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How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs When Pot is Legal

Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have debated whether to legalize marijuana. How should you discuss drug use with your children?



Talk to your kids about drugs no later than sixth grade.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, where there has also been a debate in recent months about whether to legalize pot.

As it moves from a just-say-no drug to a medicine or a recreational product akin to alcohol, what’s a parent to do?

One of first things you should understand is that marijuana is much stronger today than it was back in the day. And with commercialization, THC, the psychoactive compound that creates the high, is available in candy and other foods, as well as tinctures and pills. With potent marijuana available in a variety of legal forms that can find their way to kids, experts say parents have to proactively discuss the topic with their children.

Talk to them by 6th grade

The conversation should be casual and not stressful or pressured, says Roger Harrison, licensed psychologist with Nemours​ Children’s Health System. And it shouldn’t be just one talk, but an ongoing dialogue.

“I would start when the parent senses that the topic has come up within that child’s peer group, at school or through social or other media,” he says, but no later than 6th grade. “That’s when a lot of kids start to experiment.”

Begin casually, ask your children what they know about marijuana or have heard from friends. That will give you an idea about how entrenched the topic is among their peer group.

Use news stories to help kickstart the discussion, suggests Heidi Weinroth, pediatrician at Cooper University Healthcare in Moorestown, NJ. For example, there have been recent stories of kids who brought candy to school that turned out to be laced with marijuana.

Nicki B. has spoken to her kids Carsyn,14, and Owen,13, about cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana on several occasions.

“It’s an ongoing conversation that has come up when they see someone smoking or watch a movie where someone is drunk,” says the Bala Cynwyd, PA mom.

She has even included her youngest son, Nathan, 8, “though I don’t necessarily get into specifics.”

She also relies on e-mails, memos and flyers that come home from school to let her know what is discussed there. “I use those reminders as my benchmark,” she says. “My kids are very open and don’t mind talking about it.”

Weinroth says it is important to remind your children that even something legal can still be dangerous. “Alcohol is legal but if you’re not responsible it can lead to accidents, poor decision making and health issues,” says Weinroth. “Cigarettes are also legal. That doesn’t mean they’re not addictive and can’t cause other diseases.”

Young brains on pot

The part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses, like foresight and judgment, doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20’s.

We know that an adolescent brain has not developed impulse control and can be highly thrill seeking, says Harrison.

You should warn your kids about how marijuana alters their sense of time — including reaction time — leads to mood changes, impairs body movement and causes difficulty with memory and problem-solving.

Practice hypothetical situations where your child might be approached to try pot and come up with an answer that feels comfortable, such as: “I play sports and I don’t know if they’ll test us;” “My parents will kill me;” “I take a medication and I don’t know how pot will affect it.”

Nicki says she and her kids go over examples and she sets clear expectations.

“I told them that if their friends are ever making decisions that they aren’t comfortable with, they can call me anytime, to any place and I will come get them,” she says. “But they are always responsible for their actions.”

Face your own past with marijuana

It’s important to model good behavior. If you use pot in front of your children, they are more likely going to want to try it. As for your past, Weinroth doesn’t see a value in sharing your own history of pot use with your children, unless it is to tell them how it impacted you negatively.

Instead, try to determine why they are, or might, use it.

“Are they using it to medicate or for anxiety?” she asks. “How much are they using it? It’s hard to know which kids are going to try it because of peer pressure and who might come to rely on it more as a coping skill to deal with social anxiety or depression.”

Even if you don’t raise the issue, know that the question of your past with pot is going to come up and have your answer ready, adds Harrison. “That might be that these are not good habits but they are legal for adults and you are a minor and marijuana is not legal for minors.”

Signs of marijuana use

Other than physical evidence of drug use — pipes, joints, bongs, screens, rolling papers, edibles — there are also behavioral changes to monitor — mood swings, a demand for more privacy than in the past, vague responses about friends, time spent outside the home, and changes in appetite.

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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