Moving On with Adolescents in Early Recovery

May 29th, 2014   |  

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.

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