Teens and marijuana: how can parents respond?
Updated: May 14
You found out your teen is using marijuana. How worried should you be?
Understanding more about the issue can make a difference for you and your teen: “Changing the way you understand a problem changes lots of things: the way you feel about it, the way you react to it, the way you go about solving it and your expectations and sense of hopefulness for the outcome.” (Beyond Addiction: How Science & Kindness Help People Change, Foote and Wilkinson)
If your teen is using marijuana, they are not alone. I'm not making the “Everybody’s doing it, so it's no big deal,” argument, but it helps to understand that marijuana use, especially occasional or first-time use, is not an extreme out-of-norm behavior. Here’s some context: According to the 2020 University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey, “In 2020, in all three grades (8th,10th,12th), daily marijuana levels were at or near the highest level recorded since 1991 (1.1%, 4.4%, and 6.9%). Marijuna vaping increased significantly and substantially in 2018 and 2019, but pretty much leveled in 2020 with no significant changes."
It’s not legal for teens (under 21) in any state. Your teen may argue, “But it’s legal!” or “It’s almost legal!” For teens, marijuana is illegal in every state even if medical marijuana or recreational marijuana use is legalized for adults over 21. So, if your teen seems to misunderstand the laws, go ahead and tell them the laws, and potential consequences- but don't overdo it and don't exaggerate. Psychologist Lisa Damour, suggests parents focus more on the risks than on the rules to keep teens safe; see her talk about this here.
Is marijuana use “dangerous”? Separating what is real information from what is propaganda or misinformation can be complicated. The history of marijuana in the US is rife with racism and misinformation. (Drug Policy Alliance has good information about the history of the war on drugs in the US: A history of the drug war.) Teens often have open minds and unique perspectives so don’t be afraid to talk about drugs and drug policies- thoughtful, open conversations will likely lead to less use or at least more thoughtful use of substances. (Conversation= a harm reduction strategy?). You may find agreement on many areas of drug policy, and you may support marijuana legalization- and not that doesn't make you a hypocrite for having rules against use by your teen. See below.
What seems clear is that marijuana use is NOT a great idea for teens and their developing brains. Is marijuana less dangerous than many other drugs your teen could use- probably? Is it less dangerous than alchol? Maybe. Do some teens use marijuana heavily with few or no bad consequences? Maybe. It can be hard to measure. If your teen wants to defend high school marijuana use, he can definitely find examples of of kids who use every day and still excel in sports or academics. I like to explain to teens that it’s a bit of Russian roulette with your brain, and your teen should understand why:
The science is clear that the teen brain is still a work in progress. The teen years are a sweet spot for learning healthy habits, and for a higher risk of addiction and “damage” to the brain. It’s a vulnerable time for the brain. Neuroscientist Dan Seigel calls it a “remodeling process.”
Can you become addicted to marijuana? In the current DSM 5 diagnostic guide, problems with substance use are called substance use disorders, and can be categorized as mild to severe depending on how many symptoms are identified. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): “Marijuana use can lead to the development of problem use, known as a marijuana use disorder, which takes the form of addiction in severe cases….People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.” Psychologist Karen Young, Heysigmund.com puts it this way, “Whether or not a substance is addictive is irrelevant. A substance or activity doesn’t have to be ‘addictive’ to cause breakage in people’s lives. Extensive research has left no doubt that regular marijuana use can damage an adolescent brain."
Earlier marijuana use (or any drug/alcohol use) is correlated with higher rates of addiction, misuse and damage to the brain. Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, explains, “…bottom line: the earlier the use, the greater the abuse.”
There is some research showing that long term marijuana use correlates with increased mental health problems, and can possibly trigger the onset of schizophrenia in teens who are genetically vulnerable. This is NOT saying marijuana causes schizophrenia. If you say extreme things to your teen, you lose credibility, This NPR Health News article has a good overview of this concern. In a nutshell, if you have schizophrenia or serious mental illness in your family history, your teen deserves to understand the risks they are taking.
What about motivation? The teen years, especially the older teen years, are a time of decision making for the future, and moving towards an adult life path. There’s some evidence that marijuana use could decrease motivation at a time when motivation is critical. You are not going to prove this to your teen, but it’s something to consider in your conversation. Ask your teen, “do you think using marijuana has anything to do with your poor grades?”, “Could your marijuana use be connected to your lack of interest in _____ (what used to interest you?).” Also, be clear that adolescent use is different than adult use- just because Uncle Bill smokes pot and he is a CEO does not end this conversation.
Are you especially worried about your teen’s marijuana use because a relative (grandmom, father, uncle, sister) has a problem with substance use? The good news is that your teen is not doomed to have substance problems because of family history. The sort of bad news is that addiction in your family history may increase the risk of your teen developing a substance use problem, rather than being able to just use recreationally and “choose” when to stop. From How to Raise A Drug-Free Kid, “You and your child should not feel somehow doomed or marked by such a family history… As with any other disease that is linked to genetics-cancer, heart disease, diabetes- environment and lifestyle factors play a role in whether your child will develop the disease of addiction.” In other words, it’s complicated. Your teen deserves the information about your family history of addiction or substance misuse. There is an increased risk that they may not be able to use causally and remain unscathed, and they should know this.
Is marijuana a gateway drug? I’m not a fan of this term, and I think it has become relatively meaningless. According to NIDA, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances.” BUT it is also true that almost all cocaine and heroin users used alcohol or marijuana first, so clearly people who use “harder” drugs and have substance misuse issues usually did not start with the ‘harder’ drug. On a final note, some research indicates that the greatest “gateway” to use of other substances is nicotine.
Part 2: What’s a Parent to DO?
Let me be clear that there is absolutely no ONE right thing to do. I know, a one-size-fits-all response template would be easier! Here are some suggestions to help you influence your teen towards healthy choices regarding substance use:
First, Don’t freak out. You’ll have the best outcome if your teen does not feel attacked, judged, or condemned. I know, it can be hard to stay calm when you are so ______________ (Worried, angry,disappointed, etc.) Try.
Talk. Open and honest conversation is your best and most effective tool against risky behaviors of all kinds. Will a conversation about drug use mean they never use again? No. Psychologist Anthony Wolf, author of Get Out of My Life but First Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall, explains this well, “The main impact of talking is that their approach to drinking and drug use will be more thoughtful than if there were no such talks. They may still engage in those activities (Or they may not) but they are likely to do so with more consideration of the risks.” Having a drug-free teen may be your hope, but given that there is a percentage of teens who will use marijuana, your teen may be one of them. Harm reduction is the next best thing.
Don’t have the talk when you or your teen are very upset, or under the influence. As long as everyone is safe for the moment, it's best to defer the discussion until everyone is sober and calmer.
Talk Less, Listen More: when you have the conversation, be sure your teen is doing at least some of the talking. If they don't want to say anything, at least be sure you have given them the space for response/thoughts.
By making space for your teen's voice, you avoid long unhelpful lectures : Psychologist Laura Krastner, author of Getting to Calm, has an acronym W.A.I.T- If you as the parent feel yourself going on and on, stop and think, 'Why am I talking?" Is there something that has to be said? Say it. when you pause and think W.A.I.T - it will help you clarify is this a pointless lecture/unloading or a purpose to keep talking.
Use “Door Openers” Rather Than “Door Closers” Door openers encourage your teen to talk openly.“Tell me what happened.” “What do you think is the right thing to do?” “What happened next?”
Be curious. Why is your teen using? Ask them, “why take this risk?” The key is to really LISTEN to their answer. If you show them that you are open to an honest discussion, they may tell you that it helps them deal with stress, or feel accepted by peers, or calms their anxiety. There are many reasons why teens use, including: escape, rebellion, boredom, peer influence, social anxiety, etc. By listening for understanding, you may be able to identify the reasons for your teen’s use and you may be able to help.
Use active listening: Reflect back what you hear. It works like this: You listen without interrupting, then sum up what you’ve heard to allow your teen to confirm. It’s OK if you get it wrong, your teen will know you are trying to understand and you’ll know if you’re not “getting it.” Example: “I hear you saying that you're really stressed about school and using marijuana helps you relax and be able to have fun.”
Validate the feelings your teen expresses even if you don't understand or agree with it. If she tells you she uses to fit in because she's always felt like an outsider- don't rush to reassure her how amazing she is and she's not an outsider. Try, "Thats hard to feel like you don't fit in." "
Don’t catastrophize about their use: You lose a lot of credibility if you act like the sky is falling and start talking about drug rehab because you found out your teen used marijuana a few times. Does your teen need treatment? Maybe and maybe not, but you won’t figure that out unless you can talk about it reasonably. Every teen who uses marijuana does not need treatment. If you’re not sure how serious the issue is for your teen, an assessment by a mental health professional (experienced with teens) can be helpful. Any therapist who makes an assessment of your teen, should be able to guide you towards appropriate next steps. If you’re confused about how to find someone to help, or what steps to take, the Partnership to End Addiction has a great free parent helpline where you can get some guidance (phone, email, text or facebook messenger).
Don’t go down the rabbit hole of arguing- about how good or bad marijuana is; whether it should be legal or not; how it compares to X or Y or Z other substance. Here's some great advice about this from a Scientific American Article, What Pot Really Does to the Teen Brain, "Exaggerating the perils of cannabis—the risks of brain damage, addiction, psychosis—has not helped. Any whiff of Reefer Madness hyperbole is perfectly calibrated to trigger an adolescent's instinctive skepticism for whatever an adult suggests."
Set clear limits and be open to changing/adapting them as your teen gets older. There is no one right answer here. Maybe your rule is “We expect you to not use drug and alcohol until you’re 21.” Maybe with your older teen, your expectation is, “If you choose to drink or smoke, I expect that you be smart about it.” This is your decision as a parent. There is research showing that just saying ‘we don’t want you to do this’ can be preventive when there is a solid loving and respectful parent-teen relationship. According to Frances Jensen, author of the Teenage Brain, “recent research shows that fear of losing their parents trust and respect is the greatest deterrent to adolescent’s drug use. They won’t tell you this, of course…Take advantage of this power, however unacknowledged by your sons and daughters…Whenever possible be concrete and practical when talking about drug use.” Overly authoritarian responses that accept only total obedience as a good outcome often invite rebellion and spur your teen to find more creative ways to hide their use from you. Overall, it seems to work best when there are fewer rules but they are well considered and collaboratively decided as often as possible.
Be cautious about blaming peers. The term ‘peer pressure’ can conjure up images of other teens actively “pressuring” your teen to use: “Smoke this or your out of the group,” “Drink this or we won’t talk to you.” Most teens I talk to say that is not the kind of pressure they feel, and that it is generally acceptable not to use if that is your choice. But, still, when friend’s choose to use substances, your teen may feel a certain “pressure” to join in order to be a part of the group, and share the experience. Peer influence is a natural part of a teen’s life. Could there be one or two friends that are heading down a bad path and dragging your teen along with them? Maybe. But blaming other teens can cause you to miss what’s going on with your teen, and alienate you from your teen.
Here are a few possible next steps:
Consequences will be different for every family and will depend on what you figure out when you had that great talk! Punishment is often ineffective with teens, can encourage greater rebellion or resistance, and erodes parent/teen relationship. A better choice is a thoughtful response and consequences that help your teen learn and grow.
Consider separating consequences from conversation An option is to have the talk first, delaying the consequence: “I’m considering the consequences for this, but this is important and so I want to understand what’s going on and we’ll deal with the consequences later.” Your teen might be too agitated about pending consequences to have the ‘talk’ first or could be less than honest because they are hoping to get minimal consequences. The no consequencesoption (except natural ones!) can be hard to wrap your head around, but it does remove barriers to honest communication. A possible opening: “Hey, this is serious so I know you’re expecting to be punished, but what’s more important to me right now is your safety and well-being and so my priority is understanding what’s going on with you.” Again, the order and approach is your call.
Consider NO punishment-style consequences: I get it, this may not always be possible but it could be a reasonable response: You have had a great talk, reinforced your positive open communication with your teen, restated limits on drug use, restated or renegotiated age-appropriate rules about time spent with friends, curfews, etc.-and now you just go on with life. This can be a great next step if you think this was pure experimentation, first time use, and you feel your teen is engaged in the conversation.
Be thoughtful and reasonable in doling out any consequences for the rule breaking: It can be scary and upsetting to find out your teen is using marijuana. It can be tempting to start tossing out punishments, and piling on loss of privileges. Well thought out and reasonable consequences will be most effective. Extreme and reactive consequences or 'punishments' can rupture connection, encourage resentment & rebellion, and even increase the likelihood that your teen will use again. In juvenile justice there is currently a big emphasis on restorative justice, which can be a good model for parents to keep in mind. The focus of restorative justice is to hold people accountable, repair harm, and reduce the chances the 'crime' will happen again.
Sharing power when making the rules? Your consequences might be based on pre-established rules and responses: maybe the rule is that use of drugs and alcohol means she loses her phone for two weeks, or is 'grounded' for a month. Sticking to established rules makes sense. But it is also important to evaluate those rules and consequences as your teen matures, and consider some collaboration with your teen. Shared power with your teen does not mean equal power, but it does mean involving them in decisions and listening to their perspective. According to the Youth Development research nonprofit, the Search Institute, "Teens don’t always make the best decisions. But it's also when sharing power becomes critically important for growth. Sharing power in families helps parenting adults to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with their children and to learn to trust them."
Consider your teen’s age and maturity level in creating any consequence. For younger teens, increased supervision, and limits on activities may make sense. For a 17 year-old, close to adult hood and heading out your door soon- thoughtful conversation and harm reduction should be more the focus.
Debating the issue could be interesting if you have a teen who loves the debating! But don't go there in the context of your parental response to their use. Take the time you need to figure out what is going on and how you will respond and then be clear re: what are your concerns and what expectations you have and, if there are any, what consequences are you setting. “I know there is a lot of controversy about marijuana in many areas. It’s all interesting and maybe we can discuss that at another time. Right now, my concern is you. You broke the rules and I believe your use of marijuana is risky to you for these reasons.” Follow this by whatever you have decided upon for next steps (assessment, family meeting, removal of privileges, increased restrictions, etc. etc.) As always, be mindful of your teen’s age and maturity level in all of this.
Assessment by professional: If you are concerned that your teen’s marijuana use is heavy and ongoing, or the behaviors you see are significant (Slipping grades, lots of rule breaking, behavior changes), it can be wise to have a professional assessment. You can make this the only consequence: “I am concerned because A, B, C. I don’t know how serious this is, but I think we need help sorting it out.” You may get more cooperation with this assessment if it is the consequence, rather than tacked onto loss of privileges, grounding, etc. “In this case, because this your health and well being is the most important thing, I’m going to skip other consequences and focus on getting some help figuring this out.” Here’s a good article from the Child Mind Institute about getting resistant teens into therapy: Helping Resistant Teens Into Treatment. In this case, you are not asking them to go to therapy, but for an assessment to see what a professional recommends. One step at a time!·
Connection, Connection, Connection. When you’re going through a rough patch with your teen, don’t stop being affectionate, asking them to spend time with you, and noticing the good stuff they do. The more you are connected to your teen in a positive and loving relationship, the more you can influence them towards healthier behaviors and better choices, and the better the overall outcomes for them (and you).
20 Minute Parent Guide: This guide is for parents concerned about their child’s substance use, offering parents help with self care, understanding, communication, and action.
I’d Listen to My Parents If They’d Just Shut Up, by Anthony Wolf. A good humorous parenting book, with chapter 12 about Teens, Drugs & Alcohol.
Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Can Help People Change by Foote and WilkinsonTeen Brain:
HeySigmund.com: The Adolescent Brain – What All Teens Need to Know
How can I help? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about my parent coaching and support options. Laura Cleary, LMSW