Adolescence, Trauma and Substance Abuse: Connecting the Pieces

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), around 37% of youth experienced a physical assault within a one-year period, and around 15% of children and youth experienced maltreatment by a caregiver. It’s unfortunate, but adolescents do experience traumatic events – through physical, sexual and emotional abuse, through terrorism, bullying, family violence and so much more. While youth are at an increased risk to partake in substance abuse related to peer pressure – primarily because they’re brain is still developing, and they aren’t able to think critically or rationalize the outcomes of a potential action – they may abuse substances for other reasons. For youth with little resources or support, substances may be seen as an outlet – a solution to numbing the pain they feel that’s come from a traumatic (or a series of traumatic) event.

Trauma and Adolescents

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies as,

“Negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.”

Adolescents experience extreme psychological distress, in addition to other stressors, when traumatic events occur. Some adolescents respond to these events differently, such as through the following behaviors:

  • Becoming very aggressive or very angry in nature
  • Engaging in self-harm
  • Experiencing depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Going through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which can involve nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, irritability and more
  • Drinking or abusing drugs to distract them from the pain
  • Acting out in school or at home
  • No longer respecting authority
  • And more

In severe cases, complex trauma can occur – which can be incredibly debilitating for youth if help and support is provided.

What is Complex Trauma?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines complex trauma as,

“Both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events – often of an invasive, interpersonal nature – and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure.”

Youth who go through these events tend to have difficulty forming their sense of self, and they may also have trouble attaching to adult caregivers appropriately. In these instances, safety and stability is far and few between – because adolescents who’ve experienced complex trauma may have been let down by people they trusted.

A 2017 study published in the journal Psychiatric Annals explained that adolescents who’ve gone through complex trauma may exhibit disorganized attachment behaviors that typically revolve are one of the following:

Helplessness: abandonment, betrayal, failure, dejection

Coercive control: blame, rejection, intrusiveness, hostility

When one of these “self-identities” become part of an adolescent’s social understanding of themselves, they struggle with forming relationships with others and even with their own self-esteem. Once substances are added to the mix, youth may find their problems only worsen – but if help is sought immediately, an adolescent may be able to develop a healthier sense of identity and connection to others as they work through the trauma they’ve experienced.

Adolescents: Healing from Trauma and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is typically used as an external coping strategy for adolescents during this time, and there are healthier coping mechanisms that can be taught in treatment. A publication completed by researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) titled “Treating Substance Abuse Issues in Traumatized Adolescents and Young Adults” identified several coping strategies that are learned by adolescents in therapy while in addiction recovery:

  • Relaxation – youth can learn to relax through mindfulness techniques such as progressive relaxation, breathwork and more
  • Emotion regulation – teens explore their emotions in therapy and learn strategies for identifying specific emotions they’re feeling, along with tools to express those feelings in healthy ways so they can move forward
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – a more hands-on approach, CBT allows individuals to work with their therapist on changing old, negative thoughts and beliefs and replacing them with newer, more positive and more productive ones that will take them to where they need to be in life
  • Encouraging resistance of avoidance behaviors – a positive support system will encourage youth to choose the safer, more healthier options to strong emotions they’re experiencing – and these words of affirmation will only serve to reinforce the recovery work that teens are doing in treatment

12-Step Programs

To address substance abuse specifically, adolescent boys who attend the ARCH Academy will be able to engage in full 12-Step participation. This will give them the chance to connect with other teens who may have gone through similar experiences, as well as to learn from others experiences and share their own. In addition to this, 12-Step programs provide structure and support for the building of spiritual strength.

Recovery is Possible

If you have a teen who has gone through trauma and has been attempting to deal with these devastating life events through substance abuse, speak with a professional from ARCH Academy today. The sooner they seek professional help, the sooner they can be on their way towards healing.

Adolescent Recovery of Cumberland Heights (ARCH) originally began in 1985 when there were few other adolescent programs like it in the country. In 2019, we’re expanding our continuum of services with ARCH Academy, a unique program located in Kingston Springs that offers 60 days to 6 months of residential care to adolescent boys ages 14-18 who are struggling with alcohol and/or drug addiction. This new program stems from Cumberland Heights, which has been around since 1966, and is located in Nashville, Tennessee. The adolescent age is a critical time for development, making this a crucial time of positive influence. For more information, call us today at 1-800-646-9998.