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Preventing teen prescription misuse

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Parents are always looking for hidden dangers in their teens’ lives, but parental radar can easily miss prescription drug misuse.

Prescriptions are accessible and widely distributed. Having a prescription bottle doesn’t usually arouse suspicion the way illegal drug accessories would, so it’s easier to keep prescription misuse hidden. And because prescriptions have therapeutic and treatment value in health care, these medicines don’t seem dangerous.

This guide will give you a starting point for new conversations with your teen, ideas for further research, and tips on how to keep your children safe from prescription misuse.

The dangers of misusing prescriptions and over-the-counter medications

Medications are not risk-free, even when taken under a healthcare provider’s supervision. There are dangers, but they are ameliorated by an expert carefully checking the dosage, monitoring the drug effects on the body, and running tests to make sure the medicine isn’t doing damage.

Not so for teens misusing drugs. They don’t have a physician to turn to if something goes wrong.

The signs of prescription drug misuse can be subtle. Parents and trusted adults can help their teens by knowing the signs and physical symptoms of prescription drug misuse.

Prescription drug misuse signs and symptoms

If your child is misusing prescriptions, you may notice changes in behavior.


  • Avoiding activities

  • Secretiveness

  • Late-night disappearances

  • Empty medicine bottles in the trash

  • Prescriptions you don’t recognize

  • Extra doctor visits or trips to the pharmacy, early refills for prescribed medications, or lost prescription medicines (which may be an excuse to get additional refills)

Physical symptoms

  • Sleep or appetite changes

  • Excessive thirst

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain

  • Signs of possible withdrawal such sweating, feeling clammy, and having dilated pupils

  • Opioid use: Sleepiness, constipation, lack of coordination, slow breathing

  • Stimulant use: Insomnia, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, high body temperature

  • Sedative and anti-anxiety medication use: Dizziness, unbalanced or unsteady walking, sleepiness, slowed breathing

Mental symptoms

  • Personality changes

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Atypical behavior

  • Opioid use: Euphoria or feeling high, mental confusion, changes in pain sensitivity

  • Stimulant use: Euphoria, restlessness, overactive mind, paranoia, anxiety, unusual alertness

  • Sedative and anti-anxiety medication use: Reduced concentration, mental confusion, memory problems, slurred speech

Additional considerations

  • Every person is different, so your teen may not show all signs.

  • Other symptoms are possible, so watch for anything unusual.

  • Some teens are able to hide a few or all of their symptoms.

  • Remember that there could also be a legitimate underlying medical cause unrelated to drug use (for instance, dizziness is also a common sign of having a heart condition).

If you recognize any of these signs and symptoms in your child, it’s important not to panic. This list is a guide to warning signs, not a definitive diagnosis. Even if your teen is actually misusing drugs, he or she needs you to be a reliable and caring adult presence who can provide the truth about prescription drugs and the potential dangers of prescription drug misuse.

How parents can help prevent teen prescription misuse: Scripts for parents, teachers, and mentors

Teens do listen to adults around them and you can have an impact—statistics prove it. Kids are 50% less likely to use drugs when their parents regularly discuss the dangers with them. Often, teenagers are more rational than we expect them to be and are receptive to positive influence even if they don’t outwardly show it.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests many parents aren’t having these conversations with their kids. Only 22% of teens report discussing the dangers of prescription drugs with their parents.

The truth is, young people are watching and listening to what the adults around them say. Because prescription drug use is often an overlooked way to misuse medications, about 1 in 4 teens actually believe their parents wouldn’t be too worried about prescription misuse.

Your most potent weapon against prescription misuse may very well be starting a conversation with your kids.

Scripts for talking about teen prescription misuse

Using situations in daily life to initiate conversations with your child is one strategy. Here are a few possibilities.

  • You pick up a prescription

  • A kid at school gets in trouble for misusing prescriptions

  • Local news reports about prescription drug misuse

As you start talking with teens about drug misuse, ask them for their opinion on drugs, and weave conversations about healthy prescription drug use into broader conversations about living a healthy lifestyle.

Sharing the facts about school, activities, and drugs

Influential adults can provide education about medications while taking aim at the myths teenagers may believe. Even if teens are concerned about side effects or other risks, they may think the benefits outweigh the risks; probably because they don’t understand the risks.

Parents play an important role in sharing the facts about prescription drugs, and there are a few important ones that kids need to know.

Fact: Prescriptions can be as addictive as illegal drugs

Talking point: “A lot of people don’t know how addictive prescription medications can be. Sometimes they’re more addictive than illegal drugs.”

Illegal drugs aren’t the only act in town when it comes to addiction. Yet 27% of teens think prescriptions aren’t as addictive as street drugs. Sadly, the belief that misusing prescriptions is safer is also shared by 16% of parents.

Fact: Prescription medication isn’t inherently safe

Talking point: “Prescriptions are given by doctors, who check your dose to make sure it’s right for you. Any medicine can become unpredictable or have unintended results even if you’ve used it before. That’s why you shouldn’t take a prescription unless it was written for you.”

With your kids, it’s important to emphasize a medication’s potential to be both beneficial and dangerous. Prescription medicines aren’t necessarily safe for every individual, which is why doctors, healthcare providers, and pharmacists do a full evaluation of patient health histories before dispensing medication.

Even over-the-counter medicines have side effects. Let your teen know that these side effects can be unpredictable, and may show up later if they don’t occur after the first dose. Taking medication your body doesn’t need increases the possibility that your body could suffer damage.

Let your teen know about the risks of prescription misuse.

  • Irregular heartbeats

  • Slowed brain activity and thinking

  • Changes in body temperature to risky highs and lows

  • Seizures

  • Heart, kidney, or liver failure

  • Increased likelihood of death or serious injury

  • Mental changes

  • Missed work, school, and personal activities

Fact: Drugs won’t help you do better at school

Talking point: “Misusing prescription drugs isn’t a safe way to improve in sports or school. If you don’t have ADHD, taking Adderall (or a similar drug) won’t help because these medicines aren’t designed to boost the brain. They’re designed to treat ADHD.”

Not everyone misuses drugs to get high. Even conscientious, hard-working teens may believe there are advantages to unauthorized prescription drug use.

Talking to your kid when you suspect drug misuse

If you suspect your teen is already misusing prescriptions, don’t react without a clear plan. This will help you safely confront your child:

  • Wait until the right time. Don’t try to talk to your teens until they’re sober. If they are high, drunk, or otherwise under the influence, wait until later to have a conversation.

  • Don’t be vague. Tell your teen exactly why you’re concerned about drug use. Did you find an empty bottle? Did you see him or her taking two pills instead of the one prescribed? Instead of saying, “I know you’re using drugs!” Say, “I’m concerned because I saw you take three pills at the same time, which isn’t safe. Is everything okay?”

  • Stay calm. Avoid reacting too strongly and provoking your teen. Remain as calm as you can and stick to the facts. Your teen may be upset and react strongly, but you want to remain in control of your reaction.

  • Share your views. Let them know how you feel about drug misuse and remind your teens that you love them and want to be supportive.

  • Find help. If you need backup, try talking with a school counselor or nurse about how you can help your teen. In some instances, your teen’s participation in a rehabilitation program may be necessary for a full recovery.

Whenever possible, emphasize the value of living a healthy lifestyle and using medicines responsibly.

Preventing teen prescription misuse: Ideas for mentors and teachers

As a mentor or teacher, you may not be able to directly prevent teen access to prescription drugs at home, but you can emphasize the risks of misusing medications intended for other people.

Some teens may need to hear accurate education about drugs from more than one source and from people besides their own parents. Teachers and mentors can serve as positive, non-parent resources for these kids. In this guide, you’ll find talking points and statistics.

Drug misuse versus drug abuse and addiction

There is a difference between drug misuse, drug addiction, and abuse. This is a complex topic and the reasons for drug misuse can be complex. It’s important to note that the driving factors behind using a drug improperly and having a diagnosed addiction are not the same.

Prescription misuse, like all drug misuse, may or may not be part of addiction.

  • Prescription misuse: Broadly speaking, misuse is using prescription medications outside of their prescribed use. This can include taking someone else’s prescription medicine, intentionally using a dose that’s larger than the prescribing provider's recommendation, or using your prescription for a purpose not intended by the provider.

  • Prescription addiction: A diagnosable, complex disease that impacts the entire body and causes changes inside the brain. Drug addiction is described clinically as a drug use disorder (DUD).

If your teen is misusing medications, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child meets the medical criteria for addiction. Addiction can only be diagnosed by a healthcare provider after a full examination of the patient’s health profile and experience with the prescription.

Preventing prescription misuse by your teen may help prevent future addiction.

What you do today to start a conversation and share information with your child may guide future choices and decision-making for all medications. As they grow into adults, today’s teens will likely see a lot more over-the-counter, prescription, and illegal drugs in the culture around them, so they need you to provide them with information and insight now.

The facts about teen drug misuse

Surveys and cause-of-death reports reveal disturbing facts about the consequences of teen prescription drug misuse.

What is the No. 1 drug used by teens?

The Monitoring the Future 2018 Survey, sponsored by The National Institute on Drug Abuse, reports that among prescription drugs, 3.5% of teens report using Adderall, 1.7% of teens report using Oxycontin, 1.1% of teens report using Vicodin, and 0.8% of teens report using Ritalin.

Teenage drug statistics

The most reliable source for information about teens and drugs comes from the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey of U.S. eighth, 10th, and 12th-grade students. The survey reveals important information about trends in teen drug use. Statistics go back to 1975.

Teenage drug use statistics 2016

According to the 2016 MTF survey, here are the percentages of respondents who reported using the following drugs in the previous year (vaping device statistics were not recorded).

  • Marijuana: 22.6%

  • Adderall: 3.9%

  • Oxycontin: 2.1%

  • Vicodin: 1.8%

  • Cocaine: 1.4%

  • Ritalin: 1.1%

  • Heroin: 0.3%

Teenage drug use statistics 2017

According to the 2017 MTF survey, here are the percentages of respondents who reported using the following drugs in the previous year.

  • Marijuana: 23.9%

  • Vaping: 21.5%

  • Adderall: 3.5%

  • Oxycontin: 1.9%

  • Cocaine: 1.6%

  • Vicodin: 1.3%

  • Ritalin: 0.8%

  • Heroin: 0.3%

Teenage drug use statistics 2018

According to the 2018 MTF survey, here are the percentages of respondents who reported using the following drugs in the previous year.

  • Marijuana: 24.3%

  • Adderall: 3.5%

  • Oxycontin: 1.7%

  • Cocaine: 1.5%

  • Vicodin: 1.1%

  • Ritalin: 0.8%

  • Heroin: 0.3%

Tips for keeping prescriptions safe at home

Parents should keep a close eye on the medicines they have at home to help protect their teens.

  • Create a list of all prescriptions and keep track of when they are refilled. This will help you notice when medicine goes missing.

  • Count the number of pills in a bottle if you suspect some are missing. Compare the total with the number you were given at the pharmacy.

  • For medications that are frequently misused, such as painkillers, buy a lockable cabinet.

  • Know the symptoms of prescription misuse and watch for behavior and signs that fit these descriptions.

  • Stay in close conversation with your teen’s doctor, teachers, and other adults in your child’s life.

Raising teens to use medicines responsibly

As you have these conversations, let your teens know how they can use medicines the right way and stay healthy:

  • Following advice and directions: It’s important to follow all warnings, provider advice, and directions included with a prescription. This also includes guidance against taking someone else’s prescription.

  • Rejecting damaged or tampered medications: Explain what to do if their medication looks obviously damaged, tampered with, or expired. Let them know they should listen to their common sense and avoid taking any medicine that looks damaged or unsafe without talking to their doctor or pharmacist.

  • Storing medicine: Teens should make sure their own prescriptions are stored out of reach and away from younger children. If the packaging provides special storage instructions, it’s important to follow them.

  • Talking about unwanted side effects: Side effects should be reported to the prescribing physician or pharmacist. The provider may decide to change the dose or adjust the medication.

  • Knowing contraindications and interactions: Prescriptions and over-the-counter medications may interact with each other and with commonly used supplements.

  • Reading labels carefully: Teens should know how important it is to read labels and box inserts.

  • Finding trusted online resources: The internet does have some bad information, but trusted sites such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic site are sources of legitimate health information, including information about prescriptions.

  • Trusting outside support: Trusted adults are another non-parental source of information.

  • Asking questions: Kids should be encouraged to talk with their pharmacists and healthcare providers if they have prescription questions.

By teaching your teens how to use medicines properly, you’re setting up a healthy view of prescriptions and other drugs for the rest of their lives.

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