Every day, 2,500 American youth use a prescription pain reliever without a prescription for the first time, according to Foundation for a Drug-free World.
Many teens who misuse pain medication will lose control over use — the hallmark of addiction. Eventually, some will switch to heroin, which is the same class of drug as prescription pain medication but much stronger. Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, offers tips to help parents understand the problem and talk to their kids about drugs and alcohol.
No one is immune.
In previous decades, heroin use was much more common in the inner cities than other areas. Because opioid addiction typically starts with pain medication misuse — which is common in all demographics —things are different today.
“The addiction epidemic knows no boundaries. Suburban and rural areas are being hit very hard, which is shocking to many parents who can’t imagine their children would ever use heroin,” says Levy.
Many teens try pain medications because they are curious. No one ever intends to become addicted. While trying pain pills just one time may seem harmless, addiction can happen very quickly for some individuals.
“Some of our patients have told us it happened the very first time they used. The bottom line: It’s never OK to experiment with prescription pain medication,” says Levy.
There is hidden danger in the medicine cabinet.
“Kids find medications right in their own bathroom. Saving leftovers from a prescription just in case might seem like a good idea, but medicine cabinets are one of the primary sources of diverted medication. Even if your own teen would never take leftover pills, her friends or other visitors to your home might,” says Levy.
The best thing to do with leftover medication is get rid of the pills. Take them back to the pharmacy, or check how to safely dispose of them.
Talking to teens about the dangers of using someone else’s medication and role modeling responsible medication use are also good ideas. This means not sharing ANY prescription medication. If you run out of ADHD medication for one child, don’t borrow from another, says Levy.
She also tells children to never take a pill from a friend. “All medication needs to be supervised and should be administered by trusted adults like a parent or school nurse.”
A little pot or booze is a big deal.
Use of alcohol or marijuana by teens may be perceived as benign experimentation, but it also may be a warning sign. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.
“During adolescence teens are learning how to make good decisions, and alcohol, marijuana and other drugs get in the way of that process. As a result, compared to adults, teens are more likely to experience the negative consequences of substance use — accidents, injuries, sexual assaults, mental health disorders, etc. In addition, the developing adolescent brain is more vulnerable to developing addiction. In fact, the large majority of individuals with addiction started using substances during adolescence, and the younger someone starts using the greater the odds of becoming addicted,” explains Levy.
While the basic principles of human brain development have not changed over the generations, the drugs available to kids have. More highly concentrated products such as pure marijuana oil, new forms such as inhaled alcohol “vaportinis” and new devices such as the e-cigarette are all more addictive than the products the current generation of parents was exposed to.
Binge drinking is the rule not the exception.
Though many teens like to claim they drink responsibly and in moderation, few do. Research done by the federal government has found that 90 percent of all alcohol consumed by underage drinkers occurs as part of a binge.
“When we talk to teens about moderation, we are simply not speaking the same language. To many teens, six or seven drinks is moderation. The take-away message: Be clear when talking about alcohol and set a “no-use” policy as part of your house rules,” says Levy.
Start talking to your kids early.
“It’s never too early to start talking about your family’s values in a developmentally appropriate way,” says Levy. She recommends beginning the conversation naturally in context. With younger children, conversations might be sparked when you see a person smoking or an alcohol ad.
“Make sure the message is ‘smoking is bad for your health’ not ‘smokers are bad.’ It’s a fine line for young children and important to be clear,” she explains.
The conversations become a bit more difficult when alcohol is the subject. “It’s well-established that no level of cigarette smoking is safe, but that isn’t true with alcohol.”
In many families, parents and other adults drink responsibly, which can be confusing for kids who have heard that drinking alcohol is dangerous. “When it comes to alcohol, parents should be prepared for more nuanced messages.” Levy suggests parents tell younger children alcohol — like driving a car or voting — is just for adults.
As children get older, parents can share the reasons why they shouldn’t drink, focusing on health. Alcohol and marijuana can interfere with brain development, and increase the likelihood a teen will put herself in an embarrassing or dangerous situation.
Levy discourages parents from using vague messages. “Telling teens ’You can drink, but don’t get into trouble,’ is very confusing.”
The current opioid epidemic may be frightening to parents, but there is also good news. Compared to a generation ago, many more high school students today are choosing NOT to use alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. Clear messages and honest communication works, and parents play a vital role in helping their children navigate the hazards of adolescence.
“Keep talking — even if it feels like your kids aren’t listening, trust that they are,” says Levy.
Learn more about the Boston Children’s Adolescent Substance Abuse Program.