A Common Question About Teen Addiction

Published On: June 14, 2016|Categories: Addiction, Adolescents|
Healthy lifestyle - young women biking

Contributed by Joseph Campasino, BA, Drug & Alcohol SAP Counselor at Pyramid Healthcare’s Erie outpatient office.

One major concern from almost any family with a teen (or any family member) struggling with addiction is, “What can I do to help?”

It is certainly one of the most vital questions to ask as well, due to the tremendous importance of family support during addiction and prevention.  However, family members must go above and beyond recognizing the importance of support – the actual application of providing that support for a family member is paramount.

The following content, while not an exhaustive list, will analyze some key factors facing families struggling with addiction, and also touch on preventative measures to potentially avoid addiction altogether and improve the quality of current relationships.

Aspects of Cognitive Development for Teens

A good place to begin when attempting to understand addiction and prevention in the life of a teenager is to know some aspects of their general cognitive development.  For starters, almost all teens experience a developmental stage of idealism at some point.  This simply means that they often start out constructing a “perfect” image of the world “with no injustice, discrimination, or tasteless behavior” (Berk, 2010, p. 388).

Many times, this is quickly falsified by the harsh reality of life, which can lead to a faultfinding, critical attitude (p. 388). Combine that with a not-yet-developed sense of rational thinking and this often creates a large contrast of parental/teen views of the world.

Placing Blame for Impossible Expectations

For instance, a teen may blame their parents for these unmet, unrealistic expectations. However, such a reaction provides a perfect example of the teen’s inability to display a rational thought process, due to the fact that their rational thinking abilities may not be fully developed.

Also, unsurprisingly, teenagers have an intuitive nature to disagree and go against the grain of their parents’ thoughts and views. They may not leave physically, but many “check out” psychologically from parental guidance to find their own way (Berk). All this being said, a main point to take away is to not take their sometimes outlandish or shocking ways of thinking personally.

Communication and Listening Skills

This apparent disconnect of views is not uncommon, but there are some practical, healthy ways to support your teenager, without enabling their negative behaviors and creating a more difficult atmosphere in the home.

A major way of defining support within the lives of loved ones is good communication.  However, one of the biggest communication shortcomings for any age or relationship is that many do not listen to understand. Rather, they listen to reply (unknown author).

One piece of advice for all parents is to take a few moments and listen.  Actually listen.

It is understood that often teenagers do not seem to quit talking, while others barely speak to their parents at all.  However, listening and putting value on the words that are coming out of their mouth, no matter how drama-filled or irrational it may sound, will mean a lot to a teenager (even when they do not show it).  Setting aside specific time for genuine listening can mean the world to a teenager and validate them as the person they are trying so hard to become.  They may not need or want advice all the time, but a teen will be more likely to confide and seek guidance from a parent when it is known that an attempt at understanding them is being genuinely offered.

Getting Input and Asking Questions

Also, not being afraid to ask questions and get some input from a teenager can be key.  Offer a genuine interest in their lives and hobbies in all situations and circumstances, not just when you suspect wrongdoing or misbehavior. It can provide difficult, but learning to be sympathetic to the amount of stressors and frustrations that teenagers deal with while struggling with an underdeveloped sense of rational thinking can help you connect with your teen and provide genuine support.

There is not a “cure all” answer or a “fix it” button for teens struggling with substance use, as nice as that would be. However, using the information above in your parenting strategy can help a constantly-learning teenager have the courage to help themselves, which is a common goal in the helping process (Egan, 1998, p. 31).

Implementing Communication Before Teen Addiction Happens

Two Young Women on a Bench at ParkThis can be done when children are younger, as well.  Problems and concerns do not, and should not, have to be present to begin implementing good communication, support, and understanding in the life of a young person. These three aspects implemented early in a child’s life can have a great impact in teenage decision making and thought patterns. However, the goal must not be attempting to develop a thought pattern equivalent to our own; but rather, to encourage and guide them to think the way they should think. This can lead them into being a successful, thriving individual.

Being supportive and understanding is simple in concept, but complex in its application. However, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step (unknown), so any forward progress in these areas are victories and are some of the best ways to help cope with and prevent addiction.


  1. Berk, Laura E. (2010). Developmental through the Lifespan: Fifth Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson.
  2. Egan, Gerard. (1998). The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management Approach to Helping: Sixth Edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.
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