How to Talk with Kids About Substance Use - MetroFamily Magazine
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How to Talk with Kids About Substance Use

By Oklahoma Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services

by Pam McKeown

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

Most 9-year-old kids like to play outside, make slime and try new games. But 9 is also the average age kids begin to think about alcohol. It’s at this age that kids’ impression of alcohol starts to shift from negative to positive, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, making it a critical time to begin conversations about substance use.

While drugs like fentanyl grab headlines for their deadly potency, the reality is the three drugs most likely to be abused by kids in Oklahoma have remained consistent for many years. Alcohol is first on the list, followed by marijuana and tobacco. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 80 percent of teens say their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink. While it’s not always easy, talking with your kids about substance use could prevent them from facing serious consequences and, possibly, even save their lives.

Substance prevalence among Oklahoma kids

These mind-altering chemicals have been around for centuries, are widely used and are easily available to youth. On a broader scale, alcohol and marijuana are far more deadly than other drugs because of their contribution to youth car crashes, accidents and other unintentional deaths.

The 2019-2020 Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment showed that of those responding to the survey, 60 percent of seniors, 47.4 percent of 10th graders, 33.3 percent of eighth graders and 20 percent of sixth graders had used alcohol. (See sidebar on page ?? for more usage stats.)

Surprisingly, a third of Oklahoma students, including nearly 37 percent of sixth graders, said they got alcohol from home with their parents’ permission. It’s worth noting: giving alcohol to minors is illegal and providing a location for underage drinking violates Oklahoma’s social host law.

Underage alcohol use can lead to impaired brain development and alcohol dependency in adulthood. Youth who begin drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

For decades in Oklahoma, alcohol has been among the top three drugs of abuse for adults seeking addiction treatment services, reports the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS). The other top drugs of abuse are marijuana and methamphetamine.

In addition to impairing brain development at a critical time, for Oklahoma kids who are experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, the substances can contribute to the onset of certain mental health disorders.
Prevention, of course, is always the best medicine. ODMHSAS actively works with Oklahoma communities, school systems, Regional Prevention Networks, healthcare entities, state agencies, businesses and civic organizations to prevent or reduce youth substance abuse. But parents — and teachers — are the ones on the front lines, and conversations with kids about the dangers of substance use are critical in imparting knowledge and preventing abuse. When parents and teachers work together as a team to discuss learning difficulties, peer problems, academic achievements and friendships, the effect is even more powerful in identifying and preventing issues that can lead to abuse.

To get started talking with kids about the realities of substance use, use these tips from The Partnership to End Addiction:

Preschool (2-4 years old)

  • It’s never too early to start talking about substance abuse. The foundation for healthy habits is created during the preschool years.
  • When giving your preschooler a vitamin, explain, “You need to take vitamins every day so you can grow up big and strong, but you should only take what I, or a doctor, give you.”
  • Explain the importance of eating healthy foods, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep. Discuss how good you feel when you take care of yourself — how these habits help you run, jump and play.

Early Elementary (5-8 years old)

  • Talk to your kids about substance-related messages they see on TV or in movies or overhear at school. Ask your kids how they feel about these substances — you’ll learn a great deal about what they’re thinking.
  • Keep your discussions about substances focused on the present — long-term consequences are too distant to have meaning to most children of this age.
  • Discuss the differences between the medicinal uses and illegal uses of drugs, and how taking prescription medicine the wrong way can be dangerous.
  • Get to know your child’s friends and their parents.

Preteen (9-12 years old)

  • Preteens give their friends’ opinions a great deal of power and are starting to question their parents’ views and rules, all of which is normal.
  • Remind them you don’t allow any substance use because it’s detrimental to their health and their brains. Let them know you will enforce the rules.
  • Tell them if they’re ever offered pills or other substances, they can always use you as an excuse to get out of a bad situation. “Say, ‘My parents would ground me forever if I did that’ or ‘My parents can always tell if I’m lying.’”
  • This is the age it’s especially crucial to make yourself available to talk and listen.

Teenager (13-18 years old)

  • Teens are incredibly knowledgeable about addictive substances and need information based on reality.
  • Vaping has become more common among kids this age (more than one in four Oklahoma teens report vaping), but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Instead of reducing stress and anxiety, self-medicating through vaping worsens mental health and has long-term effects on brain development.
  • Listen instead of lecturing and use open-ended questions to get the conversation started. Make it clear that you disapprove of all alcohol, vaping, nicotine and drug use.
  • Show interest in and discuss your child’s daily ups and downs. You’ll earn their trust and learn how to talk to each other.
  • Encourage healthy risk-taking. Teenagers take risks to find out who they are. By guiding your teen toward healthy challenges, you can help them satisfy a desire for excitement, avoid negative consequences and bolster their confidence.

Young adults (19-25 years old)

  • Keep communication open with your child as they leave home. They need to know they can turn to you for help should problems arise.
  • Stay alert to possible mental health issues. A strong link exists between mental and physical health issues (including stress and anxiety) and substance use. If your child is in college, make sure you both know what campus mental health resources are available.

Learn more about talking to your child about substance use and get access to additional crucial parenting resources at


Oklahoma kids who have …

2019-2020 Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment

Used alcohol

•    60% of high school seniors

•    47.4% of high school sophomores

•    33.3% of eighth graders

•    20% of sixth graders

Tried marijuana

•    39.3% of high school seniors

•    27.2% of high school sophomores

•    13.4% of eighth graders

•    4% of sixth graders

Smoked a cigarette at least once

•    28% of high school seniors

•    20 percent of high school sophomores

•    13.7% of eighth graders

•    7% of sixth graders

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