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Post-Pandemic Socializing Might Mean Trouble for Teens in Recovery: Here’s Why


If you’re a teen, you’ve got to be excited the coronavirus pandemic is coming to an end.

2020 was tough. You endured a year of missed school, no friends, and no gatherings. Facemasks, anxiety, social distancing. Missed milestones, cancelled trips, and quarantines.

It’s no wonder COVID-19 caused a mental health crisis for teens and young people. Globally, youth experienced unprecedented rates of depression, self-harming behavior, and suicidal ideation.

Post-COVID Teens

But soon, it’ll be over.

As vaccinations increase, positive cases drop, businesses of all types reopen, the world is slowly bouncing back. Schools around the country are returning to in-person instruction, if they haven’t already. Concert halls, amusement parks, and travel destinations are also gradually reopening.

Meanwhile, experts predict a post-COVID U.S. will likely include lots of parties and events, like a return to the Roaring 20s. Or, at the very least, lots of close interaction with very little social distancing. Young people and teens are “preparing to party, reclaim lost pandemic year,” an NPR headline proclaims. It all makes sense. After a year of staying away from friends and extended family members, the appetite for human interaction is enormous.

Some teens are already planning their summer adventures – whether they’re pool parties, beach trips, or fun vacations. Fourth of July celebrations are also on the horizon—’tis the season for picnics, block parties, and backyard BBQs. If you don’t have anything concrete planned, there’s still the thrill of getting together without masks. The anticipation of an anxiety-free high-five, or a hug, after months of no contact is palpable.

We get all that. We’re excited about all those things, too.

We understand that after a year of being shut indoors, you can’t wait to live it up. At the same time, there’s one message we want to share with you, and it’s an important one:

As you start getting together with friends again, do not prioritize your social life over your mental health or sobriety. You can manage your mental health, maintain your sobriety, and return to a vibrant and active social life, all that the same time – if you plan ahead.

Teen Peer Pressure and Drug Use

We know hanging out with your friends, especially after a year of staying apart, is going to be amazing. What won’t be amazing, though, is when social events lead to drug use, underage drinking, or other risky behavior.

Seeing your buddies will be great. Letting them convince you to try smoking marijuana, so you can finally chill together – meaning all be high together – will not be great. At all.

FYI: chilling is possible without drugs.

We know peer pressure plays a role here.

You haven’t properly hung out with your friends in ages, so the reunion will be epic. You’ll want to impress them. Or, at the very least, you want to do your best not to seem totally uncool and nerdy.

We’re here to tell you this:

Doing drugs or alcohol is not worth the social capital you gain.

Even if it’s the first time you’re seeing this friend in months. Even if you’re so giddy – or anxious – about seeing them that you can hardly sit still.

If you have substance abuse issues, we know this upcoming period is going to be tough. Friends will hang out, host parties, and – unfortunately – drink and use drugs. And you might want to join.

You might be tempted to join. You need internal strength to withstand peer pressure and resist social norms.

It might be harder if you were entered recovery during COVID. Perhaps you, like an alarming number of other adolescents, used substances before the pandemic. During COVID-19, you might have worked on yourself a lot. There was ample time to self-reflect. To get professional help. Maybe you went to therapy for your substance abuse issues. Perhaps, if you were diagnosed with a substance use disorder, you attended a teen treatment center. If you were in a drug rehab treatment center this past year – whether it was a residential treatment center, partial hospitalization program, or intensive outpatient program – you probably changed a lot as a person. You made great strides emotionally, mentally, and physically.

You worked so hard.

The problem is, the COVID situation created a bubble. There were fewer opportunities to use drugs or alcohol. School was out. Parties were nonexistent. There might have been less academic or social pressure. It might have been easy not to use – ok, maybe not easy, but easier than when school was in regular session and parties were going on every weekend.

But now that the world is slowly turning to a new normal, you need to be extra cautious not to fall into old habits. You also need to be careful around your old friends – who haven’t yet experienced the new you.

The true challenge is now, and the months to come.

Relapse Prevention: Good Friends are Important

The old you might not have hesitated to say yes to alcohol or drugs, which is why your friends might try to offer them in the coming weeks or days. Faced with this decision, we hope you stay strong.

We hope you won’t give up all your hard work for post-pandemic partying.

Remember: friends who want to bring you back to your old, unhealthy ways aren’t really good friends. Good friends want you to be better. They want you to grow. They should be impressed that you’re now sober. If they’re still stuck in their old ways, they should still be happy for you.

That is, if they honestly have your long-term happiness and wellbeing in mind.

If you attended a drug rehab center for teens, go over the discharge plan you got when you left treatment. Your discharge plan – or home contract – should have practical tips about preventing relapse.

For example, many contracts state that teens in recovery should not interact with old friends who still use alcohol and drugs. This may be difficult for you, but it’s much harder to stay sober when spending time with someone who drinks or smokes – or both – every day. In treatment, you might have learned how important it is to create a network of non-drinking and non-drug using peers. Statistics show that having one non-drinking peer or friend can reduce the risk of relapse significantly.

Imagine an entire group of non-drinking and non-drug using friends: that would be ideal.

Triggers for Substance Abuse

In treatment, during your relapse prevention work, you should have learned that certain scenarios trigger behaviors that threaten your sobriety and recovery.

For teens in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder, specific situations can trigger drug/alcohol use. Triggers can be places, people, activities, sounds, or smells. For example, school can be a powerful trigger. Friends who still use alcohol or drugs can be triggers. If you used to smoke or vape marijuana at a certain spot, that spot might bring back memories – and trigger the urge to smoke or vape. Sounds and activities can also elicit cravings. Before treatment, the sound of the afternoon bell meant that you and your friends would meet soon – and smoke, vape, or drink. Perhaps people in the last class of the day made a game of juuling and zeroing. Maybe people you played team sports with drank heavily on the weekends.

Those challenges are ahead – but you can manage them successfully.

Coping Ahead to Handle Triggers

Now that in-person school and extracurricular activities are back, you have to know your triggers – and prepare for them well in advance. This is called coping ahead. If you attended a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) treatment center, you probably learned about this skill. Coping ahead means visualizing how a certain scene will play out beforehand, so you’re prepared for it when if and when it actually happens. You learn what to do when you crave alcohol or drugs, so you’re not surprised when you encounter these situations after treatment.

That’s one reason it’s important to be prepared before you go back to the new normal. If you didn’t receive relapse prevention therapy during residential, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment, you increase your chances of maintaining your sobriety if you seek out and practice relapse prevention strategies before you re-enter the world.

And if you have an alcohol or substance use disorder and didn’t receive treatment at all during the pandemic, we recommend seeking treatment and support now – before you go back to school and face all those triggers again.

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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.

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