Teen Prescription Drug Abuse: It Happens More Than You Think

It's no wonder that parents spend so much time contemplating illegal drugs, given the large number of horror stories on the news every night. But as you weigh how to talk to your child about heroin, pot, and meth, an equally dangerous drug lurks in your medicine cabinet. Prescription drugs pose serious dangers to your child, and it's just important to protect your child from these drugs as it is to protect her from illegal street drugs.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that prescription drug abuse is now the single largest drug threat to teenagers. While illicit drug and tobacco usage rates have remained relatively stable, prescription drug abuse rates among teenagers have increased 33 percent over the last five years. A study commissioned by MetLife in 2008 found that one in four teens had abused a prescription drug at least once.

But teenagers are often blind to the risks of prescription drug abuse. Fifty percent of teens believe that prescription drugs are safer than street drugs, and between 60 and 70 percent of teen drug abusers rely on prescription drugs as their primary means of getting high.

How Prescription Drugs Affect Teens

The fact that a drug is legal in a limited number of circumstances doesn't make it any less dangerous. Prescription drugs carry serious side effects, and come with a risk of overdose similar to that of illicit drugs. Moreover, your child is just as likely to get into legal trouble – including arrests for DUI and unlawful drug possession – with prescription drugs as she is with illicit drugs. Drug overdose is a leading cause of death among teenagers, and prescription drugs are the most common source of drug overdoses.

To be able to effectively help a teen who's abusing prescription drugs, you need to know the signs of drug use. Of course, every teen experiences mood swings, so a single symptoms doesn't necessarily mean your child has a drug problem. But if you see several of the following symptoms over the course of several days, it's a sure sign that it's time to seek outside help:

  • Changes in energy levels, such as sleeping all the time or being hyperactive

  • Sudden mood swings

  • Night sweats

  • Dilated pupils

  • Strange or irrational beliefs

  • Increase in conflict with friends and family

  • Changes in appetite

  • Rapid heart rate or breathing

  • Change in friendships

  • Use of strange slang or jargon; this could be an attempt to conceal discussions about drugs.

  • Changes in appearance, particularly skin changes and red eyes

  • Trouble at school

  • Missing prescription pills or medication bottles from your medicine cabinet

Keeping Your Teen Safe

The best way to combat teenage prescription drug use is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Keep your prescription drugs secured in a locked medicine cabinet. When you stop using a drug, dispose of any extra at your doctor's office or a pharmacy. If you have a prescription for a drug teens regularly use to get high – such as sleeping pills or a painkiller – count your pills every few days to ensure they're not disappearing.

It's not just your own medicine cabinet that affords access to prescription medications, though. Teens can get drugs from friends' parents, or from friends who have prescriptions for drugs such as Adderall. Consequently, it's wise to confer with your child's friends about how they secure prescription drugs. Keeping track of your child's Internet and smart phone behavior via a parental intelligence service such as uKnowKids can also help you detect drug use before the situation turns dire.

Perhaps most importantly, talk to your child about prescription drugs. Help her understand that these medications are just as dangerous as illicit drugs. And if your child struggles with depression or anxiety, offer to help her. Many children begin abusing drugs to cope with mental health conditions.

Treatment Options for Drug Abuse

Drug addiction is a disease, which means you can't punish your child into giving up drugs. Instead, a child who abuses prescription drug needs prompt treatment. Early treatment makes it much easier to recover and avoid relapse, so don't delay in seeking treatment.

Most teens do best in a residential rehab facility. At such a facility, your child will get therapy, medical assistance, and access to peer support groups. Inpatient treatment also makes it much harder for your teen to use drugs, and removes her from any negative peer pressure to continue abusing medication.

If you're not comfortable with sending your teen away or can't afford inpatient treatment, you have a few options. These include:

  • A 12-step program such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). NA also has a sister program, Nar-Anon, designed to help family and friends cope with a loved one's drug abuse.

  • Therapy. A therapist can help your teen find alternatives to using drugs. Family therapy can also help you determine if there are any family issues that contributed to your child's decision to abuse drugs.

  • Medical assistance. If your child begins abusing her own prescription drug or uses drugs to mask a mental health condition, you may need the assistance of a doctor to find the right medication and manage her dosage.

Although prescription drug abuse can be frightening, it is a treatable, curable condition. A supportive, loving environment plays a key role in overcoming addiction, so avoid taking any frustration or anger you feel out on your child. Instead, focus on getting better together as a family, rather than stigmatizing or ostracizing your child. Millions of families survive prescription drug abuse every year, and you can too – if you have to. But preventing the problem altogether is a much healthier strategy, and one that requires only minimal effort.

Learn more startling facts on the matter and view the top lingo terms associated with prescription abuse in this teenage drug prescription abuse infographic!


A response to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse [PDF]. (2011, April 25). Washington, D.C.: Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Goldberg, C. (2013, April 22). National Study: Teen misuse and abuse of prescription drugs up 33 percent since 2008. Retrieved here.

Prescription drug abuse statistics. (n.d.).Retrieved here.

Prescription drug abuse statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved here.

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