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What is Addiction, What Drives It, and What are the Signs to Watch For in Your Teen?

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Carrie Wilkens, PhD and Jarell Myers, PhD

We have all seen the news that substance use problems are on the rise, and that the stress of the pandemic will continue to make things harder for those already struggling. You may be worried that your child will turn to (or return to) substances as they continue to be pulled out of a structured routine. Perhaps they’re no longer going to school in-person, or aren’t attending sports practices and club activities as they would have last year.

Worries about teens and substance use are normal, and it makes sense to want to learn more. Stigmatizing language such as “addict,” “pothead,” and“junkie,” sets us up to think that drug and alcohol use are nothing more than ‘bad decisions’ made by people who are being selfish or are not serious about finding success in their lives.

In reality, this kind of language lumps together an incredibly diverse group of individuals as if they were all the same. Everyone enters into substance use for different reasons and engages with it in different ways. Moreover, everyone who leaves substance use will take a different path out. This is true for anyone, even your child.

If you refer to your teen simply as an addict, you risk losing sight of all the distinctions and variations that matter tremendously to who they are as an individual. Similarly, hoping they just grow out of it or that what you are seeing is just normal teen experimentation may set you up for missing an opportunity to help them. Here is a different approach - one that provides a new understanding of substance use and that helps you, as their parent, create a space for them to communicate while moving toward positive change together.

What is Addiction?

Let’s first talk about what addiction is. We define addiction as a severe substance use disorder where a person uses a substance or substances compulsively, regardless of what the consequences of their use may be.

Many people start using substances because they have some kind of positive effect (e.g. this drink will calm me down/make me more social/help me get some sleep). Over time, the expectation that the substance will have this desired effect becomes deeply encoded in the brain’s memory system. The person using learns that the substance works, and they use it again and again to achieve a desired effect, despite potentially mounting negative consequences that may come along with the positive ones.

And even when the negative consequences of drinking and drug use start to pile up, using more can often make those consequences (like uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations) go away for a little while. It’s easy to see how occasional substance use could, in the right circumstances, turn into something more serious.

All of this does not mean that anyone who uses a substance will become addicted. We are all different, with unique brain chemistries, life experiences, and environments that will impact our actions. All of these variables can have a huge impact on what a person’s journey with substances may look like. Important to note as well, however, is that this also means that parents, family members, and friends can be a powerful source of stability and positive influence for someone who is in a difficult place with their substance use.

Noticing Substance Use Behaviors

If your child is struggling with substances, you may have begun to witness some differences in how they act. These may include but are not limited to: sudden changes in behavior (like swings from compliance to defiance), newly irresponsible or compulsive behavior (including cheating, stealing, or lying), a tendency to fight (either verbally or physically), a change in friends or social activities, and loss of time or disorientation around the passing of time.

It is natural for you to react to these behaviors with confusion, concern, and even anger once you have noticed them. When a loved one is using substances, especially when it is your child, the natural reaction is to want them to change their behavior. If they don’t agree to change, or if it takes them a while to change, it’s easy to then take it personally. You may start to ask yourself: “can’t they see they’re hurting our family?” or “how do I get them to stop?”

A question you may not ask as much is: “why are they using drugs or alcohol?”

Shifting your attention in this way can feel near impossible. When your child’s behavior seems so destructive and scary, taking the time to understand why they are doing this may feel completely beside the point. But figuring out your child’s ‘why’ will help you immensely and is the key to helping them move forward. If you can open yourself up to stepping back and working to understand where they are coming from, you will be in a much more powerful place to help them make healthy changes.

Why Do People Use Substances?

We all have a reason for doing the things that we do. For example, we watch TV and read books because they help us relax, or spend time with friends to feel connected and supported. Each of these behaviors makes sense and is reinforced in a way that makes us want to repeat it.

Similarly, if your child is using substances, they are getting something positive from that behavior. It may help them to relax when they are feeling anxious. It may help them feel more social or help them feel more like they fit in. It may even be a way to cope with a traumatic event. While substance use can often seem like it makes no sense, from your child’s perspective it is providing them with something important.

When you recognize that your child’s substance use is meeting an important need for them, you can start to consider what this need may be - figuring out the ‘why’ behind their actions.

Understanding this ‘why’ doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with their behavior, and it doesn’t mean you don’t want them to change. But, it can provide some clarity around what’s happening, and perhaps increased empathy for your child’s actions. Knowing that your child’s substance use isn’t just them acting out or trying to hurt you can help things feel more manageable as you set a path forward.

It will also help you brainstorm things that can replace their substance-related behaviors. For instance, if your child smokes because it helps them relax before taking a test at school, or because it helps them feel confident when they meet up with friends, you can start to understand that they may be feeling a lot of anxiety around those things. You can then work with them to find other strategies for reducing their anxiety. For example, you could open up a conversation with them about what makes test-taking feel so stressful. You can then work together to brainstorm some ways to make it a little bit easier or less scary.

Moving Forward in Your Relationship with Your Child

The next time you see your child struggling with a behavior that doesn’t seem to make sense, whether it’s using drugs, drinking, eating unhealthy foods, or even just plain old procrastination, remember that they are benefitting from this behavior in some way, and that their behavior makes sense to them (even if it doesn’t to you).

When you look at their actions through this lens, you can find ways to help and respond to the problem constructively. Their behaviors may not always be welcomed, or feel good, but understanding where they come from provides you with a way forward in your relationship.

Start with the (perhaps basic-sounding) strategy of listening to them. This can be really, genuinely hard, especially if you’re feeling worried or frustrated. If you feel yourself getting upset, ask to revisit the conversation. It might sound like, “I appreciate you being open with me, but I’m starting to get upset. Can we put this conversation on hold?” Just listening can sometimes feel like you’re going nowhere! But the research shows that listening is actually a very effective way to motivate change in someone, and a great place to start with your child. Another strategy is focus on listening to understand by rephrasing back what your teen says. You might say, “I’m hearing you say….is that right?”

In the beginning, your goal should simply be to have more open conversations with them, without a specific agenda. Encourage dialogue by asking open questions like “What have you been up? What’s been on your mind? Is there anything you need from me? ”Eventually, this may open the door to talking about their substance use and what it is providing for them.

Listening isn't a cure-all, and it won't suddenly change your child’s behavior. But it can be the beginning of more open dialogue, and may introduce the biggest thing you can ask for at the very start: the possibility of considering something new.

Another useful tool to use is positive reinforcement, or supporting the behaviors you want to see more of. Try to take a step back each day and find a behavior of your child’s that you can support, and then reinforce them for it. This can be as simple as a sincere ‘thank you’ if they get home on time, or something more involved, like driving them to soccer practice because it makes them happy and competes with their substance use. Reinforcing your loved one’s constructive behaviors helps introduce positive elements into your relationship, and encourages growth and change.

Lastly, you should always remember that you are a powerful support system for your child. Your willingness to work on encouraging their positive growth will be one of your biggest strengths as you work through the process of change.

Read part 2 of this series here.


This post was written by Carrie Wilkens and Jarell Myers from CMC: Foundation for Change. Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires and the Co-Founder, Co-Executive Director and President of CMC: Foundation for Change. She has co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and has also contributed to The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use.

Jarell Myers, PhD is a trainer at CMC: Foundation for Change and works as a psychologist at CMC and CMC:FFC. He earned his doctorate from Fairleigh Dickinson University and completed an APA-accredited internship at Mt Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital. He has expertise working with adolescents and young adults with substance use disorders.


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