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Preventing Children From Abusing Prescription Drugs

What's easier for a typical adolescent to get his hands on: a six-pack of beer or a bunch of prescription drugs?  More adolescents now say it's easier for them to acquire prescription drugs — usually powerful painkillers — than it is to buy beer.

Unfortunately, moms and dads are somewhat ignorant about their adolescents' use of drugs. Almost half (46%) of adolescents surveyed say they leave their homes on school nights to hang out with friends — and sometimes use drugs and alcohol. But only 14% of moms and dads say their adolescents leave home to hang out with friends.

Adolescents used to say it was easiest to buy cigarettes and marijuana. But for the first time, they say prescription drugs not prescribed to them are easier to get. Their main source of drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Ritalin: the medicine cabinet. Another big source of these drugs is their friends.

Adolescents tend to think that because the medications are prescribed, they're safer than alcohol or illegal drugs such as marijuana. They're not! Drugs such as Vicodin — a commonly prescribed pain pill that causes a drunk-like feeling — can be detrimental to the still-developing teenage brain and can impair judgment in people who already are prone to mistakes in judgment. The drugs increase the risk for accidents, sexual activities and more drugs.

While teen use of illegal drugs has gone down in recent years, the one category that has gone up is teen abuse of prescription drugs. Americans are in denial about how widespread this problem is. Many recommend locking up drugs. But the best way to prevent drug abuse is good old-fashioned parenting. We know from our research that parental engagement — being involved in your kids' lives, monitoring what they're up to — is a very key component in teen substance risk.

Just as you inoculate your children against illnesses like measles, you can help "immunize" them against drug use by giving them the facts before they're in a risky situation. When children don't feel comfortable talking to moms and dads, they're likely to seek answers elsewhere, even if their sources are unreliable. Children who aren't properly informed are at greater risk of engaging in unsafe behaviors and experimenting with drugs.

Preschool to Age 7—

Before you get nervous about talking to young children, take heart. You've probably already laid the groundwork for a discussion. For instance, whenever you give a fever medication or an antibiotic to your youngster, you have the opportunity to discuss the benefits and the appropriate and responsible use of those drugs. This is also a time when your youngster is likely to be very attentive to your behavior and guidance.

Start taking advantage of "teachable moments" now. If you see a character on a billboard or on TV with a cigarette, talk about smoking, nicotine addiction, and what smoking does to a person's body. This can lead into a discussion about other drugs and how they can potentially cause harm.

Keep the tone of these discussions calm and use terms that your youngster can understand. Be specific about the effects of the drugs: how they make a person feel, the risk of overdose, and the other long-term damage they can cause. To give your children these facts, you might have to do a little research.

Ages 8 to 12—

As your children grow older, you can begin conversations with them by asking them what they think about drugs. By asking the questions in a nonjudgmental, open-ended way, you're more likely to get an honest response.

Children this age usually are still willing to talk openly to their moms and dads about touchy subjects. Establishing a dialogue now helps keep the door open as children get older and are less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings.

Even if your question doesn't immediately result in a discussion, you'll get your children thinking about the issue. If you show your children that you're willing to discuss the topic and hear what they have to say, they might be more willing to come to you for help in the future.

News, such as steroid use in professional sports, can be springboards for casual conversations about current events. Use these discussions to give your children information about the risks of drugs.

Ages 13 to 17—

Children this age are likely to know other children who use alcohol or drugs, and to have friends who drive. Many are still willing to express their thoughts or concerns with moms and dads about it.

Use these conversations not only to understand your youngster's thoughts and feelings, but also to talk about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Talk about the legal issues (e.g., jail time, fines, etc.) and the possibility that they or someone else might be killed or seriously injured.

Consider establishing a written or verbal contract on the rules about going out or using the car. You can promise to pick your children up at any time (even 2:00 AM!) no questions asked if they call you when the person responsible for driving has been drinking or using drugs.

The contract also can detail other situations: For example, if you find out that someone drank or used drugs in your car while your son or daughter was behind the wheel, you may want to suspend driving privileges for 6 months. By discussing all of this with your children from the start, you eliminate surprises and make your expectations clear.

Laying the Groundwork—

No parent, youngster, or family is immune to the effects of drugs. Some of the best children can end up in trouble, even when they have made an effort to avoid it and even when they have been given the proper guidance from their moms and dads.

However, certain groups of children may be more likely to use drugs than others. Children who have friends who use drugs are likely to try drugs themselves. Those feeling socially isolated for whatever reason may turn to drugs.

So it's important to know your youngster's friends — and their moms and dads. Be involved in your kid's lives. If your youngster's school runs an anti-drug program, get involved. You might learn something! Pay attention to how your children are feeling and let them know that you're available and willing to listen in a nonjudgmental way. Recognize when your children are going through difficult times so that you can provide the support they need or seek additional care if it's needed.

A warm, open family environment — where children are encouraged to talk about their feelings, where their achievements are praised, and where their self-esteem is bolstered — encourages children to come forward with their questions and concerns. When censored in their own homes, children go elsewhere to find support and answers to their most important questions.

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