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11 Reasons Why Teens Abuse Prescription Opiates – And How Parents Can Prevent It

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Few parents ever foresee heroin addiction for their adolescent/young adult children but it happens all the time.

By the teen years, adolescents already understand the risks of drugs like heroin – no 12 year old dreams of sticking a needle in his arm - so how do good kids make such bad choices along the way?

Well, in truth, there are a lot of factors that influence a person’s likelihood of drug experimentation and addiction (trauma history, availability, parental attitudes, etc.) but there’s no doubt that for many kids, the path to heroin addiction begins at the family medicine cabinet before winding down a progressive road to a terrible destination.

Want to know why teens hit the medicine cabinet? Well the best way to find out is by asking – and that’s just what researchers at the Partnership for a Drug-Free America did in their Partnership Attitude Tracking Study of 7216 - 7th to 12th grade opiate (pain-pill) users between 2008 and 2012.

Here’s what they found out…

Top 11 Reasons Why Teens Take Opiate Pills 

A substantial 7216 middle and high school aged adolescents were asked why they abused pain pill – here are the answers they gave:1


said they used them because they were easy to get from the family medicine cabinet.


claimed use due to easy access ‘available everywhere’.


said they used these pills because of their legality (not illegal like other illicit opiates).


claimed they were easy to get through a friend’s prescription.


used at least in part because they could claim to have a legitimate prescription for the drugs if caught and questioned.


reported low cost as a motivator for use.


perceived pain pills to be safer than other street drugs.


reported less stigma attached to use of pain pills.


reported easy access via the internet.


reported using because of fewer side effects than street drugs.


reported using because parents weren’t as angry if you were caught with pain pills as opposed to street drugs.

Prevention Strategies

If you break these 11 statements down, you can divide all of them into 3 basic categories:

  1. Easy availability
  2. Less worry about legal issues and other consequences
  3. Perceived to be safer and associated with fewer side-effects

So, knowing why teens take with pain pills, here are few ideas for stopping experimentation before it gets started.

1. Reduce Availability

  • Know what’s in your family medicine cabinet so you’ll notice if anything goes missing.
  • Dispose of expired or no-longer needed medications.
  • Ask other family members to do likewise.

2. Be Clear on Consequences

Possession of diverted prescription opiates is a far bigger deal than possession of marijuana, so young people who use pain pills to avoid ‘trouble’ are quite misguided.

  • Have an open conversation with your child about state laws on the misuse of scheduled prescription drugs and pass along information on the consequences for possession and distribution (even among friends) of scheduled opiates.
  • Also make sure your children understand how seriously you regard pain pill abuse (just as severely as you’d view heroin use) and make any consequences for use of these drugs very clear in advance.

3. Communicate the Dangers

These medications are exceedingly dangerous when abused. In 2008, prescription medication overdoses killed 14 800 people (more than cocaine and heroin combined.) In 2009, prescription drug abuse put almost a half million people in the hospital (475 000 E.R. visits). Make sure your children understand the true risks involved. Just because they come from a pharmacy and not the street doesn’t make these drugs any safer.2

Prevention Starts at Home

Parental actions and attitudes make an enormous difference – though adolescents may seem oblivious to parental efforts, your words and deeds matter most of all.

Consider that after reviewing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers found that teens who did not abuse opiates were more likely to report having parents who:3

  • Offered regular appropriate praise.
  • Checked their homework frequently and stayed involved with academics.
  • Made their strong disapproval of marijuana use very clear. 

Stay involved, keep communication open and praise your son or daughter for all the good they do and you do a lot to keep your children safe from these serious and all-too-commonly abused drugs.

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Page last updated Jan 12, 2014

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