As many states across the U.S. are legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, many parents wonder if the message to their children about marijuana should change as well. Although the laws surrounding who can legally use marijuana are similar to the laws surrounding alcohol, this new legislation points to a larger question: How do you talk to your teenager about drugs and alcohol, especially now that legalization may be a topic of conversation among your child’s friends?
In order to best help your child, it’s important to understand their developmental stage. The important aspects of adolescence for parents to consider when addressing alcohol and drugs with their teen are knowing where their teen is developmentally, the peer relationships in their life, and their opportunities to exercise autonomy.
It’s clear to see how teens grow and mature physically, but it’s also crucial to understand how their minds are developing. During adolescence parents will experience the reemergence of something that they haven’t encountered significantly since their teen was a toddler, what Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William Pieper, M.D. define in their acclaimed book Smart Love, as the 'all-powerful self.' The all-powerful self is “your child’s temporary source of secondary happiness based on the illusion that [your child] can do and have everything.”* Similar to toddlerhood, when the all-powerful self initially presents itself, teens believe that they can say and do whatever their heart desires. It is important for parents to remember that this is a stage that will pass. When a teenager is confronted while asserting their beliefs or desires (e.g., staying up too late, demanding new shoes, etc.) and parents respond with matching tone or force, instead of acquiescing, teens tend to dig their heels in, resulting in slammed doors, fights, arguments, or other conflict. As the Piepers’ note, “adolescents [are] vulnerable to excesses of sensitivity and determination. For example, the adolescent’s temporary but appealing belief that he can do and have anything may make him especially susceptible to reacting strongly at moments when his parents need to give him guidance.”*
When talking to your teenager about drugs and alcohol, having a positive and healthy relationship with your teen is vital. When their all-powerful self is consistently getting confronted, it’s hard for a teenager to feel understood, which causes distance in your relationship, or - in other words - makes it difficult for your teen to listen to or accept your advice.
“Most parents are only too keenly aware both of their own hard-won knowledge and also of their adolescent’s naiveté.”* However, demonstrating your expertise and showcasing the gaps in their knowledge or experience is counter-productive when dealing with the all-powerful self. “You will find it easier to respond [to your teen] with the same relaxed affection that you felt when your adolescent was a toddler and announced that he was bigger and stronger than you.”* For example, if your teen insists they understand their math homework, even when you know their answer is wrong, instead of engaging in language like ‘I’ve already graduated high school, I think I understand basic algebra’, it's much more effective to respond in the same empathetic way as when they were four, ‘Okay, I remember it differently, but it sounds like you are working hard to figure it out. If you have questions, I’m here to help.’ In this manner, the all-powerful self has nothing to push up against or confront and therefore parents can avoid conflict. It is also very likely that your teen will realize the error on their own if given the space and time to do so.
Because there is so much information available today via TV, the Internet, advertising, soci