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Are 12-Step Programs Beneficial for Teens?
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Are 12-Step Programs Beneficial for Teens?

teenager groups support
teenager groups support

In the past decade, there has been an explosion in the number of AA and NA youth groups around the country. These groups serve different purposes for different teens – some find that 12-Step meetings, possibly combined with outpatient therapy, are sufficient to get and stay sober, while the majority attend 12-Step groups during more intensive treatment, such as inpatient or residential substance abuse treatment, and then continue to participate after treatment ends to help maintain their sobriety.

There are different kinds of AA meetings: open meetings, which are open to anyone, including non-alcoholics, and closed meetings, which are limited to those who have or may have a drinking problem. Although teens are welcome to attend any meeting, many find a special camaraderie and fellowship in meetings with other young people. It is now estimated that 10 percent of AA members are under the age of 30.

Studies Show 12-Step Programs Benefit Teens

Despite the growing popularity of 12-Step programs for teens, many families wonder, does the 12-Step model really work for teens?

Studies have shown that AA and NA provide long-term benefits to youth, even if the adolescents stop attending after a time. Published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, one study followed 160 adolescents, with an average age of 16, through four- and six-week treatment programs based on a 12-Step model. After treatment ended, participants were re-assessed on a number of clinical variables at six months, and one, two, four, six, and eight years.

“We found that patients who attended more AA and/or NA meetings in the first six months post-treatment had better longer term outcomes, but this early participation effect did not last forever – it weakened over time,” said John F. Kelly, associate director of the MGH-Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The best outcomes achieved into young adulthood were for those patients who continued to go to AA and/or NA. In terms of a real-world recovery metric, we found that for each AA/NA meeting that a youth attended they gained a subsequent two days of abstinence, independent of all other factors that were also associated with a better outcome.”

Researchers found that even small amounts of AA/NA participation (once per week) was associated with improved outcomes, and three meetings per week was associated with complete abstinence. Not surprisingly, severely addicted teens attended a greater number of meetings and benefited most from the AA/NA focus on complete abstinence.

In a survey by Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Addiction Medicine, teens reported that the group dynamic, support, and sense of hope they gained at AA/NA meetings were the most appealing aspects of the 12-Step program. Addiction experts point to the following additional benefits of a 12-Step program for adolescents:

• The 12-Step program is focused specifically on abstinence and addiction recovery.
• Twelve Step meetings are widely available in most communities, and can be accessed any day, evening, or weekend.
• Services are free.
• The 12-Step program provides easy admission into a large social support network with fellow adolescents in recovery, meeting teens’ particular need for social affiliation and peer-group acceptance.
• Teens can attend regularly or on an as needed basis.
• Twelve Step meetings offer social activities and sober fun as an alternative to drinking, doing drugs, and partying.

Finding a Teen Substance Abuse Treatment Program

Research shows the more time a teen spends in a structured and supportive long-term drug rehab program, the better his/her chances for a successful recovery. There are a number of teen substance abuse treatment programs that combine 12-Step work with residential treatment, intensive therapy, and sober living activities.

By growing comfortable with the 12-Step approach during treatment, young people are more likely to continue using this support system after they leave the safety and structure of a drug rehab program. They are also more likely to build a spiritual connection, which has proven to assist in long-term sobriety.

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