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I’ve found out my son has used cannabis. Does he need treatment?

I was recently contacted by a mother who had discovered her son was using cannabis. I met her at a Parent Information Evening and from the brief conversation we had I could tell that this had come completely out of the blue and both her and her husband were now struggling with what to do next. I asked her to email me with some background on the situation and I would respond as soon as I could. To ensure her privacy I have changed some of the information she provided me, but essentially her story was as follows:
My son left school a couple of years ago and did quite well in his final exams. He got into the university course he wanted but was unhappy there and has since begun another course in an area dramatically different from his original career choice. He has found it difficult to ‘fit’ and find a new set of friends, after moving away from his school friends since leaving Year 12. He certainly went through a period of drinking but it certainly never caused us any great concern. I found out that he had been using cannabis a while ago and at that time he told me that he only used to relax and that it wasn’t a problem. My husband and I caught him smoking at home recently and once again he said he was using for relaxation and that it was no more dangerous than drinking. We talked to him about the legal implications of smoking cannabis in our home and the major problem we have with him using due to his younger sibling who also lives in the house. He has agreed not to use anymore but he certainly appears to be struggling at the moment, particularly with fitting in with his current friendship group who apparently use as well. Any advice will be appreciated …
This mum was smart and said all the ‘right things’ in her email – “we’re trying to keep the lines of communication open”, “when we found out he was using, we waited for a few days to have a discussion with him about how to move forward” and “we’re offering him alternative ways of relaxing”. She really is doing all the right things … I also need to make it clear that she wasn’t asking me for treatment options – she just wanted some advice. I meet so many people, however, who find themselves in this situation who immediately want to book their child into seeing a psychologist or find some sort of treatment option – they’re smoking cannabis, there must be something wrong with them! Of course, there could be some ‘dark’ reason why the teen is smoking cannabis and that needs to be dealt with quickly, but for many it may simply be experimentation and thrusting your son or daughter into a counselling session may actually cause more harm than good.
So what did I recommend? My response to the mother is below:

“Now that I see the whole story I think you can take a pile of positives from the situation as it stands at the moment … the most important thing is to maintain lines of communication with your son is most probably the most important thing at the moment. He sounds like a great young man who is experiencing a few issues at the moment (trying to find his place in a peer group, changing possible career direction, etc) and how you deal with the ‘problem’ is going to be incredibly important – you certainly don’t want to push him away but you also need to make it extremely clear what behaviour you are, and are not, willing to accept in your home.

I always say to parents who discover that their child is using a drug that the most important thing is to find out why they are using. When they say they’re using to cope or it ‘makes them ‘feel normal’, that’s the greatest worry … your son said he is using to ‘relax’ – that most probably needs to be teased out a bit … Using a drug to relax is most probably not healthy, if he’s going to throw alcohol in your face, then I would ask him if he thinks it would be a healthy choice to drink to relax … it isn’t and I think it would most probably be valuable to find out why he has all of a sudden needed to find a drug to help him to relax. Is something happening in his life that he’s not telling you about?

The main issue is that he is using an illegal drug in your house and there are younger children there – that really is unacceptable on a number of levels … getting him to understand that is most probably the most important thing to do at this point! The most a parent can really do once they’ve turned 18 years old is maintain a positive relationship with their child and keep the lines of communication open (which it sounds like you’ve totally got – you may feel like it’s not working well at the moment but you’re miles ahead of so many parents I meet). Unconditional love is the key – no matter what he does, you still love him. You are not going to support any illegal drug use however, and if he decides to get involved in that activity, you would be extremely disappointed, but he is now an adult and has to make his own decisions. The only thing you are able to control is drug use in your home – that is totally unacceptable on a number of levels and that needs to be made clear!

I am more than happy to try to find some literature or resources for you around seeking help for cannabis use, but to be honest I don’t think your son has a ‘cannabis problem’ at the moment. It certainly sounds like he is having some issues adjusting to post-secondary school life and maybe you could suggest he have a chat to someone about that … using cannabis to ‘cope’ with problems like this is not a good idea and can develop into a ‘problem’ itself. Let me know if you need anything else from me or would like me to speak to you on the phone at some point!”

Unfortunately we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and increasingly we’re seeing many of these so-called ‘famous people’ end up in ‘rehab’ or treatment of some description. This usually occurs after they are caught with an illegal substance or doing something particularly bizarre and it seems to me that, in many cases, it is more of a PR stunt to show the public that they’re doing something rather than a real effort to change behaviour. Some of these people are in and out of rehab with astonishing regularity and I think this blase (and quite disturbing) attitude to treatment is causing confusion in the community.

Do some young people (and their families) need help (e.g., treatment or counselling) with their drug use? Absolutely! It is important, however, to understand that others may not. Am I saying that you should ignore the issue? No, of course not – illicit drug use is something that needs to be dealt with quickly, but for many families it may be as simple as discovery (finding out about their use), discussion (sitting down with your child and talking about what they have done, the illegal nature of their actions and your feelings on the matter) and consequences (reiterating your rules and handing down a punishment). Of course, speak to a health professional (your school may be able to help you with a referral) and get advice on how to proceed in a positive way, particularly in regards to strategies on how to speak to young people effectively in this area, but rushing your child into treatment may be a big mistake …

If you need specific assistance with issues around cannabis don’t forget that you can always call the Cannabis Information Helpline – 1800 30 40 50.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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