September 09, 2015 —

Imagine being the source of your teenager’s drug use, perhaps even buying them dangerous drugs over and over again, and possibly even supplying your teen’s friends with drugs as well. Unfortunately, parents are frequently uninformed about the fact that over-the-counter (OTC) cold, cough and flu medications are abusable. Most parents have no idea that such medicines are “party” drugs of choice for many adolescents. Parents may innocently ignore some of the signs and symptoms of OTC medicine abuse simply because cold remedies are ubiquitous and do not draw attention in the same way as empty alcohol bottles or illicit drug paraphernalia. As a school administrator, I have had the 

unfortunate task of telling parents that their child is drinking cough syrup in large quantities or swallowing enough cold medicine tablets to hallucinate. This typically comes as a total shock to parents, who are often unacquainted with the dangers associated with non-prescription medication. Furthermore, both parents and teenagers regularly minimize the risks involved because of the misconception that if a prescription isn’t required, then a medication must be harmless.

Numerous teenagers are able to partake in this risky behavior simply because they assume their parents are oblivious. Although I am a strong believer that teenagers need space to make mistakes, I also think that parents must be savvy about drug use and abuse. Making the assumption that your teenager just isn’t interested in drug use of any kind is risky because even the most connected parent is unable to continuously monitor their teenager’s multi-faceted social life. Additionally, when teenagers do become interested in experimentation, they rarely inform their parents.

Although it may be tempting to never let them out of your sight, most parents of teenagers realize that this is nearly impossible. A more realistic approach is to be conversant in all areas of drug and alcohol use and abuse and to share the information with your teen. Sometimes parents worry that drug and alcohol discussions can give their teenagers ideas, which lead to experimentation. However, parents, rather than peers, ought to be the first and most consistent source of information about drug use and abuse. Most teenagers are less likely to break rules if they think they are going to get caught. Naïve parents make it easier for teens to get away with poor choices.

Additionally, some parents have a cavalier attitude about their own relationship with drugstore medications. Leaving unused and partially used medications around the home can be a set-up for curious teens. In a culture where we often look to a medical intervention for every ache and pain, we need to be clear with our children that these are chemicals and they can be dangerous if used improperly. We also need to model good habits around OTC self-medication. Teenagers are likely to adopt an overly relaxed relationship with medications if they watch their parents take more of a medicine than what is directed on the bottle or a mix of pills without consulting a pharmacist or doctor.

Here are some basic approaches to OTC medicine abuse prevention that all parents can follow:

  1. Educate yourself on OTC medication abuse.
  2. Do not buy large quantities of OTC medication for yourself, your child or to stock your home (this is not a good time to make use of Costco or Sam’s Club bulk purchases).
  3. Talk to your teenager about the dangers of OTC medication abuse. Make it clear that you are aware of just how common it is.
  4. Do not encourage medication as the answer to all ailments.
  5. Conscientiously model appropriate use of OTC medications.
  6. Do not accept your teenager’s minimization of the dangers of misuse. This is a common, and often successful, adolescent defense tactic that deflects attention away from risky behavior.
  7. Act with speed and confidence if you ever find unexplained empty containers of OTC medicine. Teenagers will typically try to explain away obvious signs. Seek outside help and don’t participate in your teen’s denial.

The misconception that only “off-track” teenagers with inattentive or dysfunctional parents misuse pills and drugstore products is rampant among parents. However, through 30 years of experience working with teenagers and their families, I have learned that “good kids” can make risky decisions and “good parents” can be totally unaware. Know the facts, talk openly, never assume and ask questions. Make sure your teenager is educated on the dangers and knows that you are, too.

Linda Rosenberg McGuire is an avid blogger, speaker, parenting coach and consultant whose focus is supporting, coaching and educating parents and teachers as they live and work with the teenagers in their lives. She works with schools to inspire and reinvigorate their faculty so they can successfully work with the most challenging teenagers. Linda also helps parents understand and respond to their teenagers effectively, stressing the importance of listening, limits and building a sense of competence and independence in their adolescents.
Linda has 30 years of experience working with children. Most of that time, she has focused on teenagers and their relationships with their parents. Linda got her start as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, eventually working as a psychotherapist in community mental health as well as a school social worker and counselor. She has spent the last 12 years in independent school administration, working as both a program director and a dean.You can connect with Linda by checking out her website or following her on Twitter.