When I first began working at a substance abuse treatment program for adolescent males, I knew absolutely nothing about drugs and not much more about addiction. I had never seen drugs in real life and couldn’t identify the smells they produced. I knew that my experience in Children’s and Youth ministry would help me relate to my clients, but I also knew I had a lot to learn about drugs and addiction. While there are wonderful resources available to research all facets of substance abuse, there are a few things I have learned that are especially important to understand.
Addiction is a disease of the brain.
Addiction can be defined as continuing a behavior despite its harmful consequences. Why do teenagers continue to use drugs even when they see the negative effects? It is easy to blame an addict for their actions and wonder why they won’t just stop. Even addicts themselves usually have no idea what is going on in their brain (and thus think that they are in complete control of their drug use). While we are all accountable for our own sin, addiction is unique in that its behavioral outcome is linked to its physical dependence. It is not just a matter of someone easily being able to stop. The more you understand what is going on in their brain, the more you will be able to help them overcome their addiction.
There is a difference between addiction and substance abuse.
When you mention addiction around a group of teenage drug users, you will immediately get a resounding “I’m not addicted!” While it is often the case that these teenagers are in denial and just will not admit that they are addicted, it is possible for a teenager to abuse drugs and not be addicted. Some teenagers experiment with drugs infrequently, and it is important to help them get away from this practice before it turns into an addiction.
The teenage brain is not fully developed.
When your youth do something and you cannot help but blurt out, “What were you thinking??” you are not far from reality. Their thinking is not the same as your thinking. While their brain has a fully developed limbic system, capable of producing all ranges of emotion, the prefrontal cortex may not develop fully until they are 24-28 years old. The prefrontal cortex is key in the decision-making process, sizing up the risks and rewards of various behaviors. Adolescents still need help learning how to make appropriate decisions.
Stress can play a major role in addiction.
Many of our clients either began using or relapsed because they were dealing with some sort of stressful event such as a death in the family, neglect, abuse, etc. Teach your youth how to cope with various stressors, and give them practical ideas about how to deal with stress in a healthy way.
Most of first-time drug users get drugs from a friend.
Most adolescents will quickly assert that they do not give into peer pressure. They see peer pressure as someone forcing it on them while yelling and demanding they try it. While this does happen, there are many types of peer pressure, and adolescents need to be taught realistic ways to respond to each kind. They need help evaluating the influence others have on them and cutting off the negative influences. Know who their friends are, and don’t be afraid to ask if they have friends experimenting with drugs.
There are so many things to consider when you are dealing with addicted adolescents. Below are a few more simple resources to get you started, which may also be helpful for a group discussion with parents and other concerned adults in your church and community.
Drugs and Your Brain
The Science of Teen Decision Making:
As you consider this information, ask yourself:
Do I treat addiction as a simple choice, or as a more complicated issue/disease?
Am I staying up-to-date on the latest research on substance abuse and adolescent development?
Am I equipping my students with practical ways to make good decisions and avoid negative influences?
“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” - 1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Candice Goins is a substance abuse counselor at a residential program for adolescent males. She graduated from the University of Mobile with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a minor in Theology. She is married to Matt Goins, youth minister of Durant Chapel Baptist Church in Bay Minette, Alabama. Having always felt called to ministry, Candice has served in various positions in children’s and youth ministry, and currently spends her free time serving alongside her husband in their youth group. You can follow her on Twitter at @candicegoins.