How to Talk to Your Child About Marijuana: 4 Responses for Parents

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In 2014, Colorado voters in the United States passed a landmark law legalizing the sale and purchase of marijuana. Fast-forward to 2020 and more than 40 states have laws legalizing marijuana is some form, including several states that have made possession and recreational use legal. Canada legalized marijuana in 2018 and similar movements are underway in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations. Many parents have wondered what this means for their children’s future. As a resident of Colorado, I have been inundated with questions from concerned parents wondering not only how to broach this topic with their kids, but how to frame their responses and keep kids healthy and safe.

Kids this age may think they already know all the facts based upon information passed through peer groups, but just as with sex and alcohol, many times their information is just false.

Watching an illegal substance become legal and available for sale is an unusual occurrence in modern day society. No generation since the days of prohibition can recall this sort of transition from illegal to legal, so it’s understandable that there are fears and concerns surrounding the legalization of marijuana. Like most issues parents are forced to face, this topic, regardless of how one feels about it, can serve as a wonderful spring board for parents to discuss the reality of substance use and abuse in our culture.

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First and foremost, it’s important for parents and kids to understand what the legalization of marijuana means for all of us. Rules and laws vary widely from state to state, but it’s important to note that the use of marijuana is considered a substance reserved for adults. In my state, Colorado, the law does not allow anyone under 21 to possess or consume marijuana and it is illegal for all individuals to drive while under the influence of marijuana. On the U.S. federal level, the law is still the same, meaning that marijuana is still illegal. In Canada, the legal age to use marijuana may vary by province, but is likely to be age 18 in many places. While these details may seem unimportant, they are critical facts to keep in mind when you begin the discussion with your child about marijuana use.

When you discuss any difficult topic with your child, the best place to begin is educating them with the best facts and information you can find. Beginning a computer search with your child to explore what cannabis is and its effects on the body can be a great place to start. For instance, you can uncover facts such as how the chemicals in marijuana affect the body, the developing brain of a teen or pre-teen, judgment, sleep, and overall health. Like with alcohol, you can tell your child that marijuana is a mind-altering substance that can have negative consequences for all people, but especially for teenagers who are still developing physically and emotionally. You can assign your child the “homework” of finding one or two articles that discuss, from a medical perspective, how marijuana affects the brain and what the side effects can be when used. Use these articles as a springboard for discussing marijuana together.

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If you are against legalizing marijuana, having this conversation with your child may be easy. If you are in support of legalization, or are currently using marijuana yourself, it may be harder to encourage your child to see the downside of marijuana use. Keep in mind that regardless of your personal feelings about marijuana use and legalization, it is still illegal for people under 21 to use marijuana, even if it is legal in your state. This knowledge should guide you in what information you decide to impart to your child.

Related: My Child has “Toxic” Friends

Next, keep in mind the age of your child when discussing marijuana. For younger children (elementary age), giving information on a need-to-know basis can be best. For older kids (middle school, high school age), helping sort fact from fiction about what marijuana is and what its effects are is useful. Your child may protest, stating that they “already know all about it”, but don’t let them off the hook that easily. Kids this age may think they already know all the facts based upon information passed through peer groups, but just as with sex and alcohol, many times their information is just false. Begin the conversation by asking, “Okay, so tell me what you know about marijuana”. Let your child talk, uninterrupted, until they tell you all they know. If some of their information is incorrect, before supplying them with the correct information, ask them the following questions:

“I’m curious how you got that idea about marijuana?”

“I hear you saying that marijuana isn’t that bad for you because John said it’s legal, but where do you think he’s getting that information?”

“I know a lot of people think that marijuana isn’t as bad for you as alcohol but there’s a bit more to it than that. I think we should talk about it.”

Your child may have some difficult questions for you about marijuana use and you should be prepared to answer them as honestly and intelligently as possible. Below are some possible comments/questions you may face and some responses you might find useful.

1. If marijuana is legal it’s not bad for me

Explain to your child that this isn’t necessarily true, that there are a number of substances that are legal such as alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics, but also potentially dangerous or even life threatening if used or abused. Point out that safety issues for all legal substances is always a concern because you never know how a drug will affect you. We know for certain that substance use among kids is never good due to the brain still developing. You can say, “Marijuana use will affect your memory, your coordination, your ability to focus, and how you make decisions. The best way to maintain control and make decisions is to be clear-headed and not under the influence of marijuana.”

2. Alcohol kills a ton of people, but marijuana seems safer in comparison

Anyone can die from using a substance, legal or not, depending on how and when it’s used. It’s true that a lot of people die each year from driving while under the influence, alcohol poisoning and from smoking cigarettes, so you should stress why you don’t want your child using alcohol or tobacco either. Point out that while the headlines may not be reporting deaths that occur directly after marijuana use, it doesn’t mean that it is a safer substance to use. Reiterate that each time someone smokes pot it affects their decision-making skills and inhibitions are reduced, which in turn can lead to poor choices that may be dangerous. The most important point to make here is that all substances will affect your child in some negative way and no one substance is necessarily safer than another.

3. Did you ever smoke marijuana?

This question may be one of the most dreaded questions to come from a child to a parent. The answer really depends on how you parent your child and what your beliefs are around disclosure. While some parents feel they simply cannot or should not be truthful to owning up to a substance using past, for those that do it’s important to follow a few guidelines. First, keep your response short and to the point without providing too many details. Saying something like, “When I was in high school someone offered me pot and because I wasn’t strong enough to say no I tried it”. You can then give some details about how it made you feel, emphasizing that in retrospect it impaired certain aspects of your life, such as your ability to think clearly, lose interest in activities, trouble with the law, etc. Try not to get bogged down in your past, but focus instead on what you learned and what you know now as an adult, as well your concern for your child and his/her future. If your child says, “Well you used it, so I should be able to too,” you can point out that just because you made a mistake in the past doesn’t mean you want your child to do the same. Frame your disclosure as you being honest in trying to help your child avoid the pitfalls of substance use, not as your giving permission to begin using.

4. What do I do if I’m tempted?

Many parents feel that their kids won’t come to them if they’re tempted to use marijuana because they act aloof and don’t disclose much information to them in the first place. Don’t let this normal teen behavior fool you into believing that your child won’t want your help if they are confronted with the urge to use marijuana or other substances. Kids act unconcerned and are uncommunicative because they’re uncertain how to talk to parents and peers, not because they don’t value your advice. Make it very clear to your kids that you are always open to talking to them at a moment’s notice if they feel pressured or tempted to say ‘yes’ to marijuana. Let them know that if they are at a party or a friend’s house and marijuana is present, they can call you to be picked up regardless of the time or day. Also, while you may think your child knows how you feel about using marijuana, make sure to express what your expectations are around substance use while they are teen-agers. You can tell your child, “We expect you not to use any substances because we know how harmful they can be to your health. If something comes up and you need help, we’re here for you no matter what.”

In addition to stating that you will be there for them, boost your child’s confidence by going over some responses when this happens. Most teens (and adults too) rarely have the capacity to refuse a request when someone asks something of us, so we often find ourselves saying ‘yes’, when we really are scared to say ‘no’. Having a snappy comeback ready can do wonders for a child’s self-esteem and make them more confident when they need to say ‘no’. Some examples:

“Nah, I’m trying to quit” (then changing the subject).

“My parents can smell that stuff a mile away. They’d kill me, dude.”

“I’ve got so much to do tomorrow (e.g., sports event, studying, musical show). Can’t do it.”

Like so many topics that involve danger, having a one-time conversation with your child simply won’t cut it. This is a conversation you should be having starting in your child’s pre-teen years and extending all throughout high school and even college. Letting your child know that you are with them every step of the way and continuing this conversation at each stage of their development will go a long way in keeping your child substance free.

Related Content:
Teens and Privacy: Should I Spy on My Child?
When You Suspect Your Teen Is Drinking: What Consequences Should You Give?

About

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Comments (15)
  • Claudio Garcia
    Although I understand the good will of the author, this article is still too focused on the war on drugs paradigm. My first concern as a parent is not marijuana, or alcohol, or whatever. My main concern is self destructive behavior, which can assume many forms, not only through substanceMore abuse. And I believe that if my kid are informed enough, if my kid had the opportunity to think about it and discuss it with other people (not only with us parents), than she/he will be able to decide if it is worth trying something, assess how it was and even make a better use of it. I know many people that live better while using cannabis for many reasons, and many have started in their teenage years. I also know lots of people who stopped smoking because they realized that it was not good for them. But the approach suggested here, it looks like parents will try to pretend they are comprehensive while they are actually demonizing the subject before any real discussion. It also assumes that you cannot really learn anything from your tennagers, as if they were just small kids pretending to be adults, with no real critical thinking. I am not saying that the teenagers will not do anything stupid, but I see this much more as a result of teenage social life, including stupid peers, than as a result of marijuana consumption itself.
  • SassyGranny
    My 14 year old Grandson has been smoking pot for about a year. He has changed in so many ways..he has a new group of friends that he will not stay away from. He lies very convincly. Is disrespectful to all that love him. Doesn't go to school or cutsMore classes. He has been arrested and brought in front of a judge and the school board for disciplinary problems. So YES I believe that smoking pot leads kids in the wrong direction. My grandson used to be in sports, smart in school, made good decisions and was a happy kid until his stepbrother moved in and gave him pot! Now his parents are beside beside themselves trying to get him on the right track. What can we do to help this boy lead a better life? The daily family is in counseling. Mom and Dad divorced. They have differant parenting skills. It's amess
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      SassyGranny

      What a tough situation. I can hear how distressed you are

      that your grandson made the choice to start smoking pot. I’m glad to hear the

      family is in counseling. That may help get both parents on the same page in

      terms of addressing this issue. You might also consider sharing the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-using-drugs-or-drinking-alcohol-what-should-i-do/ with his parents.

      In it, Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner offer some concrete ways a

      parent can respond when s/he finds out his/her child is smoking pot or using

      other substances. We wish you and your family the best of luck moving forward.

      Take care.

  • Con Parent
    My daughter asked me and has continued to ask me about how she wants to try marijuana and I dont know what to do. If i say yes then is that parenting or being a friend and i dont want to be her friend i want to be her parent.More If i say no then she will more than likely do it anyway and i won't be there when she does it which means under the influence of marijuana she might be willing tk do more than just marijuana. What do I do?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Con Parent 

      You describe a

      common dilemma which many parents are facing, so you are not alone.  One

      piece of advice I often give is to be very clear about your family values, and

      to set clear expectations for your children’s behavior, especially in regard to

      things like substance use, safety issues, and risky behavior.  You might

      find some useful strategies for doing this in our article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-teens-parental-authority-vs-peer-pressure/.  Take care.

  • Goodparent513
    Only truth spoken on this site. Keep doing god's work.
  • Jan in AZ

    What I have read about marijuana addiction is that it is an extremely small number of people who actually become chemically addicted. For those who are addicted, it is usually an emotional addiction.  If they are gliding through life, feeling good most of the time, why stop?  If they can't actually see any downside, why stop?  If he/she isn't going without basic necessities of life, why care about things like being unemployable?  etc. 

    From my experience, as long as the kid is engaged in ANY drug use he/she will rationalize away the negative consequences.   ("You'll never get a good job."  "So?"  "You suppress cognitive ability when you're high."  "So?"  "Look at the kind of friends you have."  [Yeah, pointing out negative aspects of his/her friends always works....lol] )  

    It was the lack of other positives that made my one son quit.  ("You can smoke, or you can drive--not both"  "The video game controller is mine until you ______ [whatever current thing he should be doing that's hard to do when you're high] )  

     It wasn't until after he quit that he connected to any of those other things, like "smoking cigarettes can kill you"  or "there's more to life than being high."   Trying to tell him those things while he was smoking was just shouting into the wind.

    Not to say that you shouldn't say those things anyway--plus they ARE the things that have kept my other son from even going there (that, and watching his brother!)  I am only speaking about my experience with, and study about, kids who have already become---I won't say "addicted"--let's say "entrenched"--in a chemically-aided lifestyle.

  • Rachel
    I have a family member in his late forties.  I think we are still seeing the effects of being a pot head at a young age.  Drug users don't develop other coping skills and their maturation process seems to grind to a halt.  So they maintain a maturity of aMore fifteen year old.   We  have  watched this person float through their life.   Unmotivated.  No ambitions.  Aimless.  Unable to deal with some of the harder issues of life such as parenting, health issues, death, etc.
  • pam

    You articles very wish wash - what exactly is "harmful to your health"

    Based on what I understand excessive use and om a young age can lead to mental health and emotional issues. It has been suggested that it can trigger schizophrenia and also lead to episodes of psychosis. 

    However, unlike opiates you can not die as a result of an overdose  also there is also a good reason why it is used for medicinal purposes because it does actually help control pain, its been used in this capacity for over 3000 years.

    As a parent, do your RESEARCH and be honest, if you approach the subject with an undertone of disapproval (which I sense in this article) then it's sure to have the opposite effect - the young are rebellious and innately curious plus if they do get into trouble you do actually want them to talk to you don't you? 

    Another important fact is that as with any addiction/substance abuse, there are often other factors involved, in other words it doesn't mean that every young adult who tries it will become a regular user or addicted.  

    Have taken this approach and so far so good, no issues with pregnancy, alcohol, drugs or majorly irresponsible behavior. Mum of an 18 year old.

  • California Mom
    We live in California.  My 19 yr old son was able to obtain a medical card easily on his 18th birthday.  It cost him $50 and it was issued by a clinic MD. This supported his argument that it is "legal" to consume and possess marijuana in CA.  So the statement that itMore is ilegal to have/consume for those under 21 yrs is not correct!!  It's a joke how the state of CA has allowed the issuance of medical cards.  They should call it what it is " a pass to by pot".  We have tried everything to help our son but he believes that he is a better more relaxed & focused person when he smokes weed.  Not much we can do other than allow him to learn the hard way.  He will not be employable and will not be able to function without it!!
  • Terry
    My 17 year old daughter is a regular user. It runs her life. She became addicted when my marriage broke up. I am in favor of legalization because I am unsure of the other substances illegal pot is laced with. Additionally, it is better to go to a store inMore broad daylight than meet a dealer in some dark alley at 4:00 am. I have devoted the past two years of my life to helping her but have come to the conclusion that I have to let her go to discover what she is doing with her life and the poor decisions she is making. I will be helping her with living in her own apartment until she is 18 and then she will be on her own.
    • Goodparent513
      That was a very reasonable path you too there. Good on you for letting her figure her own life out.
  • Kathy_L
    My son is 21 and has been using for longer than I've known about, since about 8th grade, I think he's said. There's no convincing him that pot is bad. Any research I present to him (by doctors) is belittled. The only reason I can figure is because it disagreesMore with him, while the studies he presents to me are "well studied and academic" (Oooh, from Harvard, no less). I don't allow weed in the house, but I know it's here, somewhere... sometimes. And I found 2 bongs in his room last night. I'm holding off kicking him out (again), but I really see no other option. I refuse to turn a blind eye.
    • Mary M

      I can appreciate what you are experencing. My son's behavior was over the top in young preteen years and was pasted off as "just being a kid" and I suppected different but was rebuffed by my now ex-husband. As he got older, the

      Marijuana didn't do the trick and move onto harder drugs. When he was younger we may have had a chance to get help but turned the "blind eye" and now and adult he runs around, who knows where, out of his mind thinking people are trying to kill him. It became unsafe to allow him to stay in the home as much as I wanted to help him. As the adult he has the power to refuse professional help and check out of any place you might get him to go before any change is made. It is not so extreme to expect an adult (21yrs) to be out on his own and deal with the consequences of his choices because HE SEES himself at the bottom and that these choices are leading to his distruction. It is hard as a Mom, I know, to not be an enabler but giving consequences to an adult who is living in your home is not going to convince him to stop what he is addicted to.

    • struggles

      @Kathy_L Oh I know exactly how your feel.  My son now 22 has been a pot smoker for years.  He always argued with me that its not addicting.  Now he agrees with me.  He needs it to stay normal now.  It's a terrible drug, and no one should say different.  He was a great athlete.  Since he has fried his brains from getting high at such a young age, he has lost all ambitions.  Sits around and plays video games all day and has no plans on getting a job any time soon.  Why, when you can collect unemployment.  He did finally decide to go to University last year, so that was a positive step in the right direction.

      He no longer lives with us, this past year he moved to the city to attend U and has continued his pot use.  I know its happening, but I don't have to be subjected to watching him any more.  It breaks my heart though.

      He is such a smart guy in so many ways, but makes bad choices.

      We too had to remove him from our house years ago because he wasn't following our rules about bringing pot into the house.  It was affecting our other children with all the arguing.  It was so much better.  He did finally move back for a while, until he decided to attend university.  It was just a hard decision for us, but I believe the right one.  

      Parenting is such a hard, hard job.

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