Written by Nelson Branco, MD, FAAP and Ellen I. Branco, MSW, MPH
Adolescence is filled with challenges – at school, at home, with friends, on stage and in sports. Even their own body betrays them from time to time. Acne, hair, changing bodies and voices, parents, siblings and friends are all possible sources of gut-wrenching shame for a normal teen. Parents of teens have challenges too – and high on the list is the challenge of talking about important topics like sex, drugs and rock and roll. The natural process of becoming independent, separating from parents and identifying with peers is difficult but ultimately rewarding. Through it, teens need their parents to step back, set appropriate limits and be there when they fail or hit a bumpy patch.
This is also a time when experimentation with alcohol and other drugs often happens.
According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 37% of high school students have tried marijuana and 73% have had a drink of alcohol at some time in their life.
Lots of teens will do this without their parents’ direct knowledge, but when parents learn about their child’s drug or alcohol use, it can be an opportunity to have an honest and frank talk about difficult subjects. For the teen, there is often a mix of dread at being found out but also relief that they aren’t keeping a secret any longer.
Research shows that open talk about drugs or alcohol between parents and teens has a protective effect, and can lead to students waiting longer to experiment.
In this talk, parents need to be explicit about what they think, and not assume that their actions demonstrate their beliefs. Teens are acutely aware when parents are saying one thing but actually feel differently, even if the difference is subtle.
Students and parents alike have a lot of questions about marijuana. They are surrounded by news stories about medical marijuana, the legalization debate, questions about enforcement of current laws, and almost constant references to marijuana and marijuana use in popular media.
For the teen, the question is: “How bad is it really? How seriously do I take this?” The message is often not clear, even from their own and their friends’ parents. Some parents say “I smoked pot, it wasn’t a big deal, and I turned out fine,” and others “My nephew smoked pot and everything went downhill from there.” Adults understand that both can be true, but this can be difficult to communicate to a high school student. Younger adolescents see the world as black and white – marijuana, like other things, is an either/or – good or bad, which one is true?
As parents, you must be clear about what you want to communicate to your teen. Here are five points that may be helpful.
1. Every person’s brain reacts differently to THC, the active drug in marijuana. You have no idea how you are going to respond to a particular drug until after you have tried it. Some of the factors that affect response to drugs are genetics, setting, mood and stress, but ultimately your brain is unique and will determine how you respond. What is OK for a friend or sibling could create a very different reaction for you. Even the same drug could be very different a month later in a different situation.
There is also research showing that a small percentage of teens with a predisposition to schizophrenia put themselves at risk of having a psychotic episode at a younger age if they become chronic users of marijuana. More research is being done on this topic, as well as the connection between chronic marijuana use and other psychiatric disorders. It’s critical to be honest with your teen about any family history of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or other mental health disorder. This family history puts them at risk, especially if they become a chronic user of marijuana.
2. The marijuana that people smoked 25 years ago is different than what is available today. There is a greater range of THC levels in marijuana, especially marijuana grown in Northern California. The average THC concentration 25 years ago was somewhere in the range of 3%. Marijuana now has a THC concentration in a wide range from 3 to 15%. In general, the marijuana available today is more potent that what was around in the past.
3. You can’t become addicted to marijuana, but you can become dependent. This means that chronic users of marijuana become dependent on this drug to help them cope with stress, failure, anxiety, boredom and any other uncomfortable emotion. Chronic marijuana use can also lead to Amotivational Syndrome, which is very familiar to all of us who have laughed at the “stoner” character onTV or in the movies.
4. If you are going to smoke pot, it’s better to wait. The latest research on teen brains shows that a teen’s brain is still in an intensive developmental phase, with lots of growth and pruning of connections in the frontal cortex. THC is a potent chemical and affects the parts of the brain that control short term memory, learning, coordination, and problem solving. The latest brain imaging tools have given us a new vantage point into the developing brain – stay tuned for more information on this in the years to come.
5. There are real legal repercussions to being caught with pot. There could be repercussions at school, at home and with the police. These repercussions can be harsh if a teen is caught with a large amount of marijuana, is driving while under the influence, or in a vehicle where pot is being smoked. Legally, your teen may face anything from a fine to jail time, and any school disciplinary actions related to drug use may affect their chances for college admissions.
Many parents wonder how much to share of their own marijuana experience. In general, it is best not to over-share.
You can tell your teen that you have smoked or experimented with marijuana, but you will have opportunities to share details as time goes on. Even though you turned out fine, it could be different for your teen, and there are reasons why your teen should wait to experiment or use marijuana.
If you suspect your teen is already smoking pot, or if you find a pipe or marijuana, talk to them about it immediately. Many teens will say “it isn’t mine.” Question that. Even in the unlikely event that the pot is not theirs, a willingness to hide it for a friend means that they are either also using or close enough to someone who does that they can be convinced. If you or a teacher suspects your child is smoking marijuana at school, address it right away. This is a significant warning sign for a concerning level of marijuana use.
All parents will have a different message around marijuana, alcohol and other drugs. Some parents will convey the message that they want their teen to wait until they are older and then decide if they are going to drink or experiment with marijuana. Others say absolutely no use. Others may be more permissive. When you decide what message you want to convey, be consistent, firm and caring. No matter what message you decide to convey, you must let your teen know that you want to talk about this if it becomes an issue for them or their friends, or if they have any questions.
This is an opportunity to have a real conversation with your teen about an important health topic.
You want your child to share what they know, what their thoughts and opinions are, and what their friends are doing. Please listen and then express your opinions, knowledge and concerns for their safety. The ultimate goal is to keep our kids safe, and teach them how to have fun and relax without turning to a substance that may have a real impact on their health and learning.
Dr. Branco is a practicing pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area and is very active with the local chapter of the AAP. Ellen Branco is a School Counselor and Health Educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been working at independent high schools and counseling since 2001.