Group therapy for teens is an important psychotherapeutic tool.
When substance abuse enters the picture, the negative aspects of adolescence are magnified, leaving family members feeling helpless and frightened. Teenage boys who become addicted to drugs are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like driving under the influence, having unsafe sex, getting into altercations and sharing needles with IV drug users. From their early experiments with drugs and alcohol to the final stages of addiction, boys are likely to be influenced by peer pressure.
Group therapy for teens plays a critical role in substance abuse treatment for adolescents.
The purpose of this form of therapy is to replace negative peer pressure with the positive support of other teens who are fighting the same battle. Instead of being influenced by kids who encourage them to engage in self-destructive behavior, teens in group therapy sessions are surrounded by others who share their hopes, fears and challenges. Throughout the recovery process, group therapy provides these valuable benefits:
- Providing a nonjudgmental forum where boys can voice their feelings without being criticized or shamed
- Creating an environment of support for teens who are looking for a way out of the trap of addiction
- Giving teens the opportunity to form relationships with peers who share their commitment to sobriety
- Finding acceptance in a healthy, drug-free group
For many boys who enter addiction treatment, group therapy is their first opportunity to speak the truth about their chemical dependence. Boys who have led a life of secrecy, isolation and denial can share their experiences openly with others. This process is where true recovery begins.
The Power of Peers
How powerful is peer pressure to growing teens? Scientists at Temple University used brain scans to visualize the changes that take place in the adolescent brain when it responds to peer pressure. In the study, adults and teenagers participated in a simulated driving course while in a brain scanner. The course presented many opportunities for decision-making, and participants were offered prizes for completing the course more quickly. Both groups completed the driving video game alone and in the presence of a group of their peers.
The results of this study, published in Developmental Science, indicated that the teenage brain responds much more strongly to peer influence than the adult brain.
The areas of the brain that respond to reward were much more active in the teenage drivers when they were being watched by other teens — especially when those teenage drivers were taking risks. The teenagers were more likely to run yellow lights, speed through stop signs and have accidents during the simulated driving experience when they knew that their peers were looking on. In fact, the teenage drivers were 60 percent more likely to have a collision when they were being observed by other teens.
By the same token, teens are more likely to take risks with drugs or alcohol when their friends are involved. According to the University of Michigan, peers can play a part in substance abuse in the following ways:
- By introducing each other to drugs or alcohol
- By acting as negative role models who encourage drug abuse in others
- By providing access to drugs
- By covering up for a friend’s substance abuse
- By influencing other teens’ attitudes about drugs
The purpose of group therapy is to replace these destructive influences with healthy, life-affirming ones. Teens in a support group speak honestly about their addiction, hold each other accountable for their decisions, and act as positive role models for each other. Instead of helping each other obtain drugs, they teach each other the coping skills they need to lead a drug-free life.
Helping Teenagers Help Each Other
Peer group therapy can begin as early as the detox phase and continue throughout substance abuse treatment. Support groups and self-help meetings are also vital in the aftercare stage, when the skills learned in rehab must be applied in a “real life” setting. In order to be effective, peer group therapy should be structured and facilitated by experienced addiction specialists. Groups are conducted by a therapist, counselor or psychiatrist who is credentialed in both adolescent development and addiction treatment.
The facilitator’s job is not to confront the group members or to criticize their behavior. Instead, this therapist’s role is to provide structure and to act as a neutral intermediary in guiding the discussion. The therapist also acts as an educator, instructing the group on a wide range of topics related to substance abuse and recovery. In the course of a session, a facilitator’s role includes:
- Providing structure for the session by enforcing group rules, such as being on time and allowing each member to speak in turn
- Offering a discussion topic or allowing the group to choose a topic that’s relevant to their recovery
- Encouraging open, honest communication among group members
- Discouraging cross-talk, criticism or confrontational behavior
- Validating each member’s experiences and self-expression
- Identifying group members who are at risk of a relapse
- Acting as a role model and advocate for a healthy, drug-free life
- Creating an emotionally safe environment where each member feels acknowledged, respected and values
When conducted by caring, compassionate professionals, peer group therapy can be one of the most influential aspects of a teenager’s recovery.
A review of studies published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology showed that peer group therapy has been one of the mainstays of adolescent addiction treatment since the 1990s. Perhaps the most important purpose of group therapy is to give isolated teens a secure, self-affirming environment that makes them feel cared for and valued.
Gender-Specific Therapy Models
Teenagers are more likely to be open about substance abuse when they don’t feel inhibited or self-conscious. In a gender-specific environment, adolescents can talk more freely about sensitive issues like sexuality, physical abuse and mental illness. Without the social pressures of dealing with the opposite sex, teenage boys can focus exclusively on their recovery. Boys who have felt neglected or undervalued in the outside world can feel validated in this supportive setting.
Gender-specific therapy models for boys acknowledge the unique challenges faced by teenage males. Many of the boys who enter treatment have grown up without positive male role models. Some have been physically, psychologically or sexually abused by men in positions of trust and authority. In gender-specific groups, boys can explore these painful topics in an atmosphere of safety and compassion.
Teenage boys who don’t get the support they need to overcome drug abuse may face a violent future. A survey of incarcerated males published in Substance Abuse and Misuse found that 59 percent had been sexually abused as children. The members of this group were up to 30 percent more likely to have engaged in substance abuse than those who were not abused. For a lot of troubled teens, recovery isn’t just about healing from addiction but about healing from the trauma of a destructive, unstable childhood. In addition to group therapy, addicted teens work intensively with individual counselors to address the feelings and memories that drive their substance abuse.
Group therapy offers vital emotional support at this transitional time. Group members learn critical coping skills from each other and from their facilitator, such as:
- How to replace self-defeating thought patterns with positive ones
- How to identify the situations and emotions that trigger substance abuse
- How to form strong, healthy relationships with peers and family
- How to make the transition from boyhood to adulthood successfully
- How to create a sober, fulfilling life as a mature man
Whether the focus is on relapse prevention, psychosocial education or identity-building, peer group sessions create a place for healing to occur.
Supplemental Therapies in Addiction Treatment
Peer group therapy is only one component of a comprehensive recovery program. Along with the traditional cornerstones of treatment, like individual counseling, family counseling and peer support groups, innovative treatment centers offer supplemental therapies that reinforce the skills learned in therapy. These modalities include equine-assisted therapy and adventure therapy, where teens build a sense of self-confidence, trust and accountability through rigorous, hands-on experience.
Family therapy programs address the fact that adolescent addiction is not an individual problem but a family disease. The goal of family counseling is to create a sober home environment that supports the health of all the members of the household. Therapists work closely with teens and their parents or guardians to heal broken bonds, establish boundaries, and promote an atmosphere of trust and hope.
At Muir Wood, we specialize in guiding troubled teenage boys through the process of becoming men. Peer group therapy is a core component of that process. Our groups are led by highly credentialed professionals who understand the obstacles and pressures that boys face. We encourage you to call our treatment team to talk about how our evidence-based treatment plans can help the teenager in your life grow successfully through this challenging phase of his life.