Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse Among Youth and Young Adults

Updated on August 27, 2023

By Lily Brindle

Out of every five teenagers in the United States, one of them is abusing prescription drugs.  Could your son or daughter be that one? According to the latest statistics from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, every day, 2,500 teenagers use a prescription drug for the first time to get high. Even more alarming, teenagers are getting these drugs from the comforts of their home—simply by opening a cupboard, drawer or medicine cabinet.

At Gateway Rehab, we treat more than 500 teens (on both an inpatient and outpatient basis) each year, many of whom are addicted to prescription drugs.  Throughout my years working in addiction treatment, I’ve been asked by many individuals, “Why do teens become addicted to drugs and alcohol?”

I believe for many teens, use begins due to a combination of peer influence and a “nothing-can-hurt-me attitude.”  However, for others, alcohol and drug use is a new found way to self-medicate symptoms of depression, anxiety or ADHD or a means to deal with divorce and other family problems.  Yet there is a real danger in using alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism.  If a child learns early on that the use of drugs and alcohol meets an emotional need, a pattern of self-destruction can develop.

In the case of abusing prescription drugs, research suggests that the two key factors prompting misuse among teenagers are the misperception that abusing medication is not harmful and the ease of access to these drugs at home, a friend’s house or the Internet. Among the most frequently abused prescription drugs are painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin and stimulants such as Ritalin.

Despite these trends, the good news is, as a parent, you can influence your teen’s decision not to use drugs. The majority of teens still report that their parents—not their peers or the media—have the biggest influence on their decision to stay drug-free. Use this influence to talk to your son or daughter about the danger of misusing prescription drugs.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “Not in My House” website advises adults to learn the vocabulary surrounding prescription drug abuse in order to take a proactive approach in effectively communicating with teens.  They published the following list of terms most teens use to refer to prescription drugs:

  • Big boys, cotton, kicker – prescription pain relievers
  • Chill pills, french fries, tranqs — prescription sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Pharming (pronounced “farming”) — From the word pharmaceutical and means kids getting high by raiding their parents’ medicine cabinets for prescription drugs
  • Pharm parties — Parties where teens bring prescription drugs from home, mix them together into a big bowl (see ‘trail mix’), and grab a handful
  • Pilz (pronounced pills) — A popular term used to describe prescription medications and can also include over-the-counter medications
  • Recipe — Prescription drugs mixed with alcoholic or other beverages
  • Trail mix — A mixture of various prescription drugs, usually served in a big bag or bowl at pharm parties.

If you suspect your teenager might be abusing prescription drugs, don’t wait to talk with them about it.  The Partnership for a Drug-Free America recommends the following ideas to get the conversation started:

  • When talking with your teen about drugs, be sure to include prescription drug abuse and why it’s harmful. Tell them that taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs without a doctor’s approval and supervision can be a dangerous—even deadly—decision. Dispel the myth that these drugs are less harmful than street drugs because they are available through a doctor or at the local drug store.
  • If you hear about another teenager getting caught abusing prescription drugs, calmly approach your teen about it. It’s important to not react in any way that cuts off further discussion.
  • Be flexible about when you talk, but not about whether you talk.
  • Remember: silence isn’t golden. It’s permission.

As an outreach specialist for Gateway Rehab, Lily Brindle works with mental health practitioners, medical and legal personnel, schools, employers and community members to promote awareness and treatment of the disease of addiction.  She also counsels individuals and their families as a psychotherapist for Gateway Rehab’s Back on Track Employee Assistance Program.  For more information about Gateway Rehab, call 800-472-1177 or visit

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2 thoughts on “Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse Among Youth and Young Adults”

  1. People across the country and the world are taking addictive prescription drugs at increasing numbers for both medical purposes and non medical purposes. Many physicians prescribing these powerful narcotics are uninformed about the potential for prescription drug addiction and the side effects of taking these drugs. The data shown in this infographic illustrate the extent of the problem.

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