How to Talk to Young People Suffering From Addiction

Sally Buchanan-Hagen

Sally Buchanan-HagenMany teenagers experiment with drugs or alcohol, and almost 50 percent of high school seniors have abused drugs of some kind. However, substance abuse in adolescents increases the risk of addiction in adulthood and 9 out of 10 people with addiction started using substances before the age of 18.

It is important to identify addiction in adolescents because not only is it damaging to their physical and psychological health, it can also impact their future. Consequences of addiction can last for years. Therefore, once identified, interventions should be put into place. Talking to an adolescent who may be suffering from addiction is the first step to getting them help.

As a nurse in the emergency department, I often care for youth who are either under the influence of a substance or are dealing with addiction. Youth who are suffering from an addiction can be quite defensive when confronted about the issue. It can also be difficult trying to talk about their addiction because they may be intoxicated or under the influence of a drug at the time.

When talking to a young person under the influence of a substance, it is important to be consistent and predictable. Usually their behaviour is erratic and impulsive. They will probably be easily confused and this can irritate them. So being predictable and repetitive will lessen their confusion and make it easier for them to understand you. Remain calm and be firm in your instructions, but don’t raise your voice because this can make them defensive and angry. The objective is to keep the situation nonthreatening and prevent them from becoming aggressive.

Always make sure you are safe. Don’t approach them if they are angry and volatile. Make sure you are at least an arm’s length away so they can’t hit or grab you and never have your back to them. If in a room, position yourself so you are close to the doorway; don’t let the youth get between you and the exit. When de-escalating a situation it’s important to remain calm, but call for help if needed. If emergency care is required call the local psychiatric emergency team.

Professional help such as treatment centers, psychiatrists and psychologists may be necessary to help the youth. However, the person has to be willing to accept treatment.

If talking to a youth about their addiction, do it in a nonconfrontational manner to encourage openness. The adolescent isn’t going to feel comfortable talking about their problem if they feel threatened, blamed or judged. Outline the detrimental impact the youth’s habits are having on them. Listen to what they have to say and let the youth know they are supported.

Before speaking with the youth it is a good idea to look up local resources for treatment and know the appropriate health professionals for possible referrals. In most situations the youth’s parents will have to be involved in treatment. Make sure to set clear limitations on confidentiality and let the youth know that other people may have to be informed if it is deemed appropriate.

Be mindful to be compassionate and understanding. It is important to be aware that the youth could be suffering from underlying co-morbidities such as a mental illness that would also need to be addressed. This may be a reason why the youth turned to substances in the first place, as some addictions begin and continue as a form of self-medication to escape psychological stressors.

It can be difficult and daunting but talking to a young person about their addiction is the first step to recovery.

Sally Buchanan-Hagen works as a nurse in the emergency department, is currently completing her honors degree in nursing and blogs for the International Bipolar Foundation. She was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder when she was 22 and is now passionate about mental health promotion.


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