June 08, 2015 —

Generally speaking, most parents are conscientious of warning their teens about the dangers of alcohol and marijuana use and abuse. Some discuss the dangers of these drugs and use a celebrity’s outlandish drug-related behavior as a takeoff point for “the talk.” However, most of us - myself included - often fail to recognize and address what is right under our noses: the medicines in our drug cabinets. We tend to overlook possible adolescent abuse of prescription pills and over-the-counter (OTC) medications a) because they were prescribed by a physician and as adults we would not think of taking someone else’s pills or b) because they are FDA approved for sale right off the shelf. Consciously or subconsciously, we believe our children won’t use them for the wrong reasons.

The trap in “I know and trust my child” thinking is two-fold. First, the teen brain is not fully developed until the early 20s.  During these developmental years, teens are impulsive and often lack the ability to make responsible decisions. In other words, while you think you know your child, you don’t know when a risky act will take place—maybe in your own medicine cabinet.

Secondly, teens (particularly the younger ones) are more influenced by their peers than their parents. This is pointedly true when talking about drug and alcohol use, but also applies to the friend who suggests trying the cough medicine or sampling other pills you might have in the bathroom. A researcher with the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience explained the influence of friends by saying, “We know that adolescents are more likely to take risks when with peers than alone.”

More than anything, teens want to fit in with their peers. They want to be liked and thought of as a good or “cool” friend. It's a slippery slope, then, to convince your teen not to succumb to peer pressure. As an adult, you would not take a pill or a double (or triple) dose of medicine without knowing something about its effects. This is not so for many teens; they believe that they are invincible and may blindly believe what their friends tell them, which is especially dangerous when it comes to OTC medicine abuse.

Here’s the good news: as a parent, you are more effective than you think. You can - and should - capitalize on your influence, particularly as your adolescents get older. Here are some things you can do to keep teens on the right track when it comes to unsafe drug use and abuse.

  • Keep up with your teen’s friends and activities. “Parent Knowledge” is a strong predictor of teenage risky behavior.
  • Be aware of the social networking sites your child uses. Twitter, for example, is highly influential in attracting teens to marijuana use.
  • Make a date with your teen. Let him or her know you want to discuss drug use. Choose a time when you are both calm and not rushed (to get to sports practice or make sure dinner is ready, for instance). Be sure he or she understands the meeting is mandatory. Don’t listen to comments that try to convince you that your teen “knows it all already.”
  • Take advantage of opportunities to start the conversation. A classmate in trouble, a celebrity in the news, a relative with a drug problem are all timely opportunities to discuss the dangers of drug use of any kind.
  • Be direct. When you talk about marijuana and other drug use, underscore that drug use also extends to the medicines in your home.
  • Provide rules. Like young children, preteens and teens need boundaries. Spell out yours and why you want your teenager to understand your concern. Be crystal clear when outlining the consequences for breaking your rules.
  • Keep lines of communication as open as possible. Encourage your teen to come to you with questions. You may even decide to tell your child to use you as an excuse if a friend is trying to convince him or her to engage in risky behavior.
  • Let your son or daughter know that you love him no matter what. If your teen messes up, you will be unhappy, but pleased that he or she was honest with you.
  • Above all, be vigilant. Know what is in your medicine cabinet and check to make sure that the contents remain as you left them. Be especially watchful if your teen’s friends (or peers that you don’t know) have been in the house when you are not home. It’s important to constantly monitor.

Dr. Susan Newman is a social psychologist and author of 15 books relating to parenting and family issues including several on drug and alcohol prevention for teens. She writes a parenting blog for Psychology Today magazine that covers complicated questions such as how many children to have and the anxieties of raising them. On her website, www.susannewmanphd.com, you will find other steps parents can take to safeguard their children: Have You Had the Pot Talk with Your Teen? If Not, Why Not? and College Binge Drinking and Drug Abuse: What Parents Can Do Early and Now, among others. You can connect with Dr. Newman on Twitter and Facebook and Sign Up for her free Monthly Family Life Alert Newsletter.