A-Z Teen Health Glossary

Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment

Teen behavioral addictions, as the name implies, are addictions to behaviors, rather than substances. This is significantly different from an addiction to substances. Substance addiction involves the release or increased effectiveness of dopamine after taking addictive drugs. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in reinforcing behavior. Behavioral addiction is the disordered use of potentially harmful behavior as a way to cope with stress and emotional pain. The brain isn’t hooked to the behavior quite like it gets hooked to certain substances, but it can still be serious enough to require professional intervention. Behavioral scientists believe that anything stimulating can become “addictive”, given the right circumstances and certain unique internal factors.

Some examples of common behavioral addictions include activities such as: gambling, pornography, internet browsing, and gaming. It’s common for behavioral addictions to exist in combination with other addictions and/or as co-occurring disorders. For example, someone with severe social anxiety may become a recluse, and may become addicted to porn or video games as a way to cope with their symptoms.

What Do Teen Behavioral Addictions Look Like?

  • Behavioral addictions are first and foremost characterized by persistent, repetitive behaviors that provide teens with a short-term reward, such as feelings of happiness or relief from stress.
  • The difference between a stress-relieving habit and behavioral addiction is the extent to which a behavior may lead to adverse effects in a teen’s life.
  • Because it’s also common for teens to have a behavioral addiction as a co-occurring disorder, it’s common for the given behavior will be sought out initially as a sort of refuge from the feelings and thoughts the teen is experiencing.
  • Behavioral addictions are especially common in teens experiencing depression and/or anxiety. Often, the behaviors are a form of self-medication.

Signs of Teen Behavioral Addictions


Sleep issues

Failing subjects at school

Money management problems

Compulsive lying


What Kinds of Behavioral Addictions Can Develop?

Sex addiction – having an unhealthy relationship with sex as a from of pure self-gratification can lead to an inability to have normal relationships, due to intimacy issues, and the need to seek out thrilling sexual encounters, often not with your own partner. Sex addiction can also manifest itself in a porn addiction, or the need to compulsively masturbate.

Gaming addiction – video games offer a retreat from reality but can also be addicting by reinforcing the same behavior that gambling houses like casinos use to get customers to stay and spend their money. Most games have a built-in gameplay hook to entertain and engage the player. These can be emotionally rewarding and can turn into an obsession.

Food addiction – self-esteem issues, anxiety, and high levels of stress can lead to different forms of food addiction and potentially disordered eating, with habits like binge eating, stress eating and eating disorders like bulimia.

Love addiction – or a “love” addiction, where the main goal isn’t to find true love, but to experience infatuation (find a “crush”), subconsciously or purposefully sabotage the relationship with severe insecurities, and repeat the process with another person.

Internet addiction – characterized mostly by an addiction to social media or Internet media in general, a person with an Internet addiction will actively avoid activities that might take them off their phones or computers, and they may compulsively check their social network accounts several times an hour.

These are just a few potential forms of behavioral addiction. The truth is that any behavior that is intrinsically rewarding can get someone hooked, and there is no activity or habit that is far more addictive than any other. It’s more important to help your teen cope with stress and potential mental health challenges, than forbid them in engaging in certain activities out of fear of addiction.

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Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment | Paradigm Malibu

What Are the Causes of Teen Behavioral Addictions?

A behavioral addiction always has an underlying cause, although that cause may or may not be related to the behavior itself. Some people turn to a specific behavior out of preference, while others develop an addiction because of a certain bond or experience with said behavior. For example – intimacy and commitment issues, as well as deep-seated relationship fears and personal insecurity can lead to a sex addiction, while social anxiety and a lack of positive social interaction can lead to recluse behavior such as gaming addictions. Other factors include:

Family history – while risk-taking and occasional bad habits are common in teens, addiction is not. To be classified as an addiction, a behavior has to be damaging to a teen’s emotional health and social interaction, while they struggle to stop despite clear attempts at doing so. Because behavioral addiction and substance abuse is similar in the way it affects the brain, there is a greater risk of unhealthy behavior in teens with a family history of addiction.

Mental health – teens with serious depressive symptoms or anxiety disorders are more likely to turn towards gratifying behavior as a way to feel happier, especially when the symptoms become overwhelming because of certain experiences.

Social experiences – negative social experiences can reinforce the need to escape from the presence of others, while reinforcing thoughts of self-loathing and fear.

Self-esteem issues – very low confidence and a low opinion of a person’s self can be a factor for addiction in general, both substance abuse and behavioral issues.


of girls with self-esteem issues reported behavior such as cutting, binge eating, and smoking


hours per day are spent online on average per teen. Some spend more time online. This can heavily contribute to confidence problems


or more times a day, teens check their phones for likes and comments, or social media postings

How Can I Help My Teen with a Behavioral Addiction?

Know the difference between addiction and bad behavior – teens are prone to making mistakes and struggling with commitments, as well as managing their time. Some teens have the discipline and willpower to organize their life, while others struggle to do so. You can help your teen be a better person, but that doesn’t mean you have to call them an addict. Addictions are serious and debilitating, robbing your teen of their life and future. But making mistakes or lifestyle choices you don’t agree with does not necessary equate as a problem. It’s best to get a professional diagnosis before you try to help treat your teen.

Approach them as a parent, not an antagonist – the solution isn’t to take away what your teen clings to, but to help them get to the point where they don’t need to cling at all. Behavioral addictions are always indicative of a greater problem, or they could be exacerbating and creating new ones. Consider why your teen is addicted to a certain habit before trying to convince them to get help. A teen addicted to the internet or video games may have no friends outside of their devices and may never have had much fun doing anything other than browsing the web and playing games. Help them find alternatives and fix their problems with you.

Learn more about their problems – it’s difficult to understand how anxiety, depression, or addiction works if you haven’t gone through a similar experience. If you have, sharing your experiences with your child can be a great step toward helping them adjust to their situation. However, if you haven’t, you need to make it a priority to learn more about behavioral addictions, as well as any other potential problems your teen may be facing. As a parent, you are your teen’s greatest champion and first and foremost therapist.

What Types of Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment Are Available?

Treating a behavioral addiction is often a question of making a thorough diagnosis and better understanding why a teen is engaging in problematic behavior to begin with. We all have reasons for doing the things we do, and unlike substance abuse which is chronic and caused largely by the effects of the drugs themselves, behavioral addictions are reinforced by other factors, and occur especially in teens with pre-existing issues.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy is usually the best first start, as teens need to learn to realize the breadth of their addiction and must find ways to cope in a healthier manner. Through psychotherapeutic treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, teens can learn to better identify and manage thoughts that trigger their need to gratify themselves or seek out their addiction.

Group Meetings

Learning to talk about addiction out in the open and exchanging stories with others is a good way to get back into healthy social interaction while also learning to trust others again. Developing the necessary social skills to avoid addictive behavior is a big part of recovery and is one of the reasons why residential treatment is often the best bet for making progress toward eliminating a teen’s addiction.


There is no medication to treat addiction, but in some cases, medication can help treat underlying conditions, especially if the symptoms become severe enough to warrant medical intervention. Severe, suicidal depressive thoughts may require the use of antidepressants to help a teen better regulate their mood until they can find another, healthier way to cope with their issues.

Teen Behavioral Addictions Treatment at Paradigm Malibu

Because behavioral addictions may exist alongside another addiction and/or mental illness, it’s important for teens to be carefully diagnosed, making sure therapists understand – and therefore, treat – the symptoms that the teen is experiencing. At Paradigm, we properly and precisely diagnose patients before figuring out a healthy teen behavioral addictions treatment plan, and we pay close attention to the possibility of co-occurring disorders.

A Thorough Approach

Our treatment approach is effective at recognizing and targeting behavioral addictions, especially when part of a series of co-occurring disorders, because our therapists treat not only the mental illness or primary disorder at hand, but also the underlying behaviors and habits in a teen’s life. We often find that it is these underlying issues that may have initiated, contributed to, or worsened the symptoms the teen is experiencing.

Our treatment plans for behavioral addictions include a combination of talk therapy and behavioral therapy, including classical and experimental treatment approaches.  In the case of co-occurring disorders, therapists may prescribe medication according to the other disorder, especially in cases of depression or anxiety.

Helping Teens Understand Themselves

Our therapists work with teens to help them identify what feelings precede the behavior, how they feel afterwards, and what other habits might be connected with the behavior. By helping teens to evaluate and recognize the nature of their addiction, they realize how the problem is affecting them.  This is an important first step toward teens becoming aware enough to overcome the addiction and make positive changes in their own lives.

Along these lines, therapists help teens to learn healthy skills for coping with stress and addressing stressors or conflicts in their lives.  In time, therapists can help teens to begin replacing the negative behaviors with positive ones, while also helping teens to re-establish healthy belief systems and a positive sense of self.  All of these aspects of our treatment plans help contribute to a holistic treatment of behavioral addictions in which teens can recognize, and then recover from, their addiction.

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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