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Grief and Teen Substance Abuse

Grief and teen substance abuse are oftentimes co-occuring conditions. There are many reasons for this and we will explore some of them, but let’s take a moment to think back to when you were a teenager: emotions fluctuating moment to moment, hormones raging, that feeling of invincibility, living for the moment & the approval of your friends. As if being a teenager wasn’t confusing enough, add in a significant loss or the death of a loved one and you have the perfect breeding ground for unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and a resulting addiction.

Causes & Stages of Grief

Grief is the emotional, psychological, and even physical response to significant loss. This includes the death of a loved one, loss of a significant relationship, and extreme life transitions. This could mean a divorce, moving away from friends or family, a major surgery, or even losing your home to a natural disaster. The causes of grief are diverse and are uniquely experienced by each person.  However, the experience of grief has been found to take us through 5 Typical Stages (Kubler-Ross Model).

  • Denial & Isolation: Works to temper the initial shock of loss and to pace our grief
  • Anger: A strong emotion that provides something to hold on to thru the nothingness of loss
  • Bargaining: “What if…” “If you give him back, I’ll…”
  • Depression: Confronting our pain through a fog of despair
  • Acceptance: Willing to move forward, accepting that things will never be the same but that life can go on and there is hope for future happiness

Grieving is not a pleasant process but it is one that works to help us heal. The natural process of grieving is difficult for many adults to wade through, even more so for the developing adolescent.

Nature of Adolescence

There are several factors that cause adolescents to be more vulnerable to substance abuse when confronted with grief.

  • The adolescent brain is not yet fully formed and capable of processing complicated emotions
  • Many have not yet developed healthy coping mechanisms
  • Their peer groups are often incapable of fully understanding or helping them through their grief.
  • Their extreme focus upon the present feeds the hopelessness experienced during grief

These factors can push teens towards avoidant or dangerous behaviors because they lack the necessary cognitive, psychological, and social skills necessary to face the pain of grief. Drinking, drugs, or sexual addictions can distract them from their pain and allow them to “feel better” for a time.

A teen experiencing grief, is also more vulnerably to continue or increase their usage of drugs or alcohol. Experiencing the pain of grief causes them to increase alcohol or drug use in order to escape those feelings which results in increasing levels of tolerance. Further pushing them toward an addiction to these unhealthy coping behaviors.

Treatment of Co-Occuring Conditions

When considering treatment for a teen dealing with both grief and a substance abuse problem, you must make sure to address both issues with care.  Many times, parents struggle to find a treatment program that addresses both of these issues.  Mental health services can address grief, but only after a troubled teen is sober and able to work through their issues.  Many substance abuse programs focus on sobriety and rehabilitation but do not address the mental health issue of grief.

At Ozarks Teen Challenge, we believe that getting troubled teens safe, sober, and in a structured environment is necessary for growth, but we also believe that God provides healing for the “whole” person. We know that lasting change requires not only rehabilitation but also wholistic life transformation. Because of this, we provide an environment that allows students to not only experience sobriety, but to also work through the hurts and issues that have brought them to us. By working through their grief, in a safe environment, our adolescents are able to learn healthy coping mechanisms and receive the emotional support necessary to walk through the pain of grief. Through this process, they are able to move from avoidance to acceptance.

Our rehab treatment also helps troubled teens to identify emotional triggers within their grief that may be challenges to their on-going sobriety.  By identifying these triggers, we help our adolescents develop positive coping skills and a plan of action to get support when confronted with these triggers in the future.

The relationship between grief and substance abuse is one that requires the treatment of both conditions in order to experience lasting change.  If your teen is caught in the cycle of grief & substance abuse, call our Admissions Coordinator today to see how we may help: 417-272-3784.

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