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Q: I have a teenager who has been caught a few times getting drunk and smoking pot. He gets punished, and stays out of trouble for a while. Then he does it again. Is he addicted? Does he need rehab? What do I do?

A: You’re certainly not alone in this; a large part of my counseling practice has to do with the very type of problem you’re describing. An alarming number of teens are in trouble with alcohol and drugs, and the confusion and fear that can attack parents often feels unbearable.

The issue of teens and addiction is a complicated one. Although I work with many teens who are certainly abusers of addictive substances, I personally avoid labeling people under the age of twenty as “addicts.” There are a number of diagnostic indicators that help people in my profession differentiate between abuse and addiction, and there is a difference. But with teens, much of this diagnostic criteria is compromised, due in part to the fact that teens haven’t lived long enough to show a history of repeated destructive behaviors. With adults, those who continue to do drugs and alcohol despite recurring adverse consequences over an extended period of time are “red-flagged” for addiction. But teens simply haven’t lived long enough for the professionals to rely on these kinds of indicators to make accurate assessments. Usually, terms like “dangerously involved” are applied to adolescent drug abusers, rather than “addict.”

Regardless of the terminology, you are wise to be concerned, and to take steps that will not only facilitate a path toward recovery for your teen, but also for yourself. Loving an addict—or a budding one—is a difficult endeavor indeed. (Please see the answer to the question “Someone I love is an alcoholic and we both desperately need help.”) Your teen needs to be assessed by an addiction professional as soon as possible, to determine his emotional condition, drug history (pot, by the way, is no different than alcohol or other drugs when it comes to its dangerous potential for abuse and addiction), possible genetic and generational influences, etc. Treatment options can be complicated, and only those trained in addiction counseling can make accurate assessments and recovery recommendations. And remember: You, too, will need your own treatment, to help you understand the multi-faceted and complex dynamics that affect the family of those who struggle with addictive behaviors. There are many who have been through the fear and confusion you now feel, and are willing to reach out for you to share comfort and hope.

By all means, reach out to others. Addiction is a disease of deep loneliness…not only for the addict, but for those who love them.

Helpful Resources:

Al-anon/Alateen www.al-anon.alateen.org

Families Anonymous, Inc.


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