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Adolescents and young adults misuse prescription opioids more than any other age group, and teen substance use significantly increases the risk of developing addiction. They are also at highest risk for overdose. These are startling statistics, but there are three important steps parents can take to prevent their teens from misusing prescription drugs, reduce the chances of accidental overdose and avoid the devastation of opioid addiction.
Step 1: Proper medication storage and disposal
Approximately 70 percent of teens access pain medication from people they know personally – friends, family or the stocked medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Parents need to be aware of the different medications that they have stored within the home and keep medications safely locked up. If medications within the home are not locked up, it is crucial for parents to keep track of any pills that might be missing. Parents should dispose of any unused pills immediately and safely.
Step 2: Talk with your teen’s doctor
Prescription opioids are generally safe when they are medically necessary and taken as prescribed. Most people who are prescribed opioids do not misuse them or become addicted. If a doctor prescribes your teen opioid pain medication following an injury or surgery, ask the doctor questions about risks of addiction, proper use, length of period they need to take it, and possible medication alternatives that are not addictive. Unless your teen is in the hospital, pain management at home following an injury or surgery should quickly shift from opioid to non-opioid medications. Many doctors are appropriately shifting away from writing 30-day refillable prescriptions in these situations. Talk with your teen’s doctor if you feel he/she is prescribing excessive opioids. And always monitor your teen’s use of the medications and, if you have any concerns about misuse or addiction, contact your teen’s doctor immediately. Early intervention is an effective way to prevent addiction.
Step 3: Engage teens in honest conversations
Parents need to engage teens in honest conversations about the dangers of opioid abuse and how to avoid it. Teens may think that the medications are safe because they are legal and prescribed by doctors, but taking someone else’s medication, taking more than prescribed or using them in combination with other medications can have serious consequences, including death. Prescription opioid misuse and addiction precedes later heroin use in nearly half of young people. With repeated misuse of prescription drugs, larger and more frequent doses of opioids are needed so teens may turn to heroin as a cheaper and more affordable alternative. The risks of overdose and death are even greater in this epidemic because fentanyl, a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid, is being laced in prescription drugs and heroin. Teens may unknowingly take fentanyl, believing it to be a prescription drug. These risks are potentially deadly and need to be communicated to your teen.
Parents should not feel helpless in the face of the opioid epidemic. There are practical steps you can take to ensure that your teen does not become victims of opioid addiction, a preventable disease with tragic outcomes for the entire family. Although the solution to the opioid crisis is multifaceted and involves the collective effort of several stakeholders, parents play a vital role in helping to turn the tide of the epidemic in a positive direction.
Nkem is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction