The word “addiction” brings to mind different images for different people. It can be difficult for someone suffering with an addiction or potential addiction to identify with the term “addict.” And it can be especially trying for a young person.

Teens commonly associate addiction with movie images, or people they’ve seen at the absolute lowest, worst point of their addiction. Many have ideas about what an addict looks like: desperate, homeless, suicidal, criminal. With these ideas in mind, it’s hard for them to understand how their drug or alcohol use is a problem — after all, their consequences seem less extreme.

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It’s true; the external effects of someone using at age 16 are often much less severe or obvious. They might get in trouble at school, get grounded by their parents, fight with their friends or lose relationships. And they’ll often write off these consequences as other people’s problems, not seeing how their own behavior is a direct result of their substance use. They often say things such as: “My parents are freaking out. If they would just chill out, everything would be fine,” “Everyone else is doing the same thing; I just got caught,” “I haven’t been using for that long,” or “I can stop whenever I want.” Combine false assumptions about addiction and placing blame on parents and other adults — and they have a ready-made excuse to distract them from taking an honest look at themselves and how their substance use is affecting their lives.

Just as teens do, parents have their own images of what someone with a drug problem looks like, and it can be as extreme as the child’s view. These preconceived notions help parents stay in denial of a potential problem. Plus, they lead to false measurement tools. Parents think, “If my kid had a problem, she’d be getting bad grades” or ”Clean-cut polite kids don’t use drugs.” Parents can easily fall victim to the false belief that if their child is not behaving in a way the parent associates with addiction, then there is not a problem.

With parents, kids and others sharing this stigma about addiction, many drug problems slip through the cracks, and that allows for worst-case scenario circumstances to develop when the warning signs might have been there years earlier.

What does this all add up to? Addiction or not, drug or alcohol abuse is worthy of scrutiny by both the person using and his or her family. Worst-case scenarios are often avoidable by looking past preconceived ideas of addiction and looking honestly at the effects of substance abuse on the user’s life.

If you or a loved one has been abusing drugs or alcohol, there is no need to wait until you are absolutely positive there is an addiction present to seek help or to stop using. Addicts are not the only people who benefit when they quit using drugs or drinking.

Recovery programs for young people offer the chance for teens to identify with others who have similar experiences and stories. And thanks to these programs, many young people who have not crossed the line into addiction have stopped using and found happier, more fulfilling lives without experiencing the severity of long-term addiction.