How to speak with your teenage kids about cannabis

As Canada inches closer to legalization, here are some suggestions on how to address the topic.

As Canada inches closer to legalization, here are some suggestions on how to address the topic

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As Canadians get closer to legalization at a federal level (right now the date is a moving target that hovers anywhere from July to early fall), the topic of cannabis, both medically and recreationally, is a hot one. On any given day these days, cannabis is featured in the media where the focus is on research findings, speculation on retail regulations, and cannabis lifestyle brand launches alike.

Consumption of cannabis will still be illegal for most teens — the legal age to consume being 18 or 19 depending on the province or territory that you are in. Health Canada points out that "youth are especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabis, as research shows that the brain is not fully developed until around age 25. This is because THC, the substance which gives the 'high' in cannabis, affects the same machinery in the brain that directs brain development." They link to Drug Free Kids, where parents can download their "Cannabis Talk Kit".

Depending on your perspective on cannabis, your conversation with your teen may vary, but facts and tips can facilitate your dialogue. So, we also talked to a family doctor and two psychologists about ways to have an open conversation with with your teenage kids about cannabis.

How much should parents reveal about their past or present cannabis use, including if you use it for medical purposes? 

The medical professionals we spoke to all agree that you should pay attention to certain signs: if your teen starts asking questions or if you see clues that maybe your child or their friends are starting to engage in cannabis use. Also, try to keep their age and maturity in mind.

"It's important to let the kids lead the conversation and I think it depends on the developmental stage of each child and when they're ready to process the information," says Elissa Goldstein M.S.W., from Atler, Stuckler & Associates, a team of mental health professionals working in York Region and the GTA. She does recommend, "If it's prescribed by a doctor then it's important to share that this is why you're doing it and it's for your health."

Dr. Sharon Cirone, a family physician with a focused practice on addiction medicine and mental health, suggests using the impending legalization as a way into the conversation with your child, asking them what they think about it, if their friends are talking about it and, even asking if their friends are using medicinally. This will help you gauge if a further conversation with your teen is warranted about personal use.  

Dr. Cirone suggests this strategy: "...a parent should lay out what they are comfortable with (talking about), and if they're co-parenting, what their co-parent is comfortable with, making sure they have a message that is thought out and thought through, so that they're on the same page. And what seems appropriate in the context of their relationship (with their child). Talking about personal use can be helpful, but we have to be careful if the underlying message is one of normalization of cannabis use. When we are trying to be non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing, we need to be careful not to come across as saying any and all use is fine."

"It's important to be mindful about the fact that you don't want to reveal too much information to your kids and have them think that you're giving them permission (to engage in cannabis use)," says Goldstein's colleague, Dr. Rachel Gropper, a registered psychologist who works with many teens who have used cannabis.

Should a parent be armed with information on what the legalities are in their area to discuss with their child? 

As far as we know, anyone under the legal age who is caught possessing cannabis could be legally charged. And this is an area of concern for Dr. Cirone. "Personally, I think it should be decriminalized (for anyone under the legal age)," she says. "I don't think the place to deal with young people using marijuana is in the legal system. They do not belong in handcuffs. They not belong in a police station and they do not belong in the endless visits to court, when one is charged with possession."

Dr. Cirone also believes that parents should be speaking to their representatives and people in leadership about decriminalizing cannabis in their area. Beyond that, she thinks that parents should be clear, that legalization for adults does not mean legalization for teenagers.

"I think that it is important for parents to be armed with that information," says Gropper. "If they do approach you, then you're able to have a dialogue with your children the same way that you would with alcohol and driving."

Goldstein agrees, adding that arming yourself with information is key, but be careful not to rhyme off too many statistics or jargon that might be jarring for your kid. Keep the conversation light, and dig into research together if your child has questions that you are not able to answer.

What is the science behind cannabis and the developing brain, and how should parents bring this up in conversation? 

"There is so much research that has come out in the past few decades with respect to cannabis and the brain," says Goldstein. "There is irrefutable evidence that the ongoing and regular use of marijuana can lead to anxiety, depression and psychosis, as well as difficulties with executive functions, so things like thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration or even lower IQ. When parents are presenting this information to kids, I think it's more than necessary to make sure that kids are aware of the harmful effects of cannabis use."

How can parents best address the societal and peer pressure on teens to smoke? 

"We see that teens are a lot more stressed than ever before," says Gropper. "I think the fact that (cannabis) is this potential new way to cope with stress and manage stress in daily life, I think that's going to be very appealing for teens."

"On the whole, cannabis will be a lot more accessible (and become) less taboo." Adds Goldstein. "There (are) going to be a lot more advertisements. Teens are so susceptible to, so vulnerable to, anything that might help them cope with whatever is happening to them."

So both suggest talking to your teens about cannabis being present at parties and gatherings, and helping to arm them with ways to say 'no, thank you', instead of telling them if they are caught smoking, they are in big trouble.

Dr. Cirone says, "(Teens) don't really know what peer pressure is," she says. "When I was a teen, I didn't have any perception of anyone pressuring me." So she suggests keeping the idea of peer pressure out of the conversation, and instead talking to them on an intellectual level. Asking questions such as, 'What's going on with your friends?' 'Do you see your friends or other kids smoking at school?' for example will likely result in your child giving up information, allowing you to discuss even further.

How can parents filter out the pop culture noise as it relates to teens and cannabis? 

Barring being on your child's social media accounts 24/7, paying attention to their online habits isn't a bad idea, especially for younger teens, say Goldstein and Gropper. But as they get older, allowing them some privacy will be key, too. It's a delicate balance that will be made more manageable with an open relationship with your kids.

"Parents can say (to their kids), the message that cannabis has pleasant, positive effects, is very true. Why would there be a billion dollar industry around it, if it weren't true?" says Dr. Cirone. "However, here are the side effects that you need to consider. Your brain is precious."