Teens in recovery are highly sensitive to triggers, especially when under stress or uncertain circumstances. While it may seem logical that they would want to remain on their journey through sobriety after having worked so hard to get there, the power of addiction can easily take hold again when they are exposed to various triggers that can set off a relapse.
For some teens, a trigger may be something as simple as hearing a song on the radio or seeing an old friend. Studies show that within the first four years after treatment for drug and substance abuse addiction, 50 to 90% of teen addicts relapse into their old habits.
During this time when most teens are at home, under Stay at Home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be exposed to and have access to prescription drugs and alcohol that their parents may have in the home. The stress, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that we are all feeling may be the very trigger that leads a teen back down the road of addiction. According to a study conducted by Marquette University, stress may be a contributing factor in teen relapse, rendering those in recovery more vulnerable to triggers and cues.
It is important to understand what may be classified as a trigger that could entice a teen to derail their hard work in recovery and give in to the temptations of drugs and alcohol again. Triggers are typically social, emotional, or environmental situations that remind a teen in the recovery of their past drug or alcohol use. While they do not make a teen consume the substance, they do increase the likelihood that they will give in to the temptation.
Triggers for each person may be different and they may be external or internal. External triggers may include social situations or places in which drugs/alcohol are present or where the teen used to get high. For example, friends and associates who still use may trigger a teen’s reflexes and cravings through peer pressure, teasing, and even manipulation. While teens may have learned coping mechanisms to respond appropriately to these situations and people, the triggers may be too much for them to deal with, causing them to slip into relapse.
On the other hand, internal triggers may include stress, over-confidence, social isolation, depression, boredom, and self-pity. Unfortunately, during this time when tensions are already elevated and a teen’s emotions may be stretched, the internal triggers are more prevalent and can, in fact, be very dangerous for a teen in recovery.
Tips to help your teen steer clear of triggers
At a time when we are all socially isolated, bored, and stressed, internal triggers may be detrimental to a teen’s mental and subsequently, physical health. So, how do you help your teen avoid the triggers that may surround them even while in a stay at home environment?
- Social isolation. Of course, isolation to some degree is unavoidable as teens are required to stay in quarantine. Feelings of loneliness, sadness, and isolation can make a teen yearn for the euphoric feelings associated with drug and alcohol use. To combat social isolation, encourage your teen to stay in contact with friends and classmates through video-conferencing, social media, and spending time together with the family. Not only do these activities distract a teen from the reality of isolation but from the cravings for drugs or alcohol that it may insight.
- Stress. Many teens first begin using drugs or alcohol to cope with the stresses brought on by the very nature of being a teenager; school, relationships, home life. Even while we are all in the stay at home situation, a teen’s stress level can still be high. In fact, it may be even higher as they try to accept and process the current situation, manage the “new normal” of life, and navigate and understand their emotions and feelings. When using, teens were able to escape the stresses of life even if only temporarily. Now they must develop new coping strategies to help them maintain a normal level of stress and not allow it to become a trigger that tempts them to reach inside the medicine or liquor cabinet.
- Over-confidence. During the treatment and recovery process, teens are encouraged to be confident and optimistic about their recovery and to protect themselves against the risk of relapse. Unfortunately, for some, they may become overly confident in their accomplishments, believing that they have successfully tackled their challenges and that they are now immune to triggers and cravings. This over-confidence may be the very thing that entices them to “take a small sip” or “do it just this once” while they are at home faced with stress, isolation, and temptations. Gently remind your teen of the need for humility to overcome this tendency to become over-confident.
- Complacency. As teens strive to prove to family and friends that they can manage their sobriety, they may become complacent with the hard work and effort that it takes to manage their mental health. They take for granted that they have come through the process of recovery and they may forget how easily they can relapse. They begin to question whether they can have an occasional drink or use once in a while, believing that they have been “cured”. In reality, they have simply neglected their relapse prevention plan and instead allow the cues around them to trigger the desire to drink or use again. Encourage your teen to follow their relapse prevention plan as directed by their therapists and counselors.
- Boredom. Because they may have given up all of the other things that they once loved for drugs and alcohol, they now find a hole that needs filling. Especially during the current circumstances, teens may find that they have nothing to do, have no hobbies or interests, and are bored. Without the drugs or alcohol to fill their time, teens may easily be tempted to listen to the triggers, allowing their minds and bodies to succumb to the temptations. Make suggestions of activities that your teen can engage in while at home that may distract them from the triggers and engage their minds in a healthy, productive way with games, puzzles, research in an area of interest, reading, drawing, music, etc.
- Self-pity. The emotional stress of recovery and coping with life can lead teens into the trap of self-pity. They may be feeling impatient about the process itself. They could be wondering ‘why’ they are in this position or feel bad about themselves and why they cannot be like others, socially using drugs or alcohol. As feelings of isolation and loneliness are compounded during this time, teens may begin to feel like the victim and be drawn back to the drugs or alcohol to alleviate these feelings. The reality of addiction is that they are in this situation, they have succumbed to the temptations of substance abuse, and they are now in recovery. None of this is an easy process for a teen in recovery and especially while they are at home with nothing but time to think and dwell on their circumstances. To help them to overcome the victim mentality, remind your teen of their strength in managing their mental illness and the fortitude that is required to remain sober.
- Mental health issues. While the isolation of staying at home will not ignite mental health issues in your teen, it may prompt dormant issues to rear their ugly heads. Depression, anxiety, and other disorders may appear when a teen is under an exorbitant amount of stress, causing other signs and symptoms to appear. If you notice any unusual behavior in your teen or suspect that they may be experiencing some mental instability, you must contact their pediatrician for a consultation.
As we all are dealing with the stresses and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, consider other ways that you can support your teen to avoid relapse including:
- Remove all alcohol from the home.
- Secure prescription and over-the-counter medications in a locked medicine cabinet and dispose of them when no longer needed.
- Encourage your teen to engage with friends who do not use drugs or alcohol via phone, video calls, and social media.
- Take the time to speak openly with your teen about their fears, concerns, triggers, and temptations.
- Offer encouragement and praise when you recognize that your teen may be struggling yet they are able to resist.
- Keep your finger on your teen’s pulse to identify any signs and symptoms of other mental health issues that may arise during the COVID-19 crisis such as depression and anxiety since they may be connected to substance abuse issues.
If you suspect that your teen may be exposed to triggers and cues that are threatening the likelihood of relapse in their sobriety, you must reach out to their pediatrician or therapist for an evaluation. Even though you may be uncomfortable taking your child to the office to see their doctor at this time, you may be able to consult with them via telemedicine.
If you are interested in learning other ways to ensure that your teen does not relapse during this chaotic stressful time, reach out to the trained medical professionals at Beachside Treatment Center for additional advice and counseling.