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Moving On with Adolescents in Early Recovery

Young people having fun at the skateparkIt’s no secret that adolescence can be a rocky time for kids and families. It can be an even rockier time for newly sober adolescents. Most newly sober kids encounter difficulty in a number of areas, including friends, free time, and family relationships. This article will focus on some of the challenges unique to recovering teens and how families and schools can help them navigate these issues.

Difficulties with Friends

Peer relationships and school are hugely important to typical American teenagers. For recovering kids, peers and school create a virtual minefield. Typically, adolescents are highly focused on their peer group. Most spend every school day with their primary social circle, depend on peers for support and validation, and compare themselves to other teenagers. A bad day at school very often centers on peer conflict or disapproval.

Newly sober teens encounter additional issues with peers. Many kids in early recovery feel isolated at school. They may have developed a reputation as a “stoner” and find it hard to avoid that crowd or change labels. Chances are, they don’t know many (if any) recovering kids and find that the “straight” kids (those who don’t partake in drugs) have shunned them.

Additionally, one of the first things adolescents learn in substance abuse treatment is to stay away from people, places, and things associated with using. Unless they move or change schools, most newly sober kids spend every school day in a place rife with people and things associated with their substance use.

Influence on Free Time

It’s normal for kids to feel bored or complain that there’s nothing to do. They may need some guidance on how to spend their free time. However, most adolescents develop hobbies and interests outside the family. In addition to hanging out with friends, kids usually play sports, take music or dance lessons, participate in after-school clubs or school productions (talent shows, plays), or participate in neighborhood activities. They also learn how to entertain themselves. Many teenagers may listen to music, read, write, exercise, play computer games, or watch TV in their free time.

Adolescents in early recovery generally have few (if any) sober leisure-time activities. Generally, music lessons, school sports, and school clubs are but a faint memory to newly sober kids. Some kids start abusing substances at 12 or 13 and never move past cub scouts, dolls, or toy cars. They may get sober at 15 or 16 and have no idea what to do for age-appropriate sober fun. Kids who have developed a dependency on substances spend most of their free time using substances with other using peers. When kids stop using, they often find themselves lonely and bored.

Generally, they’re no longer in contact with sober peers and no longer welcome in sober friends’ homes. Kids who are accustomed to instant fun via alcohol or drugs may find it extremely difficult to manage free time in sobriety.

Impact on Families and Loved Ones

Most adolescents experience at least some conflict with their family as they learn to separate and become their own person. Teens and families typically disagree about privileges, privacy, rules, and responsibilities. Teens invariably want more freedom than allowed and often complain about being treated like a little kid.

Adolescents are more cognitively and emotionally immature than adults. They may have difficulty seeing how their actions relate to consequences or how irresponsible behavior results in a lack of trust. Newly sober kids may have a lot of difficulty with these issues and need to work on re-building trust at home.

Often, parents and siblings have lost basic trust in the newly recovering kid. Substance-dependent kids may lie, steal, isolate, run away, or get in trouble at school or with the police. It takes time to rebuild trust. Recovering kids and their parents may experience time very differently. Kids may have struggled mightily to achieve three weeks clean.

They may find that each day is a fight, and they may be exhausted. Yet three weeks doesn’t feel like a very long time to weary parents of a kid who had been using for nearly two years. Rebuilding trust is one of the biggest problems for newly sober adolescents and their families.

How Families and Schools Can Help

Schools are already doing a lot to help newly sober kids. Many schools have student assistance personnel (SAPs) or mental health specialists available for student support. Many schools may have support groups for recovering kids. Some schools have peer mentors available to help the newly sober student. Kids in stable, long-term recovery offer support and guidance to those newer to recovery.

Schools and community groups frequently host sober events such as dances, movies, talent shows, or arcade nights. Schools usually have established protocols to help kids gradually return to school after in-patient treatment.

These kids may start with a shorter school day or reduced workload. They may have easy access to a member of the SAP team or the option to phone a support person during the school day. Some communities have opened recovery schools or sober schools, and many college campuses also offer sober dorms.

Families are essential in the recovery process. It’s important that newly sober kids know their family supports their recovery and will help them get to 12-step meetings or other sober support activities. Families often benefit from counseling to help everyone adjust to the changes that recovery brings.

It’s important that kids have a safe and sober home—that means no beer or wine in the fridge and no access to prescribed or abusable medications. If another family member has a substance use issue, this is the time to address it.

Newly sober kids may have been disengaged from the family. Families should invite them to participate in activities and create more one-on-one time for a family member and the teen. The teen needs to know someone will pick them up anywhere, anytime—no questions asked. Countless recovering kids have avoided relapse because they had an escape route.

Families should recognize the teen’s hard work, encourage their daily effort, and celebrate each milestone in sobriety. Kids in early recovery face innumerable challenges. Family support is essential for continued sobriety and growth.

Further resources:

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Brown, MS, CAC, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Erin Saddic, MS

    May 29th, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    Great article, Amy. You hit all the right buttons. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved with a young person coming out of an addiction.

  • Amy E.Brown, MS, CAC. LPC

    May 29th, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    Hi, Erin- I really appreciate your kind words. Thanks so much for posting!
    Best, Amy

  • Cara

    May 29th, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    I drank from the time I was 12 all the way through high school and once my parents pressured me to go to rehab I did it and it was hard but with their love it felt like the right thing to do. They gave me space but at the same time they helped me when I needed that extra crutch. They did all the right things even when I did all the wrong ones, and to tell you the truth I know that I would not have made it through without them standing by me like that.

  • Amy E.Brown, MS, CAC. LPC

    May 29th, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    Hi, Cara – I’m so glad you wrote – thank you. You and your parents did an awesome job
    working together to get you back on track. Getting clean and sober is
    hard work – congratulations on your accomplishment!
    Best, Amy

  • frannie

    May 30th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    I would imagine that this could be a huge struggle for kids who come from families where drinking is highly frowned upon even when done at a leagl age. You know that they feel ashamed of their actions already so if they go back to a home where they are hit with even more guilt then this makes the recovery process that much harder. Maybe for some kids it would be better if there was somewhere else that they could go, almost like a halfway house, before they are automatically expected to deal with the real world again, because my fear is that for some of them it could be relatively easy to stop the abuse when they are inside a safe place like rehab or facility. But then when they get back out there and have to deal with the worries of everyday life, that’s when things could get mighty difficult.

  • Greg

    May 30th, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    We also need to think about the reality that many kids get into doing stuff like this because of the peer groups that they are hanging out with so it might not even be possible for them to feel like they have friends anymore after a sting in rehab.
    These are certainly not the kids that they should want to hang with after treatment because there would be this worry that these are the kids who coaxed them into this behavior to begin with, so you sure don’t want to have to deal with that kind of pressure when you are young and newly sober.

  • Amy E. Brown, MS,CAC, LPC

    May 30th, 2014 at 6:40 PM

    Hi, Frannie- You raise really good points. The transition from rehab to the ‘real world’ can be really hard. Some kids go to a half-way house, others transition to a day program before returning to school. No matter where they go after rehab, it’s important that kids understand their ‘triggers’ and develop a realistic relapse prevention plan. Best, Amy

  • Amy E. Brown, MS,CAC, LPC

    May 30th, 2014 at 6:49 PM

    Hi, Greg- You make an excellent point. The kids I work with have difficulty leaving their old,using friends and establishing new, healthier friendships. 12-step meetings, outpatient treatment and peer-mentoring
    can help kids develop a sober support system.
    Recovery schools can be remarkably helpful (though they seem rather scarce
    in the Philadelphia area). Thanks for writing. Best, Amy

  • Deanna

    May 31st, 2014 at 5:47 AM

    This would be a real struggle for any of us because I think that we all have a natural tendency to want to protect our children, to keep them safe and they would feel like they have failed their kids because of the addiction and the reasons that the kids had to go to rehab.
    You are not a failure, and neither are they; they just have gotten themselves into a really bad situation. It will be hard when they come home to then give them some freedom but you will have to trust that they learned in rehab how to say no and how to keep many of their emotions in check and not feel the need to cover them with alcohol and drugs.

  • Amy E.Brown, MS, CAC. LPC

    May 31st, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    Hi, Deanna- Thanks for writing. I’ve found that most parents/guardians do initially blame themselves. It’s a natural reaction- it’s a parent’s duty to do all she can to keep her kid safe. As kids get older, and have more freedom to make more of their own decisions, we’re not as able to protect them. I tell parents ‘you didn’t cause her substance abuse problem and you cannot fix it; however, your support is essential for her sustained abstinence’. I believe acknowledging a kid’s problem – and helping him access appropriate treatment- is a courageous act of love and sets the recovery process in motion.
    Thanks again for contributing to this important discussion! Best, Amy

  • Brea

    June 2nd, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    Most of the time kids are emulating what they see at home, from the very first role models that they have, so parents do need to stand up and take some responsibility for what their children are going through don’t you think?

  • Amy E. Brown, MS,CAC, LPC

    June 3rd, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Hi, Brea- You make a good point. A family history of substance use (past or current) is one of the risk factors for adolescent substance abuse. Other risk factors include: mental health issues, under-developed coping skills, and limited social skills. Kids are most likely to get -and stay- sober if they live in a substance-free environment and have sober and supportive caregivers.
    Thanks for writing.

  • anon

    June 4th, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    this is good for parents to read

  • Joe D.

    September 30th, 2014 at 9:55 AM

    This is a terrific article. Here is another article that talks about sober teen life-

  • Bryan S.

    October 14th, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    Avoiding triggers and keeping your child busy with positive activities can make all the difference in continued sobriety. Don’t let your child become bored, idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.

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