Teens & Addiction

How to spot the warning signs and when to seek professional treatment.

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    Stefan Slater

Adolescence can be a trying time. Those transitional years between childhood and adulthood are fraught with men- tal, emotional and social changes, and the entire process can be challenging for the average teenager. Add other factors such as peer pressure, stress related to an emphasis on school performance and the natural adolescent inclination to try new things, and a teenager may feel the need to experiment with drugs and alcohol.  

“Adults have a tendency to rationalize use among teenagers and believe that experimentation is normal and part of growing up,” says Dr. Morris Gelbart, executive director of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, a not-for-profit, hospital-based treatment center that offers outpatient programs for teens and adults dealing with substance abuse challenges. 

“New advances in science allow us to understand the developing brain and understand the path of addiction better,” says Dr. Gelbart, adding that the adolescent brain is extremely delicate. He points out that it typically takes the brain 25 years to fully mature, and adding drugs and alcohol into the mix may result in negative consequences. 

Jennifer Wildenberg-Woodie, a guidance counselor with Mira Costa High, notes that the average teenager may turn to drugs and alcohol for a number of reasons, ranging from peer pressure to familial issues and experimentation. “You might have community and parental pressure, or you might be self-medicating to relieve stress, or you might be struggling with the wrong crowd—there are so many different factors.”

“Teenagers with lack of confidence and poor self-esteem often are drawn to each other and gather a sense of identity through drugs and alcohol,” says Dr. Gelbart, adding that 40% of high school students have used marijuana by the time they’re in 12th grade. And 75% have also used alcohol by the time they’re seniors. Other substances such as hallucinogens, opiates and prescription pills are also encountered, albeit at smaller percentages. 

However, Dr. Gelbart notes that most adolescents who experiment will not be addicted—most will turn out fine. “But as they go through that , they run the risk of many bad things happening to them: doing poorly in school, maybe getting arrested or ticketed, maybe getting into some sort of legal problem, maybe getting injured or hurting someone else.” 

At the Thelma McMillen Center, Dr. Gelbart and his medical team work hard to educate teenagers and their families about the potential pitfalls of casual experimentation. Furthermore, if there’s a history of alcoholism or drug addiction in a teenager’s family, that individual may process those substances differently, thus making it important to have an educated outlook regarding experimentation. 

Wildenberg-Woodie notes that parents who are concerned about their children potentially using drugs and alcohol should keep an eye out for red flags—odd behavior or issues at school or with friends. But the most important thing is to keep an open line of communication. 

“If you’ve got a child who tells you they experimented and they tell you they had a bad experience, then they’ve communicated with you and you have a great relationship—keep those lines of communication open,” she says. Dr. Gelbart notes that parents and teenagers may feel guilt or confusion when it comes to substance abuse, which is why communication—especially with medical professionals—is absolutely vital.

Wildenberg-Woodie notes that if a parent or teenager has any concerns about substance experimentation or abuse, the Thelma McMillen Center is an excellent resource for consultation, advice or substance abuse treatment. Located within a 10,000-square-foot facility that’s adjacent to Torrance Memorial Medical Center, the alcohol and drug center offers early prevention services and education regarding substance abuse, as well as a dedicated outpatient substance treatment program for teenagers ages 13 to 18.

The center’s outpatient program is designed to allow teenagers to stay in school while working on remaining sober. The six-month, four-day-a-week program features three distinct phases. 

The first involves education regarding relapse triggers and the 12-step philosophy, as well as communication regarding family, school or individual barriers. The second focuses on peer support and relapse prevention. And the final phase focuses on support groups and constructive social activities. Patients are encouraged to work with the center for another six months for continued care.

Teresa Lang, intake specialist for the center, stresses communication—she notes that letting any concerns go about substance abuse is not advised. “As soon as suspect, it’s important to take action. Don’t hesitate and confront the issue.” 

Lang encourages locals to reach out. “Don’t hesitate: jump on a call. We’re happy to talk to parents.”