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Teen Substance Abuse – How The Seven Challenges Program Encourages Authentic Change

Few teens with drug or alcohol problems make a personal choice to enter a treatment program – the vast majority get compelled or coerced by parents, by the courts or by other voices of authority.

Because of this, few teens entering the treatment process are at a stage where they are truly ready to quit using or drinking for good.

Unfortunately, because most treatment programs are expected to produce immediate results – to get teens clean and sober today and not tomorrow – counselors have to pound away at producing abstinence in all clients, whether the client is truly ready to accept such a course of action or motivated to make the changes necessary to achieve such a difficult transition.

And though teens may be great at telling us what they know we want to hear, you can’t change a person’s thinking by force or coercion and unless a person is ready – on the inside – to make lasting changes, lasting changes aren’t likely to occur.

The Seven Challenges Program – No More Telling Teens What To Do

Recognizing that most teens don’t enter into an addiction treatment program truly ready to quit drinking or using drugs, The Seven Challenges Program eliminates the coercion and forced change that’s implicit in many other adolescent treatment modalities and helps teens make their own decisions about what they should do.

The program takes each teen as they are at each moment and  does not assume or require readiness to change. Adolescents are quite used to adults telling them how to act and what to do. Adolescents, however, are also progressing through a developmental stage during which they’re forming their own identities and moving away from the influence of adult authorities. Because of this, teens are in some ways hardwired to resist what adults tell them to do.

In many conventional treatment programs, because counselors are compelled to get teens to immediate abstinence, there can be little discussion about what each teen should do. 

There is only one "should": You should (have to) stop using or drinking today and there can be little authentic discussion about topics like the benefits of using drugs or alcohol or alternate avenues of change.

When teens get boxed into a corner where adults are telling them what to do and when they are not allowed to come to their own decisions about a course of action they tend to react in ways that can sabotage the best of treatment efforts. For example:

  1. Teens tell us what we want to hear so we’ll stop talking so much and so they can go back to doing what they really want to do.
  2. They decide to follow our directions and try to change, but since few changes come from within, they aren’t left with the tools they need to stay sober and quickly relapse once away from an environment of adult instruction
  3. They get on the defensive and you waste a lot of time and energy on arguments that do nothing to help a person learn to stay drug or alcohol free.  “If you say drugs are bad then I’ll say they’re good and I can list 500 reasons why I think that….If you say I have a problem and I need to change I’ll say I don’t have a problem and I’ll give you a ton of examples why everything is going great for me right now…”

Instead of trying to force teens into a corner, counselors in the Seven Challenges Program work first of all to develop honest and trusting relationships with their clients – seeking to avoid wasting time on insincere commitments to change. Over time, from this relationship built on respect, counselors help teens to explore their use of drugs or alcohol and the effects it has on their lives and the lives of those around them. Teens also explore what needs they may be fulfilling through their substance use and the risks and costs associated with using chemicals to fulfill these personal needs.

Over time, as teens are presented with factual information and as they work through their motivations and the consequences of drug use, they may come to a point where they honestly seek to make life changes. At this point, counselors teach the life-skills needed to make such changes and provide support in the process.

As the name indicates, the Seven Challenges Program is based on the progression through seven steps, which are incorporated into counseling sessions as appropriate.

The Seven Challenges:

  1. To talk honestly and openly about our use of drugs and alcohol and about ourselves
  2. To examine what it is we really like about using alcohol and drugs and to think about why we use
  3. To look at the way we use alcohol or drugs and to think about whether or not it has caused us any harm, or whether it could cause us any harm
  4. To look at our problems in life and to think about how much responsibility we have for those problems and how much responsibility other people have for those problems
  5. To think about where we seem to be headed in life and to also think about where we would like to end up and what things we might like to accomplish
  6. To make conscious decisions about our lives and how we will use alcohol and drugs
  7. To act on those decisions and we continue to use the seven challenges steps to overcome problems as they arise 1

Evidence Supporting The Seven Challenges Program

The Seven Challenges Program is recognized by SAMHSA as an evidence based substance abuse treatment program and it is now in use in hundreds of treatment facilities across the country.

Clinical studies show that it is comparably effective to other approved treatment modalities, such as family therapy, and that it is effective in reducing levels of substance abuse. For youth with concurrent mental health issues, The Seven Challenges was found to reduce the severity of general mental distress, anxiety and depression.2

Other benefits observed among youth who have completed The Seven Challenges Program include:

  • Improved overall mental health
  • Decreased levels of criminality
  • Improved honesty
  • Reduced aggressive behaviors
  • Improved relationships with family members and other adults
  • Improved knowledge about HIV3

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