Evolve Adolescent Behavioral Health

Prescription Drug Abuse in Adolescents

For decades, many parents worried about their adolescents experimenting with or getting addicted to “hard” drugs, such as meth, heroin, or cocaine.  The good news is that those drugs aren’t as common among teens as they once were.  Unfortunately, prescription drugs are increasingly taking their place.  These drugs are much more accessible because they’re found in countless medicine cabinets and nightstand drawers in homes across the country.

When abused, prescription drugs are every bit as dangerous and potentially addictive as street drugs.  Combined with alcohol some of these drugs can cause very serious side effects – including death.  For many teens, these drugs end up being “gateway” drugs to heroin, meth, and other illicit drugs.

Your awareness and willingness to be proactive is crucial if your teen is abusing prescription drugs.  This brief guide is designed to help you know what to look for and what to do if you suspect your teen has a prescription drug abuse problem.

Adolescent Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Many parents find it difficult to accept the possibility that their One of the most difficult things for many parents to accept is the possibility that their child is abusing drugs of any kind.  If that sounds like you, then hopefully the following statistics and surveys of teens regarding prescription drug abuse will encourage you to reconsider:

Looking for and Recognizing the Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

It’s easy to assume that only “troubled” or “lower class” teens use drugs.  That was a common perception when street drugs were many parent’s biggest fear.  Prescription drug abuse, however, is a problem for teens from all walks of life, including star athletes and honor students to high school dropouts and social misfits – regardless of their socio-economic background.  Don’t assume your child has never experimented or at least been tempted.

Before considering the signs to look for it’s important to be aware of the prescription drugs most commonly abused by teens.  Five of the most popular are:

The warning signs will vary somewhat depending on the type of drug being used.  One of the key things to remember when looking for signs of prescription drug abuse is this:

Signs to watch for include: 

It’s important to remember that most of the warning signs listed above could be caused by something other than drugs, such as high stress or an undiagnosed mental health disorder.

Knowing the First Steps to Take   

Being proactive when you strongly suspect – or know beyond the shadow of a doubt – that your teen is abusing prescription drugs is the most important thing you do.  Don’t allow denial or wishful thinking – that this will somehow go away on its own if given time – cloud your judgment.  Instead, take the following initial steps to help your teen:

1 – Talk to your teen.  Have a candid but calm conversation, keeping your emotions in check.  Lecturing or angrily confronting your child will almost always backfire.  Instead, show a genuine willingness to listen and understand.  Keep in mind that your teen may not readily admit to drug abuse, often out of fear, denial, or confusion.  Be patient.  Express your concerns openly and honestly without scolding or being judgmental.

2 – Set up an appointment for an evaluation.  You have a few options here.  For starters, your family doctor or child’s pediatrician can do a physical exam including lab tests to check for drugs.  Not all substances are detected by standard tests, so it’s possible to get a false negative.  Labs also won’t be accurate if too much time has passed.  Ask your doctor for a referral or recommendation if tests come back positive or if all signs point to drug use.  An initial exam can also help rule out medical issues that may be playing a role or causing suspicious symptoms.

Another option is to have an experienced mental health professional evaluate your teen.  Many kids start abusing alcohol or drugs to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues.  A psychiatrist or psychologist can determine if an untreated psychiatric disorder or other emotional issues are driving the prescription drug abuse.

A third option to consider for an evaluation is to contact a drug and alcohol treatment center for an evaluation.

3 – Get your child into treatment.  Once your child has been evaluated you’ll be given treatment recommendations.  These will depend on your child’s unique needs and the severity of his or her drug problem.  Treatment may include:

It’s crucial to remember that abruptly stopping some prescription drugs – e.g. painkillers or benzodiazepines (such as Xanax or Valium) – can be extremely dangerous.  Some individuals require medically supervised detox as the first step in treatment.  Have your child assessed by a professional before insisting he or she stop cold turkey.

Supporting and Encouraging Your Child

Knowing how to best support and encourage your child can be difficult, especially when faced with the challenge of drug abuse.  One of the most valuable things you can do is keep the lines of communication open, honest, and loving.  Strive to set aside negative emotions, such as anger and disappointment, when you’re interacting with your child.  Remind yourself that you’re dealing with a child who’s still trying to figure out life and find his or her own path.

Other helpful things you can do:

What to Do When Things Escalate

One of the biggest challenges for parents with a teen who’s abusing or addicted to prescription drugs is the unpredictable impact they can have on his or her mood and behavior.  For example, euphoria, paranoid thoughts, mood swings, agitation, hallucinations, confusion, agitation, and erratic behavior can quickly create precarious and even dangerous situations.

Your top priority is to keep everyone safe.

If things do escalate – for example, your child’s behavior or mood is rapidly spiraling out of control or reaches a crisis point – reach out for help immediately. You can:

When Individual Therapy isn’t Enough 

Prescription drug abuse can be difficult to treat.  It’s not uncommon for teens to require more than weekly individual therapy or drug and alcohol counseling to get clean and sober and stay that way successfully.  If your child:

then it’s time to consider a more intensive level of treatment.  This may involve:

Outpatient Drug Rehab – Outpatient drug treatment is the next level of treatment above weekly therapy sessions or substance abuse counseling.  Although outpatient rehab programs vary somewhat, clients often go to treatment 3 times a week for 3 hours per session. One of the advantages is that your teen can typically continue living at home while attending school with minimal interruption.

Day Treatment – This level of drug is a slightly higher level than outpatient drug rehab.  It’s also often called intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) or partial hospitalization.  Adolescents go to treatment daily, usually for 4 hours per day, and attend school at least part time.  Many teens can live at home, but may opt for a sober living facility if additional support is needed.

Residential or Inpatient Drug Rehab – Residential drug treatment – also often referred to as inpatient rehab – involves having your teen live at a non-hospital treatment facility 24/7.  This intensive level of treatment usually lasts between 28 to 120 days, depending on your child’s unique treatment needs and progress.  In addition to receiving treatment on a full-time basis, one of the greatest advantages of residential rehab is being in an environment that is completely free from drugs and alcohol.

Day treatment and residential treatment can be particularly beneficial for adolescents who need dual diagnosis treatment (for a co-occurring mental health condition).

Hospitalization – Hospitalization may be necessary if your child is suicidal, psychotic, or manic, or if he or she is in need of 24/7 medical monitoring until stable. The latter is often due to an intentional or accidental overdose or a severe reaction to a substance.

Each of these more intensive levels of treatment (except for medical – as opposed to psychiatric – hospitalization) usually provides a variety of therapeutic activities, including individual and / or group therapy.  Family therapy may also be offered depending on the program.

Taking Care of Yourself

Helping your teen with a prescription drug abuse problem can be a very trying ordeal for any parent.  The impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health may be significant – especially if you neglect yourself as you try to help your child.  He or she will be relying on you more than ever – even if your relationship is rocky right now.

A few key things you can do to ensure your own well-being are:

Discovering that your teen is abusing prescription drugs can be devastating for any parent.  But it’s not the end of the world.  It can get better.   Countless teens – and their families – recover and heal from this very challenge every year.  And yours can too!