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Teens and cannabis: If they’re not going to stop using, how can you best deal with the situation?

Early last year I wrote about the growing number of parents who had contacted me in relation to cannabis. We’ve recently seen an increase in the use of cannabis (marijuana, weed, grass, ganja, pot) by Australian young people and although we’re not anywhere close to the levels of use that we saw in the 1990s, it would appear that something is definitely happening.

Getting a call from the school and facing the nightmare of, at best, having a child suspended, or at worst, having them expelled or asking them to be withdrawn, must be earth-shattering, particularly if you didn’t see it coming. For most parents, this is a ‘one-off’ thing – their child do something stupid with their mates, get caught and they won’t do it again. Experimentation is a part of adolescence – that doesn’t mean it’s harmless but it’s what some teens will do. Unfortunately, for other parents, this will be the start of a long dark road and it’s often really difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel … As I always say, if you find yourself in the latter situation, the cannabis use is not usually the problem, but a symptom of a much greater issue that needs to be identified and dealt with. Trying to ‘fix’ the cannabis problem (e.g., putting them into rehab or the like) without digging deeper and finding out what the underlying issue is will often result in a lot of time-wasting and can destroy families …

The truth about cannabis is that the vast majority of people who use the drug will never experience significant problems as a result of their use. Unfortunately, if they do have a problem it’s likely to be a major life-changing problem that will affect not only them but those around them. We also know that the younger you start using cannabis, the greater the risk of future problems. Regular, heavy cannabis use during the teen years has also been identified as risk factors for a range of issues. With those things in mind, it is totally understandable that parents have a major meltdown when they find out their 15-year-old could be smoking cannabis.

For many parents who discover their child is using cannabis their first response is to do their best to prevent further use. They may try to stop them seeing friends who they believe are a ‘bad influence’, attempt to limit their socializing by applying new rules and boundaries, or seek help from health professionals to assist their child with their ‘drug problem’. It’s important to note that in many cases, simply being caught is going to be enough to change their behaviour (at least for the time being) and some will move away from the drug and never use again. There are others, however, who will not. These young people enjoy the effects of the drug, get something from using it and, in some cases, have developed a friendship group based entirely around the use of cannabis. Try to remove the drug from their lives and these teens see it as a direct hit to their peer group and that’s never going to end well.

As many parents I have recently spoken to have discovered, if a teen really wants to use cannabis there’s very little you can do to prevent it. It’s impossible to monitor them every minute of the day and, even if you could, what kind of relationship would that be? You’re a parent, not a prison guard. You want a positive relationship built on honest communication and trust – but how can you achieve that when you have a teen that you know is going to continue to use cannabis no matter what you say or do?

Parents who are struggling in this area all have very different experiences. Some examples of situations parents have described to me recently include the following:

  • Year 11 young man who had exceptional grades throughout his school career suddenly lost interest in his studies almost overnight. He was then caught smoking cannabis at school and was suspended. He refused to stop using the drug and asked his parents to provide a ‘safe space’ for him to smoke because if they didn’t he would have to do it in a park or at a friend’s house. His parents had him see a number of health professionals, including a psychiatrist and psychologist, but saw no change in his behaviour and gained no insight as to why this was happening. He was later expelled when caught selling cannabis to classmates
  • Year 10 girl who had never had issues at school in the past was caught selling cannabis at school. She started hanging out with an older group at the local shopping centre and then stopped going to school altogether. She was now leaving home on a Thursday evening and then not returning  home until Monday or Tuesday – the parents having no idea where she was or who she was with
  • Year 9 boy who had once been quite extroverted began being bullied at school and started to shut-down. He lost interest in sport, asked to leave the school and met a new group of friends at the local skate park. His Mum found cannabis and smoking implements in his room and when confronted he admitted to using the drug and told her he wasn’t going to stop. He’d run away from a home a couple of times and had recently been brought home by police after being caught smoking with friends in a local park

These are all extreme examples but they’re not that unusual. The really sad thing about all of these is that there is no easy answer here. Without a doubt, in many cases, things will just fix themselves – it sounds hard to believe (and when you’re right in the middle of a situation like this, seems totally impossible) but one day some young people just come to the realization that they want to move on. It could be the result of a new relationship, new opportunities opening up or something bad happening but, whatever it is, it’s enough to give them a gentle push to make a change. Sadly, for others that just doesn’t happen. So how can parents best deal with a situation where their teen has made it absolutely clear that they’re going to continue to use cannabis?

Just before Christmas I was contacted by a parent who wanted to talk through what was happening with their child. We had a long talk and I gave them the best advice I could. The next day I decided to send them an email outlining the steps I had suggested during our discussion. Here is an edited version of the message I sent with all identifying information removed:

“As I said, no matter what you decide to do, you have a pretty bumpy road ahead but try to remember this simple mantra – ‘deal with the things that you have some control over’. Banging your head against a brick wall constantly trying to control their behaviour when they aren’t with you (something that just isn’t possible), is just going to leave you and your partner tired and frustrated. That’s going to end up causing more conflict with your teen, as well as adversely affecting your relationship with your partner and other children. I suggest the following:

  • Make sure you and your partner are well – you’re not going to be able to help your child if you’re not okay. Get your GP to refer you to a psychologist, family counsellor or the like so you can talk through what is happening and ask for strategies of how to ‘move your teen’ towards wanting to change their behaviour. Some are good at this and others, not so great – regardless, you need someone to talk to just to get everything off your chest and make sure you are both okay, as individuals and as a couple
  • Do a ‘reset’ – find the right time to have a conversation with your teen and ‘put a line’ under everything that has happened up to now and discuss a way to move forward
  • What do they want and what do you want from this reset?  – use a large piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Get them to write down all that they want (relating to home, school, socializing, etc) and then write what you want (‘safety’). Ask them to try to modify their list to help ensure you get the one thing you want (even if they change just a couple of little things, that’s great)
  • Decide on a couple of rules (no more than three) – make sure you write them down and talk them through (even if you just get one – something like ‘I will always let you know where I am if I’m not home after 6.00pm – that’s a big win at the moment)
  • Make it clear that there is one ‘Golden Rule’ for all – your home is a ‘safe space’ – none of their ‘away-from-home’ behaviour is permitted in the family home – they leave that at the door. This is to protect everyone but particularly any other children in the house. You and your partner should also agree that if your child does something wrong – fighting with them does not happen in the home (it’s a safe space for them as well). Decide on another place, e.g., get in the car and drive to the beach, to have those ‘discussions’
  • Ask them to decide what should happen if the agreed rules are broken – remember that the best consequences are short, sharp and immediate. Don’t make them punishments – you’re trying to build a relationship so having long, lingering punishments just leads to them resenting you and it’s unlikely to result in better behaviour
  • Reward good behaviour – ensure they know that if the rules are followed, they will be modified. Rules will change over time …”

Three important points that parents in this situation need to try to make clear to their children are as follows:

  • You will always love them, no matter what they do, but you’re not always going to like their behaviour
  • As much as you’d love to be able to keep them as safe as possible and control what they do when they’re not with you, that’s not possible. You are able to control what happens in the home – not just ensuring their safety, but the safety of the rest of the family
  • If something goes wrong, no matter the time or wherever you are, call and we’ll be there – no questions asked.

I wish I could say that there was an easy answer to this problem but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, in my experience when teens are using cannabis daily and getting into real difficulty with the drug there are usually other issues at play. Trying to ‘fix the drug problem’ instead of identifying what may really be going on the young person’s life is unlikely to result in a successful outcome. It’s important to try to access professional help (which can be extremely difficult at the moment with the after-effects of COVID still impacting on the mental health field) and doing what you can to maintain some sort of positive relationship with your teen, no matter how hard that may be …

Published: February 2021

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