Of all the issues parents bring to me needing help with, one of the more challenging is what to do about a kid who’s smoking pot. There are legal issues, family’s values, and the impact on academics and social group. It’s tempting to be black and white by having a strict policy at home, but things can get complicated to the point that binary thinking does not work. Here are some thoughts I have parents consider which can inform how to handle specific situations as well as bigger family value decisions:
1. Determine Risk: A kid who is generally doing well in school and seems pretty solid generally poses less risk for potential problems than a kid with a family history of substance abuse, depression or in the middle of a family chaos. If your son falls in the high risk category, get professional help from a therapits/counselor. If your son/daughter is really falling off the cliff, work with a therapeutic placement consultant or education consultant to find a residential treatment program.
2. Provide Reasonable Consequences: If there is no family history of substance abuse issues and you are certain that your son/daughter is generally doing well at school, at home and with friends, focus on keeping the lines of communication open. If your kid is afraid of your reaction, it’s unlikely that s/he will continue to confide in you. Consequences may simply encourage him/her to become better at hiding any future use from you. Sometimes, though, there is a serious enough violation of family rules or trust and a consequence needs to be given. If you do administer a consequence, make it proportional to the violation. I go into more detail about effective consequences in this blog post.
3. Improve Communication: When we validated, understood and loved by someone our instinct is to share our thoughts and feelings, even if we feel uncomfortable about judgment. Thought kids often push us away, it’s essential to look for ways to keep connecting in authentic ways. The more they feel anchored to you, the less negative influence his/her friends will have. What if your kid says they really liked smoking pot? Don’t freak out – discuss why drugs and alcohol make people feel good (don’t preach). Explain the way the brain works (Google it if you don’t know), and the temporary impact these substances can have on lowering anxiety or improving our mood. Another angle is to ask if they would be open to listening to your concerns (again, no preaching…just your fears/concerns). Explain that while you understand “everyone” may be smoking weed or drinking (they are, trust me), the stress relief many experience can quickly become at least psychologically addicting, and that there are better ways of handling stress.
4. Role Model: Consider what your son/daughter sees you doing to relax at the end of the day, or when you socialize with your friends. If you have a glass of wine the minute you get home from work or immediately open a six-pack when friends show up, you teaching your kid that fun and/or relaxation cannot happen without some kind of substance. Show them you can enjoy life without leaning on something to help you chill out when life gets tough.
5. Keep Your Radar On: If you start to sense that their use has increased beyond normal stupid-teen-use, establish expectations that send them a clear message that it is not okay. As a teen, a kid’s brain is still in a vulnerable and formative stage. It’s the parent’s responsibility to help him/her make healthy choices. Some kids tell me they actually appreciate it when their parents tell them that they might start drug testing. It makes it way easier to say no to their friends, “I can’t… my parents are drug testing me.”
6. Search and Seizure: Of all the messy things about drug use, the hardest one for me to cover with parents is looking through a kid’s phone, room, car and bags. On the one hand, we want kids to have a sense of autonomy and independence. We want them to have a safe place where they can let their guard down. On the other hand, if a kid is using drugs and bringing them home, parents need to know and set a boundary. Another complicating factor is that most kids are pretty good sneaks…they hide stuff well so even if you tear their room apart they’ll likely still have pot stashed somewhere (maybe even at a friend’s house). Pot in the house is like the dandelions in my backyard. I can pull each one of them up and be vigilent but until I’m able to a) destroy all the dandelions and their seeds in the entire neighborhood or b) build a huge bubble around our property, I will never conquer them. I need to either get to the source of the problem or do my best to keep them controlled so they don’t take over the yard. If you do find pot or paraphernalia, it’s fine to have a meeting/conversation with them and explain the rules about no pot use, no pot at home and no pot in the car. If any of those are violated, they’ll receive a consequence. If they appear to have a more severe issue, a professional will be contacted and possibly a higher level of care pursued.
Most kids have plenty of opportunity to use alcohol and pot. But while it’s likely that them will be offered the chance to try illegal drugs, it is not a good idea for parents to look the other way. Teens and college students still need parents to help them make good choices (even if they will not appreciate it or ask for it). Acting like it’s no big deal can send a confusing message to a kid who might not want to drink every weekend, but may not know how to handle the pressure to do so.