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Residential Treatment Center for Boys Ages 14-18

 > Behavioral Issues  > Substance Use and Other Process Addictions in Teens
process addictions

Substance Use and Other Process Addictions in Teens

Substance Use and Other Process Addictions in Teens

Substance addictions and process addictions often go hand in hand. For example, teens who have been experimenting with substances are more likely to struggle with taking other risks or adopting other bad habits. While you may try to take steps to monitor your son’s substance use, it is common for teens to switch between addictive behaviors to cope with their emotions, which is why it is important that substance use treatment takes a holistic approach to making behavioral changes.

What are Process Addictions?

There is no single definition for process addictions, as it depends on the type of problem behavior someone is struggling with. However, framing these behavior problems as a larger umbrella category of process addictions implies that one’s “drug of choice” or “behavior of choice” can be used interchangeably. Process addicctions, or behavioral addictions, follow the same pattern as an addiction to substances and result in problems in many areas of an individual’s life. 

If you take the definition of addiction and replace drugs or alcohol with another behavior your teen is struggling with, it is easier to understand the elements of behavior addictions:

  • They can’t stop doing it, even after experiencing negative consequences or wanting to stop
  • They may engage in the behavior more over time or feel like they need to keep going in order to feel the same way 
  • They can’t stop thinking about it or planning the next time they can engage
  • They have trouble managing your emotions
  • It interferes with their daily life or their relationships
  • They have less and less awareness of the negative consequences

What Counts as a Process Addiction?

Almost all of our students suffer from some form of depression or anxiety, which can lead to overwhelming feelings of sadness and worry, which our teenagers seek desperately to escape from. Teens who have experienced trauma are also more likely to turn to a variety of addictive behaviors for relief in the absence of proper coping mechanisms.

Anything that activates reward pathways in the brain has the potential to become addictive. Some risky behaviors are more likely to do this than others, but almost anything that feels good can become addictive. It depends less on the behavior Itself and more on how that behavior makes you feel. 

Examples of behavioral addictions may include:

  • Substances (drugs, alcohol, vaping)
  • Self-harm
  • Video Games
  • Pornography
  • Social Media
  • Disordered eating
  • Relationships

Aren’t These Issues Just Behavior Problems?

Like with substance use, the above-mentioned behaviors may start off as curiosity or impulsivity, but over time can become difficult habits to break. These behaviors are all tied to reward pathways in the brain, which make it easier for them to become addictive. 

Looking at these behaviors as process addictions, rather than behavior problems, separates your teen from their actions and offers clearer guidelines for how to address the underlying issues associated with them. Not all process addictions meet the classic definition of physical addiction, but they do share many of the psychological and social hallmarks — and they will respond well to traditional types of addiction treatment. 

How Can Elements of Substance Use Treatment Apply to Other Addictive Behaviors?

In primary substance use treatment facilities, the goal is to focus on overcoming the addiction by creating support systems for clients to commit to sobriety and avoid their substance(s) of choice.  This often takes place through a focus on the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous which can mistake the secondary symptoms of addictive behaviors as the primary problem. Furthermore, while extremely successful for adults, many of the 12-steps are very difficult for teenagers to identify with.  

Because of this, our addictions program at Equinox seeks to provide therapeutic support for addictive behaviors using a variety of non-12-step methodologies that we have experienced to yield greater success for teenagers. We also maintain a primary focus on the underlying issues that have led teenagers to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms. When these underlying issues are addressed and healed, our experience is that the addictive behavior falls away, because it no longer serves a purpose. 

Focusing on a single addictive behavior ignores how it may overlap with other behavior problems and emotional issues. A holistic approach leads to lasting changes from the inside-out.

Equinox RTC Can Help 

Equinox RTC is a residential treatment center dedicated to helping teen boys ages 14-17 struggling with emotional and behavioral issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance experimentation, and trauma. Many of the boys we work with have developed unhealthy habits to cope with challenges they’ve faced. Our residential program offers a unique treatment program designed to fit each individual’s specific needs. This treatment center has a supportive environment that helps students heal from the inside-out. By developing a healthy sense of social and emotional awareness, teens learn to incorporate healthier habits into their daily lives.

Call us at 828-772-5542 to learn about our approach to helping teen boys with substance use and other process addictions.


Kyle received his Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Tech University. As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Kyle has worked in a variety of clinical settings over the last seventeen years. His career has focused on treating both boys and girls, with specialization in trauma, processing difficulties, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD and difficult family systems.