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1 in 4 teens is abusing prescription drugs — here’s how to stop it

Last week, I had one of those parenting moments that is at once both terrifying and eye-opening and, yes, totally humanizing.

Home alone with my 2-year-old son who most defiantly did not want to accompany me down the hall to use the restroom, I had to play the classic parenting odds — how likely is it if I run down there quickly and come right back that my son will manage to stay out of trouble while I’m in another room?

He seemed content, so I made a judgment call and rushed back after what felt like only seconds (and was likely mere minutes) to find my son on the kitchen counter, taking a swig of a homeopathic children’s cough serum — childproof cap be damned.

Long story short, he was and is OK, but the experience startled me into moving our medicine arsenal into an even higher cabinet I’m certain our kids cannot reach.

But it also gave me a terrifying glimpse of the future. In 10 years, my wild toddler will be 12 years old, what most parents still view through a clouded lens of innocence and charm. However, Hilary Baris — organizer of The Medicine Abuse Project — shared some alarming statistics plaguing young adults.

“One in four teens is truly misusing and intentionally abuse prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime,” she told me during our interview, “and what we’re seeing is that the most prescription drug abuse is between kids 12 and 13 years old.”

On The Medicine Abuse Project’s website, video after heartbreaking video shows the dire and life-changing aftermath of prescription drug abuse on teens and their families. And for Baris, the story of a star athlete in high school named Aaron is the most heartbreaking. Aaron was described by his parents as “lighthearted and full of energy.” But prescription drug abuse left him paralyzed and unable to speak.

“He’s unable to speak, he’s unable to function. He relies completely on his parents for everything,” said Baris. “He lives in a wheelchair. And what’s really sad about Aaron is that he communicates by answering yes or no questions with his fingers — so he’ll do one for yes, two for no — and his mom realized he’s basically a prisoner in his own body.”

It’s a notion that, even seeing the studies, is hard to wrap your head around.

Prescription drug abuse spiked 33 percent since 2008. According to Baris, there are several reasons for the epidemic increase. “Unfortunately, there’s a false sense of security,” she said. “Kids think, ‘Oh, you know, this is prescribed from a doctor. It can’t hurt me,’ which is grossly incorrect. And the other problem is ease of access.”

After the debacle with my son last week, I’m painfully aware of the latter — having had to sift through probably 10 old prescription pill bottles my husband and I have accumulated over the years to relocate the medicine we actually do use with some regularity.

“By de facto, we become the drug dealers,” admitted Baris. “Because it goes missing in our own homes… it’s not the scary man on the street corner anymore, which is really interesting.”

With only 14 percent of teens polled saying prescription drug abuse is a conversation they’ve had with their parents, it’s clear the lines of communication aren’t completely open yet. And the conversation is tantamount to curbing the problem. “Creating a trust and healthy communication starts at a very young age… It used to be, ‘OK, I’ll have the drug talk once when my child is 12, check the box and be done.’ It doesn’t work like that anymore,” Baris elaborated. “It has to be lots of small, ongoing communication.”

So what can parents do? Baris says there are three main takeaways:

1. Talk to your kids.
2. Safeguard your medicine — keep prescription medicine in a safe place, count your pills, keep stock.
3. Properly dispose of your medication.

You can learn more about prescription abuse at

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