Updated: Feb 6
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, social media, and more, it can be very confusing to know what to trust and of what to be suspicious. So it’s reasonable to assume that teens will have questions about this topic, especially when it comes to one with so much current attention. One important goal of the Smart Love approach is to help parents foster a relationship with their teen so that their child turns to them to get their questions answered, instead of their peers. However, during adolescence their friends become increasingly important and influential in their lives. This is normal and healthy development, but how do parents support their teen’s desires to get trusted information? While friends are near the top of their priority list, parents remain important as well. “Your adolescent still requires your responsive love and affection.”* When parents strive for a positive and open relationship through how they respond, interact, and engage with their teen, their importance in their teen’s life remains paramount. Your teen’s self-esteem will be grounded in your unconditional kindness and love for them and will not sway with the ups and downs of adolescent friendship and dramas. Parents should avoid being an adversary to their teen, as being “someone whose role is arbitrarily depriving him of things he likes”* or always pointing out their faults. Everyone, no matter their age, will turn to a person they trust, deserving or not. By keeping your teen’s all-powerful self in mind and responding kindly you’ll secure your spot as a person they turn to for knowledge and guidance.
“Teens whose developmental needs have been adequately satisfied will take a cautious approach to other typical dangers that confront adolescents. Their all-powerful selves may tell them that no harm can befall them if they experiment with ‘harmless’ drugs, but they will still want to discuss this assumption with their parents and will feel a superior type of pleasure when they allow themselves to be guided by their parents’ experience and wisdom. If your adolescent has not regularly turned to you for this kind of guidance before, you can rewrite your relationship by consistently letting him know that you will discuss issues with him in a nonjudgmental way.”*
Another part of adolescent development that comes into play is their increasing opportunity to make decisions for themselves. But since parents are not with their teen all the time, how can parents influence their teen’s decision-making? What will guide their teen when faced with a decision? Your relationship with your teen is certainly part of it, but how parents take care of themselves is just as important. Because of the love children have for their parents starting at birth, children instinctively mirror their parents’ behavior. When parents model a healthy lifestyle, self-care, and constructive decision-making, their child will naturally follow suit. If a parent chooses to use marijuana or alcohol, avoiding dangerous behavior like drinking and driving, or smoking and driving is crucial. It is also essential to avoid letting things get out of control in front of your child as seeing their parent overtly impaired is scary for children at any age. And be sure to communicate that smoking marijuana (or drinking alcohol) is only legal for those 21 years and older, and this is a decision they can make when they turn 21.
And lastly, if you hear the topic of drugs or alcohol come up, this is a great and natural opportunity to approach your teen and start a conversation. A helpful strategy is to ask them about their opinions. It could sound something like, ‘What do you think about (legalization, alcohol, etc.)?’ The goal here is not to express your views, but to engage your teen in a conversation and listen carefully. If they are saying things that are concerning, help them to evaluate those ideas or conclusions and be prepared with facts about the effects of marijuana usage**, such as:
• Impaired thinking, memory, and learning functions
• Potential declines in IQ during adolescence
• Exacerbated health problems like asthma, increased heart rates, intense nausea and vomiting, and more
• Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and more
“Teens who can count on parents to be responsive to their developmental needs are not attracted by self-destructive or antisocial sources of enjoyment. Your teenager’s awareness that his parents remain available and committed to him is actually the most important ingredient in his evolving conviction that he can regulate his own life so as to make himself happy and to bring happiness to others.”*
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011
**What is marijuana? (2019, December). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana