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What Every Parent Needs to Know About Teen Opioid Abuse

According to recent data, the rate of teen drug overdose deaths in the United States is on the rise. A huge perpetrator? Opioids.

Because young people are abusing everything from heroin and painkillers more than ever before, it’s crucial to know the signs of use before it even gets to overdose, and for parents to try and get ahead of the problem before it becomes a full on crisis.

Opioid Abuse and Teens

“It usually starts out as abusing prescription pain medications like Percocet and Oxycodone before graduating to illicit substances like heroin,” says Ryan Potter LCSW, MCAP, ICADC, Director of Clinical Development of Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Chances are, [teens] already know someone who is abusing these drugs, so having an open line of communication gives them an outlet for discussion.”

Therapist Lynn Zakeri says that in the past two years, heroin has been coming up with young people in her office more frequently.

“If my clients are representative of the ‘upper middle class,’ and their stories are representative, then this increase may be happening because of pain relievers prescribed by doctors,” she says. “Every time I hear the story, it starts with Vicodin – even wisdom teeth removal has been the starting point of a heroin death – and in other cases, it was post-surgery pain relievers.”

This raises certain questions in her mind: Is the “addictive gene” then activated and the cravings start?  Or were these young adults going to find a way to escape through drugs anyway?

“I think that some people on the Southside of Chicago would not argue that heroin is more accessible than in the past, but certainly in the suburbs it is easier to find someone who knows someone,” she says. “But even on college campuses kids seem to be finding more ways to escape their stress, their depression, their life, whether it’s Netflix, getting high, black-out drunk, or harder drugs.”

Educating Your Family

Having a family discussion about the current opioid epidemic, says Potter, is an excellent way to make sure your family is aware of the severity of the problem and ensure that your teen understands how quickly one can become addicted.

This way, you’re not directly targeting your teen or veering into lecture territory. You also open up the floor for questions on addiction in general – and can get a sense for where they “stand” on the issue.

Zakeri notes that asking casual questions goes a long way. Try, “I just read about another kid selling pills. Am I that out of it that that surprises me?”

“If your kid jumps on board and teases you, you just opened the door for them to show off their knowledge and you can start the conversation,” she says. “Making it personal, even if it is not about an aunt or sister or grandpa, but about an old college friend or dad’s colleague from his last job, will help validate for them that you do know what you are talking about.”

From there, Potter says it’s important for parents to know the signs of use and abuse:

  • Lethargy
  • Erratic sleep patterns
  • Pinpointed/constricted pupils
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Itchy or irritated nose
  • Often, pills are crushed up and snorted or sniffed through the nose, but in the case of intravenous use, frequent wearing of long sleeves could also be a sign.

As for overdose, those symptoms are:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Small pupils
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • “Acting drunk” or delirious
  • Cold or clammy skin

Teenage Impulsivity

So how does prescription painkiller abuse lead to a more serious crises, like heroin use?

Tina Muller, Family Wellness Manager at Mountainside Treatment Center,  says that, particularly with teens, when a prescription runs out, they’re looking for a cheaper alternative to get the same high, and heroin, believe it or not, “can be so inexpensive.”

As the parent of a teenager, she says, it’s important to recognize that the teen is trying to make their own path and develop their own identity.

“Impulsivity in a teenager is naturally greater than the impulsivity in an adult, as their frontal lobes aren’t developed yet and teenagers’ ability to make good decisions is not always great,” she says. “With drugs involved, they’re reacting based on their pleasure principles, which increase the feelings of breaking away from their family and even more hinders a teen’s ability to make good decisions.”

If you do notice any signs, it’s important to enter into a conversation by saying you’ve noticed some of the signs and behaviors mentioned above, rather than accusing them of doing drugs and letting them know how it makes you feel. If it turns out they are using, she says, be open with your children and assuring them that you want to support them and help them.

“Establishing open lines of communication is key, as is letting your child know that he or she can come to you to talk and feel totally comfortable doing so,” Muller says. “And if parents are helping their child get sober, they need to model that behavior as well. Keep alcohol or drugs out of the house and show your child that you live a healthy, positive and active lifestyle so they have something to look to.”

Getting Your Teen Into Rehab

Actually getting children to counseling or rehabilitation can be difficult but necessary in some cases, she says. It needs to come from a place of love and support, not an ultimatum.

“So instead of saying, ‘You need to go to rehab immediately or you’re cut off,’ you can gently say, ‘I see you’re struggling, here are some resources, let’s look at them together and see how they can be helpful,’ she suggests.”

It’s important to point out that the more your child or teen can think that seeking treatment is coming from their own decision, the more likely they will follow through with it and have success with the programming. Nobody wants to be forced to do something against their will.

“Parents are an important voice. Health class is great, but it takes a special teacher to get the buy-in from the kids.  I think that in the 90s we were afraid of cocaine because we knew so many celebrities dying from it,” says Zackeri. “We got scared by reality. Parents need to be real with their kids. Don’t think they don’t know about things…they know. They hear things. Even the best kids will hear things. “

If there is addiction in your family, she continues, you have a responsibly to tell your kids that their risk is higher.

“Teens and young adults, in my experience in my office, really value and appreciate the trust of that information.”

Bear in mind, she adds, that when we hear “opioid crisis,” a lot of kids and teens likely don’t even know what that means. They might really “get it” when you tell them about responsible vs. irresponsible prescribing habits and usage, like empowering them by explaining that they don’t have to finish the whole bottle of painkillers they are prescribed, like we are taught to do with antibiotics.

“Keep an eye out for signs of sadness and loneliness,” Zakeri says. “I don’t think anything our kids say should be ignored. Saying ‘I hate my life’ in a joking way may be their way of saying, ‘Help me.’”



Images Courtesy of iStock

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