How Chemical Dependence in Teenagers Differs from Chemical Dependence in Adults
By: Angela M. Conway
MBA/HSA, LMHC, CAP South Miami Hospital Adolescent Addiction Treatment Program
1. Polydrug use is higher among teenagers than adults.
Adults tend to stay faithful to one or two mood-altering chemicals. Teenagers are likely to use anything that’s available.
Alcohol is the #1 drug of choice and the most widely abused among both populations. In fact, alcohol is the “drug of entry” into the whole drug scene. For teens, marijuana is #2, and cocaine is quickly becoming #3.
The characteristics of chemical dependence are the same for both adults and teenagers. And it doesn’t make any difference which chemical becomes dependent on; the addiction process is the same.
But young people are apt to use many more different types of chemicals than adults, and this makes it more difficult to tell what and how much they’re on.
2. The reasons teenagers use alcohol/drugs are more “internal” than the reasons adults use.
Generally speaking, adults drink and use for more “external reasons” – the boss, the kids, the spouse, the occasion.
Young people, in contrast, use alcohol/drugs to have fun, to feel better or stronger, to have more confidence on dates, and other “internal” reasons. Also, young people will admit to the goal of getting high or drunk when they party. Most adults won’t admit to anything of the sort, even if it’s true. They call it “socializing.”
3. The levels of use are harder to determine for teenagers than adults.
When dealing with teenagers, it is very difficult to distinguish between the abuse level and the early stages of addiction. What are considered symptoms of chemical dependence in adults are often nothing more than “adolescent behaviors” in some teens. An example: When adults hide their alcohol/drugs from family, friends and coworkers, it’s a definite symptom of chemical dependence. In contrast, almost all teenagers who use chemicals hide them at one time or another, usually because of the legal implications of to avoid parental hassles or getting caught by the authorities.
4. Although the addiction process is similar for adults and teenagers, it happens more quickly with teenagers.
Experience shows that it can take from eight to ten years for a 30-year-old male to reach the chronic stages of alcoholism from the time he begins using alcohol to meet his needs. For a young person under age 15 who is abusing the same amount of alcohol, it can take fewer than 15 months. When using cocaine, due to the euphoric high, they move quickly from misuse to abuse. When it comes to creating addicts, crack appears to be the most efficient of all.
5. The emotional arrestment of chemical dependence takes place earlier in teenagers than adults.
When one begins to abuse chemicals by getting drunk or high, his or her emotional development is arrested. He or she becomes incapable of working through grief or negative feelings or working on relationships.
Many teenagers who stop using are pre-teens emotionally. Unlike most adults, they have no emotional development to fall back on. All of the tasks of adolescence are still before them. Many teenage addicts never had the time to develop “life skills.” Rather than talk about adolescents in terms of “rehabilitation,” we should use the term “habilitation,” since what we end up doing is teaching them how to live.
6. While the delusional system is similar in adults and teenagers, it seems to be more complicated in teenagers.
Chemically dependent adults and teens alike are out of touch with reality due to the denial, rationalization, projection, minimizing, and memory distortions that characterize the delusional system. Young people have another strike against them: their age. It is very difficult for a teen to accept that he or she is chemically dependent when everyone knows that alcoholics are guys over 50 who live in Skid Row.
7. Teenagers have more “built-in” enablers than adults.
First and foremost, young people have enablers called Parents. For many of us, taking responsibility for our children’s behavior is as natural as breathing. When they succeed, we strut around feeling proud. And when they fail, we feel as if it’s somehow our fault.
In general, youth tend to have far more enablers than adults. The average chemically dependent adult might have as many as 10 to 12 enablers – family, friends, in-laws, the family doctor, the boss, and maybe the court. In contrast, the average chemically dependent teenager might have 50-60 enablers – immediate family, grandparents, uncles, aunts, school personnel, medical staff, friends, and parents of friends.
Back to parents for a moment: It is much more difficult for parents to stop enabling their children than it is for spouses and friends to stop enabling other adults. I’ve met many ex-spouses and ex-friends, but I’ve never met an ex-parent (or ex-kid). Our children are our children forever.