Addiction | Finding The Way With Students

Ash San Filippo
September 26th, 2018

Walking with an addicted teen is a treacherous journey.

It’s not a walk in the park.

It’s not a paved road.

It’s not even a gravel trail.

It’s a mountain pass. It’s full of rocks and cliffs and exhaustion. Tears and aching hearts. Victories, valleys, plateaus and sheer elevation that can seem impossible to overcome. And just when you’re almost to the top, they slip. They slide down the mountain at break-neck speeds and threaten to pull you with them.  

My goal is to help equip you for the journey in less than 1000 words. There are libraries of books written on addiction, so what we’re going through will be basic, practical and abbreviated.

Stages of Addiction

Not everyone who engages in addictive behavior is at the same place. There are generally four agreed-upon stages of addiction. This framework helps us determine a meaningful approach to helping students.

1. First use: Discovering that the behavior—drugs, alcohol, self-harm, porn, etc.—can alter their mood.

2. Regular use: Seeking out the behavior to alter their mood.

3. Risky use: Tolerance to behavior is building, so excessive amounts are needed to alter their mood.

4. Dependence: Behavior is needed in order to achieve a normal mood.

Consider the different responses you might have to a student who got stressed and scratched their wrist with a bent paperclip versus a student who carries a razor and can’t get through a school day without a trip to the bathroom to inflict a series of fresh wounds. Getting a handle on what stage they’re in will help determine a path forward.

As you approach them with grace, ask questions like:

What do you feel when you do ___?

How often are you using ___?

What does ___ help you achieve?

How do you feel about your ___use?

Pull Toward Addiction

Not every student who is at stage 1 or 2 will end up at stages 3 or 4.  Sometimes it’s just experimentation. Sometimes it’s regular use to alter the mood but will never advance to dependence.

So, what pulls students toward the latter stages of addiction?

There are many factors that can drag people into addiction. Significant risk factors include mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and family history of addiction.

For our purposes, I want to focus on the one youth ministers have the most power to influence: Shame.

Shame is the sense that you’re inherently defective. It is tied closely to self-hatred and is often referred to in those terms by teens.

The Shame/Addiction Connection

Shame is an emotion that won’t be left unsoothed. It is a vortex that will draw anything in that has the potential to numb it for a while.

When a shame-filled teenager discovers something that can help them temporarily escape from their self-hatred, it will not take them long to slide through the 4 stages of addiction.

Skip the Christian Guilt Trip

With the knowledge that shame fuels addiction, we can easily see how youth ministers could inadvertently make the problem worse as we try to help.

Imagine living a life where your identity revolves around not being good enough, only to have someone reinforce those lies using Scripture.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe sin and addiction go hand in hand. I know that there are verses in the Bible that specifically address sobriety and lust. But those aren’t the verses that addicted teens need most to hear—they usually already know.

They know that God doesn’t want them blackout drunk every weekend.

They know that their body is a temple.

They know having to duck into bathrooms for porn sessions throughout their day isn’t God’s ideal.

They often don’t know that God still wants them. That he still likes them. That he has still made them holy. That the Holy Spirit still lives inside of them and will empower them to overcome.

We must teach them that, at their core, they are blameless, redeemed and holy. Their addiction isn’t powerful enough to undo Jesus’ work on the cross.

Helping Them Find Their Choice

An addicted person is in so much bondage that they often believe they no longer have a choice. They think that their behavior will ultimately rule the rest of their lives.

But God does give them choices; youth ministers can help them discover their ability to choose.  

They can choose to combat shame-filled lies with truth.

They can choose to learn emotion regulation without substance abuse.  

And down the road, they will be able to choose freedom from their behavior.

Boundaries on the Journey

As we walk with an addicted teen up the mountain of recovery, we need to keep perspective.

Their relapses are not our failures.

When they slide down the mountain, we can mourn for them without giving into despair.

With a clear head, we can remind them of their identity in Christ, teach them healthy coping skills, and celebrate with them as they overcome their addiction.   

Ash San Filippo

Ash SanFilippo is committed to giving youth workers the tools needed to reach teens who are experiencing hopelessness. That is why he’s at TreeHouse, whose mission is to end hopelessness among teens. Check out TreeHouse at thyouth.org

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.