George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Responding to Students With Addiction

Supporting students with drug and alcohol dependency isn’t easy—but some strategies are more helpful than others.

February 13, 2019
An abstract drawing of a teenage boy in pinks and dark blues, half of his head is covered in shadows with painkiller capsules floating about him
©Ikon/Stuart Kinlough

Young people who repeatedly get caught using alcohol and drugs are often labeled as “troubled,” “bad influences,” or “kids who are making bad choices.” Maybe an adult in the picture recognizes that a student might have a problem, but it can be difficult for that adult to understand why the student doesn’t seem to want to get better.

As educators, we have a job to do—and not many options for helping students like these without also having to punish them. How can we better support students who might be struggling with alcoholism and addiction?

What Is Addiction?

Yes, each individual makes that first choice to pick up a drink or drug. But numerous studies suggest that up to 50 percent of a person’s risk of becoming addicted can be attributed to genetic factors. For one teen, taking a drink is fun, relaxing, and enjoyable in moderation. For another, a drink is the missing link: It makes him feel more like himself, like he belongs—so the more, the better.

Although people abuse drugs for a variety of reasons, most experts agree that the persistent abuse of drugs or alcohol despite adverse consequences can be a primary disease. That is, addiction isn’t always caused by something else, and you don’t have to have a co-occurring disorder, like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, to be afflicted. But even those who believe addiction is a disease often look at a person abusing drugs or alcohol and think: “You need to get this under control. Don’t you know you’re hurting yourself?”

For any caring educator, watching a young person destroy his or her future with drugs or alcohol is a problem. But for any addict—adolescent or otherwise—drugs and alcohol are a solution: to anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, social angst, or any number of conditions that make daily life intolerable.

Since adolescents experience these feelings intensely, it’s no wonder they are willing to sacrifice so much just to feel OK inside. That is: Using is not a choice when the alternative is not getting your deepest emotional needs met.

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When and Why Consequences Don’t Work

We know addicts are not deterred by consequences. Yet what do we do when a kid gets caught drunk or high at school again and again? We escalate the consequences. For a non-addict who gets caught vaping in the bathroom, a consequence will work.

But educators should recognize that a student who doesn’t stop using despite getting in serious trouble, upsetting their parents, and disappointing their teachers has likely reached a point at which the choice to use is no longer really a choice. 

How Consequences Can Help

It’s disheartening when the only motivation a young person has to stop abusing drugs or alcohol is to stay out of trouble and keep adults off his back. A young person may abstain—or try to—for a brief time in order to avoid consequences or to please someone he cares about. But if the choice to stay clean isn’t truly his own, it’s more likely than not that he will relapse.

In these situations, however, we have a real opportunity to get out of the way and let substances become the user’s problem, not ours. This means letting those consequences speak for themselves, without adding our two cents about “bad choices,” how the student is hurting himself, or the like.

When administered fairly and kindly, without shame or judgement, consequences can keep an adolescent focused on her own behavior—and help her move closer to asking, “Is this really what I want my life to look like?”

The Road to Recovery

I have a friend who was taken to his first recovery meeting by the dean of students at his high school. He did not get sober for many years, but that act of kindness from a man who went out of his way to do something he absolutely did not need to do planted a seed that later flowered. Today, my friend is over 50 years old—and over 15 years sober.

We would never say to someone with a deadly disease, “It’s on you to get better—stop making so many bad choices.” Young adults can—and do—recover from addiction. But the hard truth is that for most teenage substance abusers, adolescence is just the beginning of a long, painful journey. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we need to show these students that we are not invested in whether they stop using—but we are 100 percent invested in them.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express our fears or concerns. It only means that putting pressure—even positive pressure—on addicts to change does not help in the long run. Maybe we ask them about their using. Or maybe we just ask them about their weekend. We give consequences for their behavior, but we don’t take that behavior personally. We can let them know recovery is possible and that we are there to help. As a result, they may open up to us more, and find healing just a little bit sooner.

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