Avoiding relapse in college-bound teens

Successfully completing an addiction treatment program is an achievement anyone should be proud of, particularly a teen. Parents of a teen in recovery also feel satisfied that a major milestone has been reached. When the teens are ready to go out of state to college, where they will be away from parental guidance, however, parents can begin to worry again that their child may be in danger of relapse.

Peer pressure can push teens into old patterns of behavior, but awareness of risks in advance can help maintain sobriety and prevent relapse. Following are some situations and steps to avoid:

Being in social situations where substances are available

Hanging out with friends who abuse substances may encourage a teen to join them. Those not ready to confront their own substance abuse will encourage others to have “fun” and join them.

Being socially isolated

Teens in early recovery need to follow the relapse prevention plan learned during treatment. This includes going to 12-step meetings, attending therapy sessions if necessary and getting support when cravings or temptations arise. Spending too much time alone may trigger relapse.

Being around drugs or alcohol

Anywhere drugs or alcohol are in use should be avoided. Just the sight of someone else using can be enough to break down resolve. Any paraphernalia associated with drugs should be disposed of along with anything that reminds a teen of prior use, such as photos or any other item that serves as a reminder.


There is plenty of stress while attending college, which might be enough to trigger old habits. A daily routine that includes exercise, joining a club, journaling or volunteering helps distract the mind and occupy time. Remembering what preceded the need for treatment helps in rejecting drugs or alcohol.


After a period of sobriety, a teen may feel that “one drink is OK.” Remember: one drink or one instance of drug use is considered relapse. Vigilance is necessary to maintain sobriety.

Mental or physical illness or pain

Depression or anxiety can prompt drug or alcohol use. If physical pain is present, a doctor should be consulted. If recovery is from drug abuse, the doctor should be informed to prevent the prescription of opiate medications.

Reminiscing about drug use or telling “war stories”

Time spent thinking about or discussing past substance abuse may be an indication of imminent relapse and should be avoided.


When the excitement of drugs is no longer present, boredom may set in. Taking up a sport such as rock climbing, rafting or other adventurous pastime provides a challenge that is healthy and rewarding. Involvement with sober friends in other activities is also recommended.


Rationalizing that one has worked hard and remained sober does not mean that a person now “deserves” to have a drink or share a high with friends. Remaining sober requires daily decisions to stay that way.

Parental support is important, especially when a teen is away from home. Keep in touch with a recovering teen in college. Offer praise and encouragement. If relapse does occur, try not to be judgmental. Parents should also seek support from Al-Anon meetings, therapy sessions and support groups.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent males with behavioral problems. If you would like further information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

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