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Unravelling the Complexities of Addiction: Understanding, Supporting, and Guiding Young People

Dr Kate Middleton

05 Jun, 2023


Dive into the intricate world of addiction as we explore how to understand, support, and guide young individuals on their journey to recovery.


Unable to resist chocolate? Desperate for a coffee? Got a craving for crisps? Addicted to your phone?

We use a lot of language which describes the urges we have for things we know probably aren’t the best things for us. But at what point does a drive or desire become an addiction? Why are teenagers so much more susceptible to addictions than adults? And how do we support a young person if we are concerned about something they seem caught up in?

There are two main kinds of addiction it's worth knowing about:

Psychological addiction: This is where our mind becomes used to an activity, action, food, drink or substance. It might be that it is a habit, something that is always part of our day. Or it might be a way we manage difficult emotions or cheer ourselves up. Your mind has many ways of making more likely to do something, and these can feel like very difficult behaviours to break. People often think psychological addiction is less of a problem than a physiological one -

but our minds are powerful. It can feel very hard to change something we feel caught in.

In fact, lots of behaviours can be psychologically or behaviourally addictive. When we do something that we find pleasurable, a chemical called dopamine released in the brain makes us more likely to repeat the same behaviour. This has been implicated in all kinds of things: from our love for chocolate to our tendency to repeatedly check our social media for responses!

Physiological addiction: A physiological addiction occurs when a substance has a physical or biological effect in our body that actually starts to change the way our body then acts or reacts. We may become dependent as our body or brain starts to need that drug to function normally. Or, as your system gets used to the substance, often a bigger and bigger dose is needed to get the same results - this is called tolerance. And of course, if you are unable to get hold of the substance, you might notice symptoms that show your body has got used to it: withdrawal can be minor, but sometimes for substances that have a more powerful effect it can potentially be very serious.

Of course there is a lot of overlap between these two kinds of addiction - and addiction isn’t just for the more serious kinds of substances and drugs you might have heard of. Psychological addiction pathways have been implicated in things like our use of social media. An addiction to pornography is a complex mixture of the emotional and behavioural need for certain things to feel stimulated, which become connected with physical desire and response. And one of the most commonly used physiologically addictive substances is caffeine, which you might well be indulging in whilst reading this article!

We become particularly concerned about addictions when there are negative effects. These might be the physical impact of doing something that just isn’t good for us, or consuming something in greater quantities than is healthy. But often it is the wider impact - on behaviour, the things people do to get hold of the substance, the things they stop doing because the drive to use or misuse the substance has become so strong, or the things they might do which put them at risk whilst under the influence of a substance that impairs judgement or perception.

How does an addiction start? There are many ways people become drawn into an addiction. Very often, a behaviour begins as a response to a difficult period in life, to powerful emotions, or something that has been traumatic. At first the behaviour or substance might feel like it helps the person to continue with managing normal life, or engaging with friends, family and the demands of work or study. But the nature of an addiction is that it does develop and grow, and gradually the balance of control shifts. Usually, even though something struggling knows it is something they shouldn’t do, they find it harder and harder to stop.

What about teenagers?

Adolescence is all about experimenting, and many teenagers become drawn into behaviours which the adults around them fear might become addiction. And teenagers can be more at risk for developing addiction. The teenage brain is developing at a rapid pace, and this changes the way teenagers experience the world, and their ability to manage things like impulse control and motivation, so that they can make good choices.

Teenage emotions are often powerful, flaring up apparently without warning and feeling very overwhelming. This, combined with the fact that teenagers are only just developing the adult emotional maturity to manage difficult emotions, makes them more likely to be attracted to things which might help them manage those feelings. Then, as they journey through the season where they are learning about how to deal with emotions, if the only things they are trying and learning are unhelpful or unhealthy behaviours, they can find they hit a dead end should they want to stop those things, because they just don’t know anything else that might help. And finally, the nature of the teenage brain can actually mean that the impact of some neuro-active substances (ie things that affect the brain, and they way teens think or feel) feels more powerful, more positive, more significant - making them much more likely to get drawn into regular use.

How do I help someone if I am concerned about a possible addiction?

As a youth worker or other adult concerned for a young person, there are three important things you can do:

Create safe spaces for them to talk and share

So many spaces young people might be invited to are hosted by people with an agenda. And it isn’t easy to not have one where potentially addictive or harmful behaviours are concerned. But one of the features of struggling with addiction is that at first most people struggle with mixed feelings about whatever it is they are drawn to. They might know in their heart of hearts it isn’t a good idea, but experience benefits or positive things from the behaviour. Or, they might recognise that at some stage they would need to stop or make a change, but in the short term, just want to carry on. In fact that is the nature of addiction: in the moment, with a short term perspective it is always easier to return to the cycle you’re caught in. What we need to do in supporting someone is help them to think longer term, without alienating them or becoming just another person they feel is on their back or having a go at them - especially if they are already finding life tough.

In order to do this, you might be able to open up a space where they can think about the pros and cons of what they are doing. Can you genuinely work on understanding better how it feels for them? Then, it might help to jump forwards to a point in the future - say a year from now, or when they are sitting exams or a salient moment that is coming in the not too long-term. What would the pros and cons be then if nothing changed and they carried on as they are? Are there risks they definitely want to avoid? Is there a point at which something needs to change? Remember, this is a genuinely exploratory conversation. You are not trying to push them to change - you are helping them think well.

Help them make better decisions

Decisions are tricky when it comes to a behaviour that to you, looking in, might clearly be a bad idea. It’s hard not to be frustrated, to ask them what they were thinking?!...

Instead, we need to be a safe space where young people can ponder things that have happened, decisions they made, what they could have done instead, and what they might need to change for the future. Try to be patient. You need to protect them from potential risk and harm, but the ideal is that this happens by empowering them to make a good decision rather than something being imposed on them (although there are times this is entirely necessary).

Try talking through what has happened on an occasion when they made a less than positive decision. Can you help them understand what happened? Teenagers are often simplistic in how they remember the past, especially impulsive decisions. Can you help them retrace not just the moment they decided to do something, but the emotions that led up to it? Encourage them to go back to earlier in the day, and help them put together the wider patterns or issues that might be involved. Were there points where they could have done something different? Called a mate? Told someone they were having a rough day? Left a party? Said no to an invite?

Often there are questions they may have, or need to explore, but feeling under pressure or criticised has stopped them. This may well include what the real risks of a substance or behaviour are, or finding out facts about something. Could you help them to explore and research, so that the information they are accessing is accurate and reliable?

Of course the biggest decision is one that things need to change. This decision is often framed as an absolute “I am giving up” one. But actually it is more nuanced. Admitting that something is wrong, that they need help, and a decision that something needs to change is an amazing start. Sometimes even though someone might genuinely want it to be true, proclaiming they are giving something up or stopping, or won’t ever do it again can set them up to fail, or push them into secrecy if they don’t manage to be true to that intention. Admitting that they need some help to work out what changing things looks like is a very important step. Don’t be afraid to celebrate that and then to explore together what might need to happen next.

And in the meantime, do talk about what you need to do to keep them safe. Particularly if there has been a pattern of risky behaviour, and especially if this has occurred whilst under the influence of substances, the situation may fall within the remit of your safeguarding policy, so do take advice and make sure you follow any procedures or guidelines that requires. This may also be the case if there may be criminal activity disclosed as part of the situation eg supplying illegal substances or selling substances to those who are underage.

Support them to seek professional help

This is very important. Addictions are serious mental health challenges, and almost always require professional support in the process of working towards recovery. You might feel that the situation isn’t serious enough to need expert support - but that is exactly the kind of judgement that needs to be made by a professional - and in many cases stopping a substance that has been taken or used regularly needs to be done under supervision and careful guidance.

The first port of call is usually the GP or family doctor, but most people need some support in making that first request for help. Think practical: can you help them think about who they need to tell and how and when they might do that? Can you help them make an appointment with their GP if that is something they can do on their own? Can you support them to share with a parent or guardian if that needs to be a first step?

Another helpful step is often to find some space to think, talk and process the situation more. Therapeutic spaces are not always easy to access, but many schools and colleges, or local agencies, offer free or low cost support for those still in full time education. Finding options can feel overwhelming when there is already a lot to manage - so it may be you can help and share some ideas to narrow down the search.

What does the Bible say?

When it comes to Biblical wisdom about addiction you may hear people quote verses in a very harsh or intimidating way. Sometimes people quote verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:6 (‘let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.’) - and the need to be of our right mind, ready for God and attuned to what He might be saying or doing. 1 Corinthians 6:12 talks about whilst we might be able to do, or justify doing ,almost anything, being ‘mastered’ by something is problematic because of the impact it has on our body and mind. It's important to think about who is in control - us, or an addiction or behaviour we have become caught up in.

However, we need to be wary of talking about addictions purely as sinful and mindful that they are illnesses people become drawn into. Condemnation is never from God (Romans 8:1). In fact the Bible is clear that we are all at risk of being ‘slaves to sin’ - caught up in things which are not good for us spiritually, emotionally or physically, and struggling to find ways to freedom (Romans 6:6). But thanks to the grace and love of God we have the chance to find a way to a better life (v14). The Bible is clear - the way to support people struggling is to offer comfort and compassion - and to help them find a way through the challenges they have become caught up in (2 Corinthians 1:4; Ephesians 4:32). Caring for someone fighting an addiction can take a lot of patience, wisdom and love - and it is a careful balance of challenge and care, empathy and careful boundaries. It is something we should approach fully aware of our need for God’s wisdom and strength beyond our own (1 Corinthians 1:25).

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