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Teen Recovery from Substance Abuse

More than 80% of youth who have completed a chemical dependency treatment program are unable to maintain sobriety after returning to their home, school, and old peer group. (Source: SAMSHA)

There’s nothing more gut-wrenching for a parent than to deal with their teenager’s drug addiction.  It’s like a slow death, not just for the teen, but for the entire family.  And it won’t get better without treatment and ongoing support, sometimes spanning the addict’s entire life.   That’s why it’s far better for parents to test for and catch substance abuse early, before it gets a foothold.

Sadly, more than a million teenagers are admitted every year to drug or alcohol abuse treatment programs.  These adolescents come through a 30-, 60-, or 90-day treatment program, only to find it impossible to maintain their sobriety, because their peers and influences back home haven’t changed.  Without ongoing help, they return to drinking or drugs most of the time.

Heartlight is often enlisted by the parents of teens whose substance abuse has become an endless cycle, or when the teen has been using drugs to cover up other issues in their life.  While not a chemical dependency treatment program, Heartlight is a very important “next step” after such treatment, to help solidify recovery. It helps a teen deal with the issues that led them to substance abuse in the first place, and teaches them to lead a more positive, drug-free lifestyle.  It also provides a longer buffer of time away from the teen’s peers.

But the teen eventually needs to return home.  Once there, they will face the same negative influences that got them into substance abuse in the first place.  So, if they’ve had serious addictions, they’ll need ongoing support and counsel to keep them on track and sober, sometimes lasting months or years.  Don’t ever think that a treatment program or rehab is a “cure.” It’s just a fresh start down the road to recovery.

To aid in recovery, there are a number of public school districts across the country offering programs specifically designed to provide a sober environment for teens. Commonly referred to as recovery high schools, sober high schools, or rehab high schools, they feature a high school curriculum along with recovery support services and a typical 12-Step model of recovery.

A typical sober school program provides the following support:

  1. They address the risk for relapse by enforcing a strict no-drug-use policy, and expect recovery and sobriety as a social norm for students in their program. No exceptions.  A code of discipline and accountability involves both the student and parents.
  1. Specially trained, caring personnel pursue a student’s complete success, both in academics and in life. This may include a full or part-time licensed counselor, or a relationship with an outside agency acting as a consultant, in the event of a student crisis or relapse.
  1. They provide positive academic and recreational activities, and community exposure within a protected environment.
  1. They operate at the individual, peer group, and social network level, and not just within the bounds of the school setting, to protect the teen from relapse.
  1.  They assess work readiness, job skills, and sometimes provide limited vocational training.
  1. They focus on the positive steps a teen has made in his life, and build on them, rather than focusing on a teen’s past failures, or what he’s done wrong.

Sending a teen directly home to their old environment from drug treatment sometimes results in an endless cycle of relapse-treatment-relapse.  A therapeutic program like Heartlight and ongoing counseling or a sober school program when he or she returns home can be a powerful mix to both build the teen’s desire to change and to maintain sobriety.   Your teen doesn’t have to go through “treatment” to be a part of this alternative environment. It might be a good thing to look into such a program, should your child need an environment that is working for them and not against them.  Check with your local school district to see if there is a sober school program near you.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.