Talking to Your Child About Marijuana: 3 Responses for Parents

Watching an illegal substance become legal and available for sale is an unusual occurrence in modern day society. No generation since the days of prohibition can recall this sort of transition from illegal to legal, so it’s understandable that there are fears and concerns surrounding the legalization of marijuana. Like most issues parents are forced to face, this topic, regardless of how one feels about it, can serve as a wonderful spring board for parents to discuss the reality of substance use and abuse in our culture.

First and foremost, it’s important for parents and kids to understand what the legalization of marijuana means for all of us. It is important to note that even once legal, the use of marijuana is considered a substance reserved strictly for adults and it is illegal for all individuals to drive while under the influence of marijuana. In Canada, the legal age to use marijuana may vary by province, but is likely to be age 18 or older in many places. While these details may seem unimportant, they are critical facts to keep in mind when you begin the discussion with your child about marijuana use.

When you discuss any difficult topic with your child, the best place to begin is educating them with the best facts and information you can find. Beginning a computer search with your child to explore what cannabis is and its effects on the body can be a great place to start. For instance, you can uncover facts such as how the chemicals in marijuana affect the body, the developing brain of a teen or pre-teen, judgment, sleep, and overall health. Like with alcohol, you can tell your child that marijuana is a mind-altering substance that can have negative consequences for all people, but especially for teenagers who are still developing physically and emotionally. [You can assign your child the “homework” of finding one or two articles that discuss, from a medical perspective, how marijuana affects the brain and what the side effects can be when used. Use these articles as a springboard for discussing marijuana together].

If you are against legalizing marijuana, having this conversation with your child may be easy. If you are in support of legalization, or are currently using marijuana yourself, it may be harder to encourage your child to see the downside of marijuana use. Keep in mind that regardless of your personal feelings about marijuana use and legalization, it is still illegal for minors to use marijuana, even once it is legal for adults. This knowledge should guide you in what information you decide to impart to your child.

Next, keep in mind the age of your child when discussing marijuana. For younger children (elementary age), providing simple, basic information (e.g. illegal and unhealthy for children) can be best. For older kids (middle school, high school age), helping sort fact from fiction about what marijuana is and what its effects are is useful. Your child may protest, stating that they “already know all about it,” but don’t let them off the hook that easily. Kids this age may think they already know all the facts based upon information passed through peer groups, but just as with sex and alcohol, many times their information is just false. Begin the conversation by asking, “Okay, so tell me what you know about marijuana.” Let your child talk, uninterrupted, until they tell you all they know. If some of their information is incorrect, before supplying them with the correct information, ask them the following questions:

“I’m curious how you got that idea about marijuana?”

“I hear you saying that kids at school told you about marijuana. Where do you think they got their information?”

Your child may have some difficult questions for you about marijuana use and you should be prepared to answer them as honestly and intelligently as possible. Below are some possible comments/questions you may face and some responses you might find useful.

1. If marijuana is legal then it must not be bad for me.

Explain to your child that this isn’t necessarily true, that there are a number of substances that are legal such as alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics, but also potentially dangerous or even life threatening if used or abused. Point out that safety issues for all legal substances are always a concern because you never know how a drug will affect you. We know for certain that substance use among kids is never good due to the impacts on the still-developing brain. You can say, “Marijuana use will affect your memory, your coordination, your ability to focus, and how you make decisions. The best way to maintain control and make good decisions is to be clear-headed and not under the influence of marijuana.”

2. Did you ever smoke marijuana?

This question may be one of the most dreaded questions to come from a child to a parent. If you have a history of marijuana use, the answer you provide really depends on how you parent your child and what your beliefs are around disclosure. Some parents may feel they simply cannot or should not be truthful to owning up to a substance using past. For others who are more open to such disclosure, it may be useful to consider a few guidelines. First, keep your response short and to the point without providing unnecessary details. Try not to get bogged down in your past, but focus instead on what you learned and what you know now as an adult, as well your concern for your child and his/her future.Consider focusing on the well-documented negative health implications of marijuana use for the developing brains of children and adolescents, and also the illegality of marijuana use for minors. Help your child understand that when they are an adult, marijuana use will be less of a health concern – (although still somewhat of a health concern, even then!) - and it will also be legal for them if they decide they want to use marijuana.

If your child says, “Well you used it when you were a minor, so I should be able to too,” you can say that if you knew then what you know now, then you wouldn’t have used marijuana as a minor, and just because you made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean you want your child to do the same. Frame your disclosure as you being honest in trying to help your child make healthy choices, not as your giving permission to begin using.

3. What do I do if I’m tempted?

Many parents feel that their kids won’t come to them if they’re tempted to use marijuana because they act aloof and don’t disclose much information to them in the first place. Don’t let this normal teen behavior fool you into believing that your child won’t want your help if they are confronted with the urge to use marijuana or other substances. Kids often act unconcerned and are uncommunicative because they’re uncertain how to talk to parents and peers, not because they don’t value your advice. Make it very clear to your kids that you are always open to talking to them at a moment’s notice if they feel pressured or tempted to say ‘yes’ to marijuana. Let them know that if they are at a party or a friend’s house and marijuana is present, they can call you to be picked up regardless of the time or day. Also, while you may assume your child already knows what you think about using marijuana, make sure to express what your thoughts are about substance use while they are teen-agers. You can tell your child, “We hope you will not use any substances because we know how harmful they can be to your health. If something comes up and you need help, we’re here for you no matter what.”

Like so many topics that involve danger, having a one-time conversation with your child simply won’t cut it. This is a conversation you should be having starting in your child’s pre-teen years and extending all throughout high school and even college. Letting your child know that you are with them every step of the way and continuing this conversation at each stage of their development will go a long way in keeping your child substance free.

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