THE BLOG

The Unlikely Force Driving Teen Prescription Drug Addiction: Parents?

06/18/2013 01:44 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013

So many issues in parenting are a matter of opinion. Work or stay home? Spank or don't spank? Parents argue passionately on both sides, but there will likely never be a clear resolution to these questions.

Luckily, a few issues are (or should be) cut and dry. None of us want our children using drugs. Unfortunately, even on this point, not all parents agree on the gravity of the problem.

A recent study by The Partnership at Drugfree.org reveals that parents are taking a hands-off approach to prescription drugs even though we have clear evidence of the magnitude of the epidemic. Researchers found that one in four teens has misused prescription medication at some point in their young lives. At a time when most other types of substance abuse are stabilizing, prescription drug abuse is up 33 percent from 2008.

Blind Eye or Bold Indifference?

What's behind parents' lack of concern about one of the biggest epidemics facing today's youth? For some parents, it's a case of too little education too late. Four in five parents find time to talk to their children about marijuana, alcohol and other drugs, yet only about 15 percent are as thorough as they need to be when it comes to prescription drug warnings. Parents are reluctant to talk about drugs too early, but 20 percent of teens in the Partnership study were under 14 years old when they first tried drugs. Kids who start using drugs at a young age are more likely to struggle with addiction later in life.

Other parents are stuck in "not my kid" mode. When they hear about prescription drug abuse, they assume it's a problem that affects other kids, not theirs. Even the smartest, most cooperative teens fall prey to prescription drug use. In fact, because it's more socially acceptable, the "good kids" may be even more likely to misuse medications than illicit drugs.

Two Wrongs Make... an Epidemic

Both parents and teens have misconceptions about prescription drug use. More than one-quarter of teens assume prescription drugs are safe because a doctor prescribes them and they're readily available. One-third of teens don't see a problem with using medications that weren't prescribed for them.

Teens think their parents aren't as concerned about prescription drugs as illicit drugs and, as the Partnership study points out, they're right. Sixteen percent of parents said they think prescription drugs are safer than street drugs. A significant number of parents (20 percent) admitted to giving their teens prescription medications they had on hand even though their child didn't have a prescription for it. About half of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from their parents' medicine cabinet.

What many parents don't realize is that some prescription medications are a synthetic, equally potent version of those same street drugs they fear. When misused, they can be highly addictive and extremely dangerous. The most commonly abused prescription drugs, such as Xanax, OxyContin and Vicodin, now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Parents also overlook their own power: Teens are more likely to use prescription drugs if their parents have a lax attitude about it or misuse drugs themselves.

For some parents, their opinion differs depending which drugs are abused and why. Have a teen who wants to relax or have fun? Not with drugs. Abusing prescription stimulants to get good grades? That's a different story.

Almost one-third of parents believe that Ritalin and Adderall can boost a child's academic performance even if they don't have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In spite of risks such as irregular heartbeat, heart failure and seizures, one in eight teens reports using these drugs without a prescription and one in four teens believes prescription drugs can be used as a study aid.

Much of the increase prescription drug abuse in recent years has been driven by the abuse of ADHD medications. Have we reached a point when the potential for harm to the developing teen brain and a lifelong addiction are justified in order to get ahead?

Replacing Apathy with Action

To be clear, parents are not necessarily to blame when a teen starts using drugs. After all, teenagers use drugs for all kinds of reasons, including peer pressure, relief from stress or mental health issues, and boredom. But lack of parental supervision is a risk factor that can increase the likelihood that a child will abuse drugs, and a close parent-child bond can bolster a child's defenses against drug use.

Here are five things you can do today to protect your children from prescription drug abuse:

  1. Communicate the dangers of prescription drugs.
  2. Make your opinion on prescription drug abuse known by having frequent discussions and setting clear rules about drug use.
  3. Spend quality time with your children to ensure a close bond and open lines of communication.
  4. Safeguard your medications at home and dispose of unused medications properly.
  5. Model healthy behaviors by taking medication only when needed and when prescribed for you.

We count on our kids to do the right thing. They count on us to prepare them for the dangers awaiting them. Let's keep up our end of the bargain.

Need help ? In the U.S., call 855-DRUGFREE (855-378-4373) for the Partnership.

David Sack, M.D., is board-certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes the Promises, The Ranch, Right Step, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Malibu Vista, and Spirit Lodge.

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