You Caught Your Teen Stealing Your Prescription Drugs – Now What?

Often it happens by accident. You’re cleaning up the trail of debris left by your teenaged son or daughter and baggies or plastic-wrapped packages of pills fall out of coats, jackets, jeans, purses, etc. Maybe you’re dusting their bedroom, putting away fresh laundry, or rearranging photos or other items in the room. What you discover turns your stomach to lead. Those brightly colored pills look vaguely familiar. With trembling hands, you carry the pills to your medicine cabinet and compare them with what’s there. They may be your prescription medications. The awful realization sinks in. Your teen has been stealing your prescription painkillers, central nervous system depressants, or stimulants. For what purpose, your mind wonders? Are they taking them to get high, to fit in, to feel less anxious, stressed, depressed? Is it to sleep better, get good grades, and be more focused? All the things you’ve read about prescription drugs and abuse flood your thoughts and you have to sit down. Maybe they’re selling these drugs to others. Maybe they’re going to trade them at those “pharm parties” you’ve heard about on the news. You have the evidence. Now you have to do something. The question is what. Here are some suggestions.

Take Inventory

Before you confront your teen, take an inventory of every prescription medication you or your spouse, or anyone else in the household, take. Gather all the medication on a table and start making a list. You’ll need to include the name of the medication, for whom it was prescribed, amount, dosage, and for what purpose. Next, compare the pills you’ve found to what you have in your inventory. You need to note what the pills are, and where you found them. If you have more than one teen and you’ve discovered pills for each of them, your problem just got bigger. But you’re not alone. Abuse of prescription drugs by young people is rapidly on the rise. Children as young as 12 years old are popping pain killers, depressants and stimulants to get high and/or feel numb. The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s 20th National Tracking Study on Teen Drug Abuse found that 1 in 5 teens (19 percent or 4.7 million) report abusing prescription medication at least once in their lives. In the past year, 1 in 10 teens (10 percent or 2.5 million) have abused a prescription pain reliever. Don’t forget over-the-counter (OTC) medications like cough syrup and allergy medications containing epinephrine. The Partnership’s tracking study found that about 7 percent (or 1.7 million) teens abused OTC cough medicine in the past year. Talk with the parents of your teens’ friends as well, and also other family members and friends of the family who take prescription medications (like an aunt, uncle, grandparents, etc.), and with whom your teens interact. Enlist their help in doing the same type of inventory.

Safely Discard Unused Medications

Undoubtedly you’ll find there are prescription drugs in your house that you no longer need. You’ve probably forgotten some of them are even there. Maybe you stopped taking them before the prescription ran out because you felt better, or felt you didn’t need them anymore. Whatever the reason, unless they’re medically necessary, and especially if they’re the kind you’ve found in your teen’s possession, you need to get rid of them. How do you do this safely? Take all of the medications out of the bottles and place them in plastic bags or airtight containers. Then dump them in the trash. You can also contact your pharmacist and inquire about prescription take-back, or call your local poison control center to ask about where to dispose of them.

Lock Up Medications

For any remaining prescription medications, you’ll need to safeguard them by locking them up. This may seem like an extreme measure, but it really is necessary. When you remove easy access, you remove the temptation and the danger – at least from your own homes. Ask that your relatives, friends and the parents of your teens’ friends do the same. Although you can’t compel them to do so, simply by raising the issue with them, you’ll hopefully cause them to give the matter some serious consideration.

Enlist the Support of Your Spouse

If you are married, you need to discuss the matter with your spouse. Do so in a calm and nonjudgmental manner, since the last thing you want is to have your spouse unite with your teens against you. If you need more education on the dangers of prescription drug abuse, go online and research the various drugs that you’ve found, and the dangers. Print out what you find from sites like the National Institute on Drug Abuse ( and DrugAbuse (, and others. Do a Google search for prescription drug abuse, or the specific name of the drug. You’ll find plenty of material. Once you discuss it with your spouse, you’re ready for the next step: confronting your teen.

Talk With Your Teen – The Earlier the Better

This isn’t something you can put off. Don’t wait for the weekend or next week or sometime after school is out. You need to deal with this matter right now. Consider that you very well may be saving the life of your teen. When you think about the dangers of mixing different kinds of prescription drugs – the kind you found among their things – or combining them with alcohol, you know the right thing to do is to put a stop to it. Be prepared. It’s going to get rough. Teens are notoriously private. They resent anyone telling them what to do, even their parents, whom they know love them. You’ll likely be subject to a storm of denial, anger, lies, half-truths, maybe tears, stomping out of the room – you get the idea. Just remain firm and keep on talking.

What should you say?

Give them the opportunity to explain what they’ve been doing with the drugs. Ask them if they’re feeling anxious, depressed, if something’s going wrong at school. Maybe they need to see a doctor for an underlying condition. You may need to schedule an appointment to have them checked out physically. Chances are, if you haven’t noticed the effects of prescription drug abuse, it hasn’t gone too far yet. If you have, and have passed it off as “just being a teenager,” then you really have had blinders on. You need to immediately get your teen checked out, and probably evaluated for prescription drug abuse. This may involve detoxification and prescription drug rehab But, let’s go with the simple discussion of what’s going on first. You may hear that your teen feels it is okay to use prescription drugs that aren’t prescribed for them because they think they’re safe. After all, they’ve been prescribed by a doctor. This is usually mentioned by teens who are naïve or very young. They may also say that you take them, or have taken them, and nothing bad happened to you, so why can’t they? Explain calmly that prescription drugs taken for nonmedical purposes are dangerous, can be deadly, and is illegal. And prescription drugs that are abused are every bit as dangerous as illicit street drugs. Ask your teenager point-blank if they’re selling or giving the drugs to their friends. They may not admit it, but if they haven’t come up with a reason for why they have the drugs in their possession, it’s likely they are exchanging drugs with friends. This could happen anywhere, at school, in the park, at the mall, at the “pharm parties,” anywhere. Prescription drugs are easily obtained (they just took them from your medicine cabinet), cheap to obtain (from the Internet without a prescription), and easy to carry around. Share with your teen what you’ve learned about the risks of substance abuse. Let them know in no uncertain terms that abuse of prescription drugs is hazardous to their health. It’s not just a matter of overdosing, but mixing different drugs and alcohol can be deadly. Explain specific behavior or events your teen has engaged in that concern you. They have been putting themselves in harm’s way, and this sets a pattern that could develop into criminal behavior.

Set Stricter Limits

If you haven’t already set them, now’s the time to set stricter limits. No staying out on school nights past a certain time, unless there’s a special school activity. No extracurricular activity for a set period of time. Maybe you’ll require purse and bag checks on a regular basis. Whatever the rules, be sure to give guidance. Let your teen know there are consequences for any infractions of the limits you set. And be ready to enforce the new rules and restrictions

What If Your Teen Won’t Listen?

If you’re not getting through to your teen, enlist the help of an interventionist or counselor. If the situation is already out of hand, get your teen into detoxification and prescription drug rehab. Make sure that your teen receives treatment at a facility that has programs tailored to teens and young persons, not 55-year-olds. Consider wilderness therapy. It’s thrilling, combines physical exertion, adventure, peer bonding and personal challenge. It also offers tremendous therapeutic value due to the unique aspect of the wilderness setting. This isn’t for everyone, and it is somewhat expensive. But it just may be the right approach for teens who may already be addicted to prescription medications.

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