Do 12-Step Programs Work for Addicted Teens?
As the Chinese proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For teenagers who are addicted to alcohol or illicit substances, the long road to recovery often starts with a therapy regimen which includes elements of a 12-step program.
A 12-step program is an approach to addiction and recovery which is based on the model created by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous back in 1935. About a decade later, the so-called “Twelve Traditions” and “Twelve Steps” were developed to help AA groups sustain their fellowship and unity and to serve as the foundation for personal recovery for AA members. (A list of the traditions and steps can be found here.)
What Characterizes a 12-Step Program?
The original 12-step programs were designed to help adults who had become addicted to alcohol. Since then, other organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous and Teen Addiction Anonymous have emerged to offer recovery support and services that are modeled after AA’s 12-step strategies. These types of programs can be beneficial because of their wide-ranging support network of peers, big brothers/sisters, and sponsors for recovering addicts.
However, trying to shoehorn the original 12-step program concepts into a therapy routine designed for teen addicts can be problematic. Dr. Steven Jaffe, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, has been trying to tailor traditional 12-step programs for teens for over a quarter century. Jaffe says that simply telling teenagers to attend 12-step meetings often does not work because their high levels of anxiety tend to keep them away.
12-Step Tweaks For Teens
In addition, Jaffe notes that some of the original 12 steps do not appeal to teenagers very much. For example, teenagers do not like to admit to being “powerless” over alcohol and drugs like the first step instructs recovering addicts to do. Instead, Jaffe rephrases this step to promote the enhancement of personal power through staying clean and sober.
Similarly, teen addicts (especially girls) are hesitant to embrace the concept of “surrendering” to a higher power since they equate the term with feeling vulnerable while high or drunk. Jaffe again reshapes this step to equate staying away from drugs with strength and an absence of vulnerability.
Effectiveness of 12-Step Programs For Recovering Teen Addicts
Only recently have addiction researchers subjected 12-step programs to scientific scrutiny to see if they accomplish their goals with regard to teenaged addicts. Psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital examined this specific issue in a study first published in August in the online edition of the journal Addiction.
The study observed 59 substance-using teens and young adults who had been actively using drugs in the previous 90 days. At the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, one group was assigned standard motivational enhancement/cognitive behavioral therapy and the other was enrolled in an Integrated Twelve-Step Facilitation (iTSF) program. All participants were assessed each week at their group meetings and also three, six, and nine months after starting treatment.
Both groups displayed similar improvements in abstinence during and after their treatment. However, the iTSF group reported greater attendance at group meetings and fewer ”substance-related consequences” such as feeling unhappy or ashamed, money problems, or damaging interpersonal relationships. The researchers concluded that integrating a 12-step component into existing cognitive-behavioral and motivational approaches could aid in the recovery process of addicted teens.
If you are the parent of a young person under the age of 21 who is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, you might ask representatives of various treatment facilities whether they incorporate age-appropriate 12-step strategies into their recovery regimens. After all, since the recovery process for addiction is usually measured in years rather than months, any additional support provided by 12-step programs can be beneficial for teens who are struggling with substance abuse problems.
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