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What Every Parent Should Know About Prescription Medication Use by Teens

Prescription Drugs and Teens

​As a clinician, one of my biggest concerns is the lack of awareness by parents and adolescents regarding teens misusing prescription medications. These medications include benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin), pain medication (e.g., OxyContin, Hydrocodone, and Percocet), and stimulants (e.g., Ritalin, Vyvance, and Adderall). All of these are powerful drugs prescribed by physicians to treat certain physical and mental health diagnoses.

Unfortunately, today, many teens rationalize taking these drugs by thinking, "Well, since they are prescribed by a doctor, they must be safe." This misguided view can lead teens to trying these drugs without the full knowledge of and a healthy fear for the serious consequences of misuse, abuse, dependence, and potential for overdose. 

Teens are unaware of the physical dependence that comes with using prescription medications. Once these drugs get into the system, the body starts adjusting to current levels. That means a person has to take more and more over time to reach the same desired effect. This is how physical dependence occurs, grows, and solidifies.

Once someone reaches the point of physical dependence, it's extremely difficult to break the cycle of use. The withdrawal symptoms can be so mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing that people simply keep using to avoid suffering. Once this happens, it's nearly impossible to break away from and stop using without medical assistance and detoxification.   

With the nature of these medications and the current alarming trends toward teen misuse, abuse, and overdose, it is imperative parents reject the notion of "No, not my kid. My child would never take those kinds of drugs. That won't happen to my family." The consequences are too great to ignore the very real problem that currently exists with teens abusing prescription medications.  

Today, drug use is all over social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other digital platforms. Kids are constantly bombarded with alluring messages that basically advertise the use of these prescription medications and the "fun" they are having using. This kind of peer advertising can make it very difficult for young people – who know nothing about the hazards of these drugs – to avoid and resist using them. That's why parents should adopt the viewpoint that "Okay, this could happen to my kid and family. My child might fall prey to the lure of prescription drugs. I need to be vigilant."

The good news is most teens report they don't want to use drugs. The not so good news is that when drugs are part of the culture and constantly around, kids are extremely vulnerable to succumbing to the pressure and lure of using them. Even if they think "I will just try it once," the feelings and temptations could evolve further and the escalation of problems can surface fast. This is especially true during major life changes, including puberty and when transitioning to middle school, high school, and college. Not surprisingly, these are the times when many teens struggle to adjust and adapt to new places and people. As teens are trying to find themselves and their confidence, they are particularly impressionable and susceptible to naively falling into some really negative things, like prescription drugs. 

So, how can parents go about addressing this problem? The first step is through prevention and education. This involves doing the following:  

  • Educate yourselves about prescription drugs and their dangers.  
  • Decrease any accessibility at home – rid your house of expired prescriptions and avoid leaving prescription bottles or pills out in the open.   
  • Have a conversation with your children to educate them on why these powerful drugs should be used only for certain conditions and only under a doctor's supervision. The key here is to help children better understand the magnitude and gravity of prescription medication use.
  • Look for "teachable moments" when interacting together. For example, when watching television, listening to music, or attending events, pay attention to moments in a show, song, or event that may depict prescription drug abuse and discuss the child's impressions and what he or she can learn from the exposure. 
  • Discuss possible strategies your child and other kids can use to help them stay away from prescription drugs, and stay involved in tracking how these strategies are working for them.
  • Keep an ongoing, open dialogue with children to help prevent them from feeling like "Well, everyone is doing it and I don't know what else to do."

If parents discover their children are actively involved in using prescription medications, it's important to first create an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and support – parental support is critical at this time. When children make poor decisions and are unsure how to navigate away from or out of them, knowing they have a parental resource they feel comfortable going to can be the difference between life and death. That's why it's important for parents to communicate the following to children:  

  • "No matter the issue, we are here for you. When problems arise – and they will – we want to help you address and navigate through them. The most important thing is for us to be open and honest with each other so we can move forward and support you in gaining the help and skills you need."

One struggling child can have a major impact on the other children in your family and how your home functions. If you find your child is in need of professional help, contact a chemical dependency counselor. When families come to our clinic, we help create this kind of open-door approach. Parents must be involved and we educate them on how to support themselves and their child when moving through these initial stages because the whole family is impacted; therefore, the whole family can be involved in supporting that child and gaining movement toward full recovery. It's a family struggle and a family solution.

Prevention of prescription drug use is the ideal goal but the reality is there are some kids who will get caught up in the allure of using them. And some will eventually abuse and become dependent on them. When this happens, professional assistance can help you and your child find the strengths and supports needed to move forward and find success.