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Teen prescription drug abuse: What to do

Tom Deitzler, senior clinical director of adolescent and young adult services at Caron Treatment Centers, talks about steps parents should take to understand the choices their teens face and how to protect them.

By Sari Harrar

Prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Ritalin and Valium are the killer new teen high. One in six teens say he or she has taken a prescription drug at least once in the past year. One in 11 is drug-dependent and one in five show signs of dependence, a new study says.

While kids swipe pills from medicine cabinets and purses, trade them at school or pluck them from bowls at "pharma parties," parents are often clueless. We don't think it can happen to our kids, so we say little, miss early warning signs and fumble opportunities to educate and protect our kids. During October and November, the Healthy Kids blog will look at this issue through the stories of former teen prescription-drug users now in recovery, their parents and local addiction-recovery experts working to treat addicted teens and help parents prevent this under-the-radar and illicit drug use.

Today, Tom Deitzler, senior clinical director of adolescent and young adult services at Caron Treatment Centers, talks about steps parents should take to understand the choices their teens face - and to protect them.

"Prescription drugs are easier for teens to find than most parents realize," Deitzler says. "They find them at home, at friends' houses, even swipe them if the family tours a house for sale, and they can buy them in the community and online. Getting drugs is simply too easy. Combined with the peer pressure out there to try them, I would say prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in America. We see that and deal with that every day at Caron."

Deitzler says that when a teen enters a Caron treatment program, parents come along a few weeks later to learn how to support, and not enable, their son or daughter when they return home to continue their recovery. "Up to 90 percent of parents who come for the family program while their teen is in treatment at Caron say they had no idea what was going on," he says. "They were too busy with their own lives and concerns, in denial about what might be going on, or just unaware. But once they see their child's drug-use timeline, they realize there were plenty of warning signs that they had ignored or overlooked. They saw the signs, but never thought it could happen to them."

These steps can help you help your teen:

Start the conversation and keep it up. Talk with your kids about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, as well as alcohol and marijuana use. Come up with a plan your teen can use if she or he is offered alcohol or drugs at a party, a football game or other get-together. Practice it together.

Stay connected to your kid. "Talk. Just talk every day about how his or her day was, what they're thinking about, what's going on with their friends, school, sports, activities," Deitzler says. "Be an involved parent. If you've got a good dialog going on a daily basis, you'll have opportunities to talk about drug-abuse prevention. Your kid will know you care. And you'll be able to spot changes sooner -- their behavior will change."

Know the warning signs. Be concerned about signs of alcohol or marijuana use as well as use of harder drugs. Warning signals include:

  1. The smell of alcohol or odor of marijuana

  2. Stealing or borrowing money

  3. Defensiveness about activities and possessions

  4. Unusual mood changes or temper outbursts

  5. Marked changes in eating or sleeping habits

  6. Decline in academic performance

  7. Heavy use of perfumes, mouthwash or other scents to hide drug use

  8. A bedroom littered with burned matches, pipes or other drug paraphernalia

  9. Changes in friend groups

  10. Significant change in personal appearance or hygiene

  11. Loss of interest in usual activities or hobbies

  12. Difficulty with concentration

  13. Frequent visits to doctors for medical issues and prescriptions

Act fast if you spot warning signs. "The old saying that addicts don't get help till they hit bottom is wrong and dangerous when dealing with kids," Deitzler says. "Parents have to raise up that "bottom" and act sooner.  Otherwise, the progression of drugs they're exposed to could become lethal. Not getting support for yourself and an intervention for your child means missing the opportunity to get your child on the right path to wellness and sobriety. Sometimes you have to create a crisis to get a teen into treatment-- it could be about academics or the threat of legal consequences. If you turn a blind eye, things get worse."

Get support and education for yourself. Don't go it alone. Joining a parent support group "gives parents strength and hope as they meet others who walked the same path but then did something new, by putting up a roadblock that got their kid the help he or she needed," Deitzler says. Find support via national organizations such as, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Time to Get Help Web site. The organization, Families Anonymous, offers support groups for relatives and friends of a family member using drugs, at several locations in New Jersey and in Philadelphia. Caron Treatment Centers sponsors weekly, biweekly and monthly parent support group meetings at locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.