Addressing Opioid Abuse in Teens

Opioid Abuse is a growing epidemic in society today – and it’s reaching our youth. In 2015, two million Americans reported a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers. Of those two million, 276,000 were between the ages of 12 and 17. Here, two local experts from Focus Treatment Center of Chattanooga emphasize the importance of prevention and offer parents advice for effective tactics to protect their teens.

The Problem

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as the legal prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and others.

They are commonly prescribed for chronic and acute pain, but while relieving pain, they also create artificial endorphins in the brain causing this class of drugs to be highly addictive. According to Dr. Chris Harris, Clinical Program Director at Focus Treatment Center of Chattanooga, “In the last 20 or so years since the introduction of these prescription pain medications, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids quadrupled in the United States.”

colorful pills tablets and capsules chattanooga opioid abuse in teens

How do teenagers get their hands on these drugs? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that, “Most teenagers who abuse prescription drugs are given them for free by a friend or relative.”   Dr. Harris explains, “40% of teens get their first opioid from their parent’s prescription. Locking up your prescriptions can’t be advocated for enough.”

“Teenagers by nature are unpredictable with fluctuations in their mood and behavior because their brains are still developing, and will be until around age 25. The parts controlling reasoning and impulsivity are not fully matured which makes teens prone to engaging in risky behaviors,” explains Susan Kerr, Executive Director at Focus Treatment Center.

Common Causes of Teen Opioid Abuse

  • Ease of Access
  • Underdeveloped Brains/Impulsive Inclinations
  • False Sense of Safety with “Professionally Manufactured” Drugs
  • Lack of Knowledge of Negative Impacts and Risks


Sharing prescriptions is a far too easy mistake to make, with many people not knowing that sharing prescriptions is actually illegal. “If you share medication with someone and they overdose, you can be held responsible for their death. Medications are prescribed after careful consideration of the medical state of a patient. If you are not their doctor, then you should not be giving them medication,” Dr. Harris explains. Kerr and Harris offer the following tips for keeping your prescriptions out of reach of your teens.

Responsible Prescription Ownership

  • Once you pick up your medication, you are responsible and should know where it is at all times.
  • Don’t discuss your medications with others. Doing so can make you an easy target for someone looking to get pain medicine.
  • Once you get home, lock them up, especially if you use them as needed and not routinely.
  • Count and keep track of your medications on a regular basis to check for missing medications.
  • When traveling, only bring the amount of medication you need, and leave the rest locked at home.
  • Safely dispose unused prescription drugs in prescription drug take-back boxes.

Educating Children

Beyond keeping your prescriptions out of reach, educate your children on the dangers of drug abuse. Some long-term health effects include: slowed breathing, permanent brain damage or death, memory loss, and an increased risk of developing mental illness.

Signs of Substance Misuse in Teens

You can also observe your teenager for tell-tale signs of substance abuse. According to Kerr, some signs include:


  • Decline in grades
  • Declined interest in activities
  • Declined interest in relationships with peers and family
  • Deceit and/or secretive behavior


  • Changes in pupil size
  • Sleep Issues
  • Poor hygiene
  • An onset of health problems


“Also watch for a change in social circles, as this can sometimes be an indicator. If your teen’s plans sound questionable or change often this could also be a sign of substance abuse,” Kerr says.


“One of the first steps is to meet with your spouse/partner. Make sure you agree on the way in which to approach the teen and that the two of you are united in your approach. Next, be honest and explain that you want what is best for them. Lastly, have a plan for treatment options, if necessary.  If the teen is using opioids, be prepared to discuss professional treatment,” advises Dr. Harris.

The good news is that many treatment facilities provide drug assessments at no charge and can be an excellent resource when making these difficult decisions. If you experience struggles with your teen and substance misuse, help is available.

Picture of Dr. Chris Harris

Dr. Chris Harris

Clinical Program Director, Focus Treatment Centers

Picture of Susan Kerr

Susan Kerr

Executive Director, Focus Treatment Centers

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