Although teens are developmentally inherently predisposed towards leading their owners into risk-taking behaviors with the brain’s own queen of carpe diem, the amygdala, at the wheel, it is their very youth and neuro-malleability and plasticity which in my experience can be alchemized into their greatest recovery asset. How can this double act serve to help a teenager confronted with all-consuming cravings for substances and destructive behaviors?
Well, just by virtue of not having been on the planet all that long, teenagers haven’t had the same length of time to fortify their addictions, powerful and life-threatening though they may be. Doesn’t it stand to reason though that older clients, having painfully “researched” the consequences of their addiction in the longer term, are more willing to change and resist cravings? Possibly; while there is no cookie-cutter formula as to why treatment works or fails when it does, an individual’s degree of willingness to take off the boxing gloves and step out of the ring from their addiction is critical in staying clean.
However, even if an adult client has this willingness, the fact remains that their brain’s ability to forge new neural pathways – the physical incarnation of sobriety-serving new cognitive and behavioral habits – is much less than that of a teen’s brain. Let me clarify here: where I’m going with this is not that there is any magical “right” time to get clean, or to pit the pros and cons of being an adult or child addict against each other. There truly is no winner in the actively addicted community – period. What I do want to do is underscore what a uniquely fantastic recovery opportunity teens have to get well and to stay well, a fact which frustratingly is not reflected in a societal culture where teen substance abuse is normalized to the point of being a developmental default. In a rank contradiction which is similarly widespread, teens are simultaneously vaunted for being loaded and out of control and also crucified for this very same disgraceful lack of responsibility and self-control – with these latter two qualities only able to be neurologically cemented in a person’s mid-twenties.
Clearly, a sense of self-responsibility can’t be put on ice for a decade if you’re working with a 14 year old whose life has revolved around smoking meth and marijuana for the past two years. This needs to be catalyzed and relentlessly galvanized from the inception of treatment and underpinned with a continuous psycho-education piece which paints a tangible and doable emotional portrait as to what recovery is supposed to look and feel like. Teens especially just want to know that what they are experiencing is not freakish or wrong.
Cravings for substances and destructive behaviors is by no means confined to the recovering teen population: many adults in early recovery also begin the therapeutic relationship on our couches expecting a reassuringly clearly delineated “sober finish line”.
Both younger and older clients do of course need to know that it is an absolutely normal part of the recovery process to experience craving. But for teens already steeped in shame and failure and who don’t yet know how not to take everything intravenously personally, the experience of being gripped by a powerful urge to use or drink can be erroneously perceived as somehow having screwed up, of doing recovery “wrong” if they don’t know that what they are going through is not an error message. Conversely, immediately informing a teen client that cravings can punctuate sobriety for a lifetime may be more dangerously overwhelming than constructively normalizing.
The bottom line is to transmit this: that cravings are normal, cravings are ok and cravings can’t kill you – but picking up or using over them can. Practical, normalized knowledge like this, when locked in with a growing inventory of recovery tools, can help any teen stay sober – even when their pre-frontal cortex resembles a construction site.
Jo Bainbridge MFTi07272 is a Primary Therapist and the Marketing Manager at Destinations To Recovery, a boutique six-bed dual-diagnosis treatment center for teens in the Topanga Mountains, Southern California.
Jo welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached at [email protected]