7 ways to talk with your teens about marijuana

Photo: Teenager turning away from father (iStock)Many teens use the argument that because marijuana is legal in Colorado, it must be harmless. But experts say just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it's safe or healthy for kids. So how do you talk with your kids about marijuana? We've compiled leading ideas of how you can guide that conversation with your children. This advice comes from doctors and health educators we spoke to for a recent series about marijuana and teens.

  1. Have frequent, ongoing discussions about drugs. Conversations should encourage a respectful exchange of ideas. Let your child do most of the talking and listen to what they have to say. Kids shut down if you adopt a lecturing tone. Dr. Jan Hittleman, a psychologist based in Boulder, says a key discussion point can be: What are the benefits of substance use, and what other ways can you achieve that without use? Discuss drugs with your child when they are relaxed and in a good mood like during a car ride or playing a game.
  2. Educate yourself on the different ways marijuana can be consumed. Ask your teens to tell you about what kinds of ways kids are using drugs at school and the various forms of marijuana. The more you know and research about the different forms of pot, the more they will be open to listening to you.
  3. Talk with your teen about what they observe about other kids who experiment with marijuana. While some children might still perform well in school and meet their responsibilities, many others may not. You don’t know how your child’s brain will respond to marijuana. So explain that it it best to avoid it. Point out that one in six young people who uses marijuana eventually becomes dependent upon it or addicted to it. You may share stories about people who have gotten in trouble from using substances.
  4. Be clear about your rules and expectations about drug use. Research shows that parents’ views on marijuana have a big influence on their children. A survey of Denver public school children found that children who perceived their parents didn’t have concerns about marijuana were 2 to 4 times more likely to use marijuana. If you disapprove of substance use, be candid and clear about it. If you use marijuana, lock it up and be discreet about using it.
  5. Remind your children that marijuana is illegal for people under 21. Many kids think because it’s legal, it’s safe. Experts say that’s not true. Explain that it just means it’s decriminalized. Talk about the negative consequences of using substances on youth brain development (impacting judgment, impulse control, memory etc.) and how early use increases the risk for addiction. (see below for more information)
  6. Honesty is the best policy to keep kids safe. As part of regular, open, comfortable conversations with your teen about drug use, consider a rule that if your child gets into an unsafe situation, they can call you at any time. It is best not to discuss what happened that night. Instead, talk about it the next day when everyone is calm. Consider telling them the consequences will be less harsh if your child tells you that they used an illegal substance, rather than lie about it.
  7. Encourage your teen to become involved in “pro-social” activities like sports, cooking, clubs or music. Discuss and talk about ways to deal with peer pressure and how to say “no” in a non-aggressive, non-wishy-washy, confident way. Here are some tips for practicing.

We pulled together these ten tips based on information from Mandy Copeland, health educator, South High School and Denver Public Health; Dr. Jan Hittleman, Boulder psychologist; Dr. Paula Riggs, head of the Division of Substance Dependence at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine; Judith Shlay MD, associate director of Denver Public Health and family medicine physician; Diane Carlson, Smart Colorado; and several Boulder school district educational programs about youth, parent/child communication, youth and marijuana, adolescent depression.

Additional facts and scientific research on marijuana's impact on the teenage brain can be found on "Marijuana Facts Parents Need To Know" from the National Institute On Drug Addiction.