Covid-19 and Caring for Our Addicted Teens

by Susan Burrowes
April 20, 2020

It took nine months for our addicted teen Hannah to earn a home visit from her residential treatment center, just in time for a big family event. All of us were, quite frankly, scared. It took hours of therapy to prepare us for seeing each other. We had a lot of support, assurances from professionals, and ultimately a successful experience. In our current pandemic, however, you and your addicted teen may not always have the benefit of time and professional support to make difficult transitions.

COVID-19 has created a unique set of worries for parents of substance abusers. A few wilderness and residential treatment programs have been forced to close, sending residents home; most continue to stay open with additional precautions for intake and interaction in place.

Both of these scenarios pose challenges for parents.

Teens who come home early due to program closures face sudden, disconcerting changes in their environment that can endanger their sobriety. According to HealthDay , the isolation and stress caused by the pandemic can put our teens at risk for relapse. Dr. Lawrence Brown Jr., CEO of the nonprofit START Treatment & Recovery Centers, points out that sobriety is fragile during this time: “People who have lost proximity to support systems, programs, and relationships that help them stay sober may be tempted to self-medicate in order to deal with stress, anxiety, and isolation.”

For teens currently seeking sobriety through wilderness or residential treatment, a temperature or cough at intake can hold up or deny their addiction treatment and leave families without support when they need it most.

For teens currently in programs, parents may be concerned about safety factors like sanitation, and isolation.

If Your Teen’s Program Is Affected
If your teen’s program has closed or denied intake, you will have to move forward on your own. Getting the right support systems into place at home can be tricky. You might not have a lot of time to find alternative support for your child. Here are some ideas on how to move forward:

If you used a placement service, call and ask them for local or outpatient services. If your teen is at a facility that is closing, ask them for recommendations. They may have partnerships with outpatient programs in your areas.

Make calls. It’s important for you to find the right fit for your teen. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It is “a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.” According to their website, they get almost 70,000 calls per month. They will have resources for you.

Your state should have a Department of Human Services or Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. They’ll have recommendations. Listings for support groups in your area are also a great resource for learning where or how to get treatment quickly. Focus your efforts on programs that have made the shift to online services, including video conferencing. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has put together a list of online resources:

Check out the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs web pages . Under “For Parents,” you’ll find a list of questions broad enough to suit a variety of programs.

Be prepared to undergo the intake process again. You’ll need medical records and a family history, even if you have provided it to your child’s current program.

If you don’t already have local therapeutic support for your family, now is the time to seek it out. 

Once your teen is at home, they might feel disoriented or have a natural need to separate, but have nowhere to go. Remember, for many students, their school or work goals have been compromised. Their feelings are real. The last thing they want is to hear “how good they have it.” Instead, acknowledge their feelings and listen hard, without judgment. Your anger or indifference to their situation will do little except alienate them now, when they need you.

If Your Teen Is Admitted or Is Currently in a Program

If your teen is admitted or is in a program at this time, you may be worried about their physical health. It’s a great idea to ask some questions about the manner in which possible contagious residents are treated at the facility.

The National Council for Behavioral Health supplies guidelines such as the following:

  • Symptomatic residents should be separated, with meals and meds supplied in-room.
  • Isolation, in a single room, for each roommate who has been in a symptomatic room. Isolation should be maintained for 14 days, then a mask should be worn in public and social distance maintained.
  • The health department should be contacted for testing when a resident experiences symptoms.
  • Residents can remain at the facility. Facilities are not required to transfer the resident assuming (1) the resident does not require a higher level of care and (2) the facility can adhere to the rest of the infection prevention and control practices recommended for caring for a resident with COVID-19.
  • In programs with several bathroom facilities, one bathroom should be set aside for resident(s) who have been exposed or are showing symptoms. Surfaces, shower knobs, curtains, handles, and other high-contact surfaces should be sanitized after each time these residents use the facilities.
  • In programs with only one bathroom, all clients and staff should use masks while in the bathroom. If possible, stagger shower times, ensuring that bathroom ventilation fans run for at least 20 minutes between all showers.
  • Symptomatic or isolated residents or staff should not use shared spaces such as kitchens, common areas, and so forth.

In a March 17 Mental Horizons podcast, Dr. Eric Levine of CooperRiis Healing Community discusses some of the additional steps facilities can take to provide a sense of safety:

  • CDC risk assessment guidelines should be followed for intake.
  • Student activity should be campus-based.
  • Nonessential medical and dental appointments should be postponed.
  • A plan should be in place for isolation as necessary.
  • Staff should be trained to recognize symptoms.
  • Staff should be trained to sanitize spaces and control social interaction.
  • Professional activities and conferences for staff should be postponed.

Helping your teen is hard, and it is even harder during these unprecedented times. Whether you are unexpectedly keeping your teen at home or have fears about sending your teen away, I hope these resources will help you find the support and assurance you need for your teen’s recovery.

Susan Burrowes is the author of Off the Rails: One Family’s Journey Through Teen Addiction, winner of the 2019 Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for Parenting & Family books and an Indie Book Award finalist. She is the mother of two wonderful, terrible children in Santa Cruz, California. You can find her at or on Facebook at

Susan Burrowes

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