There’s an opioid epidemic in the United States, and it isn’t just adults who are at risk. Teenagers are also sometimes prescribed addictive prescription painkillers and other drugs that they become dependent on, and they’re sometimes also introduced to these drugs in other ways. The consequences of drug use in teenagers can be very serious, so it’s important not to ignore the dangers of teen prescription drug abuse.
Talking to your teen about prescription drug abuse and its dangers before it’s too late can help keep your teens from making dangerous choices now that could affect them for the rest of their lives. Take a look at what you need to know about talking to your teen about prescription drug abuse.
What Do Teens Know About Prescription Drugs?
If you ask your teens about whether their peers are using drugs, they may tell you about a girl who smokes pot in the school bathroom or a boy that tried cocaine at a party. But they may not tell you about the girl who “borrows” her friend’s ADHD medication or the boy who slips his parents’ painkillers out of the family medicine chest.
Often, teens don’t see prescription drugs as “real drugs” – like the street drugs that they might try at a party or a club. Prescription drugs come in containers with childproof caps and are prescribed by doctors. Even if they aren’t prescribed for the person taking them, they’re probably safe, right?
The answer, of course, is no.
Prescriptions are based on specific information that the doctor has about their patient, like weight and known allergies and medical history. It’s true that a drug made in a lab and dispensed in a pharmacy is likely to be safer in some ways than a drug obtained from a dealer – for instance, it’s not likely that the drug is full of impurities or cut with dangerous substances.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to take. A small person who takes a dosage intended for a much larger person could have an overdose. A person who has an allergy or an unknown medical problem, like a heart murmur, could become seriously ill or injured from taking medication not prescribed to them.
The consequences could even be fatal. But with their limited life experience and often limited drug knowledge, teenagers may not think of these potential consequences.
Teens and Addiction
Just as teens may not realize that prescription drugs can be dangerous, they may also not realize that prescription drugs can be addictive.
Once again, teens may consider addiction the province of “hard” drugs that they’ve heard of, like meth or heroin. They may not be aware, for example, that many ADHD medications are stimulants that are chemically similar to meth, or that prescription painkillers have common roots with heroin.
But of course, teenagers can and do become addicted to prescription drugs.
In some cases, they can become dependent on a prescription drug even when it’s legally prescribed to them and when they take it as prescribed. Before filling a prescription for a potentially addictive drug for your teen, it’s important to research alternatives, consider any family history of addiction or personal history of drug use by your teen, and talk to your doctor about a plan for managing their use of the drug.
Teens can also become addicted to prescription pain medications that are not prescribed to them. Often, they get these drugs from home – such as from their own parents’ medicine cabinets – or from other teens, who also find the drugs in their home.
If you or someone in your home takes prescription painkillers and stimulants, it’s important to keep these drugs secured away from where your teen can access them and keep an eye on the number of drugs in your possession just in case.
Talking to Your Teen
One of the most important things you can do to keep your teen from taking dangerous prescription drugs is to talk with them honestly about the problem. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s normal for teens to experiment and that you know that your teen might already have been offered prescription drugs or seen others use them without suffering any obvious consequences.
Teens need to know that prescription drug abuse can be dangerous even if they haven’t seen any signs that their friends or peers have been in danger because of their use.
Stress that drugs affect different people differently – one person using drugs may seem fine, while another begins to struggle academically, socially, and in their personal life.
Let your teen know that they don’t have any way of knowing at this point how they’ll react to using prescription drugs, so it’s better for them not to risk it. They may be OK, but they could also overdose, become addicted, or suffer other consequences.
Point out that your teen’s brain is still developing, which means that using prescription drugs might affect them in a way that it doesn’t necessarily affect adults. Let your teen know the different ways in which prescription drugs can be dangerous, even if they come from a pharmacy and not from a drug dealer.
Children and teens who have drugs prescribed to them specifically need to be part of the conversation as well. Teens need to know the importance of sticking to the doctor’s instructions to help minimize the risk of dependence. They need to know their alternatives when potentially dangerous and addictive drugs are prescribed to them.
And of course, they need to know that they have a responsibility to keep their own prescriptions to themselves and not to share them with friends or classmates.
Doing so could be dangerous for both your child and any friends that they share with.
Keeping your teen drug free can be a difficult job, especially when it comes to drugs that are widely available and may be seen as harmless by many teenagers.
Open communication about the dangers of prescription drugs and the possible harm that they can cause is an important tool for parents.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.