Teen and Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment

Millions of American teenager’s struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. While exact rates of addiction are unknown, the U.S. conducts extensive studies on how often kids try and use substances, illicit and otherwise. And, by grade 12, 2/3rds of all kids have tried alcohol, half have tried marijuana, and 1/5th have used a prescription medication without a prescription.

That’s critical, considering how negatively substance abuse and substance use disorders contribute to development. Adolescence is a crucial formative time, which goes on to affect brain development, behavioral patterns, and formative memories for the rest of your life. Moving through it with a substance use disorder, which is often a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder, can be detrimental to future health and possibilities. Acting, and quickly, to get your teen into substance abuse treatment can literally save their life.

Treating Teen and Adolescent Substance Abuse

Teen and adolescent substance abuse treatment normally involves using behavioral therapy, counseling, and complementary therapy to treat the disorder as well as the underlying problem. For example, addiction or substance abuse is often a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder, significant problems dealing with emotions such as loneliness or stress. Teens resorting to substance abuse might be struggling with mental illness, might be experiencing bullying, might be isolated from their peers, or might be struggling in school. Often, problems also start in the home, where adolescents and teens are especially sensitive to parental arguments and breakups, deaths in the family, and life-changing incidents like moving house, losing a pet, or being involved in a car accident.

At Compassion Recover, we know that addiction and substance abuse is complex, dependent on many factors, and unique to each individual. That’s why we take a personalized approach to treatment, building a program around the induvial needs, behaviors, and symptoms. Most importantly, we take a holistic approach to treat not just the symptoms of addiction but also the underlying causes.

In our Orange County substance abuse treatment clinic, that means:

group of teens during a cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is one of the most proven treatment options for substance use disorders. This treatment option helps adolescents to understand how behaviors contribute to ongoing substance abuse. For example, behavior patterns and habits, how habits affect the mood, responses to negative emotions, coping mechanisms, responses to criticism or bullying, responses to experiencing good things, etc. CBT involves behavioral and cognitive interventions, designed to identify and replace behaviors contributing to addiction. It also works to build up positive coping mechanisms and positive behaviors, which contribute to living life in a happy and healthy way.

photo of a female teen during a dialectal behavioral therapy
Dialectal Behavioral Therapy

Dialectal behavioral therapy takes the approach of treating the whole person and whole problem – usually with a focus on mindfulness, emotional regulation, and self-acceptance. This can be especially helpful to teens who use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication, to deal with stress, distress, and loneliness. DBT focuses on helping teens to live in the moment, to experience negative emotions in a healthy way, and to use tactics like redirection, examination, and distraction to take control of those emotions. DBT is extremely useful for teens struggling with self-image and self-acceptance and it takes specific steps to ensure that teens learn coping mechanisms and strategies as part of treatment. Therefore, it’s a long-term solution, not just to substance use, but coping with stress and negative emotions as they appear.

Photo of teen male together with her mom and therapists during a family therapy
Family Therapy

Teen and adolescent substance abuse affects the whole family. It affects relationships, relationship hierarchies, and how parents see their children. Often, substance abuse stems from the family. That might be because someone else in the family is using. It might be because of existing hierarchy problems. It might be because of a divorce or a death in the family. And, it might stem from other tensions. But, seeking out family therapy as part of treatment is important for ensuring that substance abuse treatment is meaningful and successful. Family is a large part of the adolescent world. It’s crucial that you stay involved and go to therapy with your teens. At Compassion Recovery, family therapy means assessing relationships, working on behavioral problems inside those relationships, and taking steps to solidify bonds for a healthy relationship.

photo of a teen male during counseling

Counseling normally functions in a group or one-on-one environment to help adolescents build motivation, to overcome specific obstacles, and to work towards specific goals. Often, those goals involve not just drug or alcohol use but also personal image, connecting with others, forming interpersonal relationships, and taking care of the self. Counseling varies per patient, because it requires a deeply custom approach.

Compassion Recovery always takes a holistic approach to substance abuse treatment. This means we treat the whole person, checking for underlying problems, assessing for co-occurring behavioral disorders, and treating family and interpersonal relationship problems as well as the symptoms of substance abuse. If your child is going to stop using, they have to do so by moving into a structured, safe environment that offers the support they need to stay clean and sober. And we aim to build up the emotional regulation and stress management they need to do that, while giving them the tools to manage emotions, manage interpersonal relationships, and to feel good mentally and physically.

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How Common Is Substance Abuse in Teens?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that millions of adolescents and teens use and are addicted to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In fact, an estimated 2.3% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 smoke. A further 9.4% or 2.3 million in that age group drink. And, 0.8% of teens, or 208,000 kids between the ages of 11 and 19, are heavy drinkers. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also shows that 17.2% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 used illicit drugs in the past year. Those numbers break down to:

  • 3% of all teenagers use marijuana
  • 1% of all teenagers use cocaine
  • 2% of all teenagers use heroin
  • 8% of all teenagers use hallucinogens
  • 3% of all teenagers use inhalants (paint, aerosols, etc.)
  • 7% of all teens misuse prescription stimulants
  • 8% of all teens misuse prescription tranquilizers
  • 5% of all teens misuse prescription benzodiazepines
  • 3% of all teens misused prescription painkillers (non-opioid)
  • 3% of all teens misused prescription opioids

Essentially, millions of teens use drugs and alcohol. For some of them, this usage is incidental and related to parties or special occasions. For others, it’s a long-term and ongoing thing.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse in Teens and Adolescents

Substance abuse looks different on many people depending on the substance used, their personal tolerance, and their emotional state. Unfortunately, that can make it difficult to easily diagnose your loved one with substance abuse. However, many people do exhibit many of the same symptoms when abusing drugs or alcohol. You can look for those signs and symptoms, as well as deterioration in mental health, which could indicate a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder. In either case, the presence of those symptoms is an indication that you should take action for your teen’s health.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

  • The presence of drugs, alcohol, or paraphernalia
  • Deterioration in physical care and grooming habits
  • Sudden changes in sleeping patterns
  • Fatigue or lethargy during the day
  • Dilated pupils
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Nosebleeds
  • Burns
  • Secrecy and hiding visits, whereabouts, or conversation s
  • Withdrawing from family and social activities
  • Changing behavior towards friends and family
  • Changing friend groups/abandoning old friends
  • Lying
  • Providing unrealistic explanations
  • Sudden uncharacteristic problems at school
  • Reduced interest in activities in school
  • Stealing or missing objects from friends/family
  • No explanation for spent money
  • Unexplained money or items
  • Police or authorities showing up at parties/arrests

Eventually, it can be difficult to say that a problem is about drugs and alcohol unless you catch your adolescent drinking or using. In addition, it can be difficult to say with certainty that drugs and alcohol are the culprit, unless you physically find them or paraphernalia. In addition, if your teen smells of alcohol, it’s almost certain they’ve been drinking, whatever their excuse. If your teen has track marks or unexplained bruising around veins on the wrist or inner thigh, they’ve been using. And, unexplained burns around the mouth can be indicative of glass pipe usage. Other drugs, like Ritalin and prescription pills are harder to catch. You’ll have to use your instincts and react if something does go wrong.

Getting Treatment at Compassion Recovery Services

If your adolescent or teen is struggling with substance abuse, there’s always help. At Compassion Recovery, we offer a treatment track specifically for young adults and teens between the ages of 11 and 17. Our program is designed around the needs of younger people, with specialists in adolescent psychology and recovery. Plus, with separate programs per age group, your teen or adolescent will always be in treatment with a group of peers they can relate to.

Most of our programs are also offered through outpatient or telehealth services. These allow teens to attend treatment without giving up school responsibilities. However, depending on the substance use, they may benefit from break from school and a stay in a detox center to ensure they can safely withdraw and recover.


Intensive Outpatient Treatment involves 9-30 hours of therapy including group and one-on-one sessions, conducted at our Orange County treatment center. Here, we recommend that parents drop off and pick up kids – either before school or after, depending on the schedule. We also offer weekend programs if weekdays aren’t possible. This allows your teen to get the help they need in a timeframe that’s feasible for them and for your family.


Compassion Recovery uses a secure, private video platform to deliver telehealth services for teens. This includes therapy, counseling, and our full range of drug addiction treatment. In most cases, treatment hours are scheduled before or after school – giving your teen the opportunity to attend daily sessions with support, affirmation, and help throughout the day.

Both options are good for many students. However, telehealth means you can access treatment, even if you don’t live nearby, are working during normal session hours, or don’t have the resources to drive to and from our treatment center every day. If you’re unsure, you can always contact us for recommendations based on your teen’s mental health, substance abuse, and other factors like budget, time, and feasibility.

If your teen is struggling with substance abuse, there is help. Compassion Recovery can offer the in-depth and personalized treatment they need to get clean or sober, to understand underlying causes, and to build motivation and coping mechanisms to stay clean. Recovery is about building the support to live well without drugs and alcohol. And, at Compassion Recovery, we have a team specialized in helping our future generations to do just that.

You don’t have to do it alone.

Call us for a free consultation to see how we can help.