What to Do if You Suspect Your Teen is Abusing OTC Cough Medicine

This post was updated in August of 2023.

When parenting teens, it can be hard to draw the line between being aware or overly suspicious. On the one hand, you want your teen to feel trusted, and on the other, you want to protect your child from poor decisions. One of the best things you can do to try to find the balance is to keep your eyes open and make decisions based on facts. And the fact of the matter is that substance abuse usually has warning signs, if you know what to watch out for.

When it comes to cough medicine abuse, there are a few signs to be aware of. Some common warning signs include:

  • Empty cough medicine boxes or bottles in the trash of your teen’s room
  • Boxes or bottles of cough medicine missing from the medicine cabinet
  • Visiting pro-drug websites that provide information on how to abuse dextromethorphan (DXM), the active ingredient in most cough medicines
  • Changes in friends, physical appearance, or sleeping or eating patterns
  • Declining grades
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities
  • Hostile and uncooperative attitude
  • Unexplained disappearance of household money
  • Unusual chemical or medicinal smells on your child or in their room

Some of these warning signs may simply be your teen being a teenager. But, if you suspect your teen might be abusing, talk to them. Sit down with your teen for an open discussion about alcohol and drug use. It’s important to openly voice your suspicions, but avoid direct accusations that may make your teen feel attacked.

Also, it’s important to never have this conversation when you suspect that your teen is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and make sure you sound calm and rational. You want your teen to know that you care about their health and safety. Ask your teen what has been going on in their life and discuss ways to avoid using alcohol and other drugs.

Having this conversation can be stressful and scary, so don’t feel like you’re alone in the situation. If you need help during this conversation, ask another family member, your child’s guidance counselor, or a physician. Be firm and enforce whatever discipline you’ve laid out in the past for breaking house rules. You also should discuss ways your teen can regain your lost trust, such as calling in, spending evenings at home, or improving grades.

The Partnership to End Addiction has many resources of differing mediums that can help you. If you prefer support in the form of larger groups, there are many online support groups you can join. If you prefer support from a singular source, you can speak with a trained specialist via phone, email, or text. In fact, you can even receive personalized text messages to assist you in your journey. Or, if you prefer to support yourself, there are self-paced trainings that can help address teen substance misuse.

Additionally, the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator is a website of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that offers many comprehensive resources that may also be helpful.

Make an effort to protect your kids by joining us on Facebook and encouraging your friends to do so, too!

Christy was part of the Five Moms: Stopping Cough Medicine Abuse initiative from 2007 to 2014. In 2003, Christy became an advocate for OTC medicine abuse prevention after her son was arrested while under the influence of OTC medicine. She believes that education is the best prevention method for teens and the adults that care for them, which is why she advocates so strongly for parents to pay attention to potential warning signs of teen substance misuse.

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