Q+A: Once You Have Discovered Your Teen Is Using Pot, What’s the Next Step?

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Posted in: Hot Topics, Parenting Concerns, Teenagers, Young Adults

Topics: Addiction & Substance Misuse, Q+A

Question: Once you have discovered your teen is using pot and confronted the teenager about it, what’s your recommended next step?– Lori W., Facebook

Tune in for more on what parents should know about teen drug use.

Dr. Beresin’s Answer:

It’s not unusual to find out one way or another that your teenager is using a substance. The most common ones are alcohol or marijuana. While this question is about pot, let’s keep in mind that use of any substance is worrisome in a youngster.

Most parents will have concerns. How often is my teen using? Is she smoking, vaping, or using edibles? Does he have a problem with addiction? If your teen has a driver’s license, what about driving under the influence? Is there an underlying problem causing my child to use a substance to self-medicate? Your list of questions goes on. But how do you find out what is really going on, and how do you ensure your teen understands the potential risks of marijuana?

If you’ve already confronted your teen, to provide the best advice I would need to know how you delivered the confrontation and how your teen responded. For example, if you blew up and your teen withdrew or responded with an eye roll, it would be very different from if you calmly asked about your teen’s use and they responded with guilt and listened to you.

If You Initially Responded With Anger:

Let’s say you confronted your teen with anger – as many parents might – and your teen is not listening or refusing talk. What can you do to create an engaged conversation?

  1. Find ways of calming yourself and your teen down. You may need to take a time out and tell your teen, “We are taking a break so we can discuss this calmly.” It never pays to stay in lecture mode or continue on a rant. You might say, “Let’s come back and have something to eat,” or take the teen out. Offering to resume over pizza or some well-loved snack is often helpful.
  2. Reassure your teen that this is not the time for punishment. While in the future you may need to set limits or consequences depending on the situation, saying that you will not take any action now, in this moment, is the right thing. If your teen expects a harsh response (such as grounding, taking away the phone or car, or anything awful) they’re likely to close up. Most teens will begin to open up or listen if they feel that they are safe from a certain punishment.
  3. Begin your conversation with a story. Whether you used pot, or got in trouble for using alcohol or for breaking any family rule, you might start by telling your teen how everyone does things their parents don’t like – and here’s what you did. We all go astray at one time or another. Level the playing field by relating something you did that got you in hot water. If not you, talk about the teen’s older sibling or one of your family members who took risks and had significant consequences. This might be a good time for you to tell a story of your using a substance and having a near-miss experience.
  4. Let your teen know that the discussion will be confidential. Many teens are afraid that others in the family will hear about this. They don’t want to feel singled out or shamed. Or they may worry that should you find out about their friends using pot, you will tell their parents or not allow them to hang out anymore. Your initial response and conversation should be just between you and your child. It may turn out that if another kid is dealing or in big trouble with drugs, some kind of intervention may be needed. But you can work that out with your teen later.

These are ways to calm everyone down and open the door for conversation.

Talking Points for a Calm Discussion:

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In general, after an initial confrontation, here are some talking points for how you might proceed. You know your child best, so where you go next will depend on what you know about your child’s temperament.

  • Pot, like alcohol, is illegal. While we know that most teens will experiment with pot or alcohol, and that prohibition only tends to backfire, they still need to hear from you when all is said and done: pot is illegal and use in any way may result in significant legal trouble. It’s worse if your teen is dealing, and they need to know that, too.
  • Pot is dangerous to the developing brain. While we don’t have a tremendous amount of research on the use of pot, we know it has an impact on memory, motivation, and academic performance. Let your teen know that pot, especially in high doses and regular use, can seriously harm the brain structurally.
  • Pot impairs driving. For your teenagers who drive, it is vital that they know how incredibly dangerous pot is when using motor vehicles. A recent Liberty Mutual study demonstrated that almost 1/3 of parents and teens in states where recreational pot is legal for adults believed that driving under the influence of pot was not dangerous. This kind of misunderstanding is not all that different from our early misbeliefs about the influence of alcohol on driving.
  • Expect pushback and be honest. Recent data shows that 1 in 7 U.S. adults reported using pot in 2017, with as many as 1 in 5 using in states where marijuana is legal. Expect your kids to ask you if you smoke or have smoked, and tell the truth. But you can say that pot is far more potent than it was in the 1970’s or 80’s. We also know a lot more about its dangers. Also point out that as an adult, it may be legal for you (depending on where you live) – but it is not for them. Then talk about how to approach substances responsibly.
  • Set limits and clear consequences. All parents need to set the expectation that pot is illegal and is not to be used. While you may know that your teen will experiment, just as teens and college kids may experiment with alcohol, you need to lay out the consequences for if they are caught and be prepared to follow through. It is best to consider the punishments in advance, as this is not something you can say on the fly.
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Conversations about use of pot will not be easy, particularly after you find out your teen is using. But talking openly and candidly is the only thing we can do as parents. Remember, our kids want and need to look up to us for guidance, no matter how resistant they may seem.

Finally, while you can’t turn back the clock in this particular situation, it is always best to begin general conversations about risky behaviors early in childhood before your kids start experimenting. If your you have concerns about any other issues, like other substances or risky sexual behavior, and haven’t already been talking about them, nows the time to start. And if you have younger children, start early. It sets the stage for inevitable, difficult conversations in the future.

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

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