The Differences In Treating Teens With Substance Use Disorder

By The Fix staff 04/29/19

From diagnosis to long-term recovery, treating teens is different from treating adults.

Serious teen girl, substance use disorder for teens

The teenage years are difficult under the best of circumstances. Adolescents are exploring their identity, developing their values and asserting their independence, all while undergoing huge physical, emotional and cognitive changes.

When substance use is involved, the teen year can become even more tumultuous. Teens who develop a substance use disorder need a treatment program that is specifically tailored to their stage of development, and that takes into account the unique challenges that youth face.

“Substance abuse treatment is most successful when the treatment program is personalized to an individual’s specific needs,” said Jaymes Murphy, business development assistant at Clearfork Academy, a residential, Christ-centered treatment center in Fort Worth, Texas.

For years, treatment for teens was based on models that had served adults well. However, treatment centers like Clearfork Academy that are dedicated only to teen recovery recognized that their clients needed special guidance.

“Because adolescents have vastly different developmental, psychological, and physical needs compared to adults and because this is the time frame in which most people experiment with drugs and alcohol, it is imperative that treatment be finely tuned to fit the needs of our teens,” Murphy said. “It provides a firm foundation for them to rebuild upon and they have a greater understanding of their underlying issues.”

In order to help teens get better for the long-term, Clearfork gives them special attention, beginning with diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has a set of 11 criteria that help determine the presence and severity of a substance use disorder, but many of these are seen as normal behavior in teens so a provider needs to closely examine a teen’s behavior in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

“Many signs and symptoms presented in the DSM-5 are normative behaviors for teens,” Murphy said. “For this very reason, substance use in adolescents is often missed or overlooked as being part of ‘normal’ youth development.”

Once a teen has been diagnosed with substance use disorder, there are certain elements that Clearfork Academy uses to strengthen its treatment model for teens. These include:

Family Involvement

As much as teens like to think that they’re independent, most of the clients that Clearfork Academy works with are minors. This means they’re dependent on family for everything from money to transport and emotional support. Because of this, it’s essential that the family be involved in all areas of treatment planning.

“Family participation is considered extremely vital in helping teens reduce their drug or alcohol use,” Murphy said. “Keeping the family involved in the recovery process increases the likelihood of follow-through.”

Clearfork Academy encourages family members to meet weekly with the treatment team. Parents or guardians are taught about strategies that they can implement at home to support their teen, and they are also encouraged to do their own healing through family and individual therapy.

“This ensures that the family is growing together rather than becoming further separated by the distance that addiction causes,” Murphy said.


Teens are often reluctant to listen to the experience of others, particularly adults. In order to break down these barriers the staff at Clearfork Academy work to connect with and build mentoring relationships with the teenagers in their care.

“When working with teens, if they are not mentally stimulated, encouraged, or motivated regularly they begin to take steps backwards impeding the recovery process, so we are constantly engaging them, showing interest in them and walking right beside them in this battle of recovery,” said Murphy, who got sober as a young adult. “We show them that we care by forming relationships with them and confronting challenges beside them.”

Presenting Information

Because teens’ brains are still forming, they are not able to process information in the same way as adults. They’re much more likely to depend on emotional input rather than logic, so the Clearfork Academy staff meets them where they are.

“We have to focus on emotional reasoning rather than logical reasoning,” Murphy said. “They act purely on impulse and emotion, so we take that momentum and drive it into a more positive decision.”

Rather than giving lengthy explanations, the staff use short, quick facts with young clients. 

“Brevity is the key in presenting the information in a way that they can digest,” Murphy said. “When we give them short bursts of direction it is easier for them to process and stay on task.”

Aftercare Planning

Adults in recovery often relapse because of stress, whereas teens are much more likely to use substances because of peer pressure. Because of this, the staff at Clearfork Academy encourage teens to make healthy connections with people in and outside the program who can support them when their time at Clearfork Academy ends.

Aftercare for teens includes being immersed in a recovery community, whether through intensive outpatient treatment, a sober living facility, or a sober school. Teens are able to choose the option they like, under the guidance of treatment providers and parents.

“We empower the teen to present their ideas to their parents which allows them the ability to confront a situation constructively and with compromise in mind,” Murphy said.

Although being in treatment at a young age can be scary for adolescents and their families, delivering teen-tailored treatment can help the whole family heal.

“We believe that through balancing all of these aspects and more in the boundaries of treatment that a teen can be successful in recovery and that they will become a vessel of change for those around them,” Murphy said.

Clearfork Academy offers residential treatment for boys ages 13-18 in Fort Worth, Texas. Connect with them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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