Each new generation seems to be more accepting of cannabis use, unsurprising trends show. For those in Gen Z, the population cohort born between 1993 and 2007, marijuana is perceived as healthier than alcohol. Kids are coming of age at a time when weed is depicted less as stoner drug that’ll lead them on a wild quest for mediocre hamburgers, and more as an aid that might help them calm down after a stressful day.
According to a Bloomberg survey, this young generation is twice as likely to use cannabis — either by smoking it, vaping it or eating it — than the national average.
If you’re a mum or dad, you might have a more lax view on weed than your own parents had. That is fine. But however you feel about legalization, do remember this: Cannabis is still illegal in Australia, and studies show that it can have long-term effects on the adolescent brain.
Unfortunately, you can’t just show your kids clip of an egg sizzling on a frying pan and command them to “just say no”. Those tactics never worked. It’s important to talk to your kids about weed in way that is nuanced and empathetic, and addresses the drug for what it is. Here’s how to start the conversation.
Know that a teenage brain is different from an adult brain
As widespread as cannabis is, there’s still confusion about its effects on teens. On Reddit, parents debate whether it’s OK for them to use it. One poster who was concerned about their pot-smoking son ultimately concluded: “Honestly I’m not against it. It seems like as long as he lives a healthy lifestyle, I guess it should be fine-ish.”
However, while there are some inconclusive reports, most of the data we have suggests that the drug is not safe for adolescents. First and foremost, the rational part of the brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25. From age 10 up until then, it is undergoing massive changes, developing the ability to learn, pay attention, regulate emotions, solve problems and weigh risks.
Cannabis, even just a little bit, can harm that part of the brain. There’s evidence showing that teens who use it heavily are less likely to complete high school, may have an increased risk of depression and may be more likely to have a psychotic episode. And driving while intoxicated (on anything) is a huge risk.
It’s also a misconception that cannabis is not addictive. Sure, many people might try it a few times, and then decide it’s not for them. But according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 teens who repeatedly use marijuana may be unable to quit.
So weed is bad news for teens. How do you get that message through to them?
Focus on goals, not rules
Chances are, your kids will have opportunities to try cannabis at some point, so the earlier you start talking to them about it, the better. Before they face pressure from their peers, they should know your stance: “The drug is illegal and harmful for minors, and I disapprove of you using it.” You can tell them the facts about marijuana, how there can be benefits for adults, and that there’s a difference between medicinal and recreational use.
Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer at American Addiction Centres, tells me that the discussion that ensues “cannot be a lecture.”
“One of the most ineffective ways for a parent to speak to a child about this topic is to deliver the message authoritatively,” he says.
David and Nic Sheff, the real-life father-son duo that inspired the film Beautiful Boy, promote what they call the “Just Say Know” approach. Here, you present them with facts and sound advice, and then let them weigh the risks themselves. Their new book High, which gives teens real talk about drugs without being preachy, encourages those considering using a drug to first go through these four steps:
1. Know yourself.
2. Figure out what you want in life.
3. Weigh the risks of using.
4. Know the truth and decide.
To help your teens better understand themselves, you should give them clear information about their individual risk factors. For instance, if they have a family history of addiction (genetics account for 40–60% of the predisposition for substance abuse), that is something they should know.
You can also, subtly, remind them of their values and goals. While threats of danger are not so effective in getting teens to make better choices, emphasising what’s in it for them is.
You may remember watching a VHS tape as a teenager that showed the very, very bad and gruesome things that can happen when you drive too fast on highways. To raise safe drivers, it seemed to be believed, you needed to give them nightmares for months.
Growing up in the ‘80s, my childhood was filled with such scare tactics — car accident remnants displayed on the school lawn, police officers giving lectures about gaol time, and that damn fried egg commercial that aired in between all my afternoon cartoons.
Be prepared for common arguments
Your teens will probably rationalise their stance. Here are a couple prompts from Partnership for Drug-Free Kids for how you might question their beliefs about cannabis use without judging or condemning them.
(Note: Don’t turn this into a dramatic “we need to have a talk” discussion, the organisation suggests. Keep it casual. If you’re feeling heated, take a step back and come back to the topic once you’re calm.)
They say: “I’m only doing it once in a while on weekends, so it’s not a big deal.” You could say: “What would make it feel like a big deal to you?” Why this works: This gets them to think about the future, and what their boundaries are. It will give you insight into what’s important to him or her. If use progresses and some of these boundaries are crossed, you can bring that up at a later date.
They say: “Would you rather I drink alcohol? Weed is so much safer.” You could say: “Honestly, I don’t want you doing anything that can harm you. I’m interested in knowing why you think weed is safer than alcohol.” Why this works: This reminds your child that you care about his or her well-being. Expressing genuine curiosity about their thought process is going to help them open up.
Your goal should be to find out why your teens believe what they believe, and go from there.
Give them a way out of sticky situations
To assure your kids that you’re on their side, you can give them a secret code that they can text you any time they’re in a sticky situation. No questions asked, you’ll come and get them. It’s important for them to know that even if they make bad choices, you’ll always be there.
Help them think critically about what they see in the media
There’s a ton of weed content where teens hang out the most: on social media. Already, cannabis companies are using Instagram influencers to advertise their products and skirt regulations. And this is only the start.
“Presumably, legalization will lead to the posting and sharing more weed-related content overall, which young people can access and be exposed to,” says Liz Sommer of StayHipp, a source that decodes millennials and Gen Z. “For reference, over 35 million posts on Instagram have been tagged #420. Notably, TikTok, an undeniably teen-centric social media platform, specifically prohibits content that ‘encourages’ the use of drugs. However, it’s difficult to enforce this, especially as cannabis references are common in music and pop culture.”
Know that what your teens are seeing on social media does have an effect. So try to stay in front of it. Ask them questions to help them think critically about the content they see, and use media like TV shows and movies to help launch conversations. (“Is that person smoking? What do you think about that?”)
Teach Them Alternative Ways of Dealing With Stress
On WUVM, David Sheff said that many parents believe kids turn to to drugs because of peer pressure or a desire to get high. But pointing to a study, he explained, “By and far, kids said that the reason they use drugs is because of stress.”
Teens are under an extreme amount of pressure: College admissions are increasingly competitive, social media promotes unattainable ideals, and then there’s the emotional roller coaster that is high school. Teach them alternative ways of dealing with stress—talking to friends, getting out into nature, doing some physical activity, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or journaling. If they don’t learn how to cope with all that comes with adolescence, they’re much more likely to reach for the easy thing that’s right there in front of them.