Dear Your Teen:
My teen does not think that marijuana is dangerous. He thinks it should be legal. And as far as he is concerned, everyone he knows uses it without any detrimental effect. So why shouldn’t he? What can I do to convince him otherwise?
ANSWER | Mark McConville, Ph.D.
Yours is an increasingly common challenge for today’s parents, for several reasons. One is that there exists a growing trend in our culture to view marijuana as relatively harmless. Medical marijuana has been legalized in some states, for one thing. For another, many pot smoking teens have been indoctrinated about the supposed “harmlessness” of marijuana. This promotes the message peer-to-peer, and visiting web sites promote and support this idea. I can attest that many of my adolescent counseling clients come to me parroting a uniform “party line” of statistics and arguments about pot’s saving graces and relative harmlessness. Particularly appealing to teens is the argument about adult hypocrisy. They condemn marijuana while embracing their own drug of choice—which of course is alcohol. (And let’s face it, they have a point!)
Real dangers of marijuana
What invariably gets left out of these self justifying arguments are the undeniable facts that marijuana’s active agent, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), stores in the fat cells of the brain for quite some time. And young brains—specifically the pre-frontal cortex, the center for executive function and abstract reasoning—are still developing. This is why we see so much interference among heavy pot smokers with these exact brain functions. And irony of ironies, the part of the brain most affected is exactly the part of the brain that allows people to mentally step outside themselves and reflectively evaluate their own functioning. This is why heavy teenage pot smokers often display shockingly little insight into the negative effects that their pot use is having on their own development.
There are three specific things I would advise as you talk to your teenager about marijuana:
Adjust your goals for the conversation
Teenagers, just like adults, are rarely “persuaded” from a well entrenched belief in a single conversation. A more realistic and productive goal would be to have him open his mind rather than going for the home-run of having him change it on the spot. You can accomplish this by offering an open minded exchange of viewpoints: Offer the following deal: “I’ll read and thoughtfully consider any reading material you can give me defending marijuana, if you’ll agree to do the same with any reading material I provide you on its potential dangers.” Asking for an open minded exchange is far more likely to get your teenager considering the other side of the argument than trying to steamroll him with persuasion. Opening one’s mind is the first step to changing it.
State Clearly that You Are Opposed
Regardless of your willingness to enter into such a two-sided discussion, make it unmistakably clear that until you think otherwise, your sacred obligation as a parent is to do everything within your power to prevent him from engaging in behavior that can interfere with brain development and affect his future. And that includes smoking marijuana. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that early and frequent pot use among teens can have long lasting effects on intelligence, judgment, and motivation.
Walk the Walk
You’ve got to walk the walk if you’re going to take the strong position I am recommending. Examine, curtail, and consider eliminating your own drug and/or alcohol use. I recommend a bi-lateral no-use contract. You’ll both abstain at least until he reaches the age when his frontal lobes have completed their primary development. And that’s around age 21.
Mark McConville, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cleveland, OH specializing in adolescent and family psychology. He is the author of Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self, and co-editor of The Heart of Development: Gestalt Approaches to Working with Children, Adolescents, and Their Worlds.