Ottawa

The new normal: How to talk pot with your kids

With only days to go before recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada, many parents are preparing to navigate some potentially difficult conversations with their children — without the benefit of a road map.

Psychologists, experts weigh in as marijuana legalization looms

Parents are facing some tough conversations with their kids about the legalization of marijuana. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

With only days to go before recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada, many parents are preparing to navigate some potentially difficult conversations with their children — without the benefit of a road map.

The legalization of the formerly illicit substance comes without a Canadian precedent, leaving families largely on their own when it comes to how to react.

CBC Ottawa checked with some local experts for advice.

Parents who plan to smoke marijuana will have a difficult time avoiding normalizing it for their kids, said Darcy Santor, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa.

"If you're doing it as a parent and the kids see you doing it, then it would be fair to think the kids will infer that it's OK," he said.  

"There is absolutely no good reason why we should be normalizing pot for consumption in young people ... it is just not a good idea."

Focus on what's healthy

Recreational cannabis use is set to become legal Oct. 17 for those aged 19 and older. In Ontario, it will initially be available only from the province's online store, which sources the product from approved suppliers. 

Premier Doug Ford announced in August that private retail stores will be able to sell cannabis products starting in April 2019. 

Maggie Mamen, a family psychologist, said parents will have to rely on their own instincts when it comes to creating rules for their kids.

Rather than focusing on what's legal, parents should focus on what's healthy, she said.

"There's nothing illegal about playing video games, but most people don't let their children do it all the time," she said. "I think parents still need to have the courage and fortitude to be able to have rules, even if something is legal."

Mamen said one of the biggest problems with youth using cannabis is that it saps their motivation, which often leads to academic trouble and general apathy toward activities that used to be enjoyable.

"The connection between intention and action seems to be disrupted," she said. "So you intend to do something but you don't actually do it." 

Parents should strive to be 'authentic' when their kids ask them about their own marijuana use, according to Amy Porath, director of research at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (CBC)

The alcohol argument

One argument that's been made in favour of marijuana legalization is that cannabis is similar to, and potentially also safer than, alcohol.

According to Amy Porath, director of research at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, that opens the door to conversations between parents and children about addiction in general.

They want to be able to ask their questions without being scared that their parents are going to think that they're immediately going to be trying cannabis.- Amy Porath

"Parents should be having a discussion about substance use at large — alcohol, opioids, cannabis. I think legalization just presents that opportunity," said Porath, whose agency has developed its own guide for adults struggling with the topic.

Legalization also means that a joint or a pot brownie could lose some of its taboo, and could one day be as common around the house as a glass of wine or a can of beer. 

And that, Porath said, means kids may ask tough questions about their parents' own experiences with cannabis — questions parents should answer in an "authentic and honest" manner, neither glorifying pot nor demonizing it.

"They want to be able to ask their questions without being scared that their parents are going to think that they're immediately going to be trying cannabis," Porath said.

"I think it's sort of modulating how much information you decide to share. But I would hesitate to lie."

A challenging conversation

​There have also been studies that link cannabis use to an increased risk of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia in teens, Santor said.

Even so, Santor said successful conversations about cannabis require parents to engage with their children rather than just issue dire warnings.

"It's very easy to say, 'Don't do that, this is not good for your health, this is going to ruin your life,'" he said. "But that's no way to start a conversation."

Instead, he said parents should start by introducing the topic neutrally — for example, by bringing up an article they've read — and then ask their teen's opinion.

So does legalization mean parents should allow their kids a little toke now and then, much like they might give them a sip of wine with dinner?

It's a complicated question, Porath said.

"I think as we wade these waters that we're approaching with legalization, these are a lot of excellent questions that I think parents are going to be struggling with. And I certainly don't have all the answers," she said.

"There are health risks. And we do need to be careful with young people."

With files from Leah Hansen and Trevor Pritchard

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