YouthZone column: YZ provides tools to teens to restrain substance use

Bailey Allison

As teens grow older, identity development leads a number of kids to want to explore drugs, including alcohol, as a normal part of their development.

YouthZone sees a wide spectrum of substance use from the kids that walk through their doors. One high school student may be there for a minor in possession (MIP) charge from a weekend party, while another may be using marijuana every day of the week. Statistically, substance use rises as youth move from middle school to high school where drugs are more easily available.

All young people that come in for help complete YouthZone’s Assessment Survey to provide a deeper understanding of each client. The assessment determines what type and level of guidance is needed. While case management work is handled by the Youth Advocate assigned to each case, those engaged in substance use are also directed to additional therapy.

Substance use for teens and adults in our Colorado and Roaring Fork river valleys is less frequently about opiates and more often about meth. Cocaine, psychedelic drugs like LSD, marijuana and alcohol are also a large part of the local picture.

A deeper sense of caution about marijuana has disappeared with its legalization in 2012. It’s found in many homes and easy to purchase. A 2018 survey from Rise Above Colorado found many teens consider alcohol and marijuana low risk, and more families view marijuana use more casually.

When teenagers mistakenly think that everyone they know partakes in substance use, it increases the likelihood they will experiment in drug use. When they are educated and realize that usage is a lot lower than they projected (about 17% in Colorado according to Rise Above Colorado), they are less likely to experiment.

Parents’ engagement can vary from being overprotective to being hands off in regard to their son’s or daughter’s choices. YouthZone can provide services to help parents and families find a better middle ground. Getting parents to engage with their child’s problems in a supportive way may require that the parents need to make their own personal changes.

Although some parents fear their child’s substance use may expose them to immediate dangers like drugs laced with higher potency drugs, addiction risk is one of the more crucial challenges that concerns YouthZone staff. They want to prevent addiction when possible and provide treatment if a child is already addicted. Young people have an array of negative consequences that are a result of their addictions, such as relationship issues, drop in grades, loss of friends, family discord and legal trouble.

Addiction is often tied to family history and family genetics. School, social and family stresses complicate things.

Substance use and trauma are often tied together. The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) in 1997 showed early adversity can result in lifelong implications. These early trauma incidents can lead to later mental, physical and social breakdowns. It is beneficial to identify and address trauma incidents in order to prevent substance use disorders and its negative consequences.

An addicted teen needs to find skills to offset their vulnerabilities with more productive and long-term positive behaviors. If they can assess where their own use falls in terms of risk, they can address the frequency of their use, how much they use, and how long they’ve been using.

A one-time monthly class is offered to minor offenders to teach them skills to rise above a one-time situation with healthy ways to cope with stress and negative emotions. Other clients need more coordinated time and effort through weekly group sessions and individual counseling to build the social emotional skills for coping. This learning teaches youth self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness.

There are triggers for substance use, but through counseling and training, kids can learn to self-regulate and hopefully encounter fewer situations that prompt them to use in the first place. With individual therapy, they can also address underlying trauma or issues that contribute to their substance use. These sessions provide kids with a better skill building, self-reflection and understanding of why people use substances.

Bailey Allison serves as the YouthZone Trauma and Substance Specialist. She graduated from Denver University with a master’s degree in Social Work, and has extensive experience working with children and families as a therapist, case manager and in a residential environment.

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