UAB Medicine News
8 Reasons Children & Teens Abuse Prescription Drugs
It may start innocently enough. Perhaps a child sees a parent regularly grab a couple of tablets from a prescription pill bottle and gets curious. Maybe a classmate dares a teen to down a mystery capsule, and the teen doesn’t want to be labeled a “chicken”. It could be that an adolescent is bored and decides to wander into the bathroom and look through the medicine cabinet. What begins as curiosity, a dare, or boredom can quickly become more serious.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 16.5% of high school seniors report having used prescription drugs that weren’t meant for them. More than 9% have taken amphetamines – such as those prescribed for Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – and 7% have used tranquilizers. Another 7% have taken opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and more than 4% have used sedatives.
One look at those startling statistics, and it becomes clear that one-time prescription drug use among children and adolescents can quickly snowball into substance abuse.
Understanding Hearts and Minds
Understanding the beginnings of prescription drug misuse involves looking into the hearts and minds of young people. Latrice Dailey is an adolescent counselor at Beacon Recovery, a UAB Medicine-affiliated outpatient substance abuse treatment program for adults and teens age 13 to 18. She says unresolved trauma, uncomfortable emotions, stress, and even boredom push kids to self-medicate. “Most adolescents believe that all people use drugs,” she says. “Popular songs and the media glorify drug use, so kids see it as a way to escape.”
Here are eight key reasons why children and adolescents turn to prescription drugs, along with suggestions for how to address the underlying causes:
- Boredom: Parents tend to roll their eyes when children claim that they’re bored, but it can lead adolescents to explore prescription drugs. Dailey encourages parents to get their children involved in extracurricular activities – and to get involved alongside them. Volunteer work, church activities, and scouting are good options. “Sports can be a good outlet, too, but be aware that different organized sports use different types of drugs,” she says.
- Misinformation: Adolescents may believe that prescription medications are harmless. “They don’t have the facts and don’t know the dangers of drugs,” Dailey says. “It’s important to educate children that if a drug isn’t prescribed for you, it’s illicit, and if you use a prescription drug just because you’re having a bad day, that’s misuse.”
- Depression or Anxiety: Kids may turn to prescription drugs when they have an underlying mental health issue. “It’s important to get mental health treatment when appropriate and to more generally talk to kids about how to cope with different scenarios,” Dailey says. Helping children and adolescents develop strength and coping skills can help them resist the temptation of drugs.
- Access to Prescription Medications: Dailey advises parents to keep prescription medications locked up. “Teenagers have ‘pill parties’ where they all raid their families’ medicine cabinets, dump the pills into a bowl, and each kid grabs a handful,” she says. Restricting access to medications can prevent the sometimes deadly consequences of these gatherings.
- Lack of Self-Confidence: Dailey says parents should nurture their children’s self-esteem by affirming them when they assert their opinions. “If they don’t feel comfortable, then they’re going to be passive when they’re in a high-risk situation,” she says. This passivity makes adolescents more vulnerable to peer pressure about drugs, as opposed to kids who are confident in holding fast to their principles and values.
- Peer Pressure: Children and adolescents badly want be accepted by their classmates, but those classmates can be fickle. As a result, kids can succumb to badgering. Teach your children how to set boundaries and stick to them. Role-playing with specific situations and brainstorming ways to say “no” can give adolescents the tools they need when real-world drug-related situations arise.
- Genetics: Addiction has a genetic component. NIH-funded research suggests that about 50% of someone’s risk for addiction depends upon his or her DNA. If addiction runs in the family, having a frank discussion with your kids can help them remain vigilant about their increased risk of addiction to prescription and other drugs.
- Environment: The causes of human behavior can trigger a “nature vs. nurture” debate, but drug addiction can be traced to both genetic and environmental factors. “If kids see their dad come home and drink beer to relax, they’ll learn that drinking is how you cope after a rough day at work,” Dailey says. “The same holds true for drugs.”
Dailey emphasizes that the misuse of prescription drugs by children and adolescents isn’t a reflection on them or their parents. “They’re not bad kids, and they’re not trying to punish you,” she says. “Drug use is a symptom of an underlying problem.” That problem – whether unresolved trauma, depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem – can be addressed, and addiction can be overcome.
If you suspect your child has a substance abuse issue, call UAB Beacon Recovery at 205-917-3733, extension 103, to schedule an evaluation.
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