Why—and how—to talk to your teen and young adult about marijuana use

In a recent survey conducted by Caron, a quarter of parents said they find it acceptable to share a marijuana joint with their teen if they are 18 or older, and two in five adults said marijuana is safe for young adults to use in moderation. The remainder of those surveyed aren’t quite convinced marijuana is truly harmless to young adults. Parents are confused on this issue, and I don’t blame them. Today’s parents of teens and young adults are the first generation to face a substance that has been historically illegal but is now moving toward medicinal and legal recreational use.

With government representatives advocating for legal usage of the drug, it’s easy to assume the necessary medical aspects have been considered, but that’s not always the case. At this stage, there have not been significant clinical trials to support safe usage for people under the age of 25. In fact, research has shown that marijuana can have a detrimental impact on the development of the brain’s frontal lobe. As the brain continues to develop between the ages of 18 and 25, marijuana use can negatively affect judgment, lower IQ, and exacerbate other health concerns.

It’s also important to note that marijuana use at an early age is an important predictor of development of a substance use disorder later – the majority of those with a substance use disorder starting using marijuana before age 18 and developed their disorder by age 20. Approximately 92 percent of adolescents admitted into Caron’s young adult program indicate it as drug of choice, and at a recent high school focus group I saw students report it as their most pressing concern when it comes to drug usage among peers.

The mixed messaging on marijuana makes having a conversation about it with your teen or young adult difficult. However, the undeniable threat it poses to those under 25, coupled with the fact that it’s cheap and readily available makes it a necessary discussion.

Research shows that parents can influence their children’s decision to use substances. Here are a few general dos and don’ts to have a meaningful conversation.

  • Do stay consistent. You need to have a consistent household message that marijuana is strongly discouraged, one that needs to be expressed often and firmly.
  • Do outline consequences. As the parent, you are the authority and can approach this issue the same way you’d approach other disciplinary matters. When they go out, send them a consistent message and set expectations that you will not tolerate any substance use and remind them of the consequences. You can also check on the criminal consequences for getting caught with marijuana in your state and make sure your children understands them. Show them what a marijuana-related arrest will do to their future.
  • Do share the science. Everyone knows brain development is critical, but your young adult isn’t going to relate to that in real-time. Translate the risk into something they can easily understand and relate to in their lives—such as the permanent 8-point drop in IQ associated with teenage marijuana use.
  • Don’t be ambiguous. Ask if they’ve been offered marijuana. If they haven’t, prepare them to handle the question. If you find out they’ve been offered and said no, find out why not. Use their motivators for saying no to reinforce the idea that saying no is the correct choice. If they have used, find out why.
  • Don’t take multiple usages lightly. If your teen or young adult has an issue with ongoing use, I encourage a professional evaluation. Parents tend to minimize their child’s marijuana use, but research shows that young people who use marijuana are most likely also using alcohol and other substances.
  • Don’t glamourize your use.Keep your message consistent that it’s not OK for your young adult to use. Lying will just undermine your relationship. Tell your child if you used substances at their age. However, share your own consequences and why you chose to stop and never romanticize or glamourize the experience.

While these tips set guidelines for the discussion, the conversation is going to look differently depending on the age of your child. Here are suggestions of how to have a dialogue with your young teenager, teenager, and young adult, respectively.

Ages 12 through 15
At ages 12 and 13, the transition from middle to high school catapults young teens into a high-risk time for alcohol and drugs. Sleepovers begin and supervision dwindles, making conversation key at this stage. Teens at this age will likely be introduced to experimentation with alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine products. Having these talks early on will prepare them for the moment they’re faced with these substances. Set your expectations, and lay out the consequences if they are violated. The most important part of preparation is role playing to help them to have an exit plan. For example, some parents may provide “code” phrases that allow their child to leave but saves them from having to combat peer pressure alone. A daughter that calls and says, “Please, may I stay!?” could mean: “Mom, get me out of here!” This exit plan is critical to avoid early experimentation and empower them to make healthy decisions; we know those using before age 18 are four-to-seven times more likely to develop problems with substances in the future.

  • Ages 16 and 17
    In most households, the privilege of driving comes with a conversation about drinking, and the risks of using marijuana should be included in that discussion. In addition to legal consequences, teens at this age are also old enough to process the physical consequences of marijuana use, such as:

Laying out these facts will help them understand choosing to use marijuana isn’t just a violation of your moral rules, it’s a major health risk with real-life consequences. There’s still a way to keep it positive --- their future is something to be excited about, and therefore, protected. At Caron, we see many college-bound young people whose lives have been disrupted due to a need for treatment. Understand your child’s risk factors and what motivates your child to stay engaged in a healthy lifestyle.

  • Ages 18-through 20
    This is a tough age to tackle. Many young adults are living independently at this point in their lives. However, parents still have a strong influence, and their respect is valued.
    That’s why I don’t recommend telling an 18-year-old, “If you do choose to drink and use drugs, be safe about it.” This can be taken as approval. Instead, let them know you want them to be successful while having a great experience as they live on their own for the first time, and they can have that without using marijuana.
    Staying silent and assuming they’re going to try drugs no matter what is also not an option. In addition to stating your expectations clearly, it’s also important to be a strong role model by treating marijuana as a serious drug. Too often, parents make decisions about the substance based on their own experience which can be a dangerous mistake. The marijuana of 20 years ago is not what’s out there now. Potency is much higher, and we’re seeing more young people in emergency rooms after using it.<
  • Ages 21 through 25
    Parental engagement and influence continues to be imperative well into young adulthood, so there’s no reason to lower expectations on drug use. In their early twenties, most young adults are in the process of becoming financially established and building careers. If they did experiment previously, drug use is taken much more seriously now by employers and peers.

    As the brain continues to develop, marijuana remains a threat through age 25. However, this may be one of hardest times to have a conversation about it, as most young adults are considered independent at this stage of their lives. The current changes in the laws provide a great conversation starter. Ask what they think of them, and if the current climate is impacting the choices they’re making. Centering the conversation on current events creates a nice opportunity for open and honest discussions without judgement. Listen, but share any concerns and reiterate expectations. Other opportune times for dialogue with young adults who have moved away from home are quiet times during visits, vacations, and other low-pressure moments.

America may continue to normalize marijuana, and having age appropriate conversations can make a significant difference in your child’s understanding of the health consequences. Now is the time to educate yourself and boost your communication in an open and approachable way.

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