Twelve-Step Programs Help Teens Stay Sober, Study Finds

A new study by researchers from the University of Akron, Case Western Reserve University and Baylor University found that adolescents in a 12-Step addiction treatment program that emphasized spiritual growth experienced improved treatment outcomes. The study followed 195 teens, aged 14 to 18 years old, who were court-ordered to attend addiction treatment at New Directions, a large facility for adolescent addiction treatment in Northeast Ohio.

At the end of the two-month study, researchers found a significant increase in spirituality among the teens, which correlated with improved outcomes. The researchers hope that the results of this study will encourage more parents — and treatment professionals — to choose the 12-Step treatment model for substance-addicted teens.

Sober, Study Finds

Study Focused on Teens’ “Spiritual Experiences”

For the purposes of the study, the researchers focused on measuring the teens’ “spiritual experiences” rather than their religious behaviors or beliefs. At the beginning of the study, the researchers questioned the adolescents regarding their spiritual or religious beliefs, and found that they reported beliefs ranging from atheist or agnostic to nondenominational spiritual beliefs and denominational religious beliefs. Throughout the two months of the study, the researchers asked the study participants to identify their “daily spiritual experiences,” which they defined as feelings of harmony, inner peace or a divine presence, selflessness and benevolence. These spiritual experiences were measured independently of any formal religious practices the teens may have engaged in during the study period.

The teens participated in the New Directions treatment program, which combines cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and other evidence-based treatment modalities with the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous. While it encourages participants to acknowledge the existence of a higher power, the 12-step model does not require participants to adhere to a specific belief system.

Significant Increases in Spirituality

At the beginning of the study, about a third of the teenagers interviewed self-identified as atheist or agnostic. By the end of the two-month study period, about half of those teens claimed to have developed a religious or spiritual identity. Dr. Byron R. Johnson, a Baylor University professor associated with the study, called this “a most remarkable shift.”

The group as a whole reported increased numbers of spiritual experiences. The teens also became less narcissistic and self-centered, more likely to help others and better behaved in social situations. The researchers found that all of the teens studied reported increased numbers of spiritual experiences, even if they did not ultimately experience a change in spiritual identity.

Improved Treatment Outcomes

The teens as a whole were found to have better treatment outcomes, as evidenced by urine toxicology screens, reported decreases in drug and alcohol cravings, improved functioning both psychologically and socially and fewer clinical characteristics of addiction. Ninety-two percent of the teens studied had been court-ordered into the program for marijuana addiction. Sixty percent were also addicted to alcohol.

The researchers found that the teens’ self-reported spiritual changes were predictive of general behavior improvements and reduced drug use. Dr. Matthew T. Lee, chair of sociology at the University of Akron and the study’s lead author, believes that the improved treatment outcomes and improved behavior of the teens is proof that their spiritual changes were real.

Could a 12-Step Program Help Your Teen?

The outcome of this study seems to suggest that spiritual growth for teens in addiction treatment is possible, and that it could lead not only to long-term addiction recovery but to other positive life changes like increased rates of volunteering, increased employment rates and greater feelings of well-being. A 12-step treatment program is certainly one way to encourage your teen to grow spiritually during his or her addiction treatment program.

The 12-step program is based on the theory that self-centeredness and narcissism are at the root of addiction and seeks to correct those traits in order to treat addiction. By adulthood, these personality traits are typically too far entrenched to be completely removed, but in adolescence, the personality is still malleable. For that reason, the 12-step program may be the ideal method for addiction treatment in teens.

A new study from the University of Akron, Baylor University and Case Western Reserve University has found that addicted teens in 12-step treatment programs experience measurable spiritual growth tied to improved treatment outcomes. Due to the changeable nature of the adolescent personality, the 12-step treatment model may be the best method of treatment for teens struggling with addiction.

About the Author: Contributing blogger Sarah O’Neal has more than 10 years of experience counseling addicted teens.