Best Practices to Support Adolescents with Substance Use Disorders

Substance use is becoming a common trend among adolescents. A 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States shows that an estimated 164.8 million people aged 12 years or older were past-month substance users. Of that group, approximately 20.3 million people aged 12 years or older had a substance use disorder associated with the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. 

When you think of the pressure to fit in or gain friends, teens can unknowingly set themselves up for potentially life-threatening habits, making prevention critical. Substance abuse among adolescents can lead to problems at school, promote poor peer relationships, cause or aggravate physical and mental health disorders, cause accidents, or place stress on the family.

What is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder, commonly known as drug addiction, is the harmful pattern of continuous use of substances – such as alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs – leading to distress or impairment with one more of the following behaviors: failure to fulfill responsibilities at work, home or school, social or personal problems, and substance-related legal problems such as arrests for disorderly conduct.

The main cause of substance use disorder is not clear. Emotional distress, genetics, anxiety, depression, peer pressure, and environmental stress can all cause substance use disorder. Research shows that a person’s genes can account for about 40% to 60% of a person’s risk of addiction. Environmental factors such as a chaotic home environment, peer influences, parent’s drug use, poor academic achievement, and community attitudes toward drugs can increase a person’s risk of addiction. Adolescents and people with mental disorders are at a higher risk for drug abuse and addiction than other individuals.

How to Support Adolescents with Substance Use Disorder

There are several things we can do to prevent substance abuse, including community and individual-level interventions. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is better than cure. So, how can we engage our children to ensure they don’t become victims of substance use?


Behavior modification therapies are common in addiction treatment centers compared to other therapeutic techniques. They focus on changing behaviors, and they involve timely tracking of specific behaviors over time and how to navigate various situations without triggering the use of drugs or alcohol. To ensure the therapy session is effective, therapists require client information that includes medical histories, demographic information, mental health condition, and laboratory results to help them make the best clinical decisions about how to treat them.  Behavioral health EHR tools can come in handy to facilitate quick access of this information. They also help care providers develop outcome-based and measurable treatment plans and improved coordination of care. Understanding the client’s needs is important for providing the best quality of care to ensure the best possible outcomes.

A general therapeutic approach has been adapted into various techniques that are effective. They include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This technique focuses on helping clients recognize and change their problematic behaviors, allowing them to recognize cravings or triggers, and develop ways to handle those situations. The main theme in CBT is identifying risky situations and applying coping skills, such as self-control or avoidance, to prevent relapse.
  • Contingency Management (CM): CM’s approach to therapy is effective in encouraging and reinforcing sobriety. This technique provides tangible rewards and incentives as a motivation for desirable behaviors. A major advantage of contingency management therapy is that it can help reduce the chance of leaving a program or risk of relapse.
  • Family Therapies: Counseling and therapy for substance use often involves family members who participate in counseling,  along with the person in recovery. The goal is to educate families about the cause of substance use, how to prevent relapse, and how to support a loved one in recovery.


Mentoring, Tutoring and Work-Study Strategies

Mentors and mentoring programs can play a critical role in supporting young people who are struggling with drug abuse. In addition to providing motivation and hope, it also provides an opportunity to learn from those who have walked the same path. A mentor can offer support for recovery-related problems, including help with day-to-day struggles that go beyond a substance use problem. They can connect patients to treatment services and work alongside treatment professionals to provide social and emotional support.

Tutoring involves individualized assistance combined with academic tasks that can help an individual stay engaged and reduce their chances of drug use. The goal is to have someone to talk and walk the client through a difficult period. By having a mentor who listens, it’s easy to work through a problem – potentially avoiding the risk of substance use or relapse.

Family Training, Counselling and Case Management

Family-based approaches to treating substance abuse focus on engaging family members in the treatment and recovery process of the client. In fact, most patients are motivated to start treatment because of positive family involvement and intervention. They can be involved in learning about the treatment and recovery process, take part in recovery planning, attend family appointments, share in the learning process, and encourage and support the person in treatment.

Family-based approaches typically address a wide array of problems apart from the person’s substance use, including family communication, mental health, problems with school or work, and other co-occurring behaviors. Typically offered in outpatient settings, family treatment has also been known to work in other settings including residential and intensive outpatient programs.

Prevention Intervention Programs 

Prevention programs focus on helping individuals develop knowledge and skills to eliminate or reduce risk factors associated with drug use. These programs are designed for various ages and can be implemented in individual or group settings, such as schools, homes, workplaces, and communities. Prevention efforts are divided into three main categories:

  • Universal Intervention Programs: These programs are designed to address risk and protective factors that are common to individuals in a given setting, such as a school or community. Since most are single-session screening and brief interventions, they are feasible for implementation in nearly any setting with young people. 
  • Selective Intervention Programs: These programs are designed for subgroups of the population that are at risk for drug abuse, such as those already involved in drug use that are at a higher risk of progression. Examples include programs that screen for individuals who have previously used alcohol then provide therapeutic interventions to avoid progression in use.
  • Indicated Interventions Programs: These programs are aimed at youth who show early signs of having serious mental health conditions, such as substance use, depression and delinquency, though they have not yet been diagnosed. Such programs are more intense than either selective or universal interventions.


Recreational, Community Service and Leisure Activities

Recreational and leisure activities include treatment services and alternative activities intended to provide fun and constructive alternatives to substance use. Recreation centers, animals, dances, sports, games, yoga classes, community service activities, music, after-school programs and other events are part of these programs.

Under the guidance of a certified recreation specialist, the individual can start to release negative feelings of anger, shame, or hurt as they relate to past experiences. These specialists rely on electronic health records to provide comprehensive care to their clients. The EHR allows client records and treatment plan to be updated and tracked from different locations, or shared with a referring provider, which helps to accelerate the process of recovery and reduce the chance of a relapse.

School and Discipline Management

In the age of value-based care, schools have the opportunity to work with health care professionals, parents, and community officials to drive programs with proven effectiveness, and identify students who show behavior changes from drug-related problems. The school may adopt a variety of alternatives to deal with the issue of drug abuse that include offering after-school or weekend programs, provide counseling, incorporate life-skills training, or make referrals to professionals for assessment and intervention.

Other Counseling, Social Work and Psychological Strategies

Behavioral approaches and family prevention often include counseling and therapy targeted at specific behaviors. Substance use prevention can also include individual case management, counseling, or similar group-based interventions apart from those mentioned above. Peer counseling programs including student assistance efforts are also included in this category.

Final Thoughts

Prevention strategies, used in conjunction with the right behavioral health EHR, can be instrumental in keeping adolescents from developing a substance use disorder. By recognizing early signs of substance use, paying attention to the transition process, creating a healthy schedule, managing mental conditions, and replacing peer pressure with support networks, sobriety is achievable.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Like what you've read?

Sign up for the Behavioral Health Success Series and be the first to get exclusive industry content, sent right to your inbox.