Many people first try drugs in their teenage years. And while parents sometimes chalk up drug use to experimentation or minimize the significance of it, there is a well-documented association between teen substance use and problems such as risky sexual behaviors, motor vehicle accidents, mental health issues, suicidal thoughts, homicides, and high school dropout rates.1,2 Chronic drug abuse may also lead to addiction, which can follow you well into adulthood.1 For these reasons—and many more—getting help for your teen right away is extremely important.
Yet, parents are often unsure of how to respond when they find out their child is using drugs. They tend to be reactive rather than thoughtfully responsive, perhaps making it up as they go along. The problem with this type of off-the-cuff confrontation is that emotions often take over and lead to unproductive interactions.3
In especially challenging cases, a trained, professional interventionist is a great resource who can guide you through the process to get your child the help they need. This article covers the signs of adolescent drug addiction and outlines which steps to take in response, including hiring an interventionist, what to expect when confronting your child, and what happens post-intervention.
Signs Your Teen Is Addicted
First, it’s helpful to determine if your teen is actually addicted to a substance. While a mental health or medical professional is the only one who can officially diagnose your child, having a foundation of accurate information is important for you as a parent. The following are some of the most common general indicators of teenage drug use.
Physical signs and symptoms may include:2
- Slurred speech.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Dilated pupils.
- Fatigue or excessive drowsiness.
Behavioral signs and symptoms might include:2
- Unusual or violent behavior over small things.
- Withdrawal from usual family activities and routines.
- Being uncommunicative with parents and siblings.
- Frequent curfew violations.
- Grades deteriorating in school.
- School truancy or skipping classes.
- Lack of motivation.
- Stealing money or pilfering items to pay for drugs.
- Neglecting personal hygiene and appearance.
Emotional signs and symptoms often include:2
- Emotional instability.
Social signs and symptoms may include:2
- Change of friends: Your teen may start hanging out with different kids who might engage in negative or questionable activities your child didn’t use to take part in.
- Socially withdrawing: A teen who is abusing drugs or alcohol may prefer to spend the majority of time in their room, for instance, or they might avoid normal social activities that they used to enjoy.
Know What Steps to Take
If you recognize these signs in your teen, it is important to seek help from professionals as soon as possible. Substance abuse treatment is effective and can empower your teenager to overcome their drug addiction.4
The first step in getting help for your child is to take them to a qualified mental health or medical clinician who can screen for substance abuse.4 They will ask your teen a series of questions to determine if they meet the criteria for an addiction and afterward may refer them to a substance abuse professional or program.4 Generally, children who go willingly to treatment don’t need to meet with an interventionist.
Hiring an Interventionist
If, however, your teen is obstinate or angry and refuses to enter a treatment program, an interventionist may be able to help. A good interventionist is a trained professional who helps a person move out of addiction and into recovery. Anyone you consider should:5
- Be trained in substance abuse or addiction.
- Have a level of expertise that allows them to provide comprehensive information to the patient and family members about treatment options.
- Be licensed or certified.
- Adhere to strict ethical standards that are clearly spelled out.
- Coordinate proper transport to treatment.
- Follow up after the initial intervention to advocate for your teen’s recovery.
Besides these qualifications, an interventionist should also be able to:5
- Identify whether or not your teen has an addiction.
- Make the correct recommendations for placement.
- Teach family communication and bonding skills.
- Understand your teen’s behavior within the context of the family system.
What to Expect During the Intervention
Once you’ve hired an interventionist, it’s helpful to know what to expect during the actual intervention so you can be prepared.
First, there are 2 main types of interventions: invitation and confrontational. If an invitational model is used, the family invites the teen to a family meeting the next day. Once there, they invite their child to get help. In a confrontational model, the family does not tell their teen about the intervention ahead of time. Instead, the family (and potentially close friends) meets the day before to discuss what will happen at the intervention and review the letters they’ll read at the intervention. Then they surprise the addicted family member the following day.
The most popular type of intervention is invitational, since it is seen as more respectful to the addicted loved one. In the time prior to the intervention and moving forward through it, you can expect the following:5
- The interventionist assesses the situation, addresses any safety or crisis issues, and establishes a timeline for the intervention.
- The parents and the interventionist make a contract or agreement for an intervention.
- The interventionist gathers as much information as possible to better understand the family dynamics and to determine what services your teen needs. Some of the information gathered might include medical issues, the family’s history of substance abuse (if any), the history of trauma or abuse (if any), destructive behaviors, and substance use history.
- The interventionist makes recommendations for treatment based on this information.
- There may be a family meeting ahead of time during which the interventionist walks them through the intervention process and lets them know what to expect.
- In some models, the teen’s family is instructed to write 2 letters: The first letter outlines why the family wants the teen to get help, and family members might write about what they have noticed or why they are worried about their teen. The second letter sets realistic boundaries and consequences should the teen refuse help; this letter is only read to the teen if they refuse treatment.
- During the intervention, your teen will either refuse or accept help. The interventionist then works with your teen to help them become more comfortable with entering treatment. If needed, the interventionist might support your child by providing transportation to treatment.
- If your teen still refuses treatment, the interventionist will work with you on setting healthy, appropriate boundaries and will support you on following through with them.
Different Types of Treatment
Once your child has entered a treatment facility, they will be assessed by an addiction professional and referred to the appropriate level of treatment. No single treatment is right for every adolescent, so programs will tailor some of their services to your teen’s needs.6
The treatment type and level of intensity will often depend on:6
- The severity of addiction, length of previous drug use, and any withdrawal dangers associated with substance abuse history.
- Whether or not your teen has any other behavioral, emotional, or cognitive issues.
- Your teen’s motivation and readiness to change.
- The risk of relapse.
- How stable and supportive the home environment is.
No matter which treatment program a professional recommends for your child, it should cater to adolescents—they have a higher chance of recovery when treatment programs specifically address their developmental, social, biological, and psychological needs.6
The most common types of substance abuse treatment are:6,7
- Detox: Medical detoxification is often the first step of drug and alcohol treatment. It helps safely manage the physical symptoms of withdrawal that occur when someone stops drinking or using drugs. By itself, detox does little to change long-term drug use, but it is a necessary first step toward recovery when followed with other treatment.
- Inpatient treatment: Inpatient programs are typically appropriate for adolescents who require a high level of care, such as those who have severe levels of addiction or co-occurring mental health or medical problems. This type of treatment takes place in a 24-hour structured environment. Therapies your teen engages in there may include individual, group, and family therapy and medication management.
- Outpatient treatment: Experts often recommend this type of treatment for teens who have less severe addictions or that have already completed detox, inpatient, or residential treatment. Different forms of outpatient treatment vary in terms of the time commitment, treatment intensity, and type of services provided, but many of the therapeutic sessions will be conducted in a group setting. Treatment usually takes place between 2 and 6 times a week; some of the interventions may include drug education, family therapy, and individual therapy.
- Aftercare: To reinforce gains made in treatment and to support a substance-free lifestyle, teens should participate in continuing care, such as peer support groups and ongoing individual therapy.
It is important for your teen to continue treatment after the initial intervention. Under-treating a substance abuse disorder or not following up with aftercare increases the risk of relapse.6
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Help Children and Teens Stay Drug-Free.
- Ali, S., Mouton, C., Jabeen, S., et al. (2011). Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12), 24–28.
- Choate, P.W. & Doan, A., ed.(2015). Adolescent Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: The Experience of Parents. Behavioral Sciences, 5(4), 461–476.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs.
- Heather R. Hayes & Associates. (2017). Intervention and Treatment: A Guide to Ethical Practice.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says.