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Navigating Teenage Addiction During the COVID-19 Pandemic

James J. Crist, Ph.D., is the author of several self-help books, including “What’s the Big Deal About Addictions? Answers and Help for Teens.” He also has a practice and is trained in child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. 

With his first self-help book publishing in 1996, Crist has been following trends in adolescent mental health for decades. “The way I do it is that if I see a need among the people I’m working with, I can’t find a good self-help book on the market, and I think I could do a good job, I write it myself,” he says. “That’s what motivates me.”

Crist works with people of all ages, but several of his books tackle issues faced by kids and teenagers, and he offers advice for parents looking to better understand their children. “They have had fewer years to develop bad habits,” Crist says. “And so by working with teens and kids as well as their parents, my hope is that moving forward, we can actually avoid some of the problems that they might experience as adults.”

The pandemic effect

Teenagers, like most of the population, have been in crises during the COVID-19 pandemic. Socially, they are now cut off from their peers, and they’ve often had to turn to online resources to socialize and destress. Increased isolation and online schooling are added stress factors, and as such, there is an increased risk of addictive behaviors. 

According to Crist, this includes not only substance abuse, but also addictions to social media and gaming. “For kids and teenagers in particular, their social life is everything. And while social media and online gaming has been somewhat helpful, it’s no substitute for just being able to hang out with people in person,” he says. “One of the things we know about addictions is that addictions are often attempts to self-medicate underlying problems such as anxiety, depression, and even ADHD. I think that’s what’s happening is that people are trying to escape the unpleasantness of the current situation, and that’s why they’ve had more trouble with addictions.” 

When it comes to self-medicating, Crist notes that this can manifest via the use of drugs like alcohol and marijuana, or through an over dependence on online activities like gaming, but he also emphasizes that at the end of the day, children and teenagers resort to addictive behaviors because they help, at least in the short term. 

“I think it’s important to respect that [addictive behaviors] are an attempt to solve a problem,” he says. 

Cast a line

Teenagers aren’t always equipped to respond to depression or anxiety in healthy ways, so it’s important for parents to open a line of communication with their children and support healthy methods of processing emotions. 

“It’s really important for parents to always maintain a positive relationship with their kids,” Crist says. “Even if you haveto set limits or impose some sort of restriction, to be able to do it in a loving way as opposed to a punitive way is essential. Most people don’t learn well by being punished. We say that punishments is the least effective form of discipline because it usually just creates anger and resentment.” 

Crist also recommends parents check out Love and Logic to learn more about navigating disciplining children through loving and communicative ways without resorting to punitive teaching styles.  

There are also several online resources for teenagers struggling with addiction, as well as for parents looking for help. The National Institute of Drug Abuse for Teens, as well as the National Association for Children of Addiction are two such examples.

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