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How to Handle a Teen’s Relapse after Rehab

Substance abuse

Imagine that you are observing a group of ten teenaged substance abusers who are discussing their issues during a group therapy session. No matter how much progress they seem to be making, the statistics for achieving long-lasting sobriety are not in their favor. Because once these ten teens complete their treatment regimens:

  • At least three of them will probably relapse within three months.
  • Between five and nine of them will likely relapse at least once within four years.
  • The ones who do relapse will probably do so multiple times.

The takeaway is clear; if your teen is being treated for substance abuse, you should definitely allow (and perhaps prepare) for the possibility that he or she will relapse.

Anatomy of a Relapse

First, there are a few things you need to know about relapsing.

  • Simply using drugs or alcohol once during recovery does not necessarily constitute a relapse. (It is often called a “slip”).
  • Relapses are a common component of the recovery process.
  • Relapses are rarely instantaneous, but instead, begin weeks or months before a slip occurs.

In fact, most addicts go through three “stages” of relapsing:

  1. Emotional: They do not actively work on coping behaviors, they hide their emotions and distance themselves from others, and they begin to stop caring for themselves.
  2. Mental: They constantly maintain a negative mindset, they begin to romanticize their past drug use, and they often think about returning to drugs or alcohol.
  3. Physical: They slip without recognizing the accompanying negative consequences, they fail to get more help, and they begin compulsively using or increasing their dosage of alcohol or drugs.

Immediate Responses to a Relapse

Relapses must be taken seriously because of the increased risk of a drug overdose that often accompanies them. When teens stop using drugs, they begin to lose the tolerance they developed after regular abuse, meaning that if they return to their original dosage levels during a relapse, their bodies may not be able to handle it. This is where serious and even deadly consequences can result.

Therefore, the first step to take once you discover a relapse is to get the addict to safety. That may mean dialing 911 for emergency assistance, taking the addict out of his or her home, or returning him or her to an inpatient treatment center. The main goal is to provide the teen with a safe place where he or she can detox until the drugs completely exit the body.

The next phase involves reestablishing the addict’s support system, which may involve contacting a sponsor or re-enrolling the teen in a support group, counseling, or therapy. If necessary, arrange a new round of rehabilitation or drug treatment for the teen and do everything you can to remove any negative influences from his or her life.

Relapse Post-Mortem

Once these measures are taken, you can then begin to examine what led to the relapse in the first place. Did the teen fail to fully complete his or her initial treatment by skipping meetings or therapy sessions? Was there a major life change (such as a breakup, a lost job, or an expulsion or eviction) that might have been the catalyst for the relapse? Was the teen socializing with old (or new) friends and acquaintances who were abusing drugs? Are there additional factors (such as mental health challenges or problems in the home environment) that may have facilitated the relapse?

Teen addiction

Design a Prevention Plan

Finally, you can create what is known as a “relapse prevention plan” to help reduce the chances of another relapse. Such a plan may include phone numbers and contact information for sponsors or crisis hotlines, a menu of coping mechanisms or stress-relief strategies, a schedule of support groups or meetings, and a list of reasons to stay sober. The plan should also identify the teen’s “relapse triggers” and detail how to avoid or handle these situations or events. This information can be written on an index card or recorded on a smartphone app so that it can be accessed immediately when needed.

Most importantly, it is essential to view a relapse not as a failure, but rather as a step in an iterative process on the road to permanent sobriety. Each treatment and recovery period is a distinct learning experience for an addicted teen, and sometimes several repetitions of this process are required to reach the goal. If your teen continues to make progress despite relapsing, the chances of finally defeating addiction once and for all increase, so no matter how dejected you may feel, never give up on your teen and his or her quest to get clean.

If your teen has relapsed, contact us today to see how we can help.

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