How to Talk to Your Teen About Marijuana

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor

For parents, talking to teens can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield. And while part of it is because adolescents can be so volatile, it’s also because teens can be easily influenced, and it’s hard to know which way parental input will push them.

This is why so many moms and dads avoid talking about important things altogether — including marijuana, according to the results of an exclusive new Yahoo News/Marist Poll, which found that 28 percent of parents have never once broached the heady topic.

While 37 percent of those parents say they don’t talk to their kids about weed because they simply don’t know what to say, 34 percent say it’s because they are not comfortable talking about it. And 19 percent had another reason for keeping mum: They don’t want to encourage use of the drug.

But that’s faulty logic, according to Barbara Greenberg, a Connecticut-based adolescent psychologist and co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.

“Not talking about something doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen,” Greenberg tells Yahoo Beauty. “That’s superstitious thinking.”

So what should you say about the perils of smoking weed — which has been shown to be particularly harmful to the vulnerable teenage brain — and what should you not say? Some rules of thumb, according to Greenberg and other experts who spoke with Yahoo Beauty, are to start early (preferably while you’ve still got a tween), be direct and honest, and have good timing. For details and talking points to get through to your intimidating adolescent, read on…

Start before high school begins.

It’s best to start addressing the topic “as soon as kids start hearing about marijuana, and as soon as they start being exposed to media about marijuana … probably best around 11,” Greenberg suggests. The Yahoo News/Marist Poll shows that adults who have talked to their kids about marijuana agree that it’s good to start the conversation early, though they may wait a year or two longer — the average age when parents report first talking to their children about the subject is between 12 and 13.

Lisa Damour, teen psychologist and director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Ohio, says that’s a good starting point, telling Yahoo Beauty that tackling thorny topics early is a good idea, and “especially with marijuana, because it is so commonly talked about in music and videos in a completely normalized way.”

Treat it as an ongoing conversation.

“This isn’t a one-time deal — so there’s no such thing as The Talk,” stresses Damour, author of the new book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. One reason for this, she explains, is that “kids can only take in so much at a time” and may exit such difficult conversations swiftly. So you’ll need to spread it out. Also, the message changes over time, so you’ll want to give a different level of detail at various points in development, Damour says. Besides, adolescents change their minds. “A 13-year-old could think that the last thing they want to do is put a foreign substance in their body,” she says. But once that 13-year-old becomes a 15-year-old who discovers that his or her peers are smoking regularly, that position could shift.

Photo: Getty Images
Talking to your teen about marijuana can be awkward, but it has to be done. (Photo: Getty Images)

(Luckily, many parents do understand this, according to the new Yahoo News/Marist Poll, which found that, while 40 percent of parents who have spoken about weed with their kids have done so once, twice, or a few times, 33 percent say they have the discussion often or all the time.)

Don’t miss natural cues for discussion.

Make sure you have good timing, and don’t bring up the subject at a bad moment, such as in the midst of a fight. Instead, “look for conversation openings, like when marijuana comes up in popular culture, or when there’s local debate about something like the opening of a medical marijuana shop,” Sharon Levy, pediatrician and director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, suggests to Yahoo Beauty. And don’t be afraid to ask questions at opportune times, such as before your teens head off to a party. “What might kids be doing there?” you could say. Or “Why do you think someone might be tempted to try weed?” Get them thinking, and talking.

Damour adds that it’s a good idea to welcome any mention of the topic “as an opening to a conversation,” even though it’s easy to be caught off-guard as a parent when you weren’t the one to kick off the conversation.

“So often, the kid opens the door and the parents slam it shut,” she warns. “Look for openings the kids themselves are creating.” That could even include, alarmingly, a direct question about your own past drug use. But don’t let that cause panic, says Greenberg: “What they’re typically assessing with that question is how willing you are to discuss the subject.”

On that note, be prepared to answer questions about your own experience with pot.

The Yahoo News/Marist Poll finds that 60 percent of parents who have tried marijuana have told their children about it, and 71 percent of regular users have divulged their use to their children.

As for parents uncertain of how to respond to the direct question? “There are lots of ways to answer this,” says Damour, who suggests the following options:

  • “Actually, I didn’t, and I’m really glad, because of what we now know.”

  • “I did, and I feel really lucky that nothing went wrong and that the pot was seven times less potent than it is today.”

  • “I did, and I have a lot of regrets about it.”

If none of the above fit your personal experience, Damour says, and you’re worried about what your teen will do with the truth, you can be straight about that too. “Say, ‘I want to have an honest conversation with you, but I don’t want you to take this as permission. So what do we do about that?’” she suggests as a possible approach.

Don’t glamorize your own past use or employ it as a way to connect with your kids, Greenberg says, but do share any negative experiences you’ve had, such as having had paranoia or anxiety attacks. “Don’t make them into horror stories, though,” she suggests. “If something is too scary, your child will tune you out.”

Finally, Levy says, “You don’t have to tell your kid your whole history.”

Whatever you do, don’t lie or exaggerate.

“Arm yourself with facts, or lose credibility,” Greenberg says. “Kids don’t listen to parents who are clueless.”

To that end, notes Levy, “you can say it’s absolutely true that the concentration of THC [marijuana’s psychoactive element] has been consistently increasing,” she says. “When this generation of parents was teenaged, the THC was 4 percent, and it’s about 19 percent now.” In relation to that, Greenberg adds, let your teen know that “we are seeing the presentation of marijuana-use disorders evolve — from motivational problems, which is what it used to be, to what we’re now seeing, which is kids with acute psychiatric problems and psychotic reactions, which is becoming more and more common.”

Kids like to see themselves as smart, Greenberg adds, so show them research about how it lowers IQs. “And explain how smoking marijuana makes driving out of the question,” she says. “And talk about how it’s better to get to know people while you have your wits about you and that being high can make you more likely to try risky behavior — such as sex and other drugs.”

But it’s also important to consider what teens themselves are observing — such as friends who smoke pot frequently and still get straight A’s. “Heavy-handed advice that doesn’t jibe with that makes it harder to take the adult seriously,” Damour advises. “Instead, ask them: ‘What do you think? Do you see an impact?’ I’d like [parents] to have the tolerance and the willingness to engage in that conversation.” And it’s fine to point out, she says, that “not everyone who diets goes on to have an eating disorder, but practically every eating disorder begins with a diet.”

Further, she suggests, you can share some of the wisdom you’ve gained, especially through firsthand experience: “You can tell them: ‘It’s very hard with drugs to know where the line is with you being in control of it and it being in control of you. You are more precious to me than anything, and the last thing I’d want is for you to find yourself under its control.’”

Stress safety — not the law.

“Do not have these conversations be about the law, because the laws make no sense, and aside from getting arrested, it’s immaterial to the risks,” Damour notes. “Remind them that cigarettes and tanning beds are legal — and that you’ve got one brain for the rest of your life.”

She adds, “We want to position ourselves as the protector, not the punisher. It’s safety, it’s not, like, ‘Busted!’ The point shouldn’t be how not to get busted.”

If you know your teen has already smoked pot, try empathy over anger.

“Teenagers often have difficulty regulating emotions and how they express those emotions, so be sure to lay a foundation for the discussion with empathy; try to remember how it felt to be a teen,” suggests Kristin Wilson, director of clinical outreach at Newport Academy residential treatment center. Lay out your concerns, she says, while also giving your child an opportunity to express his or her own feelings.

“If you can, avoid giving a lecture, as most teens will stop listening and shut down; instead, try some active listening. Ask questions that are open-ended (that require more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers), and repeat back what you’re hearing,” Wilson suggests. Then validate their feelings and try to offer support and alternative solutions. But if your teen’s pattern of use continues, she warns, “you should seek out professional help.”

Bottom line: Be clear and firm.

“Teens really consider marijuana to be a legal drug and don’t see it as harmful,” Damour points out. So while it might be obvious to you, “it’s important to say, ‘Let’s be clear, we are not OK with you smoking marijuana,’ which might be surprising for them to hear.”

Levy also stresses the importance of clarity. “Just this morning I saw parents who had said to their 15-year-old, ‘We don’t think it will kill you to use occasionally,’” she says. “But I think it was a green light, which got him in a substance abuse program and kicked out of school.” When you consider that 90 percent of teen drinking is in the context of binge drinking, Levy adds, it becomes clear that teens “have a different idea of what ‘occasional use’ means” and that “what kids are hearing with these messages is, ‘It’s OK to [use].’”

Basically, Levy adds, whether they try to paint you as hypocrites or the pot police, you can simply bring it back to this: “There are some adult behaviors that we don’t want you doing. Just put this on the list.”

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Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series:

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