March 19, 2015 —

When I was at Freedom Institute, an outpatient substance abuse treatment facility in New York City, I worked with the father of a 15-year-old boy named “Harry.” Harry had been smoking marijuana daily, so he went to an eight-week wilderness program as a form of treatment. When Harry returned at the end of the summer, his father took him to Block Island for two weeks, thinking that it would keep him away from his friends in the city and it would be much more difficult for Harry to find marijuana there. It was more difficult for Harry to find marijuana, but it was not difficult for him to find cough medicine containing DXM. After Harry and his friend got high from abusing cough medicine, they wanted to go to the beach, so they “borrowed” a neighbor’s car, which had the keys on the console. While hallucinating, Harry crashed the car and escaped unhurt, but he now faces vehicular theft charges.

I tell this story not just to sound alarm bells, but because it illustrates three points about over-the-counter cold and cough medicine abuse that parents often miss.

  • The first, of course, is how easy it is to get and use. Parents are often astonished to learn that one in 30 American teenagers has used products that contain DXM to get high.
  • Secondly, as the case of Harry illustrates all too well, kids who are abusing cold and cough medicines are likely to be using other drugs as well. This may seem counter-intuitive as DXM products are cheap and easily accessible, but the desired “high” from DXM is hallucination. There are not very many teenagers who want to begin experimenting with drugs by hallucinating. In other words, in my experience, medicine containing DXM is unlikely to be used a “starter” drug. If you discover that your child has been abusing DXM medication, don’t let its over-the-counter status fool you into believing that this was a relatively harmless experiment. Looks for signs of other drug use.
  • Lastly, and I say this to all parents about all drug use, if you think there is a problem, there probably is. Harry’s father’s desire to keep Harry away from his friends and access to marijuana, while understandable, also pointed to his uncertainty about Harry’s recovery. In fact, we all advised that Harry stay longer at the wilderness program. But like all parents, Harry’s father wanted to believe that his son was well. It’s human nature to want to deny that anything is wrong with your child. If you have an uneasy feeling and you ask your friends for advice, nine times out of 10, they will want to believe that everything is alright as well, often muttering something about “normal teenage behavior.”

Research has demonstrated that early, aggressive interventions for substance-using adolescents can protect the developing teen brain and offer the best possibility for positive outcomes. If you are really worried about your teen, in all probability, you have already moved through several layers of denial. There has been enough alarming behavior displayed, over and over again, to keep this fear front and center. If this is the case, it’s important to trust your instincts, and get professional help for your teen. Centers like the Freedom Institute can make a huge difference. 

Donna Wick has been helping parents raise happy, healthy and resilient children for over 20 years. At Mind to Mind Parent, she works with parents, adolescents, children, couples and families, individually and together, to build and nurture relationships. As a clinical psychologist, she teaches parents how to practice reflective parenting, which allows them to focus on the thoughts and feelings that underlie their child’s behavior, rather than react to the behavior itself. Donna recently served as the Executive Director at Freedom Institute, a substance abuse treatment facility in New York City, designed a developmental social and emotional resilience curriculum for adolescents. She has appeared on "Oprah," "The Today Show," in the New York Times and various national publications to discuss motherhood and parenting. Donna is also a blogger for The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Parent-Infant Program at Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research and received advanced post-doctoral training in child and adolescent psychotherapy from the William Alanson White Institute. She and her husband are the proud parents of three daughters, 24, 22 and 17. You can connect with Donna on TwitterGoogle+ and LinkedIn.