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Last week, while discussing the topic of illicit drugs with a mommy friend of mine, she told me how she was first introduced to marijuana: by her dad. He took her aside when she was a teenager, she said, and showed her his private stash, explaining the finer points of toking, rolling, and moderation. “It totally demystified it for me,” she said. “I didn’t even try smoking it on my own until I was 30.”
Her father’s not-exactly-mainstream approach is just one of the ways parents of teens grapple with a pretty unavoidable fact — that their child (my friend aside) will most likely dabble with drugs or alcohol before graduating from high school. Some moms and dads will go even further, smoking pot with their teenagers as a way to have some control over their experimentation. But is this an advisable tack to take?
The majority of experts Yahoo Parenting spoke to were pretty adamantly against the idea. “No! You should definitely not smoke pot with your teen,” says Joani Geltman, author of “A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs, and Other Things That Freak You Out.” Current research, she says, shows that marijuana causes permanent, negative changes in teenage brains. “Why would a parent want to do something that would deliberately harm their child’s brain?”
Beyond that, though, is what lighting up together says to your kid. “It gives a very mixed message,” Geltman explains — which holds true, she said, even if you preface the act by telling your teen that they should only smoke in the house, or that they should do so very infrequently. “What kids hear is, ‘My parents think it’s okay for me to do drugs.’ They have very selective hearing,” she says. Marijuana, she adds, is not what it was 20 years ago — it’s stronger now because of more THC — so while parents and their friends might be able to use in moderation, “Kids are not going to have just a toke.”
Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of the new “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” calls smoking pot with your teen a “bad idea,” for the same reasons Geltman outlined. But also, he adds, despite changing laws, marijuana is still illegal for individuals younger than 21. “It’s generally a good idea for parents to want to raise their kids to be law-abiding,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. Plus, he notes, “There’s something different about having a beer with your kid, especially during a meal, and getting high with him, which is essentially done just to get high. It feels like you’re crossing the line there in a way that I think is inappropriate.”
Throwing back some beer with your kids — or even just condoning drinking by buying the booze or allowing it to happen on your property — is also a less-than-accepted route. Late last year, Connecticut parent Paul Sibiga was arrested on counts of both reckless endangerment and permitting minors to possess alcohol after allegedly allowing his teenage sons and their friends to party on his property, resulting in a DUI crash that killed a 17-year-old girl.
Steinberg says that there’s been no evidence that teens are safer around substances, particularly alcohol, if their parents are the ones doing the introducing. “That whole claim is grossly overstated,” he says, adding that throughout Europe, where parents are known to serve alcohol to their children, there are “plenty of substance problems.”
Kristen Anderson, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Adolescent Health Research Program at Reed University, tells Yahoo Parenting that, by introducing our teens to pot, we are essentially “setting a social norm for them.” She also points to a recent study that found if a parent believes her teen is already using drugs, and he is not, that belief and its related actions very often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Barry Lessin, a treatment-addiction psychologist in Philadelphia, is a believer in the harm-reduction approach to substance abuse, which means accepting that it’s a normal fact of society. Lessin is generally against the idea of parents smoking with children. But, he tells Yahoo Parenting, “I can’t give a blanket statement of ‘Don’t do it.’ I’ve learned that every family is different and has its own culture. If a parent wants to get high with their kid, I’d want to know what the reasons are, because you want to model appropriate behavior,” he says. “Do you want to be the kid’s friend? The kid’s peer? Because that’s not an effective way of being a parent.”
So how should parents broach the topic of drugs, especially if they have their own personal, expansive history of indulging? “First and foremost is sending a message that it’s okay to talk about, and letting them know, ‘I’m not going to freak out about it,’” Lessin says. “Let them know that the drugs are not the problem, but our relationship to the drugs. It’s okay to explain that we use drugs for reasons — to relax, to socialize — and that it’s normal.”
Geltman, too, advocates for opening up clear channels of communication, but suggests leaving no room for misunderstanding. “In their teen years, kids are looking for any way to hear that they’re getting permission,” she says. “Start by stating the obvious — ‘I get that your friends might be smoking pot.’ Then say, ‘I don’t want you to smoke it,’ and provide useful information about why. That way, they are getting the message that you don’t think it’s a good idea, but that you are leaving the decision to them.”
As far as copping to your own experience with drugs, Geltman says, “You can be mildly honest.” Provide kids with age-appropriate answers to their questions, and while you shouldn’t lie by saying you never tried anything if you have, “there can be some fudging in there,” she says, particularly about the age at which you started, or the amounts of drugs you truly did. She also suggests accentuating the downsides. “So say yes, I did smoke pot and I did drink, and here’s how it impacted me in a negative way,” maybe by missing lots of classes and having grades suffer, or by finding yourself in risky sexual situations that you came to regret.
In any event, Geltman says, your teens may hate you now, but that only means you’re doing your job well. “Even though they fight it tooth and nail, they expect that someone will keep them safe,” she says, “because their own impulses can’t.”