How to Talk to Your Kids About Marijuana

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Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington for people aged 21 and over, it presents a new challenge for parents: how do you talk to kids about using a once-banished drug that society has started to accept?

Although it is still illegal for kids to use marijuana, some will try it at some point in their lives. According to Kelly Caywood, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, it’s important that parents accept this reality and talk to their kids about pot in an open and non-judgmental manner.

Below, Dr. Caywood provides tips on how parents can effectively talk about marijuana with their kids.

Look for opportunities to start the conversation

Maybe it’s when you’re driving past a dispensary or see a character on TV smoking pot. Start by asking questions like, “What do you know about marijuana?” “What do you think about the legalization of marijuana?” or, “What are some questions you have about marijuana?” Avoid formal conversations like calling a family meeting, since those tend to make people nervous, making it more likely they’ll shut down.

Parents can begin talking to their children about marijuana around age 10, but if the child asks questions younger than that, start the conversation then.

Create an environment that encourages communication

The most important thing is that your child feels safe talking openly (this is also the first major step in prevention). Parents can achieve this by doing the following:

  • Have conversations, not lectures.
  • Ask questions, and avoid making judgments.
  • Remain engaged in your child’s life.
  • Be an active listener by making time for the conversation and making sure you are not distracted.
  • Make it an ongoing conversation, not something you talk about once.
  • Do not approach this topic with anger or demonize marijuana, because that increases the chances that kids will shut down.

State of Colorado launches "Don't be a Lab Rat" youth marijuana education campaign.

Give your child the facts

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) provides information on what marijuana is and what it does to the body. Find out the legal parameters of pot from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Present the facts to your child objectively and use them to explain why marijuana use is still illegal for people under age 21.

Some basic facts:

  • Marijuana can affect the brain, particularly the vulnerable, developing brain.
  • Marijuana can affect learning, memory and sleep patterns. It can contribute to an increase in depression, anxiety, panic, and paranoia over time, and there is evidence that marijuana can permanently decrease IQ.
  • Marijuana is addictive and with chronic use, can cause withdrawal symptoms.
  • One can injure his or herself when using marijuana, especially in excess.
  • Marijuana use can affect a person’s ability to effectively deal with emotions.
  • It is possible that marijuana may help with certain medical conditions, although we need much more research on this topic to fully understand the link. When talking about medical marijuana, say something like, “It is prescribed for a specific purpose, for a certain period of time.”

Learn more about medical marijuana in Colorado (pdf).

Let them know they can call you

It’s important that your child feels he or she can call you when in trouble. When talking about marijuana, say, “If you’re in a situation where you feel unsafe, you can call me and I will help you.” If the child does call, make sure you do help, and keep the lines of communication open by talking about the situation and how it progressed.

Furthermore, the NIDA recommends that parents keep an eye on their children’s friends and peers. Read more about their tips for monitoring.

If your child is using, try to understand why

If your child is caught using or admits to using marijuana, this is an excellent opportunity to talk about it, and learn why he/she was doing it. Ask questions like, “What happened?” and “What are some of the reasons you used marijuana?” Let them know you are concerned about the habit progressing.

Try to determine if there is a deeper problem. If they used marijuana more than once, or are currently using, assess whether or not it is negatively affecting their daily functioning. For example, determine if/how their relationships with others have changed, if conflict has increased, if their grades have changed, of if they’re hanging out with a different crowd. If you believe your child may have a serious problem with marijuana, talk to your doctor or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357), a treatment referral helpline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Be clear about expectations

Kids thrive in environments with clear boundaries. However, harsh punishments probably won’t motivate them to stop using marijuana, and punishment could damage your relationship. For example, if they know you will punish them for using, they will think, “That’s the last time I tell him (or her) anything.” Conversely, if they know you will have a conversation about it, they may feel more likely to seek your help.

Acknowledge why some people use marijuana

People smoke and ingest pot for many reasons: for fun, for a new experience, for medicinal purposes, or to cope with overwhelming emotions. It can be problematic in some situations and not others.

What we do know is that marijuana use can have lasting negative effects on the developing brain, can lead to patterns of addiction, and is only a temporary aid to dealing with intense emotions. We also know that sometimes marijuana use can have positive effects on people with certain medical conditions.

Acknowledge all the pros and cons of using. When it comes to using marijuana as a coping mechanism, talk to your child about the importance of learning healthy tools to cope with emotions in the long-term.

Be honest if you use marijuana

You don’t have to discuss every detail of your marijuana use, but if your child specifically asks about it, be honest. For example, you can say, “I have tried it before and this was my experience.”

If you use it occasionally for recreation, say something like, “I’m of age and use it in a conscientious manner.” Iterate messages of responsible use, like not using to excess, while driving, or to escape problems.

What if parents don’t know how they feel about marijuana?

If you haven’t taken a stance on pot, you should still talk to your child about it. Present the facts and talk about the pros and cons. Ask the child how he or she feels. No matter how you feel, it’s imperative that your child has accurate information.

Ask about their friends

If peer pressure plays a role in your child’s curiosity about marijuana, continue to have open conversations by asking questions like, “Do you have a friend who smokes pot? What does that look like? Do you think it’s helping or hurting them?”

Acknowledge if you have a family history of addiction

There is a line between experimentation and dependence. Marijuana affects the brain’s reward pathways, and, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction: “…people have difficulty controlling their drug use and cannot stop even though it interferes with many aspects of their lives.” If you know your child has a genetic predisposition to addiction, communicate that right away, because that’s a huge risk factor. He or she might not take that seriously now, but may store it away.

The bottom line

We cannot keep our children from interacting with the world, and cannot control their lives. We have to give them good information and trust they will make good decisions by creating a safe environment where everyone can speak openly, and by staying engaged in their lives.

Kelly Caywood, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado where she specializes in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for teens ages 13-17, as well as working with mood disorders and substance use disorders. She is a facilitator for the General Intensive Outpatient program (GIOP) focused on improving family communication and collaborative problem solving for parents and teens.