Talking to Teens About Marijuana—9 Do's and Don'ts

Pot use by adolescents is up again this year. The best prevention is stopping it before it starts.

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Mary Jane won the popularity contest at your kid's school this year. Students in a national survey said they strongly prefer marijuana to other drugs, and more junior high and high schoolers say they're toking up.

The rise in 2010 was small but stood out because it registered across all three age groups sampled in the 36th annual "Monitoring the Future" survey of 46,000 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. It also turned up at every level of use—in the last day, month, year, or ever. Seventeen percent of 8th graders, 33 percent of 10th graders, and 43 percent of 12th graders said they'd lit up at least once in their life, about one percentage point higher in all groups than in 2009. And one in 16 12th-graders got high 20 or more times in the previous month compared with about 1 in 20 last year, a jump of 25 percent.

[What Parents Need to Know About Pot]

Talking with your kids about drug use is no less important than talking with them about sex—and just as difficult. To a child who likes to push the envelope, a parent who strives for cool and casual may seem to be saying that drugs aren't a big deal. Be rigid and judgmental with an adolescent, on the other hand, and chances are you'll get nowhere. Experts have a few pointers.

You should:

Start early. Sharon Levy, medical director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Children's Hospital Boston, has seen a user who first tried drugs as an 8-year-old. "I want my message to be out ahead of the other messages they're going to be getting," she says. With a young child, think of the discussion as one you might have about any safety issue and be concrete, as you would when instructing a youngster to look both ways before crossing the street, says Janet F. Williams, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on substance abuse. Talk first about the dangers of smoking and segue to drugs like marijuana that also harm the body.

Make your message clear. State your expectations simply and concisely. Don't leave room for confusion. Say something like, "My expectation is that you won't use drugs like marijuana. I have high standards because I know you'll meet them and do what's right."

Take advantage of "teachable moments." They're less threatening to the child and much more productive, says Levy. Talk about the front-page story about last night's drug bust during breakfast. Listen for an applicable radio broadcast in the car, or point out a billboard advertising cigarettes or alcohol and segue into drugs. Seeing someone light up a joint in a movie or show is another great opportunity to ask what your teen thinks about it and whether it's a problem at his school.

Maintain an arsenal of facts. This may mean doing research. The National Institute on Drug Abuse creates fact sheets for teens and parents on marijuana. Drill home key points: Marijuana is habit-forming and may be addictive, affects the brain and respiratory system, and might contribute to depression, anxiety, or cancer. Teens are often "in this impermeable, Superman adolescence where it's, 'Yeah, yeah, I know that, but I'm the exception,' " says Williams. Counter it with fact-based research—but be careful, she adds, not to let it dominate your conversation.

[The Brain on (Lots of) Marijuana]

Tap into their vested interests. Point out to teens that using marijuana can jeopardize something they value or are working toward: a scholarship, their first-string playing time on the court, straight A's, a perfect SAT score, passing driver's ed, getting into a top college, getting a job. Take your pick.

You shouldn't:

Lie. Be honest with your kids if they ask about your drug experience, says Levy. "Now, that doesn't mean that you have to reveal everything that you did, or bare your soul," she adds. Emphasize the negative consequences, perhaps why you regret it now, or how it hurt you in some way.

Think that once is enough. "Parents often ask me, 'Well, how do you know how often you should bring these things up with your kids?' " says Levy. "And the answer is if they're not complaining that you're talking about it too much, then you're probably not talking about it enough."