With legalization of cannabis fast approaching, it’s more important than ever for parents to know how to talk with their teens about a substance that is increasingly seen as harmless or even healthful.
Some of the adolescents I work with who have substance abuse problems don’t always realize what it means to be dependent on this drug.
Teens who are smoking cannabis every day don’t always see that it’s affecting their school work or worsening their anxiety and mood.
Teens may not realize that they can become dependent on cannabis.
In short, teens can have a lot of misperceptions about cannabis.
That’s why I’m a proponent of talking with your teen about the facts, but without judgment. Some parents take a no-tolerance approach: They say, “I’ll be really disappointed if I ever hear that you’ve used.”
The problem is that shuts down conversation cold. It means that a teen will be much less likely to call her parents to say, “I’m high and I’m worried,” or “I’m high can you come pick me up?”
And it doesn’t work to argue with them or lecture at them. They’ll just argue back or shut down. It’s better to express your concerns, share, and discuss information that can help them think through their choices so they can make informed decisions.
I think it’s helpful for parents to acknowledge that teens are often curious about cannabis.
You might say, “I know you may be interested in trying it and but I hope you’ll wait as long as possible.
“If you do try it, please don’t get behind the wheel or drive with anybody else who has used it that day or night (cannabis slows a driver’s reflexes and reaction time).
“Make sure you’re in a safe environment with people you trust, and know that you can call me if you are ever worried.”
You want to offer a dual message: Ideally don’t do it but if you do, this is how to be safer.
It’s important to counter the oft-repeated assumption that cannabis is harmless to your health.
There’s no question that cannabis use can negatively impact memory, cognitive ability, and academic performance – all crucial to a teen’s future. We know that cannabis and other drugs can interfere with brain development, which can continue up until the age of 25.
You might mention there is a link between adolescent cannabis use and development of psychosis and schizophrenia.
At this point we don’t know whether this is cause or effect: Teens may be using cannabis to help manage the very earliest symptoms of these serious mental illnesses, before there has been any diagnosis made.
Teens who do go on to develop schizophrenia may have had some genetic risk, and their use of cannabis may be what triggers the onset of the illness.
If your teen shares they’re using cannabis to help with any mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, you can also let them know that there are no studies that show cannabis helps anxiety or mood problems, and some that suggest it can make them worse.
Then help them get connected with a professional they trust such as their family doctor or pediatrician. A school guidance counsellor can also be good person for them to speak with, and there are now some great community based mental health walk-in clinics available.
I often get asked, isn’t cannabis better than alcohol? Are edibles or vaping safer than smoking cannabis?
The message is that none of these substances are really OK for teens and they each come with different risks, some short-term and others more long-term. That’s why I wouldn’t advise parents to get caught up in conversations about which substance is safer or better.
Unlike alcohol use, where most teens who drink tend to binge on weekends, cannabis use is more likely to become a daily habit.
So it’s worth having relaxed, non-judgmental conversations with your teen about the realities and risks of cannabis use, and healthier, more effective ways to get help for any health issues they may have.
Karen Leslie is a professor in U of T’s department of pediatrics, a staff physician in adolescent medicine and the lead for the substance abuse program at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). Doctors’ Notes is a weekly column by members of the U of T faculty of medicine.