Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment

We often think about addiction in terms of substances - as something people experience in relation to drugs or alcohol. The truth is that addiction isn't that clear-cut; and become addicted to virtually anything, including simple behaviors.

Teen behavioral addictions are very different from drug addictions. In drug addiction, the substance itself causes the release of dopamine and serotonin, triggering the reward center in the brain to release “feel good” chemicals. These chemicals are directly associated with behavior reinforcement, decision-making, inhibition, and even emotional regulation.

In behavioral addictions, the neurological impacts are lessened because there is no drug present to cause physical changes to neurotransmitters. But that doesn’t mean the effects are any less serious or the impacts any less severe. In fact, behavioral scientists believe that virtually any stimulating or soothing behavior can eventually become addictive in the right circumstances.

Behavioral addiction is far more common than many people realize. It encompasses gambling, pornography, dieting, playing video games, social media posting, sex, shopping, and even taking risks. Often, the addiction exists beside a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition, like Depression or Anxiety. Teens use their behaviors to self-soothe when these conditions flare up or cause intense stress.

What Do Teen Behavioral Addictions Look Like?

  • The most defining factor in behavioral addiction is a persistent, repetitive behavior that either reduces stress or produces happiness.
  • Unlike regular self-care habits, behaviors associated with addiction are often markedly negative or somehow harmful (e.g., gambling to self-soothe sadness).
  • Behaviors usually develop as a response to another comorbid mental health disorder. It provides an “escape” from thoughts and feelings associated with the potentially undiagnosed illness, but results are fleeting and often worsen symptoms.
  • It may be helpful to think of behavioral addictions as a form of self-medication. While no substances are involved, the goal and result is largely the same.

Signs of Teen Behavioral Addictions

Irritability or anger

Irritability or anger

Slipping marks or failing grades

Slipping marks or failing grades

Overspending to excess

Overspending to excess

Lying or denying actions

Lying or denying actions

Self-harm (cutting)

Self-harm (cutting)

Hypersomnia or insomnia

Hypersomnia or insomnia

What Kinds of Behavioral Addictions Can Develop?

Sex Addiction – As uncomfortable as it may be to think about, teens can develop behavioral addictions based around sex. They seek out potentially unhealthy relationships and/or obsessively watch pornography, perhaps for self-gratification or because the “feel good” chemicals sex produces help them soothe anxiety, depression, and sadness. Over time, sex addiction can become extremely severe, leading to a total inability to forge normal relationships or remain monogamous.

Gaming Addiction – Video games can be remarkably helpful and even healthy in moderation, but for some teens, they become an obsessive escape. Games reinforce behavior similar to that found in gaming addiction, urging teens to play “just one more” game by tempting them with the possibility of a win.

Food Addiction – Teens who struggle with self-esteem, self-image, Anxiety, stress, or disordered eating may become addicted to eating food. This often leads to binge eating, stress eating, and even more severe comorbid disorders, like bulimia.

Love Addiction – Sometimes, teens become addicted to love instead of pure sex. Rather than self-gratification, they constantly seek out the experience of having a crush or falling in love to feel the rush of infatuation. They may lose interest as soon as the chase culminates, breaking up with the person to move on to another new crush.

Internet addiction – The Internet can be extremely addictive, especially when it comes to social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or Twitter. Teens who develop Internet addictions will frequently go to extreme lengths to stay connected, reacting severely if parents cut off access as a form of discipline.

Any behavior can be addictive – even potentially healthy behaviors, like exercise or eating right. Ultimately, the best way to prevent behavioral addictions is to help your teen learn to cope with stress and/or emotional upset. Forbidding specific behaviors, especially in the face of a behavioral addiction, may only make the problem worse.

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Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment | Paradigm San Francisco


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How Can I Help My Teen with a Behavioral Addiction?

Understand Addiction Versus Bad Behavior – All teens act out from time to time, making mistakes, using poor judgment, or struggling to commit themselves to schoolwork. Just because your teen refuses to go to sleep at night while playing video games, or steals their phone back after you take it away once or twice, does not mean they are addicted. Resist the urge to label these behaviors as addictive, even if they frustrate you, until you have an official diagnosis.

Full-blown addiction is severe and debilitating; it can rob teens of their future and is often very difficult to treat. Making mistakes or engaging in behavior you don't like isn't the same, though it may be a sign of a different problem.

Don’t Antagonize – Common sense says if teens are engaging in the behavior too often, you should simply remove their ability to engage in the behavior. While this seems to make sense at first glance, it can actually be harmful for behaviorally addictive teens. Not only does it neglect to address the root cause, but it can also cause teens to turn to more harmful behaviors. Instead of punishing your teen for behaviors, seek professional guidance. A good therapist can teach you how to respond without triggering further negative behaviors.

Talk to Your Teen – If you haven’t experienced addiction or mental health struggles yourself, you may find it difficult to relate to your teen. If you have a history of addiction, on the other hand, your experiences may help your teen learn how to cope. Either way, opening a long-term dialogue and just engaging in supportive listening is so incredibly important. Talk to your teen about their behaviors; be open, but don’t shame. If you can’t wrap your head around how they’re feeling, prioritize learning about their experiences from a medical or psychological standpoint. You are your teen’s greatest ally!

What Types of Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment Are Available?

In order to treat behavioral addictions, care teams must first convince the teen they need help and then empower them to identify what’s driving the behavior. Remember: behavioral addiction isn’t the same as substance addiction. Instead, it is almost always reinforced by negative emotions or pre-existing mental health disorders.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is often an integral part of recovery. By talking with a qualified therapist, teens learn how to recognize they have a problem and how to cope with the emotions driving the behavior without becoming self-destructive. Strategies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) give teens real-life skills that help them achieve freedom from behavioral addictions.

Group Meetings

In residential treatment, teens are given multiple daily opportunities to interact with peers. Support groups let teens talk and learn about addiction with their peers, creating opportunities for safe socialization and sharing coping strategies. Spending time with peers in a protective safe space ensures teens aren’t overwhelmed by social anxiety or social stressors before they have time to learn how to cope. This can be the difference between constant relapses and full, long-term sobriety, especially when comorbid mental health disorders are involved.


Medication cannot cure or treat teen behavioral addictions. However, the high likelihood of comorbid mental health conditions means that teens may need medication to address Depression, Anxiety, or other mental illnesses. Teens who are suicidal or self-harming may benefit from temporary or long-term antidepressants, which regulate mood.

Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment at Paradigm San Francisco

The high risk of comorbid mental illnesses and environmental influences makes behavioral addiction extremely complex. It may take weeks or even months to really drill down to the root cause, and it is very easy to misdiagnose the disorder without enough information. At Paradigm, teens enter an intensive program designed to speed this process up without putting them at risk for symptom escalation. Round-the-clock care and monitoring makes it easier for us to see teens behaving naturally, letting us more accurately diagnose and treat the problem.

A Thorough Approach

Paradigm’s programs are designed to address behavioral addictions holistically. Rather than addressing the needs of just one aspect of personality, we factor in underlying behaviors, habits, at-home influences, mental illnesses, and even physical wellness to better help your teen. Our exhaustive investigation process is extremely effective at recognizing and targeting behavioral addictions while respecting your teen’s need for ongoing support.

Helping Teens Understand Themselves

Addictions are complex, but in the case of both behavioral addictions and substance use addictions, we know that helping teens help themselves is the best approach. Skills like self-identification of feelings, self-evaluation, and behavior modification help teens realize how serious their problem really is. They also help teens learn healthier coping skills and how to reach out if they feel upset or out-of-control.
Over time, therapists teach teens how to replace old, addictive behaviors with positive, healthy, and healing coping skills. This includes positive self-image and self-esteem, as well as assertiveness, confidence, and gratitude.

“Great place! Great staff who who will help you through your struggles and help work through communication with peers and parents. Lots of great activities that help you with your process. My personal favorite was acupuncture. You have individual therapy every day. Staff are devoted. School teacher is awesome and is good at getting you on track in school throughout your time at Paradigm. One of the best places for treatment! “

– Finn R.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teen Behavioral Addictions

Does a gaming addiction make a teen more aggressive?

Whether gaming in general raises aggression is largely a matter of personality, as some teens find themselves happier and mellowed out by regular gaming, while others develop an aggressive attitude through excessive gaming. Generally, teens with a less agreeable attitude are more likely to respond aggressively after playing video games. For teens with any type of addiction, forcibly keeping them from their addiction can lead to irritability and a short fuse. That includes gaming.

Can a porn addiction ruin relationships?

Yes, excessive pornography can ruin a teen’s relationships by distorting their understanding of sex and intimacy, as well as causing issues such as psychosomatic erectile dysfunction. Teens are more susceptible to porn addiction due to the way their brain absorbs information and reacts to gratification, and they are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of extensive pornography usage.

Can healthy things be addictive?

Yes, healthy behavior can also become a behavioral addiction. Technically, most behavior is healthy in some shape or form, but even something as important as eating or exercising can turn into a life-threatening obsession. Exercise addiction can cause high rates of injury and self-harm, and food addiction can lead to serious health complications from overeating, obesity, hypertension, and more.

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