For parents of adolescents or teens with an alcohol or drug problem, accepting that their child has a substance use disorder and getting them help can be major hurdles to overcome. So, it’s hardly surprising that parents often breathe a huge sigh of relief when their child starts treatment.

But 30 or 90 days of inpatient care at a substance use treatment facility, is typically only the first step in the long journey of recovery. For this reason, programs usually recommend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for aftercare.

People tend to think of AA and NA as being for adults. But research shows that support groups can be just as effective for young people.

In a 2008 Massachusetts General Hospital study, researchers followed 160 teenagers who had undergone inpatient treatment for alcohol or drug abuse for an average of four weeks and were referred to AA or NA at discharge. The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, concluded that teens who went to meetings in the first six months after treatment were more likely to remain abstinent over time. Those who continued going to meetings over the entire eight years of the study experienced the best outcomes.

“In terms of a real-world recovery metric,” each AA or NA meeting attended correlated with a gain of two days of abstinence, “independent of all other factors that were also associated with a better outcome,” lead researcher Dr. John F. Kelly, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a statement.

For adults, frequency of attendance, the 12-step format, the spiritual component and the peer support in AA and NA are important factors promoting sobriety. For teens, the study suggests that these factors are also relevant, but perhaps look slightly different.

For example, a general recommendation for adults after treatment is “90 meetings in 90 days,” frequency being the goal. However, according to the study, teens obtained some benefit even when they participated in just one or two meetings a week. Three meetings a week were most helpful in maintaining abstinence. The difference, researchers surmised, may be in part due to the greater likelihood of adults being longer-term chronic users.

Furthermore, teenagers may differ somewhat from adults in terms of the degree to which the social aspect of support groups helps them to stay sober.  

Peer Pressure is Not Always a Bad Thing

Support groups are actually particularly well-suited to a teenager’s developmental needs. During the teen years, young people experience heightened social sensitivity and need social affiliation and group acceptance outside of their family.  

Teens very much want to impress their friends and gain their approval. Sometimes this leads them to participate in undesirable behaviors, including substance use. According to a  National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) study, the mere presence of a teenager’s peers, without even a word being spoken, can influence them to partake in risky behavior.

Conversely, social influence can play a powerful role in encouraging teens to make positive choices. Both NA and AA offer teen group meetings where young people, with similar experiences, can relate to and encourage each other. They help teens:

  1. Stay engaged in their recovery
  2. Feel comfortable opening up and sharing their struggles and experiences
  3. Foster healthy social networks with peers who are also committed to remaining sober
  4. Create opportunities to participate in social activities and events that are alcohol- and drug-free

There are a variety of sources for finding peer support groups:

During this National Recovery month, know that recovery is possible and that with ongoing support your teenager can make positive change and maintain it.

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