
Here’s one last insight: the techniques that worked upon their release from treatment may need to be amended for the new circumstance. Our generation has never lived through a pandemic. Not you, not your teen, not anyone. That means your teen has never had to manage recovery in general, or their cravings, specifically, in the context of what’s happening right now: a global pandemic complete with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines.
Be patient, be kind, be supportive, be loving – and if it works for your teen, keep talking to them about what they’re going through. If you get to an impasse, reach out for professional help. Most private counselors offer telehealth sessions during COVID-19, and most treatment centers offer virtual outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), and partial hospitalization (PHP) programs during COVID-19.
Finally, if the situation at home becomes unmanageable, many adolescent residential treatment centers (RTC) are open and accepting patients, even during COVID-19.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.