The country is in the middle of one of the largest epidemics in its history; certainly, the largest drug addiction problem it’s had to deal with yet. In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans died due to overdose. Opioids accounted for 49,068 of those deaths and alcohol, cocaine, meth, and synthetic drugs continue to be a problem. The problem crosses all geographical and demographical boundaries, and even children and teens are at risk. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 0.4 percent of 12th-graders tried heroin, 4.2 percent tried other narcotics, and 3.70 tried other prescription opioids.

Prescription opioids can lead to heroin use when pills become too hard or expensive to obtain. Illicit drug use can lead to the contraction of diseases, legal issues, and overdose. However, early intervention, protective factors, and parental supervision have been shown to increase the odds that adolescents avoid some of the most serious consequences of addiction.

Learn more about substance use disorders among adolescents and how addiction treatment can help.

What Is Drug Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease that is treatable but difficult to get over or manage on your own. It’s one the severe end of the spectrum of substance use disorders (SUD) and typically follows other issues like abuse and dependence. It’s often assumed that dependence and addiction are synonyms for the same disorder. While they are closely related, there are a few distinctions. Dependence refers to a chemical imbalance that affects the brain’s neurochemical communication pathways.

When you use or abuse certain drugs, your brain might grow to rely on the chemicals you are introducing and stop producing some of its own. If you stop using the drug, you might start to feel withdrawal symptoms because of the sudden chemical imbalance in your brain. In many cases where dependence is left untreated, addiction will develop.

Addiction is a deeper problem that primarily affects your brain’s reward center. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug use despite consequences that are directly related. For instance, if drug use leads to a DUI or job loss and you continue to use, it’s a mark of addiction.

A person can be aware that drug use is a problem and still have strong cravings and compulsions to use that get out of control. In many cases, people struggling with addiction don’t realize there is a problem or deny that substance abuse has become an issue despite the apparent consequences.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction tends to take over a person’s life. It writes, “People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus  on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.” A severe substance use disorder usually becomes difficult to contain after a while, especially for adolescents who live with their parents or guardians. The primary stages of a substance use disorder can be kept hidden, but it eventually bleeds into multiple aspects of your life.

Addiction is a chronic disease that can affect your physical and mental health, your relationships, your financial stability, and it often leads to legal trouble. People who seek treatment for addiction often come with problems in these other areas. These problems can also be underlying causes for addiction. The disease is complicated and, for that reason, it’s difficult to get over on your own.

According to NIDA, addiction has relapse rates that are similar to other chronic illnesses like hypertension and asthma. Substance use disorders have patients who relapse 40 percent to 50 percent of the time while hypertension and asthma are around 50 percent to 70 percent. Though addiction can be treated, there is no known cure. However, with the right treatment and a continuous commitment to recovery, even people who relapse several times can achieve lasting sobriety.

What Causes Drug Addiction Among Adolescents?

Addiction is a complex disease, and it’s difficult to pinpoint one definitive cause in most cases. It’s generally a result of a combination of issues and underlying factors. Addiction often comes after a period of using or abusing a drug with a moderate to high addiction liability. The question of what causes drug and alcohol addiction has both a biological answer and an answer that is tied to the factors that lead a particular person to abuse drugs in the first place.

The first is fairly well understood although there is more to learn. The second is more difficult to pinpoint and can be different for each person.

From a scientific and chemical perspective, addiction is caused by the way drug use affects your brain. Drugs offer potent rewards in the form of increased activity chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and opioids. Under normal circumstances, things in everyday life will trigger those rewards like rest, eating, and even a good conversation. Your brain is designed to take note of those rewards and learn to encourage you to repeat them. Craving food when you feel hungry, helps you to service instinctively.

However, psychoactive drugs can cause much more powerful rewarding effects. Your reward center grows to accept that act of using a particular drug as healthy rewarding activity and learns to encourage a repeat of that activity. For that reason, it can be incredibly difficult to overcome addiction because it requires relearning or correcting something your brain has learned to encourage compulsively. This is why people can want to make a change but can’t stop on their own.

When it comes to an individual’s path to addiction, identifying causes can be more complicated. Two people can have the same initial exposure to drugs while only one develops a severe substance use disorder. According to NIDA, there is no one cause for addiction, and no one factor can predict whether or not a child or teen will develop an addiction problem in the future. However, various risk factors are related to three main areas: biology, environment, and development. In most cases, a combination of these factors ultimately leads to addiction.

Here’s a breakdown of each of the three main factors:


Researchers have discovered that a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction can be tied to their genetics and family history. This realization is significant because it shows that addiction is like many other diseases and may help to remove some of the stigmas from addiction like the idea that it is simply a moral failing or bad habit. While it does take choices to get to a substance use disorder, genetic factors can play a role in your inclination toward drug use. Plus, other diseases like Type 2 diabetes can come from dietary and lifestyle choices but still require medical treatment to remedy.

Researchers look at substance use within a family, how children who are adopted are affected by drug use, and how individual twins are affected by addiction. Studies have determined that addiction is moderately or highly influenced by genetic factors. This means that if your family has a history of alcoholism or drug addiction, you should be careful with psychoactive substances and pay close attention to your children’s exposure to drugs.

Genetic factors should also provide some peace to parents who might feel guilty when their children become addicted.

You can’t do anything about genetic risk factors any more than you can change the color of your child’s eyes or the shape of their face. While you can take steps to avoid and address addiction, ultimately, it’s up to the individual to commit to abstinence and moderation with psychoactive substance or to commit to recovery.

Sex, ethnicity, other diseases, and other mental disorders can also be genetic factors that play a role in addiction.


A person’s environment covers a wide range of factors that can influence your likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Environmental factors can include your family, friends, your economic status, the neighborhood you grow up in, peer pressure, abuse, exposure to drugs and alcohol at an early age, and the guidance you get from your parents can all affect your risk factors for addiction. Adolescents can encounter a variety of risk factors and protective factors in many aspects of their life. A child or teen’s environment is one area in which parents, guardians, and educators can focus on preventative efforts. Risk factors increase a child’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder at some point in their life, while protective factors can lower that likelihood.

Risk factors include:

  • Early aggressive behaviors
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Early substance abuse
  • High drug availability in neighborhood or schools
  • Poverty, low community opportunity

Protective factors include:

  • Self-control, restraint
  • Parental monitoring
  • Academic accomplishment
  • Anti-drug policies at home, school
  • Neighborhood attachment


A person’s development is where genetics and environmental factors come together. At each stage of your development, environmental factors can interact with your genetic predispositions to help or hurt your chances of developing a substance use disorder. For instance, taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, but it’s more likely if your first encounter with drugs occurs at an early age. Children and teens are more vulnerable to long-term consequences of drug use because their brains aren’t fully developed.

As an example, there is a process of brain development called myelination that occurs from childhood to around the age of 25. Myelination is when myelin, a mixture of protein and fat, starts to grow in your brain and coats the axons of your nerve cells. A healthy coating of myelin helps your brain send signals more quickly, which helps with cognition, learning, and reaction time. Studies show that if a person abuses alcohol or marijuana in excessive amounts for long enough, it can slow the myelination process, leading to long-term issues with cognition.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction Among Adolescents

Identifying a substance use disorder in an adolescent can be difficult. Teens are already going through changes that can affect them physically, emotionally, and socially. However, unlike normal changes that most teenagers go through as they develop, addiction will quickly start to take over every aspect of a person’s life. The longer a person struggles with a substance use disorder, the more apparent it will become to the people around them.

The signs and symptoms of addiction will often depend on the type of drug a person is using. For instance, stimulants cause excitement and insomnia during acute intoxication, but they also cause depression and hypersomnia during comedowns and withdrawal. Depressants cause sedation and loss of motor control during intoxication and anxiety and tremors during withdrawal.

However, there are a few behavioral symptoms of addiction that are fairly common regardless of the type of drug a person used. Plus, teens who live with their parents or guardians will have a hard time covering up all signs.

Common signs of addiction include:

  • Isolating from others
  • Periods of exhaustion
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sudden poor performance at school
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Sudden change in friend groups
  • Strange sleep patterns like insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Missing money or valuables
  • Lying about drug use
  • Hiding drugs or alcohol around the house
  • Legal issues

While some of these signs may be typical parts of adolescence, such as mood changes or periods of isolation, many of these signs at the same time can point to a problem. If you feel like your teen may have a problem involving a chemical substance, it’s important to learn all you can about addiction and how treatment can help.

How Addiction Treatment Works

Addiction treatment is a process that addresses the physical and psychological problems of addiction and any other issues that may be directly or indirectly related. When you first enter treatment, you will begin and complete the intake and assessment that’s designed to pinpoint your specific needs. Clinicians will use the ASAM Criteria, a six-dimension list of factors that can inform a client’s needs, and using this guide helps them place you in the right level of care.

You also may complete a biopsychosocial assessment, which is a questionnaire that explores your biological, psychological, and social needs, concerns, and history. This will help you and your therapist create a treatment plan that is customized and adequately targets your needs.

As you move through treatment and advance to new levels of care, your treatment plan will be assessed on a weekly basis. If new needs develop or if you accomplish objectives, your treatment plan will be changed to meet new needs.

Levels of Care

Medical Detox

Medically managed detoxification is the highest level of care in addiction treatment and involves 24 hours of medical care every day. Detox typically lasts for about a week while your body adjusts to life without the drug. In some cases, you may be weaned off the drug to help avoid dangerous symptoms. Other medical complications or conditions can also be treated in medical detox.

Inpatient Services

If you have a medical or psychological condition that needs monitoring, inpatient services may be the best level of care for you. This level also includes residential treatment, clinically managed treatment, and medically monitored care.

Intensive Outpatient Services

Intensive outpatient, or IOP, is the highest level of care in which a person can live independently. IOP also includes partial hospitalization which can involve up to 12 hours of addiction treatment services every day. Even at the lowest level, IOP has no less than nine hours of clinical services every week. At this level, you will go through therapies based on your treatment plan that can include individual, group, or family therapy. Adolescents often go through family therapy and may go through other therapies for trauma, motivational enhancement, and behavioral therapies for adolescents.

Outpatient Services

Outpatient service offers many of the same therapies as IOP but on a less intensive scale. Outpatient services offer less than nine hours of clinical therapy and services each week. This level of care can help guide people from more intensive services to independent life after treatment.


Aftercare is additional help and guidance you can receive after formal treatment is complete. Your treatment center can connect you to community resources to help with job placement, housing, and recovery programs like 12-step programs. Continuing your commitment to recovery after treatment is often instrumental in long-term recovery and maintaining your sobriety.

Principles of Effective Treatment

Finding the right treatment for you or your child can be difficult, considering the wide variety of options in the United States. Plus, not every approach to addiction treatment is equally effective. However, there are several factors to look for that can tell you that an addiction treatment program is as effective as it can be. NIDA has compiled a list of qualities that a treatment program should have to be effective. These factors are based on research and what has shown to produce the best results for the most people. If you are looking for treatment, knowing these factors can help you make an informed decision. Many of these principles have become industry standards when it comes to treating addiction.

Some of the most important principles of effective addiction treatment are:

Addiction is a Chronic Disease

It’s important for an addiction treatment program to recognize and treat addiction for what it is: a chronic but treatable disease. For a long time, addiction was seen as a moral failing or a bad habit. Today, we recognize it as a treatable disease that affects the brain, and effective treatment reflects that understanding

Addiction Treatment Should Be Personalized

There is no such thing as the definitive treatment plan that works for every person. Addiction is complicated; it can come with various underlying issues and consequences that need to be addressed. For treatment to be effective and long-lasting, it needs to be personalized to individual needs rather than trying to fit a person to a completely standardized program. Your treatment plan should take into account your needs and concerns to prevent unaddressed problems that could lead to a relapse.

Treatment Should Address Multiple Needs

Since causes and consequences can accompany addiction, it’s highly important for treatment to address multiple issues besides just substance abuse. Treatment also should address medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal issues that can contribute to a substance use disorder.

Treatment Should Be Readily Available

Treatment needs to be available when you need it most. Several barriers to addiction treatment prevent people from getting the help they need. One of the most common is barriers is a person’s own readiness to change. For that reason, treatment should be available as soon as you decide to get help. Many private treatment centers work to provide treatment within 24 hours of when you enroll in a program. Federally provided addiction treatment can take longer before you are admitted into a program.

Treatment Should Last Long Enough

Studies show that the length of time you spend in addiction treatment affects the outcome. According to NIDA, treatment would ideally last for 90 days from your first day in detox to your last day in outpatient treatment. Treatment duration and the length of time you spend will depend on your specific needs and the progress you make in treatment, but leaving treatment too early is more likely to result in relapse.

Behavioral Therapies are Implemented

Behavioral therapy options are some of the most commonly recommended approaches to treatment. They are designed to help you gain motivation to succeed in treatment, increase your readiness to change, and identify high-risk situations that can lead to relapse. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most commonly use when it comes to building up a person’s self-efficacy and developing relapse prevention strategies.

Finding The Right Addiction Drug Addiction Treatment Center

If you believe your child or teen may be struggling with a substance use disorder, there is help and information available to you today. Speak to a representative at Family Recovery Specialists to learn more about adolescent drug addiction and how treatment can help.

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