sad child sitting alone on the floor

Young Children and Prescription Drugs: Start Talking Early

By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed.

It’s hard to escape the devastating effects of America’s opioid epidemic.  Lives lost, families torn apart, and something you don’t hear about that often – the threat that opioids pose to children. More and more of them are overdosing due to the prevalence of these dangerous drugs in the home.

“Increasing adult prescriptions are strongly associated with rising pediatric exposures and poisonings, particularly for opioids and among children 0 – 5 years old,” according to a 2013 report in Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

As parents, we all want to keep our children safe.  But we may be unwittingly exposing them to danger right in our own homes.  Many of us think of medications as “good drugs.”  We tend to be a little lax about leaving medicines on the kitchen counter, or not bothering to throw out unused bottles of pills, or not locking the medicine cabinet.  It may not occur to us that our children could find the
multi-colored pills on the counter intriguing, or that they might think it would be fun to play with the bottles in the bathroom.

“Every 8 minutes a child goes to the ER for medicine poisoning,” according to a 2014 Safe Kids Worldwide report. This staggering statistic led to more research showing that “3 out of 4 ER visits for medicine poisoning are due to kids getting into parents’ or grandparents’ medicine.”

With young children in the house, it is critical that parents be vigilant about what medicines we have and where we keep them.  Although this may seem like one more thing to worry about, keeping track of medicines is really the easy part because it is within our control.  The hard part is when children begin making decisions on their own, consciously experimenting with prescription drugs that they find in the home.  According to Dr. Carol Boyd, “Substance abuse disproportionately starts between the ages of 12 to 25. About 75% of the new users of prescription pain killers are under the age of 25 and about 38% are under the age of 18.” (The Partnership at Drugfree.org, July 15, 2011).

How do we build a healthy respect for medicines so that our children make good choices in a society where there is a pill out there to do everything from lessening our pain, to losing weight, to cheering us up?  We may be a society that has more medicines available, but that doesn’t always mean we are a society that has more wellness.

When our children are young is the time to start building the foundation for future safe behavior.  We can do this by modeling responsible behavior ourselves, and by knowing what words to use so that our children understand the importance of making good choices.

What do you say to the young child who wants more of the pink medicine that tastes like bubble gum?  How do you respond when your child doesn’t want to take any more of the prescribed medicine because he or she already feels much better?  Here are some talking points to help you get through those challenging moments:

  • Medicines are drugs. They can sometimes change the way we think, feel and act.  Medicines sometimes help us get healthier if we are ill, or at least they sometimes can make us feel better.   All drugs have their intended effects on a person, and some side effects as well.  Medicines can work the way they are supposed to for the person with a particular illness only if we use them at the times prescribed and in the directed amounts.
  • Because medicines are drugs, an adult must decide when you should take them and how much you should take. Some medicines work quickly so that we feel better right away, but if we don’t finish the amount of medicine prescribed, we may get sick all over again.
  • If you ever find something that looks like it might be medicine on the floor or on the sidewalk, you should always give it to an adult to identify what it is. You should never put anything in your mouth unless you are sure of what it is.
  • Never take anyone else’s medicine, even if that person is a brother or sister or a friend.  Each of us is different and we may react differently to the same medicine.

As our children’s first role models for responsible drug use, we need to be aware that even though they may not always be listening to us, they are always watching us.  Does this mean that we have to take the medicines that we need when the children aren’t watching?  Absolutely not!  If anything, we should use those opportunities to teach our children a healthy respect for medicines.  In age appropriate terms, we should explain why we need to take certain medicines, how those medicines are helping us, and why we need to take only a specific amount.

The media sometimes provide us with teachable moments related to the abuse of medicines.  A few years ago, a local, highly respected sports broadcaster was arrested when he stole prescription drugs from his neighbor’s medicine cabinet.  Parents can use incidents like this to give their children an important message about the risks involved with incorrect use of medicines. Talking with our children about medicine is not a one-time conversation.  We need to continue looking for opportunities to raise their awareness, give them accurate information, and reinforce healthy attitudes.

Laying the groundwork for helping our children make safe and responsible choices about medicines must begin when our children are young.  Because medicines are so much a part of our culture and ever-present, raising our children’s awareness and building a healthy respect for what they put into their bodies can be the tool that will one day save their lives.   For more information, visit The Partnership at www.Drugfree.org

Susan KurlanderBecause children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.

Susan Kurlander, M. Ed. is a Health Educator for JCS Prevention Education.


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