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14 Things to Look For in a Teen Rehab Center

By Manjari Bansal, Kyle Kirkland
Is it time to get serious about your teen's addiction treatment? We asked experts about the key elements you should look for in a teen rehab center.

More than 60% of teens will have tried alcohol by the twelfth grade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additonally, about half of 9th-12th graders report marijuana use, while almost 2 in 10 twelfth graders report that they have used a prescription drug illegally. While substance use in adolescents does not always lead to addiction, the development of significant issues and substance use disorder is possible. And if an addiction develops, seeking treatment for your teenager is critical for preventing severe consequences and helping to ensure their health and well-being. Here’s what you need to look for in a teen rehab center.

1. Selection of the best treatment approach.

The first thing to decide is what type of care would be best for your teenager.

“Ask questions like ‘Will my child live at home and attend outpatient treatment, or do they need an inpatient program where they will live at the rehab center?,’” Doug Paul, Clinical Director at Buckhead Behavioral Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“If your child attends a medical detox clinic as a first step, the clinicians and case managers on staff there can discuss your options and weigh in with advice,” Paul says.

A detox center is a program by medical professionals focused on helping people manage the ease and discomfort of withdrawal symptoms.

Also, the type of treatments each center offers can be different.

“Find out what evidence-based treatments they offer,” Anandhi Narasimhan, M.D. and psychiatrist, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Examples may include behavioral therapies, family-based approaches, medication management, and cognitive behavioral therapy,” Narasimhan says.

2. Support during the admission and discharge process.

You'll want to do everything you can to ensure that the facility you choose will put your teen's treatment and health first. 

“By the time families are considering [drug] rehab services for their teen, life has become quite scary and stressful,” Michael Roeske, PsyD, Senior Director of Newport Healthcare’s Center for Research and Innovation, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“The best programs are going to have thoughtful, knowledgeable staff that listen to and help guide families, even if it means referring them elsewhere. And as a teen completes their residential treatment, it can be just as challenging and frightening, so having a dedicated person providing support can be extremely important and calming,” Roeske says.

3. A structured, therapeutic environment. 

“The right treatment setting can make all the difference in the world,” Roeske says.   “Parents should go visit the place if possible, and it should feel and look serene, secure, clean, and be run by compassionate, qualified professionals.”

“Of course, as every parent or caretaker can attest, a group of teens living together has the potential for chaos or drama, even in the best of circumstances. And despite what they might say, teens in turmoil, or any of us for that matter, benefit from structure, so there should be lots of activities and programming, especially on the weekends,” Roeske adds. 

4. Appropriate licensure and accreditation.

“It is important to understand the specific services that the facility is licensed to provide and that this service corresponds with the service description being provided by the treatment center,” Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC, and Chief Clinical Officer at Sandstone Care, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“Also, find a facility that is either Joint Commission or [Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities] CARF-Accredited. Facilities governed by these accrediting bodies undergo regular scrutiny of their policies and procedures and performance improvement processes, along with much more,” Fletcher says. 

5. Experience working with teenagers.

“Adolescents simply aren't the same as adults. Look for a treatment program that specializes in adolescent care or has a dedicated program track and trained adolescent therapists,” Paul says.

Rehab centers that mix teens and adults may not be as effective due to the vast social and mental differences between the two.

“It is important to find out whether or not the treatment center is actually an age-specific provider who provides groups to clients that are within the adolescent age range (13-18). For example, some states might allow 17-year-olds to be treated in an adult facility, which means a high school student might have a harder time engaging in treatment services with older adults when the group is mixed,” Fletcher says. 

You cannot force a loved one to go into treatment, so finding a program that will relate to them will help increase the chance of a successful recovery. 

6. Inclusion of family support in treatment.

“Loved ones are a crucial part of an individual's recovery process. Look for a treatment program with a family-centered approach and support groups, whether virtual or in-person, offered specifically for loved ones,” Paul says.

Your teenager needs to know you support them and are willing to go through the journey with them. 

Substance use disorders can affect mental health. Your teen may have started substance use because they were depressed, or their substance use has caused them to be depressed. Either way, they need your support to give them the strength and courage to go through rehabilitation.

7. An appropriate staff-to-teen ratio.

It's perfectly fine for you to inquire about how many staff members (and their respective levels of training) are typically handling day-to-day operations in the facilities you're considering. 

“You'll want to make sure there's enough staff on hand to give each teen the individual attention they need,” Clare Waismann, RAS, SUDCC, Founder and Director of Waismann Method® Opioid Treatment Center and Domus Retreat in California, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “This is especially important for teenagers, who can be easily overwhelmed in large groups.”

8. The purposeful use of non-stigmatizing language and framing.

Substance use disorder is often poorly-understood and stigmatized. However, most experts agree that addiction is a disease of the brain, and not a moral failing. It's therefore important to choose a facility for your teen that will not impose negative stereotypes. 

“It is essential that rehab does not convince your teen that 'once an addict always an addict,' Waismann says. “This type of pre-conceived thinking could damage your teen's self-esteem and create a lifelong stigma. The staff should use terms that are more accurate to a treatable condition and less harmful. For example, ‘substance use’ is a more accurate term than ‘addict’. It is important that your teen feels respected and supported during rehabilitation to maximize success.”

“Old, damaging terms can sabotage this process. Instead, the focus should be on helping your teen develop a positive self-image and a healthy outlook on recovery. Only then can your teen hope to achieve lasting sobriety. Otherwise, the odds are stacked against them,” Waismann adds.

9. The inclusion of educational components.

“One factor parents should consider when deciding on an appropriate program for their child is if they want their child to continue with their school curriculum or if they want them to take a break from school to focus on treatment,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“There are pros and cons to either decision. There are programs available that allow for your child to continue to engage in virtual school-work or some that have their own educational curriculum, as well as other programs that do not have an educational component,” Sternlicht says.

10. The availability of therapies tailored to your teen's identity, interests, or other conditions. 

“Consider what your child might need help with aside from their substance abuse,” Sternlicht says. “If they have a specific underlying mental health issue, trauma, an eating disorder, relationship issues, gender identity issues, is LGBTQI+ or have other specific needs there may be a program available that is more suitable for them than others.”

“In addition to selecting a program that has the best treatment approach, teen programs also often have alternative therapies such as equine therapy, art, and music therapy, nature therapy, meditation and yoga, and other such therapies that may help them in their recovery and keep them engaged in the treatment process,”  Sternlicht adds.

11. Continuing care options and support.

Recovery can be a complex process, and you'll want to make sure that your teen will still have support after they are discharged. 

“Another extremely important thing to look for that most people probably are not aware of is does the facility offer aftercare,” Mark Jaffe, MD, Psychiatrist at Westwind Recovery in Los Angeles, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “It’s critical that the clients know they can return should they need therapy.”

“The facility should have alumni or continuing care program or recommendations to assist in further care once the teen has left the facility to prevent relapse,” Erika Dalton, LMSW, Executive Director at Buckhead Behavioral Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

12. Cultural competence.

No program is identical to another, and certain facilities will emphasize cultural competence more than others. You'll want to make sure that, as much as possible, your teen doesn't feel alienated, and that staff have systems in place to affirm and tailor treatment to their various identities. 

“The program should take into consideration the gender identity, pronouns, and cultural background of the teen,” Dalton says. 

“Look at the center's curriculum and ensure it aligns with your values and beliefs,” Waismann says. “This will help ensure that your teenager gets the treatment you're comfortable with. By doing your research ahead of time, you can be confident that you're sending your teenager to a rehab center that will give them the best chances for success.”

13. The inclusion of leisure and recreational activities.

“Most facilities are dull and consist of the same daily routine, as such when deciding on a teen rehab center always make sure your teen will be active,” Jaffe says. “For example, [many facilities] incorporate experiential therapy as part of the program. This includes going on hikes, equine therapy, riding bicycles along the beach, surfing therapy seeing movies together, having barbecues together, or going on camping trips.”

“Participating in these kinds of activities makes your teen feel a part of something and it helps boost self-esteem. It shows them that being sober can be fun!! This is also a great way to make new friends.” Jaffe adds.

14. Volunteer opportunities. 

“Further distinguishing the program is having our clients involved in volunteerism, which places [your teen] in service of others,” Jaffe says. “Since addiction leads the individual to become highly self-absorbed, volunteerism switches the focus so that their concentration is no longer on themselves, but on those, they are serving. As a result, their self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence levels begin to improve.” 

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