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Executive Functioning – Substance Abuse

Updated 27 October 2022 Written by Deborah QuinnClinically Reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC
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Executive Functioning & Substance Abuse

Executive functioning refers to the self-regulation skills and mental processes that allow us to plan, remember instructions, focus attention, and successfully juggle multiple tasks. The brain needs this set of skills to filter distractions, set and follow-through on goals, prioritize tasks, and control impulses.

What is Executive Functioning?

Difficulties with executive functioning may vary from person to person, but some of the most common struggles are:

Working Memory: The ability to retain information over a brief period of time, such as remembering a list, or the steps in a series of instructions.

Mental Flexibility: The ability to sustain or shift attention in response to varied demands, as well as the ability to apply different rules in different settings.

Self Control: The ability to set priorities and resist impulses.

What do Struggles with Executive Functioning Look Like?

  • Difficulty completing Tasks
  • Difficulty estimating how long a task will take to complete
  • Struggles with executive functioning can often be interpreted as laziness, willfulness, or non-compliance
  • A child who appeared to be very bright struggling more and more with school as they get older and the level of complexity and organization required to succeed increases
  • Increased risk-taking in teens and young adults

How do we Develop Executive Functioning?

Children are not born with executive functioning skills, though they are born with the potential to develop them. They learn them through practice, example, and structure that helps them to develop these skills. Chronic stress, neglect, and abuse can all hinder children’s ability to develop executive functioning.

Executive Functioning & Adolescents

Adolescence is a period of rapid changes and development in the brain. Adolescents’ brains are still developing, and executive functioning is not yet fully developed. This is an important time to consolidate executive functioning skills gained in childhood, and to further develop the skills and habits that support strong executive function.

Helping teens develop good executive functioning can be challenging, because adults must balance teens’ need for independence with their continued need for modeling and accountability to support their executive functioning.

Executive Functioning & ADHD

Although not classified as a learning disability or learning difference in itself, struggles with executive functioning are almost always evident in the learning profiles of kids and teens with ADHD. These struggles can also be seen in many individuals who do not have ADHD.

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How does Executive Functioning Deficits Relate to Substance Abuse?

Risk factor for substance abuse 

Deficits in executive functioning have been found to be both a risk factor for substance abuse in adolescence, as well as a consequence of substance abuse.

Decreased self-esteem, academic performance, and social isolation

All of these can put adolescents at greater risk for substance abuse. Therefore, it is important that in treating substance abuse in teens, executive functioning is assessed and if necessary, addressed in treatment planning

Aware of consequences

Teens should be educated on the ways that abusing substances can hurt their executive functioning abilities, which have a strong correlation with future success.

How are Executive Functioning Struggles Addressed?

Here are some tips and methods to address different areas of executive functioning struggles.

Tips from the National Center for Learning Disabilities to help improve executive functioning

  • Take a step-by-step approach to work.
  • Ask for written and oral instructions whenever possible.
  • Write due dates on the top of each assignment.
  • Rely on visual organizational aids.
  • Use tools like time organizers, computers, or watches with alarms.
  • Make schedules and look at them multiple times a day.
  • Plan for transition times and shifts in activities to improve time management
  • Create checklists, and estimate how long each task will take.
  • Break long assignments into chunks, and then assign a time frame for completing each chunk.
  • Use calendars to keep track of long-term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.

Ways to better manage work space and avoid losing things

  • Have separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities.
  • Organize the work space.
  • Minimize clutter.
  • Schedule a weekly time to clean and organize the work space.

Tips to improve work habits

  • Make a checklist for getting through assignments. For example, a student’s checklist might include such items as: get out pencil and paper; write name on paper; write due date on paper; read directions; etc.
  • Meet with a supervisor or teacher regularly to review work and troubleshoot any problems.

Treatment Options for Executive Functioning Issues

If your loved one struggles with abusing substances like marijuana or alcohol, and you also suspect that executive functioning deficits may be keeping them from achieving their full potential, it is important to seek qualified help.

Sandstone Care’s holistic treatment program assesses all aspects of a person and their family and develops an individualized treatment plan that takes into account each unique client’s strengths and weaknesses.

We offer a full continuum of care for adolescents and young adults, including therapeutic sober living, Day Treatment, Intensive Outpatient, and Outpatient programs to treat substance abuse, addiction, and co-occurring disorders.

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Online Treatment Programs

Our virtual IOP program offers the same programming that we offer in person, all online – this is ideal for those who live too far to drive to an addiction center, have transportation issues, or have health concerns that make in-person treatment challenging.

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We’re available 7 days a week to help answer any questions you may have.