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Parents’ Guide to Aftercare for Teenagers in Drug and Alcohol Recovery

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Understanding teen drug addiction

When your teenager has a problem with substance abuse, you may think that getting them to attend treatment is the most important part of their recovery. However, participating in a treatment program does not guarantee that your teen will remain sober. Addiction is a chronic condition in which relapses are common, and the best way to ensure ongoing sobriety is to attend aftercare following rehab. Following drug treatment, about 50% of teens relapse within 3 months, and approximately 65% relapse within 6 months. Unlike adults, who often relapse due to psychological difficulties or interpersonal issues, teens relapse most commonly as a result of social and peer pressure.1

Aftercare is a really important component of the recovery process. One study shows that teens who had been through rehab and gone through aftercare were approximately 10% less likely to use alcohol, and about 16% less likely to use marijuana than those teens who had no aftercare following substance abuse treatment.2 Further studies had similar findings confirming the efficacy of aftercare.3 Step-down programs offer an opportunity for a teen to continue recovery in a supportive environment; adolescents report aftercare as their top need following treatment.1 These needs may be fulfilled through various aftercare efforts, including progressively less-structured programs, support groups, and individual counseling, all of which this article will explore in greater detail.

Step-Down Program Options

Step-down programs can help a teenager ease back into their home environment in such a way that the transition from the structure of treatment to “the real world” is not so abrupt. It is relatively easy for your son or daughter to remain sober in a step-down program, which provides intense oversight and does not allow your teen to have free time with friends who may urge them to use drugs or alcohol. Slowly stepping back into the social, educational, and home environment that was present before attending treatment with the support of outpatient treatment gives your child a greater chance of remaining free of substance abuse. The type of step-down program your teen needs depends on the type of initial treatment your teen receives for substance abuse. Some options may include:

Sources for outpatient programs include:

Support Groups for Your Teen

Aftercare for teens in recoverySupport groups are a vital part of aftercare for anyone in recovery. Many of these programs are based on the 12-step model and are run by members who are themselves in recovery rather than professional counselors. In these groups, members talk about their struggles with addiction, through which they support one another through the recovery process. Typically, a teen entering a 12-step program will find a sponsor, which is someone who has been in recovery for a period of time and can help mentor them as they begin their journey. In many communities, meetings are offered throughout the day with no limit on how often a person can attend.

Other groups, such as SMART Recovery, do not use a 12-step model or sponsors, but do have regularly scheduled group meetings.

Various types of support groups and self-help programs include:

Benefits of Individual Counseling

In some cases, after a teen completes residential treatment, an outpatient step-down program, and remains fully engaged in a support group, there could still be a need for ongoing individual counseling. This type of aftercare gives your child the opportunity to have personalized care that keeps them accountable to a professional who can objectively evaluate their recovery progress. Individual counseling may also help your child avoid losing the gains made in treatment, work through triggers for relapse, and address the underlying emotional issues that led to drug abuse in the first place.

There are a few forms of individual counseling that are most useful for substance abuse aftercare, including:

If you need help locating a counselor for your teen, a useful service is:

  • Therapist Locator – a service provided by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.


  1. Acri, M.C., Gogel, L.P., Pollock, M., & Wisdom, J.P. (2012). What Adolescents Need to Prevent Relapse After Treatment for Substance Abuse: A Comparison of Youth, Parent, and Staff Perspectives. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse21(2), 117–129.
  2. Kaminer, Y. & Bukstein, O.G. (2008). Adolescent Substance Abuse: Dual Diagnosis and High-Risk Behaviors. New York: Routledge/Francis & Taylor.
  3. Kaminer, Y., Burleson, J.A., & Burke, R.H. (2008). Efficacy of Outpatient Aftercare for Adolescents with Alcohol Use Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry47(12), 1405–1412.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
  5. Dimeff, L.A. & Linehan, M.M. (2008). Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Substance Abusers. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice4(2), 39.
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Scot Thomas
Medical Reviewer
Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating him to seek a clinical psychiatry preceptorship at the San Diego VA Hospital’s Inpatient Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program. In his post-graduate clinical work, Dr. Thomas later applied the tenets he learned to help guide his therapeutic approach with many patients in need of substance treatment. In his current capacity as Senior Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Dr. Thomas, works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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