A Historical Account: How Teen Addiction Treatment Has Improved

It’s true that up until recently, the treatment options for teens with substance abuse diagnoses were not good. In fact, according to an October 2011 article in a psychiatric journal, these options made drug treatment for teens a public concern.


Historically, teen addiction treatment attended programs that had a boot camp like style with confrontational methods that were meant to break down the attitudes and defense mechanisms of these teens.


It was in the 1950’s where clinicians began to recognize that the behaviors of teens with addiction were different than adults with addictions and that they deserved different treatment methods. In fact, with this recognition, the first adolescent treatment center opened in 1952 with Riverside Hospital in New York City.


However, it took some time for the rest of the country to follow in New York’s footsteps. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that adult and adolescent treatment centers were completely made separate across the country. Treatment centers specifically for teens grew more rapidly in the 1980’s through the 1990’s due to increasing research that addictions in teens warrant different treatment.


For example, research indicates that teen Substance abuse disorder have higher rates of binge use, higher rates of a co-occurring illness, are more susceptible to peer influence, and are highly focused on immediate concerns. Today, this is considered and incorporated into a teen’s treatment plan.


Once a teen has been assessed, he or she will likely participate in one of five levels of treatment as outlined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. These are:

  1. Early Intervention Services – these services include educational, preventative, and brief intervention services.
  2. Outpatient Treatment – Adolescents attend treatment for 6 hours or less for a period of time depending the their treatment plan
  3. Intensive Outpatient Treatment – Adolescents receive services by attending a treatment center during the day while living at home.
  4. Residential or Inpatient Treatment – Adolescents live on site at a treatment centers where they receive treatment services for a period of time depending on treatment plan.
  5. Medically Managed Intensive Inpatient Treatment – This is for adolescents who have an addiction with severe physical, emotional, and psychological concerns are so severe that they require 24-hour primary medical care for a period of time.


The last level of addiction treatment listed here might be the appropriate form of treatment for those teens who have a co-occurring disorder. Approximately, 60-75% of teens who abuse drugs or alcohol also have a mental illness. Typically, treatment for co-occurring disorders would include individual and family psychotherapy, medication, support groups, and strong communication among the psychiatrist, psychologist, family members, social workers, teachers, and other professionals in the teen’s life. Ideally, there would be an integration of services between the psychiatric and the drug counseling fields in order to best treat a teen with a co-occurring disorder. These sorts of teen treatment centers are becoming more and more available as a treatment option.


Other therapeutic forms of addiction treatment include:

  • behavioral therapy
  • motivational interviewing
  • the 12-step model

Behavioral therapy examines any attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns you might have that contribute to a dysfunctional lifestyle. For instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), specifically, is a form of psychotherapy that addresses unhealthy patterns of thought that lead to making poor choices. CBT also provides healthier coping mechanisms to help manage challenging emotions, triggering life circumstances, and stress, replacing any old methods of coping that may have furthered dysfunction and stress. Motivational Interviewing is a form of therapy seeks to evoke a teen’s intrinsic desire to change. Lastly, the highly successful 12-step model uses both a group form of support as well as individual support by having teens utilize a sponsor while on the road to recovery.


As research continues on the specific treatment needs and differences from adults with addictions, teen treatment for substance use will only improve.



Winters, K., Botzet, A., Fahnhorst, T. (October 2011). Advances in Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment. Current Psychiatry Reports. 13(5): 416-421