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Teens and Cannabis Part 3: The Dont's and Do's

Whether faced with sporadic, experimental use, or use that has become a regular event to the point of being problematic, what should a parent say (or not) when discussing cannabis with their teen?
Written by
Dr. Amanda Reiman MSW PhD and Barry Lessin M.Ed CAADC
March 7, 2023

Whether faced with sporadic, experimental use, or use that has become a regular event to the point of being problematic, what should a parent say (or not) when discussing cannabis with their teen? 

Sex and drugs. Both are topics that can send parents into a panic when thinking about how to talk to their teens about the potential harms, while not ignoring the very real benefits. Concerns about glorifying the behavior and therefore encouraging use plagues many parents who want their teens to be safe, but don’t want them to engage until they are ready. In this third installment of our Teens and Cannabis series, we provide some practical do’s and don’ts for parents who are ready to have “the cannabis talk” with their adolescents. As for the sex talk, we recommend Dr. Ruth.

The average age of cannabis initiation is 16-17 years old. While this is well before the legal age of 21 for recreational use in the United States, it is old enough for a teen to understand the nuances of harms and benefits. And because teens are often faced with the choice to use cannabis before they are of legal age, it is important to take the plunge and have the talk. Whether faced with sporadic, experimental use, or use that has become a regular event to the point of being problematic, what should a parent say (or not) when discussing cannabis with their teen? 

The uncertainty looming in having this talk comes from a breach of parents’ confidence because the specific subject matter is often unfamiliar.  Our do’s and don’ts will help parents move from a position of anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence to one of empowerment

1) DON’T Lecture: Lecturing seems like a built-in default position for parents when teens won’t listen. And when a lecture (usually about the dangers of substance use) doesn’t work, for some reason, parents …lecture some more?

What parents don’t realize is that by the time their teen is about fourteen, the lectures go in one ear and out the other. This is for a couple reasons. First, a lecture is a monologue that’s  performed often when parental authority is challenged. When parents are confronted with oppositional behavior, they instinctively will want to establish their authority. It’s a natural defensive response that’s not designed for any type of dialogue or discussion, which is what’s eventually needed.  

Another reason is that, in normal adolescent development, challenging authority and establishing identity kicks in around this age. Parents sometimes forget that teens are not just younger versions of adults—that their abilities to process information, be self-reflective, and be more measured in responding, are a work in progress. 

DO Educate yourself.  Armed with science-based information and sharing this knowledge with their teen, parents will increase credibility with them. Be curious about their opinions and ask for your teen’s feedback about the information.  A lot can be learned about teenage substance use from listening to the teens themselves. The idea is to share reality-based information with the faith that they can make up their own minds. It’s a great opportunity to learn about their knowledge base, have them do some self-reflection, and create a platform for discussion that can lead to behavior change.

DO: Above all else, Listen! This is easier said than done. It’s tough, because it requires parents to look away from their fears and temporarily set aside the natural tendency to judge. And sometimes it can be frightening to hear teens’ unfiltered opinions and attitudes. It’s a process that takes some practice, but here are some thoughts that may help to make it easier to do: 

DO: Discuss substance use as having a “relationship” with the substance, similar to a relationship with a person: there’s a history to the relationship, there are reasons for staying in it. It's less threatening for people to discuss their use when it’s described this way.

Also, a discussion about the pros and cons of cannabis use from their teen’s perspective will help parents better understand why their teen uses cannabis and create opportunities for dialogue that can inform parents about what steps to take to intervene. Think of the conversation as the collection of data, or information that will help you better understand where your teen is coming from.

If you feel that your teen’s use is problematic or if it involves the use of other substances, a great resource is Beyond Addiction, from the Center for Motivation and Change.

2) DON’T Punish: Punishment can stop a behavior from happening in the short term but it engenders animosity (and opposition!) toward the punisher. And, most importantly for teens, doesn’t offer an opportunity for learning. Parents’ common knee-jerk reaction is to enter into “lockdown” mode: grounding, no cell phone, no online access. This is never effective. (The maxim “never say never” doesn’t apply here). Eliminating teens’ primary social and emotional outlet, makes little sense from an adolescent developmental standpoint and it can do more harm than good. 

DO: Develop ground rules and consequences around their use. Think about what you’re comfortable with, in terms of your teen’s use. What limits you’re willing to tolerate and/or accept, based on your personal and family values and attitudes, with establishing safety as best you can for your teen and the rest of the family being paramount.  

Remember that parents can’t prevent a teen from using drugs if they’re determined to. It forces them to lie and be more secretive about their use, escalating conflict even more. It may put teens in potentially more harmful situations and greatly limits parental response if their teen refuses to comply. 

DO use open-ended questions to elicit what teens think about what reasonable ground rules and consequences might be.  Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Consequences can be converted into a potential learning opportunity if they are meaningful for the teen, so it’s important to have their input and “buy-in”. Agreeing to consequences will shift some of the responsibility to teens and increase the likelihood of a positive behavior change. These discussions are like negotiations, but it’s not a democracy and parents have the final say. 

DO focus on improving trust. Many teens are motivated to rebuild back trust that has often been broken after periods of conflict over their use. They're more likely to “buy in” to accepting limits if they’ll be rewarded with improved trust. 

DO know your limits and manage expectations for change. Establish boundaries that define your emotional and physical well-being in interactions with your teens and other people. Knowing limits can help empower parents to have reasonable expectations for change.  

Limits and boundaries are most effective when they’re flexible because it’s common for them to shift as you practice making interventions. What’s important is for parents to be aware of their limits and gain confidence in adjusting them as needed. Setting respectful limits discourages negative behaviors.  

Change can be frightening and overwhelming. Ambivalence is normal and so most people tend to resist changing all at once. As mentioned in Pt 2 of our series, change occurs in predictable stages and family problems that take some time to develop will need some time to resolve. 

3) DON'T try to talk to teens during the moment you find them using substances. Rarely is this productive, especially if a parent is angry or upset. 

DO: If parents suspect that their teen has used cannabis, let them know that they’re aware of it and concerned (no lecturing!), and set an expectation that you’ll want to discuss your concerns at a later time. Sometimes, it helps to ‘schedule’ a time to talk with the expectation set that this talk will definitely take place at a later time. 

DO: Make an effort to voice acknowledgement for any positive changes, no matter how small. Rewarding positive change encourages it to happen more. Small positive steps lead to small improvements in behavior, increasing confidence, self-empowerment, and hope. 

DO: Look for opportunities to have conversations about neutral things or things you have in common, with the goal of staying connected in a positive way as much as possible.

4) DON'T blame yourself. Many mutual help groups, traditional one-size-fits-all rehabs and counselors blame and shame parents by reinforcing myths and stigmatizing notions of “enabling”, “needing to hit bottom”, and “tough love”. The reality is that most people “mature out” of problematic substance use. Addictions develop as a result of a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social variables. When armed with science-based information, parents can move from feeling disempowered to empowered.

DO be kind and compassionate to yourself. Certainly, compassion can be sorely tested when parents feel angry, hurt and raw in response to a teen's destructive opposition.  Research shows that self-compassion gives people some breathing room and space between themselves and the pain and frustration they’re dealing with. Remember also that parents’ behavior is a model for their children. 

5) DON’T “white knuckle” it and DO seek help if you feel you need it. Reaching out for help can feel intimidating and embarrassing and takes courage. It’s also an act of self-compassion. 

If a parent’s limits have been reached with what they feel capable of dealing with, it may be time to seek a specialist in teen development with knowledge of harm reduction and substance use issues. Parents know their teens better than anyone else, but a counselor can become a collaborator to help parents empower themselves to regain confidence in navigating the turbulent waters of the teen years. 

Visit www.barrylessin.com for more information!

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