Is Addiction A Choice? How Does It Work?

Addiction is considered a mental, substance use disorder. It is an actual disease, with symptoms and long-term effects on the brain. As a person becomes addicted, brain functionality is altered from being constantly exposed to drugs or alcohol. This damages the brain areas that are responsible for decision-making, learning, impulse control, judgment, and other activities. 

Because of this, it is a scientific fact that addiction is not just a matter of choice or willpower. It actually changes and rewires the brain in a way addicts cannot control. And when it comes to addiction at a young age, the possible effects are different – and much more serious. Children and teenage brains are still maturing, so the damage could be permanent. 

Studies show that addiction even influences physical changes in the brains of younger individuals. Substance misuse can compromise and alter cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, spatial skills, and even executive functioning. Learning skills have also been proven to be limited in cases of marijuana use, for instance. The possible outcomes are numerous, and way more severe.

Early use of drugs and alcohol can also accelerate the development of mental disorders. The chemical and neural imbalances caused by addiction are also inherent to psychiatric illnesses, like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and others. This means addiction can trigger those symptoms faster if the person is prone to them, and worsen those symptoms with time.

What Causes Addiction In Children and Teenagers?

The first thing parents of addicts should know is that there is probably not just one cause for addiction. There are many factors that can play a role in addiction development, and each case is different. Most parents might think that the sole cause could be bad company, having bad influences around them. And yes, that could be one of the reasons why they became addicted. But it is not the only possibility.

Research and studies have proven that genetics and family history have a role in addiction predisposition. Specific genes have been linked to it. If either of the parents of addicts has a history on their side, this puts their children at risk. Nonetheless, a study done with twins revealed that genes are 50% to 60% responsible for the development of substance use disorders. So genes also aren’t usually the only problem.

Other aspects of a kid or teenager’s experiences that might be linked to addiction are unhealthy environments, and that might include their own home. This can lead to emotional instability, feelings of lack of control, and constant insecurity. That and other problems can push them into self-medicating with alcohol or worse substances. 

Traumatic experiences are often the root of early substance consumption, too. Even in healthy environments, experiencing any level of abuse or witnessing tragic events leads to trauma. This, in turn, might trigger symptoms of mental disorders and/or addiction itself as time goes by. And that is even worse in the case of a lack of psychiatric help in order to process these experiences in a healthy way.

Another main issue that could trigger substance use disorders is mental illness. Some children might take medication at an early age, and while they aren’t always an issue, they can become one. Taking substances like Ritalin can lead to addiction if not taken properly or in case of misuse. Some children/teenagers might engage in underage drinking as well as to try to help symptoms of anxiety or depression. By also developing an addiction, they’ll suffer from dual diagnosis.

Signs of Addiction In Kids and Teenagers

Possible parents of addicts can keep an eye out for early signs of addiction development. Addiction is a gradual process, it doesn’t happen overnight. Just a few of these red flags might have nothing to do with addiction, so it is important to contextualize said signs. The results of teenage addiction might be:

  • Grades dropping, performance issues, and getting into trouble at school
  • Loss of interest in activities and people that they once enjoyed
  • Lack of proper, usual hygiene and diminished personal appearance
  • Avoiding eye contact (especially a problem in case of bloodshot eyes)
  • The smell of smoke and/or alcohol on breath or clothes
  • Overtly secretive behavior most of the time
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits (too much or too little)
  • Displaying manipulative behavior, lying constantly
  • Extreme mood swings or emotional stability, sometimes acting paranoid
  • Lack of concentration and/or memory 

Some of these and other possible addiction-related behavior, like rapid speech and missing curfews, can be a sign of addiction. However, some of these can be common to teenage behavior as well. That’s why you must contextualize and make sure before approaching them.

Should parents of addicts decide to confirm their suspicions, it is recommended that they talk to their kids/teenagers about it directly. It is important to keep the dialogue open and discuss issues that could be considered taboo, such as addiction, when the time is right. If you’re growing worried that they’re already experimenting, you shouldn’t wait for things to get worse to have a conversation.

How To Talk To Your Kids About Addiction

When talking to your children, especially teenagers, you need to understand their mindset. The extra challenge in communication that parents of addicts might have is the social influence. First, a lot of teenagers’ opinions, self-image, and identity rely on social approval and “fitting in”. Secondly, teenagers might be exploring their independence, and hate to feel they’re being treated like children. You should keep this in mind when adjusting your tone and message.

You need to pick a good time and place to talk. Trying to talk to them between appointments might cut the conversation short when it shouldn’t. Try sometime after dinner, or during quality family time, or maybe take them out. They should feel comfortable and not so cornered, so they’re more open and not feeling ambushed. While the conversation itself might be uncomfortable, the setting should be familiar in order to allow for a dialogue, not a monologue.

Steer clear of accusations or threats, or they will be more reluctant to open up. You need to be supportive, remain calm, and assure them you’re there for them. Explain your feelings and/or reasoning behind what you’re asking from them. If you’re giving them rules, they’re more likely to obey if they know why they exist. If you’re asking them if they’re using, they need to know why you’re worried or why that might be bad for them.

More Ways to Discuss Substance Misuse With Your Kids

Encourage them to speak, and not just by asking them to. Ask questions that would need further explanation, not just “yes” or “no” ones. Be open with them if they ask you questions. Now would also be a good time to be open about family history, in case there is one. Parents of addicts could even share these family experiences to prove how bad addiction can be. If they know about their risks, they’re more likely to make better decisions. 

Some recommend using what is called “I” statements, even if the sentence doesn’t start with it. Such as “when you don’t tell me where you’re going, I can’t help you if something bad happens”. This should be the same for addiction-related concerns. It can also work to let them know you are listening, not just talking. By saying “I feel like you’re…”, “What I understand from that is…” and so on, you’re letting them know they’re heard. Again, remember to make the conversation a dialogue, not a monologue.

If your child admits to any level of substance misuse, you should tell them why it’s dangerous, not just why it’s wrong. They already know it’s illegal, so they need to understand why it is bad for them and understand your concerns. If the misuse has turned into an addiction, the last thing they need is punishment. Parents of addicts must explain why their kids should get help, and tell them that they can count on parental support.

Get The Help You Need at Discovery Institute

Addiction at an early age can be a delicate situation. But, no matter the cause, it needs to be addressed. But getting treatment as soon as possible will help improve your child’s chances of becoming healthy and happy adults, free from addiction. They don’t have to be in this for the long run, and there is help available for all ages.

While teenagers used to be checked into rehab with adults, it is now understood that they need treatment with a different focus. There are different service settings, like inpatient and outpatient, depending on the needs of the patient. Teenagers have other needs, and those all need to be addressed during rehab.

Some of their needs include the possibility to continue studying, group activities for social development, and family counseling. This is all usually included and possible during most teen rehab programs, so they can still improve in other areas of their lives.

Perhaps, however, you have an adult child who is suffering from addiction. Maybe your child is currently suffering from substance dependence in his or her 20s, 30s, or 40s. Of course, as a parent, you probably feel concerned about your child’s health and life. No matter how young or old your child is, it’s likely that his or her addiction is affecting you and the rest of your family. 

If you would like to know more about your options, visit our website and contact us today. We at the Discovery Institute will be glad to explain more about them and answer all your questions. You should only leave your kids at the hands of people you trust, and it is only right that you get all the information you need to make an informed decision. There is hope and there are options for your family to recover and become happy again.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.