Recovering from addiction is a massive achievement, but it often comes with a caveat: How do you fill the spaces that addiction leaves behind? While recovery can present challenges, it's an opportunity to shape your future habits and goals positively. Engaging in meaningful activities like programs, hobbies, volunteer work, or extracurriculars can help you build the habits and skills you need to avoid relapse. During this time, prioritizing your mental health is equally important. Our guide offers insights into teen recovery and how to assist in your teen’s healing journey.
Substance use in teens is a problem defined by many factors. Adolescence is already a tumultuous time in a person’s life; raging hormones, sexuality, and physical changes are sometimes overwhelming and challenging to navigate. On top of these changes, teens are more curious and prone to experimentation, propelled forward by a brain more interested in risk and reward. Teens may feel the need to rebel and push boundaries imposed by parents and family, wanting more freedom to explore themselves and their identities.1
These feelings of rebellion, curiosity, and boundary-pushing are pretty standard for teenagers across the board, but it’s unlikely that these factors alone will steer them toward substance use. Risk factors for substance use in teens have been and continue to be studied. Common risk factors for teen substance use include:1 2 3 4
Remember that risk factors should not be confused with reasons. Teenagers, whether or not they fall into the above risk factors, might choose to use substances due to curiosity, rebellion, thrill-seeking, the feeling of pleasure, or wanting to fit in. Those feeling stress from exams and college prep may turn to substances for relief or even in attempts to improve academic performance.3 Creating and maintaining an open dialogue about substance use and its dangers is important and can help dissuade teens from substance use. Though it can be challenging to establish and maintain this kind of open and constructive dialogue, you may find it useful to:
However, a healthy parent-child relationship has been shown to be not only more effective than conversation, but it can be protective against substance use. Parents who are present, authoritative, and warm have a positive impact on a teen’s choice to use substances, while those who are controlling, punitive, abusive, or negative can have the opposite effect.2
According to the 2022 Monitoring the Future survey, which studies substance use and perceptions in 8th, 10th, and 12th-grade students, substance use in teens and adolescents is either remaining stable or declining. Substance use among teens dropped significantly in 2020 during the pandemic due to social distancing and lockdowns and has since remained at or below pre-pandemic levels.5 Even in 2022, when the world began resuming its normal in-person routines and social activities, there was no dramatic increase in substance use. For context, 11% of 8th graders, 21.5% of 10th graders, and 32.6% of 12th graders reported using illicit drugs in the past year. Some substances saw small increases, such as alcohol consumption, but they remained below pre-pandemic levels.6
The 2022 Monitoring the Future survey identified the three most commonly used substances by teens, followed by less common substances. Take a look at the table below with the current stats for usage. Percentages represent the portion of the grade surveyed who reported use of the substance in the past year.5
|Substance||8th grade||10th grade||12th grade|
|Other illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and meth||No data||No data||1.7%|
While the decline in substance use is encouraging, it is blunted by a dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths in U.S. teens. Teen death by overdose went from 492 in 2019 to 954 in 2020, a mortality increase of 94%. It rose again in 2021 by 20%, with 1,146 teen overdose deaths. Experts attribute this increase to the inclusion and proliferation of illicit fentanyl in opioids.7 Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is added to drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin to make the product stronger, cheaper, and more addictive. It is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and is tasteless, odorless, and impossible to detect with the naked eye. Due to this, substance users — who may be buying drugs off the street or through a friend — are most often unaware of its presence. Because of its potency, it is dangerously easy to overdose. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids cause an average of 150 overdose deaths per day.8
Substance use, no matter the age, is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. Teens, who are still physically developing, can risk damage to their neurodevelopment with long-term substance use.9 Because the adolescent brain is more focused on risk and reward than the adult brain, it makes them especially vulnerable to substance use. The earlier substance use starts, the greater the risk of developing an addiction later in life, particularly if substance experimentation begins before the age of 14.10
Research shows that excessive alcohol consumption during adolescence may lead to declines in gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal cortex regions of the brain, directly impacting learning and memory functions.9 Teens who drink regularly may even risk slowing down their neurodevelopment. Eventually, heavy alcohol consumption causes developing brains to release stimulants to combat neural depression.11
The teenage years are a special time in a person’s life, defined by adventure, self-exploration, and creativity. Ensuring early intervention and rehabilitation in teens affected by substance use is key to protecting their future.
If you or a teen in your life is in recovery, know that it's a difficult process full of challenges, particularly if they don’t have a support system or strong familial relationships. Recovery in teens must be a very involved process, offering teens diverse opportunities and support so that they don’t relapse. School-based interventions targeting smoking cessation and alcohol use have seen some success, as have family-based interventions.12 This is, however, just one side of the coin. A study asking teens and young adults in recovery about why they relapsed showed that the problem requires more than conversations at school and home.13
90% of participants expressed being unable to cope without substances.
85% of participants identified stress as a reason for relapse. A stressful home life and difficulty in school were major contributing factors.
75% of participants either gave into their substance cravings, felt they were not strong enough to remain sober, had no motivation to remain sober, or simply did not want to be part of the treatment program.
65% of participants named peer pressure and media influence as their reasons for relapse.
55% of participants identified environmental factors, such as easy access and visibility in their neighborhoods or hangouts.
These reasons point out that substance use pervades every part of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (SAMHSA) four dimensions of recovery are:14
When adolescents don’t have these things, recovery can feel impossible. If their home life is unstable and abusive, if they don’t have a strong support network of friends and family, or if they don’t have the opportunities to break free from addiction, they might turn back to substance use to cope. The question is, what entails effective recovery for teens and adolescents?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, so recovery must take into consideration each teen's individual needs. Adolescents are not yet adults, and they crave novel experiences. One study found that seeing and bonding with other recovering adolescents in AA or NA meetings is beneficial in early recovery while seeing and bonding with individuals older than them at meetings can be beneficial in the later stages of recovery. Other things that benefited adolescents in this study were incentives to remain sober and for recovery programs and activities to be fun.15 Though it may not be as simple for every teen, recognizing a child’s need for connection and fun and incorporating it into a recovery program does make sense. Additionally, teens often find help in the form of therapy and exploring treatments for depression and anxiety.
Recovery is challenging, and keeping your mind off stress and yourself away from triggers can become exhausting if you don’t have anything to do. We’ve compiled a list of resources, scholarships, programs, and organizations, that can help support your recovery and life goals.
It's crucial to prioritize your mental health to have a successful recovery. To help you find the support you need, we've compiled a list of mental health resources, including a directory to help find treatment near you.
If higher education is part of your goal, below are a few scholarships that focus on the dangers of addiction and hope for recovery. Rehab scholarships can also be found by contacting treatment centers and inquiring about any current scholarships.
This list of national and nonprofit organizations that promote addiction awareness can provide insight, information, and support for those dealing with substance abuse.
If you’re looking for a project or a purpose to fill your time, here are some options that will allow you to get in touch with your creativity or perform a selfless act of service. Giving back is an enriching experience, and it can be fun, too!
Each recovery journey is unique, and there are numerous programs and projects available that can help you, regardless of your interest or situation. You can explore different options, such as virtual support groups, coaching, or even a forest trek, to find what works best for you.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Mayo Clinic. (2023). Teen drug abuse: Help your teen avoid drugs. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
Whitesell, M., Bachand, A., Peel, J., & Brown, M. (2012). Familial, Social, and Individual Factors Contributing to Risk for Adolescent Substance Use. Journal of Addiction, 2013.
Mills, M. (2022). A Guide to Drug Abuse & Addiction Recovery for Teens. Recovery.org.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Substance Use and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Youth. CDC.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022). Most Reported Substance Use among Adolescents Held Steady in 2022. NIDA.
Johnston, L. D., Miech, R. A., Patrick, M. E., O’Malley, P. M., Schulenberg, J. E., & Bachman, J. G. (2023). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use 1975-2022: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. University of Michigan.
Friedman, J., Godvin, M., Shover, C. L., Gone, J. P., Hansen, H., & Schriger, D. L. (2022). Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among US Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. JAMA, 327(14), 1398–1400.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Fentanyl Facts. CDC.
Whyte, A. J., Torregrossa, M. M., Barker, J. M., & Gourley, S. L. (2017). Editorial: Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Drug Use: Evidence From Pre-clinical and Clinical Models. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12.
Jordan, C. J., & Andersen, S. L. (2017). Sensitive periods of substance abuse: Early risk for the transition to dependence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 25, 29-44.
Debenham, J., Chapman, C., McIntyre, R., Birrell, L., Champion, K., & Newton, N. (2020). How Does Adolescent Alcohol Use Affect the Developing Brain? Frontiers for Young Minds, 8.
Das, J. K., Salam, R. A., Arshad, A., Finkelstein, Y., & Bhutta, Z. A. (2016). Interventions for Adolescent Substance Abuse: An Overview of Systematic Reviews. The Journal of Adolescent Health, 59(4 Suppl), S61.
Gonzales, R., Anglin, M. D., Beattie, R., Ong, C. A., & Glik, D. C. (2012). Understanding Recovery Barriers: Youth Perceptions About Substance Use Relapse. American Journal of Health Behavior, 36(5), 602.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, & Bradbury, A. (2019). Recovery and Recovery Support. SAMHSA.
Recovery Research Institute. (n.d.). Uncovering The Ingredients of Successful Adolescent Recovery. Recovery Research Institute.