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Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teen Sedative Use

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

As a parent, it’s natural to worry about your teenager’s well-being, especially in a world where drug abuse is increasingly common. This guide aims to provide you with comprehensive insights into teen sedative use to help you recognize the signs and take steps towards your teen’s recovery.

Teenager is Using Sedatives

What Are Sedatives?

Sedatives, also known as sedation drugs or tranquilizers, fall into a category of medications used for calming or inducing sleep. These include prescription drugs like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. While they have legitimate medical uses, such as in medication for sedation or sedative treatments, their potential for abuse is significant, especially among teens.

Signs My Teenager is Using Sedatives

Sedative abuse in teens can manifest through a range of symptoms, which can be broadly categorized into physical, behavioral, and psychological signs. 

Physical Symptoms:

  • Drowsiness and Sluggishness: One of the most noticeable signs of sedative abuse is excessive sleepiness or a constant state of fatigue.
  • Poor Coordination: Difficulty in motor coordination and unsteady movements are common, as sedatives impact the central nervous system.
  • Slurred Speech: Sedative use can lead to slurred or slow speech, making conversation difficult.
  • Reduced Reaction Time: Teens abusing sedatives often exhibit delayed reaction times.
  • Respiratory Issues: Shallow or slowed breathing can occur due to the depressant effect of sedatives on the respiratory system.

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Changes in Social Circles: A sudden shift in friends or social groups, especially towards others known to use substances, is a red flag.
  • Neglect of Responsibilities: There may be a noticeable decline in academic performance, attendance, or loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Secretive Behavior: Teens might become more secretive, hiding their activities, and becoming defensive when questioned.
  • Misuse of Medications: This includes taking more than the prescribed dose or using sedatives without a prescription.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Mood Swings: Emotional instability and unpredictable mood swings can be indicative of sedative abuse.
  • Irritability and Agitation: Teens may exhibit increased irritability or agitation, especially if they are unable to access sedatives.
  • Depression: Prolonged sedative abuse can lead to or exacerbate symptoms of depression.
  • Anxiety: Paradoxically, despite being used to treat anxiety, abuse of sedatives can increase anxiety symptoms, particularly during withdrawal.

Stay vigilant for these signs—early detection can significantly improve the outcomes of treatment for sedative abuse. If you suspect that your teen is abusing sedatives, seek professional guidance and support immediately.

Street Names for Sedatives

Teens might use code names or teen “secret words” for sedatives to keep their use a secret. Some common street names include:

  • “Downers”
  • “Tranqs”
  • “Sleepers”
  • “Barbs”
  • “Candy”
  • “Sleeping Pills”
  • “Tranks”
  • “Ludes”
  • “Benzos”
  • “Ruffies”

How Do Teens Abuse Sedatives?

Sedative abuse can range from taking higher doses than prescribed to using sedatives without a prescription. Methods of abuse include swallowing pills, crushing them to snort, or mixing with alcohol or other drugs to enhance effects.

mom talking to sad teenaged daughter

Reasons Why Teens Abuse Sedatives

While it may not seem like it, being a teenager can be highly stressful. It’s a time when your teen is beginning to understand who they are and how they fit in the world. Some of the reasons teens look to sedatives may include:

Self-Medication for Stress: Many teens face significant stress, whether from academic pressures, social dynamics, or personal challenges. They might use sedatives to calm themselves or manage stress, mistakenly believing it’s a viable coping mechanism.

  • Peer Pressure: Teens are often influenced by their social circles. If their friends or peers are using sedatives, they might feel compelled to use them too, to fit in or be accepted in their group.
  • Escaping Reality: Adolescence can be a tumultuous time. Sedatives might be used by teens wanting to escape from the challenges and pressures of their daily life, providing a temporary but harmful respite.
  • Curiosity: The natural curiosity of teens can lead them to experiment with various substances, including sedatives. They might want to experience the effects firsthand or understand what the “fuss” is about.
  • Sleep Issues: Teens struggling with sleep disorders or irregular sleep patterns might start using sedatives to help them sleep, which can quickly turn into misuse and dependency.
  • Mental Health Conditions: Teens with untreated or undiagnosed mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or PTSD may self-medicate with sedatives to alleviate their symptoms, leading to abuse.
  • Recreation and Experimentation: The desire for new experiences and the drive to experiment can lead teens to try sedatives for recreational purposes, often underestimating the risks involved.
  • Ease of Access: If sedatives are readily available, such as in the home medicine cabinet or through prescriptions, teens might find it easier to start using them, leading to potential abuse.
  • Emotional Regulation: Adolescents often struggle with regulating their emotions. Sedatives might be used as a way to control or blunt emotional responses to stressful or challenging situations.
  • Influence of Media and Culture: Media portrayals of drug use as glamorous or without consequence can influence teen perceptions and behaviors. Cultural factors, including the normalization of drug use in certain settings, can also play a role.

Understanding these reasons is crucial in addressing the root causes of sedative abuse among teens. It allows parents, educators, and healthcare professionals to provide appropriate support, guidance, and intervention strategies.

Risk Factors for Teen Sedative Abuse

These factors can increase the risk of sedative abuse in teens:

  • Access to Prescription Medications: Easy access to prescription sedatives, whether through family medicine cabinets or prescriptions in their own name, significantly raises the risk of abuse. Teens might start using these medications for reasons other than their intended use, leading to misuse and dependence.
  • Peer Pressure: Teens are highly influenced by their peers and social circles. If they are surrounded by individuals who use sedatives or other substances, they may feel pressured to conform to fit in or be accepted.
  • Family History of Substance Abuse: Genetics and the home environment both play a role in the risk of substance abuse. Teens with family members, especially parents or siblings, who have struggled with addiction are at a higher risk themselves.
  • Mental Health Conditions: Teens with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or trauma-related disorders may turn to sedatives as a form of self-medication, trying to alleviate their symptoms without professional guidance.
  • Social Environment: The broader social environment, including school and community, can influence a teen’s behavior. Exposure to environments where drug use is normalized can increase the likelihood of experimenting with sedatives.
  • Academic Stress: The pressure to perform academically can be overwhelming for some teens, leading them to use sedatives to manage stress, anxiety, or sleep problems.
  • Lack of Parental Supervision: Teens who do not receive adequate supervision or guidance from parents or guardians may have more opportunities to experiment with drugs, including sedatives.
  • History of Trauma or Abuse: Teens who have experienced trauma or abuse may use sedatives to cope with emotional pain, stress, or anxiety stemming from their experiences.
  • Previous Substance Use: Teens who have already experimented with or regularly use other substances, like alcohol or marijuana, may be more inclined to try sedatives, seeing them as another means to alter their state of consciousness or escape from problems.

Understanding these risk factors can help parents, educators, and healthcare professionals develop more effective strategies to prevent sedative abuse in teens and intervene early when necessary.

Signs of Sedative Abuse Withdrawal

If you suspect your teen is using sedatives, look out for these common signs of sedative withdrawal, which may indicate addiction.

  • Anxiety: One of the most common symptoms of withdrawal is heightened anxiety. This can be particularly intense for individuals who originally used sedatives to manage anxiety, leading to a rebound effect.
  • Insomnia: Withdrawal often disrupts sleep patterns, leading to difficulty falling or staying asleep. This insomnia can exacerbate other withdrawal symptoms due to lack of rest.
  • Restlessness: Individuals may experience an inability to stay still, constantly feeling the need to move or an uncomfortable sense of agitation.
  • Irritability: Mood swings and irritability are common, with individuals often displaying short tempers and frustration over minor issues.
  • Increased Heart Rate: The body’s response to withdrawal can include an increased heart rate, which might be accompanied by palpitations or a pounding heart.
  • Muscle Pain and Stiffness: As the effects of the sedatives wear off, individuals might experience muscle pain and stiffness, which can be widespread and discomforting.
  • Tremors: Hand tremors or shaking in other parts of the body are common physical signs of withdrawal, indicating the nervous system’s reaction to the absence of the drug.
  • Sweating: Excessive sweating, even without physical exertion, is a frequent symptom as the body tries to adjust to the absence of the sedative.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Gastrointestinal disturbances, including nausea and vomiting, can occur, which can further complicate the recovery process by leading to dehydration and weakness.
  • Headaches: Persistent headaches are a common complaint during withdrawal, varying in intensity and duration.

These symptoms can range from mild to severe and may require medical supervision, especially in cases of long-term or heavy sedative use. It’s important for teens undergoing withdrawal to have support and access to healthcare to manage these symptoms safely and effectively.

How To Talk To Your Teen About Sedatives

Having a conversation with your teen about their sedative use can be challenging, but it’s a crucial step in helping them navigate towards healthier choices. Here’s a step-by-step guide to approaching this sensitive topic effectively:

  • Prepare for the Conversation:
    • Educate Yourself: Understand what sedatives are, their long-term effects, and the signs of abuse. This knowledge will help you speak confidently and accurately.
    • Set a Goal: Decide what you want to achieve from this conversation, such as understanding your teen’s perspective, expressing your concerns, or discussing treatment options.
  • Choose the Right Time and Setting:
    • Find a Comfortable Environment: Select a place where your teen feels safe and comfortable, away from distractions.
    • Ensure Privacy: Make sure you have privacy and won’t be interrupted. This assures your teen that the conversation is confidential and important.
  • Approach with Empathy and Open-mindedness:
    • Use “I” Statements: Start by expressing your feelings and concerns using “I” statements, like “I feel worried about your health…”
    • Avoid Accusations: Accusations can make teens defensive. Approach the topic with concern rather than blame.
  • Listen Actively:
    • Encourage Them to Share: Ask open-ended questions and encourage your teen to share their experiences and feelings.
    • Listen Without Interrupting: Show that you are listening and care about what they are saying, even if it’s hard to hear.
  • Discuss the Risks and Consequences:
    • Inform, Don’t Lecture: Share information about the risks and consequences of sedative use in a way that informs rather than lectures.
    • Use Real Examples: If appropriate, use real-life examples that are relatable, but avoid fear-mongering.
  • Express Love and Support:
    • Reaffirm Your Support: Let them know that you are there for them, regardless of their choices.
    • Offer Help: Discuss ways you can support them, whether it’s seeking professional help, finding healthier coping mechanisms, or simply being there to talk.
  • Discuss Next Steps:
    • Set Boundaries and Expectations: Be clear about your expectations regarding drug use, but also be willing to discuss and adjust these boundaries.
    • Explore Solutions Together: Whether it’s counseling, therapy, or lifestyle changes, make it a joint decision.
  • Follow Up:
    • Keep Communication Open: Continue to have regular check-ins and conversations.
    • Monitor Progress: Acknowledge positive steps and be understanding of setbacks.
  • Seek Professional Help if Needed:
    • Consult Experts: If you are concerned about addiction or mental health issues, seek advice from healthcare professionals.
    • Involve Them in the Process: If professional help is needed, involve your teen in the decision-making process.

Remember, this conversation is not just a one-time event. It should be the beginning of ongoing dialogue and support. Your patience, understanding, and unconditional support are key in helping your teen through this challenging time.

What Happens in a Sedative Abuse Treatment Program for Teens?

At Evolve, we treat substance addiction, process addiction, and dual diagnosis for teens. Our approach to teen treatment is holistic, addressing the physical, emotional, psychological, and social aspects of sedative abuse. Our ultimate goal is to equip teens with the tools they need for long-term recovery and a healthier future. 

If your teen has a reluctance of rehab, it may be good to keep them informed about what actually happens in a treatment program. Here’s an overview of what happens  when your teen checks into Evolve:

  • Initial Assessment and Intake Process:
    • Upon entering the program, teens undergo a thorough assessment. This includes medical, psychological, and substance use evaluations to understand their specific needs and challenges.
    • The intake process also involves gathering information about the teen’s family history, social environment, and any co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • Detoxification (If Necessary):
    • If your teen has a physical dependence on sedatives, a medically supervised detoxification process may be necessary. This ensures that their withdrawal is safe and as comfortable as possible.
    • Medical professionals monitor the teen’s health and provide medications if needed to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Individualized Treatment Planning:
    • Based on the assessment, a personalized treatment plan is developed. This plan addresses not only the sedative abuse but also any underlying issues or co-occurring disorders.
    • Treatment plans are dynamic and are reviewed regularly to ensure they meet the evolving needs of the teen.
  • Therapeutic Modalities:
    • A combination of evidence-based therapies is used, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and family therapy.
    • Therapy sessions help teens understand the root causes of their substance abuse, develop coping skills, and repair and strengthen family relationships.
  • Group Therapy and Peer Support:
    • Group therapy sessions provide a platform for teens to share experiences and learn from others in similar situations.
  • Educational Support:
    • Evolve recognizes the importance of continuing education. Our programs include academic support to help teens keep up with their studies during treatment.
  • Recreational and Experiential Therapies:
    • Activities like art therapy, music therapy, equine-assisted therapy, and outdoor adventures are part of the program. These therapies are designed to help teens explore new interests, build self-esteem, and learn new ways to express themselves.
  • Life Skills Training:
    • The program often includes training in life skills, such as stress management, communication skills, and time management, preparing teens for life post-treatment.
  • Aftercare Planning:
    • As the teen nears completion of the program, aftercare planning begins. This may include ongoing therapy, support groups, and a plan for reintegrating into daily life.
    • The goal is to ensure a smooth transition and provide continued support to maintain sobriety.
  • Family Involvement:
    • Family involvement is encouraged throughout the treatment process. This includes family therapy sessions and educational programs to help families support their teen’s recovery.

How To Seek Help For A Teen Facing Sedative Addiction

Acknowledging the problem and seeking help is a brave and vital step towards your teen’s future. If you suspect your teen is struggling with sedative addiction, reach out to Evolve today. We can provide the necessary support and guidance for your teen’s recovery journey. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Teen Sedative Use

How prevalent is sedative use among teenagers?

Sedative use among teenagers is a growing concern, with an increasing number of teens experimenting with prescription sedatives, often obtained illegally.

Can sedatives prescribed for anxiety or sleep be misused by teens?

Yes, sedatives prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders can be misused by teens, either by taking higher doses than prescribed or using them without medical guidance.

Are all sedatives addictive?

Not all sedatives are equally addictive, but many, especially benzodiazepines and barbiturates, have a high potential for addiction and dependency.

Can sedative use lead to other substance abuse issues?

Sedative use can indeed lead to other substance abuse issues, as it may increase the likelihood of experimenting with or becoming dependent on other drugs.

What are the short-term effects of sedative use in teens?

Short-term effects of sedative use in teens include drowsiness, reduced coordination, impaired judgment, and, in some cases, paradoxical reactions like increased aggression.

Can occasional use of sedatives be safe for teens?

Occasional use of sedatives can still be risky for teens, as it can lead to dependency and other health risks, even if used infrequently.

What impact can sedative use have on a teen’s academic performance?

Sedative use can negatively impact a teen’s academic performance, leading to difficulties in concentration, memory issues, and decreased motivation.

Are there educational resources available for parents on teen sedative use?

Yes, there are educational resources available for parents on teen sedative use, including online articles, pamphlets, and workshops offered by healthcare providers and community organizations.

Is there a link between sedative use and mental health disorders in teens?

There is a link between sedative use and mental health disorders in teens, with sedative abuse often co-occurring with conditions like depression and anxiety.

Can sedative use impact a teen’s academic and career future?

Sedative use can have a significant impact on a teen’s academic and career future, potentially leading to academic failure, loss of scholarships, or limited career opportunities due to substance abuse records.

What should parents do if they suspect their teen is using sedatives?

If parents suspect their teen is using sedatives, they should approach the topic with care and seek professional advice from healthcare providers or addiction specialists.

What is the connection between sedative use and risky behaviors in teens?

Sedative use is often connected to risky behaviors in teens, such as impaired driving, unsafe sexual practices, and increased susceptibility to peer pressure.

Are there specific risk factors for teen sedative abuse?

Specific risk factors for teen sedative abuse include a family history of substance abuse, mental health issues, peer pressure, and easy access to prescription medications.

How can schools address the issue of sedative use among teenagers?

Schools can address sedative use among teenagers by implementing drug education programs, providing counseling services, and fostering open communication about the risks of drug abuse.

Is sedative use among teens influenced by media portrayals?

Sedative use among teens can be influenced by media portrayals, which often glamorize drug use and downplay the associated risks and consequences.

Can sedative use lead to physical health problems in teens?

Yes, sedative use can lead to physical health problems in teens, including respiratory issues, neurological damage, and increased risk of overdose.

How can parents differentiate between experimentation and a serious issue with sedatives?

Look for your teen’s patterns of use, changes in behavior, and physical signs of abuse or dependency.

What preventive measures can parents take to protect their teens from sedative misuse?

Parents can take preventive measures such as open communication about drugs, monitoring prescription medications at home, and educating teens about the risks of sedative misuse.

Are there support groups or counseling options for parents dealing with teen sedative use?

Yes, there are support groups and counseling options available for parents dealing with teen sedative use, providing emotional support and practical advice for addressing the issue.

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