Preventing Addiction in Teens

by Seda Gragossian, Ph.D., and Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP

Girl putting joint out at partyPractical Recovery has always treated (in outpatient) teens, tweens, and families. Recently we have expanded our outreach efforts for this population.

All addiction treatment is a combination of treatment and prevention. When we work with teens and families the prevention component is especially important. Because parents can be a provider’s primary partners in treatment and prevention, at Practical Recovery we often focus largely on parents during the change process. Parents are needed to create a positive environment, which leads to positive behavior change for the teen. This article outlines the overarching ideas that Practical Recovery emphasizes in our work with parents, these ideas are rather different than “tough love,” or “because I told you so.”

Despite the substantial costs and effort associated with being a parent, parenting is typically seen as a highly meaningful and rewarding task. There are going to be more children in the world! Unfortunately, the ways in which we were parented ourselves, which would have been our first education about how to parent, do not necessarily apply to raising children and teens currently. Each generation of parents needs to determine how to apply the fundamentals of parenting in the environment in which they live. Combinations of genetics, low problem solving ability, parental stress or emotional problems, poor environments and deprivations, bad luck, and other factors can lead many families and teens into addiction and many other problems. The following is a list of parenting suggestions:

1) When possible, change begins with the parents. It is unrealistic to expect teens to change while their parents continue old patterns of behavior. Teens may not welcome new behavior by their parents. The teen may initially act out or rebel. Change is a process that takes time. Setting realistic expectations can prevent disappointments and premature abandonment of the approach. Be patient!

2) Raising well-functioning children and teens is not about removing obstacles from their paths, but equipping them with the skills to overcome obstacles on their own. It is increasingly possible for parents to monitor and be quite involved in their children’s day-to-day lives. Although being involved is essential, this involvement can increase to an unhealthy level.

No parent wants to see his or her child experience emotional pain caused by rejections, failures, or losses. It is tempting to want to do everything in our power to remove the potential for emotional pain. However, painful experiences (within limits) are an important part of growing up and becoming a resilient individual. Without experiencing such pains how could one experience the joy of successes, or learn from problems? Pain pushes us to get back up, to learn, and to find motivation to move forward. Parental involvement is more valuable when it is focused on how to tolerate problems and failures and learn from them, rather than having parents attempting to predict every challenge and remove it.

3) Children need regular undivided attention from their parents. In this electronics age we are often preoccupied with information and stimulation. Life moves faster and faster. Workers are expected to be increasingly productive, and even expected to work from home or on vacation. Via our electronics we are “connected” at all times. While connection comes with great advantages, it also comes at a high cost. There is no longer an off switch. We are much less likely to enjoy a family meal, discussion of a homework assignment, or a leisurely walk in the neighborhood without interruption. The impact of these interruptions on a family can be substantial. A child might reasonably wonder, am I more important than your cell phone? Children need undivided attention on a regular basis. Just as it is advisable for parents to limit their children’s use of electronics, they need to limit their own. By engaging in a collaborative dialogue families can establish “family time,” when electronics are turned off and put away.

Contrary to what many parents may believe, children and teens have a great need and desire to converse with their parents. While at times they may actually be looking for advice, most of the time they are merely needing to talk to an adult who loves them unconditionally and listens without lecturing, judging, or criticizing. When in doubt, parents can simply ask their children “What do you need from me right now?” There is also great value in simply validating feelings, such as “I am sorry you feel disappointed.” Knowing what time of day a child may be more amicable to conversing could also make a large difference. Save the deeper conversations for times of day that have a track record of success.

4) Show genuine interest in your children, including their dreams, concerns, problems, daily activities, friends, disappointments, expectations, and so forth. Most parents know how to pay attention to a friend. Children are not fundamentally different than a friend when giving them attention is concerned. Although you still need to establish and enforce rules, with luck those interactions are far fewer than normal conversation. Would you ever discourage a friend from pursuing their dreams and interests? Even if their dreams do not materialize, children will remember that their parents took their dreams seriously and supported them. They also need to learn the importance of moving forward, even if the goal needs to change or be abandoned.

5) Setting realistic and firm expectations using a collaborative approach with clear tangible consequences is essential to a child’s well-being. Children get confused and often anxious when they are unsure of what is acceptable. Predictability allows anyone to feel safer, especially children and teens. We all appreciate knowing what is expected of us at work, at home, or in any setting. Following through with consequences is as important as establishing them. Without consequences, both positive and negative, children may slide into serious misbehavior, and also come to feel without a foundation in the world because their parents do not pay enough attention to them, or care enough, to provide consequences. They stop taking their parents seriously.

Be consistent! Be Consistent! Be consistent! All of us do better in a structured, predictable environment. There will be more than enough change coming from outside influences. Imagine a mother who established various rules and defined consequences for her son, then inconsistently followed through with the consequences. Although she thought her son was “the most stubborn child ever,” he had learned that if he remained stubborn, his mother would be less likely to give him negative consequences. When she had less energy she just wanted to avoid an argument, but the result over time was that he attempted to avoid every negative consequence by wearing her down. An initial investment in consistency can prevent this kind of problem.

6) Moms and dads, in the same household or not, need to work together to eliminate the opportunity for their child to play one parent against the other. Children are very clever about finding discrepancies between their parents. These discrepancies are acceptable in some ways but less so in others. If the child understands that dad’s house is more neatness-oriented than mom’s house, no harm is done. On major issues like homework, electronics usage, and social activities, consistency between parents is advisable. Having one parent be the authority in specific areas (e.g., “ask your mom about that”) is one way to prevent discrepancies. For example, if the child is only allowed to ask mom about when and how long she can use her electronics, playing parents against each other (and parental conflict) can be avoided.

7) Parents need to initiate conversations about difficult topics. When parents avoid talking to their children about difficult topics, children may feel their parents are unable to handle the topic, Children are then less likely to come to their parents when they have an important issue to discuss. Although parents may fear that such discussions might “give them ideas,” children whose parents talk to them about drugs, alcohol, dating and sexuality are less likely to have problems in these areas.

Parents can avoid engaging in power struggles, especially with teens and tweens, by supporting good decision making processes. Does your child know how, for instance, to do a simple cost-benefit or risk-reward analysis? The parents can introduce potential costs and risks into these discussions, when the child is blinded by potential benefits and rewards. This rational approach is empowering and helps the child to develop skills for making sound decisions. Of course, there are times when parents need to make a decision for a child or teen. In such cases, it is advisable that the parents explain their reasoning and discuss it as needed, without engaging in a debate about it.

8) Just as you would with adults, be kind and respectful. Shaming your child or teen will only damage their self-confidence. Treat them like the mature individuals you are helping them to become.


If you need help with a child that is engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use, lying or stealing, we can help. Call us today! 1-800-977-6110