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

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 his or her 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 him or her. 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 his or her health and safety. Ask your teen what has been going on in his or her 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.

Two resources that can be helpful are from the Partnership at Drugfree.org. They are TimeToTalk.org, for help in how to have the conversation, and TimeToAct.org, if you think your teen is abusing any sort of drug.

Additionally, the below resources can help you find support and treatment in the event that your teen needs help dealing with substance abuse:

  • Time to Get Help — Time to Get Help is a place to learn but not get overwhelmed; a place to find out how to help your child without wasting time; a place to get support without feeling judged; and a place to share your experiences, knowing you can make a difference.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator — A website of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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