Health & Science

How to talk honestly about the risks of recreational cannabis with your teen

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As more and more states have begun to legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis, teens have more access to the drug than ever before. In a 2022 survey, 30.7 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana at least once in the past year — and 6.3 percent reported using marijuana daily. 

Opening up a dialogue with your teenager about cannabis is crucial to minimizing their risk of habitual or problematic use of the drug. Clear rules and expectations along with a culture of open, non-judgmental communication in the family is linked with lower rates of cannabis use in teenagers. 

Follow these simple talking points to get a meaningful conversation about marijuana started with your child —

Starting the conversation

Open-ended questions are a good place to start when talking about cannabis with your teen. It allows them to share what they already know and any experiences they’ve already had or heard about. You can bring up their friends and peers as a way to broach the topic without putting them on the defense. You can say…

“Using marijuana has become really common since lots of states have started to legalize it for adults. Have you ever heard of anyone at your school smoking cannabis? What do you think about that?”

Understanding the impacts

While many adult cannabis users report positive effects from medicinal or therapeutic use of the drug, teens and tweens are more susceptible to harmful impacts from cannabis because their brains are still developing. Teens are more likely than adults to develop serious mental health issues like psychosis and schizophrenia as a result of habitual marijuana use. They can also experience effects like lack of focus or motivation and increased anxiety. You can say…

“Even if cannabis is something you think you would never try, I just want to make sure you know the facts. That way you can be ready to give a reason for not wanting to do it, or help support your friends, or debate someone about it, or whatever you might need. What do you already know about how cannabis affects people your age?”

“Teenagers’ brains are still developing, so cannabis can affect you more strongly than adults. Using marijuana regularly can lead to some really difficult mental health issues. Plus, today’s cannabis is WAY stronger than it used to be, which can make these impacts even more severe, so it’s a good idea to wait until you’re older to think about trying it.”

Get ahead of peer pressure

Teens naturally want to fit in with their peers, so if someone in their friend group or an influential peer is pressuring them to try cannabis, it can be hard for them to resist. Equipping your teen ahead of time with some strategies for dealing with peer pressure can help them make good choices in a tough moment. You can say…

“If anyone offers you marijuana or asks why you’re not trying it, it’s always good to have some answers ready. You can practice these in the mirror or with me, or write down your favorite responses…

  • You could give a health or sports reason: ‘I don’t want to mess up my lungs for soccer. It’s hard enough to breathe during games!
  • You could use your parents or even social media as an excuse: ‘I just know it would get back to me, even if I just tried it once. I have such bad luck. Besides, my parents can smell that stuff a mile away.
  • You could make a joke, change the subject or suggest another activity: ‘Nah, I’m trying to quit. Who wants to go get ice cream?
  • You can always just be polite and straightforward: ‘No, thanks, not for me!
  • What do you think you would say?”

Make your expectations clear

The impacts of cannabis use on teens can sound scary, but a zero-tolerance policy could end up backfiring. Instead, make sure your child understands your expectations around drug use while still leaving the door open for honest conversations. You want your teen to feel comfortable coming to you without fear of repercussions if they end up using cannabis or being confronted by peer pressure. Creating a culture of non-judgment and open communication is key to preventing problematic drug use. You can say…

“If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re pressured to use marijuana, or if you make the choice to smoke and regret it or start to feel unsafe, call me right away. I will come get you and you will not be in trouble. Do you want to come up with a code word or phrase together that you can use in that situation?”

What to do if your child is already using cannabis

If you find marijuana in your child’s possession or it becomes clear that they are using cannabis already, there are some steps you can follow to manage the situation effectively —

  1. Regulate your own emotions: Before starting a conversation with your child, make sure you’re coming from a place of emotional neutrality and calm. Entering the conversation feeling angry or fearful will quickly escalate the situation and prevent a productive conversation from taking place.
  1. Reinforce emotional safety with your child: Open the conversation by letting your child know they aren’t in trouble, and will have temporary amnesty as long as they’re honest with you. Let them know that your conversation will be totally confidential. These measures will encourage them to be open with you.
  1. Talk about your own experiences (with restraint): If you’ve ever used cannabis yourself, you might get more information from your child if you share a little bit about your own experiences — but avoid too many specific details. You might share a story about a time you got in trouble for smoking, or a negative impact you experienced as a result of using marijuana.
  1. Reiterate expectations and potential harms: Go back over the talking points above to reinforce your child’s understanding about the potential dangers of using cannabis as a teen, ways to combat peer pressure, and what your expectations are around drug use.
  1. Establish logical consequences: Let your child know what the consequences will be the next time they use cannabis — and make sure those consequences are directly related to their actions. For example, you might let them know they won’t be allowed to have unsupervised time with their friends for a period of time if you suspect that’s where they could have access to marijuana. If you think they used their phone or social media to purchase drugs, you might let them know their device access will be restricted for a period of time. 

If you’re concerned about drug use in your family, SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day hotline, available in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing substance use issues. This hotline provides referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and community organizations. You can also visit the online treatment locator, or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U) to find substance use help in your area.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.