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Nine Ingredients for Effective Treatment

Components of Effective Adolescent Treatment Programs

The Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy has found that for adolescent substance abuse treatment to be effective, it must be broad-based and diverse, addressing the "multifaceted needs and problems of each adolescent." The organization identified several key components as a basis for effective treatment, including continuing care and recovery management.1

Adolescents require treatment approaches that understand and address the patients' roles in family and society, their cognitive and social development, the environmental influences on behavior and their educational requirements. Treatment should:

  • be intensive and of sufficient duration to achieve changes in attitude and behavior
  • target several areas of adolescents' lives
  • be sensitive to cultural and socioeconomic realities of the people undergoing treatment, their families and their environments
  • encourage family involvement and improvement of communication among family members
  • incorporate a wide range of social services
  • include aftercare that reinforces the changes that have been achieved during primary treatment.2

Specific Interventions

Practitioners use a broad range of services for adolescents with serious alcohol problems, ranging from the least restrictive, outpatient psychotherapy, to the most restrictive, inpatient treatment. In-between, they may recommend services such as community-based interventions. The most effective treatments for adolescents are those treatments focused on intervening with the youth's family, peer group, school and community.


Nine Keys to Effective Treatment

Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute that promotes more effective approaches to our nation's drug problems, has identified nine key elements of effective treatment for adolescents:

  • Assessment and treatment matching: assessment is a necessary step in determining if an adolescent's needs match the services available at the program as well as the level of treatment intensity.
  • Comprehensive, integrated treatment approach: an effective treatment program should address the adolescent's problems comprehensively rather than concentrating solely on alcohol use
  • Family involvement in treatment: engaging parents increases the likelihood that treatment will be effective
  • Developmentally appropriate program: adolescent treatment programs need to address the unique difficulties that accompany adolescence
  • Engage and retain teens in treatment: adolescent treatment programs should be designed to engage teens and keep them in treatment
  • Qualified staff: professional staff who understand adolescent development and can work effectively with families are important to treatment success 3
  • Gender and cultural competence: programs need to recognize both gender and cultural differences in their treatment approach
  • Continuing care: treatment programs should educate teens to recognize and deal with factors that lead to relapse
  • Treatment outcomes: adolescent treatment research offers strong evidence that treatment completion is closely linked to positive outcomes

Furthermore, Drug Strategies has identified 144 adolescent treatment programs located in 42 states. This information is available online in a database searchable by state:


1Physician's Leadership on National Drug Policy..2001.

2 Bukstein, 1994.

3 Drug Strategies. 2003. Treating Teens: A Guide to Adolescent Drug Programs. Washington, DC. Available to order online: