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Abuse vs. Addiction: How to Help

Many teens that abuse drugs such as OTC medications do so without the intent to abuse them. That is, they may begin taking extra doses of pain medication because of stress headaches or as a stimulant so they can stay up to finish homework. Before long, OTC drug use becomes chronic.

Even teens that deliberately take OTC medications such as cough medicine in order to get high seldom do so with the knowledge that the ingredients may be addictive. Instead, these medications are used to relieve boredom, unhappiness, or stress.

How can you tell the difference between abuse of a drug and addiction? There is no one definition, but in general, a person becomes addicted to a substance when he loses control over the use of the medication, despite knowing he should stop using it. By the time a teen becomes addicted to an OTC drug, he may have developed a tolerance for the substance; that is, he needs more of the drug to achieve the same effect. And he may have already experienced some consequences of the addiction, such as driver's license suspension when under the influence of the medication, fights at school, or problems with theft. And yet, despite these warning signs, he cannot stop using the drug.

In general, parents should trust their instincts. If you feel your child has a problem with drugs, she very well may. And talking to her is the only way you can find out how serious the problem has become. She may be defensive, so it's important to try to control yourself and talk about what you see that makes you worried (red eyes, slipping grades, problems with sleep) and how you feel (worried, scared). Allow her to express her own thoughts and feelings, but if she doesn't acknowledge the problem or the seriousness of the problem, seek help from a professional who specializes in assessing and treating teens who have drug issues. Treatment should involve working on the underlying issues that precipitated the drug use and working on solutions to avoid drug use in the future.