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Ask an Expert: Talking to kids about marijuana

Boulder psychologist and writer Jan Hittelman tackles the tricky issue of marijuana in the era of legalization head-on in this post.

Q. My daughter is heading to high school next year and I know some of her friends have experimented with marijuana. With dispensaries all over the place and the recent voter approval to legalize marijuana here, how can I talk honestly to my daughter about the dangers of drug use and get her to take me seriously? A mom in Boulder

A. Over the years, I have met with many families who struggle around the issue of substance use, typically involving marijuana and alcohol. The conflict usually goes something like this: Parents do not want their children experimenting with any drugs and their children want to debate about the (in their minds “harmless”) effects of marijuana use, that “everyone” drinks at parties, and that it’s “normal” for teens to engage in these behaviors (often adding that mom and dad did the same thing when they were younger). I suspect that with the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado, these discussions will become even more challenging.

Here are some suggestions to help parents navigate these issues:

  • Have frequent, ongoing discussions and encourage a respectful exchange of ideas. Try to have your child do most of the talking, be respectful and minimize lecturing. A key discussion point being: What are the benefits of substance use, and what other ways can you achieve that without use?
  • Remind your children that even with the new law, you must be over 21 to drink alcohol or consume marijuana in Colorado. More importantly, discuss the reasons behind these restrictions, which include: proven negative effects on young brain development, the increased risk of addiction when substance use begins at an early age, and that the areas of the brain that impact judgment and impulse control are not fully developed until you are in your 20s.
  • Finally, point out that as parents you are legally responsible for their misbehavior until the age of 18.

If you did experiment with drugs and/or alcohol when you were younger, it’s OK to be honest but it’s critical to include a lesson (e.g. I realize now how it negatively affected me and wish I had a discussion like this with my parents at the time).

Whether it is marijuana and/or alcohol, discuss how some youth who experiment continue to meet their responsibilities, but many do not (and your child likely knows of folks like these). Because it is impossible to predict who will develop major problems, best to avoid it altogether.

Reinforce honesty. Consider a rule that if your child tells you that they used a substance, the consequences will be less harsh than if they lie about it and/or you find out on your own.

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