Finding out your teen is using drugs is a parent’s worst nightmare. And while we all remember the “just say no” campaign of our youth, there’s been a recent wake-up call that not all drug abuse comes from the streets. In fact, today’s narcotic of choice may already be in your medicine cabinet, and that ease is a big reason why we find ourselves face to face with an opioid epidemic.

“A major source of access to opioids can be found in the home from family members’ prescriptions, especially those that aren’t being used but kept in the house,” says Bradford Bobrin, MD, medical director of addiction psychiatry at AtlantiCare in southeast New Jersey.

Opioids are a class of drug that bind to receptors in the body. This class includes illegal drugs such as heroin, as well as drugs prescribed by doctors, including oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and codeine. Much of the opioid epidemic and addiction starts with prescription drugs prescribed to manage pain in patients who later become hooked. Many teens are prescribed opioids after surgery or a sports injury and become dependent. Others with access to their parents’ painkillers can help themselves and become addicted.

“It’s important to note that a history of nonmedical use of prescription opioids is strongly associated with turning to heroin,” says Bobrin. “The earlier the age of nonmedical opioid use, especially before age 10, the greater the risk of starting heroin.” So what can we do to keep our kids safe?


Prescription drug misuse is one of the fastest growing problems in our country, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. In 2016, 3.6 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 reported misusing opioids in the previous year. This percentage is twice as high among older adolescents and young adults ages 18 to 25. The startling fact is that the majority of opioid misuse is due to drugs prescribed by a doctor, a major factor in the opioid epidemic.

Tina M. Cooke, a licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Daytop New Jersey’s Adolescent Treatment Program and mother of four, says it’s crucial for parents to stay up-to-date with what drugs look like in today’s world. “Opioids not only come in pills, but in a variety of forms, such as powder, liquid and some at toxic [dosage] levels, such as fentanyl,” says Cooke.

She also cautions parents not to think their kids are too young to be affected. “The truth is that younger and younger kids are being exposed to these dangerous drugs,” says Cooke. “There have been cases of teens as young as 13 buying opioids online. This is the reason why it’s never too soon to start talking about the dangers of drugs. Teens often think prescription painkillers are safe because they’re legal and given out by doctors.”


If your teen is prescribed an opioid for pain or an injury, it’s up to you to help manage the drug and keep them outside the opioid epidemic. “Parents can play a really important role by being aware of how many pills are prescribed, keeping them in a secure location and monitoring what their child’s taking,” says Cooke.

“Once the pain is resolved, it’s important to take those extra pills and dispose of them. Police departments, pharmacies or city offices often have safe depositories to dispose of leftover or excess prescription medications.”


It’s important for parents to be able to recognize the warning signs of opioid abuse, says Tucker Woods, DO, chief medical officer at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. “Determining whether or not a teenager is using or addicted to opioids can be extremely challenging,” says Woods.

“While some signs can be obvious, it’s important for both parents and doctors to know the signs, including the subtler ones, of opioid addiction. Some of those signs include finishing prescriptions earlier than expected, constricted pupils, changes in sleep patterns, missing classes and slipping grades and trouble with the law, amongst others.”


If you notice changes in your child, the first step is to start a conversation. “An open line of communication and meaningful discussions are critical tools for parents and teens,” says Cooke.

If you suspect your teen has an addiction, reach out to your family doctor, who can refer you to a counselor or organization for addiction support. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers free, confidential information in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing substance abuse and mental health issues 24/7 at 800-662-HELP. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (drugabuse.gov) and Partnership for Drug Free Kids (drugfree.org) are prime resources.

Above all, stay informed and connected, and don’t give up hope. Says Cooke: “It’s important for parents to understand that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that treatment works.”

—Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer living in Princeton. Follow her on Instagram @ronniekoenig.