Teens and the Twelve Step Program

Teens and the Twelve Step Program

Teenagers learn differently from adults, because their brain is still developing and they’re still navigating who they are. It’s a different time to grow up in, but with substances becoming more accessible than ever (especially with the use of technology), researchers and community leaders alike have been trying to find out the best approaches for addiction recovery in this particular group. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens (NIDA), teens’ overall use of drugs continues to decrease – which is good news. However, there are still concerns, especially surrounding alcohol, marijuana and other related substances. Whether it’s through peer pressure or an attempt to self-medicate troubling emotions, teens risk the chance of developing an addiction.

The History of the 12 Step Program

Twelve step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have been around for many, many years. The roots of AA, the first 12 step program, began in 1934, and since then has become a stable component of recovery. Over 2 million people around the world have used these 12 step programs, and many have found success. The 12 steps are guided by religious/spiritual elements that are meant to bring people closer to God, or a Higher Power. Most people have heard of these programs, but much of the discussions are centered towards adult help-seeking. Steven Jaffe, MD, and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Emory University, told DrugFree.org“These programs were developed for adults, and teenagers are not little adults – they are in a totally different developmental stage.”

Teens do have different processing from adults, and that is why 12-step programs for teens should involve many other components that really fit the developmental stages that they’re at. Teens have shared their experiences with addiction, published by the NIDA. Here is a clip from one teen’s story: “When you’re growing up and you’re falling into a chaotic pit of mental health issues, you can often feel alone… Drug abuse did more damage to my life than I could possibly imagine.”

With so many teens going through similar situations, intensive programs are needed.

The 12 Step Program and Adolescents

The interventions used in 12 step programs could greatly benefit adolescents, but not much research has been done on the subject. In 2016, researchers assessed 36 adolescents who were undergoing a substance use disorder (SUD) outpatient treatment program. Several types of approaches were used together, and the youth attended treatment for several months, including:

  •    Twelve-step program
  •    Motivational enhancement therapy
  •    Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Access and ease of working through the program was rated as excellent by the youth participants, which greatly increased engagement in the 12-step component. Ultimately, this led to greater abstinence amongst the teenagers; given the fact that these treatment approaches are easy to understand, teens can gain many benefits from them.

The program’s aim is to empower adolescents to lead, give them a voice and guide them to hope. A beautiful community is developed, where youth can help others through service activities and can even move up through the program as they achieve graduation of their program. Peers are sponsors take part in the program, which gives youth a stable support network. Weekly discussions and group exercises help adolescents gain new perspectives on their role in the world, and as they become more aware of others, they become more aware of themselves, too.


Participation is a major component of 12-step programs, and teens are active – adventurous activities get them moving while also learning more about themselves. Some of the best teen treatment programs offer a variety of experiential exercises, such as:

  •    Hiking
  •    Mountain biking
  •    Trail rides
  •    Fishing
  •    Softball
  •    Pottery
  •    Canoeing
  •    Camping
  •    Service work

Activities can provide youth with an opportunity to gain a bigger perspective on life. The give teenagers the chance to interact with others and with nature, and this can bring about a sense of solidarity that may not have been present before. Teen boys in particular may find more structure and peace through community building projects and adventures in nature, as this direct connection links back to the very heart of being human. Part of recovery is getting teens back to their core – and being outside is one of the best ways to do that. Addiction is a disease that affects the mind, body and spirit, and 12 step programs that emphasize these types of activities build greater participation and engagement overall.

When It’s Time to Seek Help

If you notice that your child is exhibiting any of the following symptoms, know that it’s time to seek help:

  •    Acting more secretive
  •    Seem to be lying or making up excuses about where they’ve been
  •    They’re withdrawing from their academics
  •    Seem to resist discipline or feedback about their behavior
  •    Become late to their responsibilities
  •    Acting irritable, paranoid and more anxious than normal
  •    Lost or gained a lot of weight, and their overall appearance has changed
  •    Mood has changed
  •    No longer interested in hobbies they once used to enjoy
  •    Distanced themselves from friends they used to be close with

Your teen may not feel comfortable talking to you about what they’re going through, so it’s up to you to make sure they seek the help they need. Sometimes we can’t always catch it right away – but what’s most important is that if we sense something is wrong, we do something about it. All too often, words go unspoken, and that is when our child is most in danger. We can’t let them go by the wayside.

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 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 Kingston Springs, 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.