Teens will be teens – they’ll sleep in, be moody at times, become more adventurous, and they may even break some rules. Teens go through a lot of changes physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially as they transition from childhood to adulthood. All these behaviors are part of adolescents learning about themselves and how to handle the increasing freedom and responsibility that comes with getting older.
It can be difficult for parents to know whether their kid is using cannabis because many of the signs of substance use are the same behaviors of healthy teens. These are some of the signs you can look out for, though:
- Worsening grades in school
- Abrupt changes in friends
- Deteriorating relationships with family
- Acting more secretive than normal
- Abnormal health or sleep issues
At the end of the day, you know your kid best. The best thing you can do is maintain open communication with your teen and monitor their behavior. Use your best judgement to decide whether their behavior is cause for concern or whether your teen is just being a teen. And if you’re unsure, tell them about your concerns and then listen. See below for some tips on how to start conversations about cannabis with your teen.
There are many factors that influence whether or not adolescents choose to use cannabis. “Risk factors” are things that increase the likelihood your kid will use cannabis, while “protective factors” are things that decrease that likelihood.
The good news is there are many ways parents can reduce the chance their kid will use cannabis, and it’s not about looking through their belongings or grounding them at home. Parents can help by working to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors in their kid’s life. The table below shows several examples of risk and protective factors at each level and actions parents can take to have a positive impact.
Risk Factors and What Parents Can Do
Click the tabs below to learn what factors put a youth at risk for cannabis use — at the individual, relationship/family, community, and societal levels — and what parents can do to help mitigate those risks.
Risk: Favorable attitudes toward cannabis use
What you can do: Have open and honest conversations with your kid about the potential consequences of cannabis use, especially for youth.
Risk: Lack of commitment to school
What you can do: Convey appreciation for who your kid is early and often. Connect your kid with adult role models who have transitioned out of rebelliousness in their community.
Risk: Excessive risk-taking
What you can do: Provide opportunities for your kid to participate in healthy risk-taking such as trying new sports, music, and clubs.
Risk: Early aggressive behavior
What you can do: Work with your kid’s school or with a counselor to help them learn how to manage aggressive or violent impulses.
Risk: Alcohol, nicotine, or tobacco use
What you can do: Talk with your kid early about these substances to prevent use. If your kid currently uses, the Washington Recovery Help Line has substance use disorder information and resources for people in Washington State.
Risk: Poor sleep habits
What you can do: Help your kid develop healthy sleep hygiene such as keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule, having a quiet and dark room, and removing phones and other electronic devices out of the bedroom when it’s time to sleep.
Risk: Mental illnesses like anxiety or depression
What you can do: Support your kid with their mental health and help them access therapy/resources if needed. The Washington Recovery Help Line has mental health and substance use disorder information and resources for people in Washington State.
Risk: Friends who use cannabis
What you can do: Get to know your kid’s friends and pay attention to what activities they do with them to reduce the chances that problems will occur.
Risk: Peer favorable attitudes towards cannabis use & perceived use of cannabis among friends
What you can do: Communicate with you kids about cannabis use & explain that most teens aren’t using.
Risk: Family history of addiction
What you can do: Talk with your kid about their family history, establish clear rules, and help them connect with their family and community.
Risk: Family management problems (unclear boundaries or inconsistent consequences)
What you can do: Establish clear rules around cannabis use, monitor your kid’s behavior, and apply appropriate consequences for breaking rules.
Risk: Family conflict/unstable parent-child relationship
What you can do: Improve your own skills for expressing anger in healthy ways and communicate your feelings clearly and calmly with your kid. Spend quality time with your kid to build closer bonds.
Risk: Parental favorable attitudes towards cannabis & parental use of cannabis
What you can do: Establish clear rules for cannabis use. Communicate that cannabis is not safe for teens. Avoid consuming cannabis in front of your kid.
Risk: Limited parental support
What you can do: Support your kid’s activities and interests by talking with them about what they enjoy, help them work through challenges, and attend events to cheer them on.
Risk: Poor academic performance
What you can do: Try to understand the root causes of your kid’s academic struggle and find proper support by connecting with your kid’s teacher or school counselor.
Risk: Easy availability of cannabis in community
What you can do: Control the availability of cannabis in your household by locking it up or keeping it out of reach. Ask family members and the parents of your kid’s friends whether cannabis is kept in their household and how it is stored.
Risk: Community norms favorable toward cannabis
What you can do: Talk with other parents about the rules in your household about cannabis. Help educate your friends and family about the risks of adolescent cannabis use.
Risk: Low neighborhood attachment
What you can do: Get involved in your community by getting involved in your kid’s school, participating in community events, and getting to know your neighbors.
Risk: Favorable media portrayals of substance use
What you can do: Enforce guidelines that limit your kid’s access to substance use media portrayals in television, music, video games, YouTube, and other media. Resources such as Common Sense Media and Kids-In-Mind can be helpful for screening media for portrayals of content related to substance use and many other topics.
Risk: Relaxed cannabis laws/policies
What you can do: Advocate for cannabis legislation that you would like to see. Find your district and legislative representative in Washington State.
In addition to the risk factors described above, there are also risk factors that stem from systemic problems in our society. Teens who are part of marginalized communities, are in the foster care system, or have experienced poverty or other forms of trauma may be at greater risk for substance use. Since these risk factors stem from societal issues, they often can’t be addressed by simply changing your behavior at home.
However, that doesn’t mean parents can’t do anything to support these teens. Being an active adult in your kid’s life and letting your kid know that you are a safe resource to turn to decreases the likelihood that they will turn to substances to cope with their trauma. Parents can also advocate for change in local policies and support community organizations that work to reduce inequity and provide resources to families in need.
Regardless of what risk factors are present in your kid’s life, the best way to prevent your kid from using cannabis is to develop a close bond, keep communication open about the risks of cannabis use for teens, and keep track of what your kid is doing and who they are with.
Gather information about cannabis:
Do some research to learn about the types of cannabis products available, how cannabis is used, how it affects the body, and its health risks, especially for young users. There are many resources on this website that can help; however, for an all-encompassing guide, check out What’s the Deal: Cannabis Facts for Parents (National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre).
Use a caring and non-judgmental tone:
Don’t approach cannabis conversations with judgement or scare tactics; this can be counterproductive. Keep in mind that your teen probably already knows that you disapprove of drug use, so it’ll be hard for them to have open conversations with you and ask questions if they feel like they’re being scrutinized.
When you’re having conversations about cannabis, listen carefully and without judgement to your kid’s questions, thoughts, and concerns to encourage the conversation to stay open. Express your concerns about cannabis use but do so in a caring and compassionate way instead of with scare tactics or anger. Try your best to keep an open mind and put yourself in your kid’s shoes as you talk.
More resources to prepare for effective conversations with your kid:
- Start the Conversation During. . . (Start Talking Now, WA Health Care Authority)
- Marijuana Talk Kit: What You Need to Know to Talk With Your Teen About Marijuana (Partnership to End Addiction)
Keep conversations casual:
Keep conversations about cannabis casual and avoid formal family meetings or lectures, especially for younger adolescents. Your kids are less likely to engage with you if they see the conversation as a lecture. Try to find natural opportunities to talk about cannabis, like when you’re driving past a cannabis shop, or you see a character on TV using cannabis. Start with a question and listen to what your kid thinks, then build the conversation from there.
Sometimes a more formal discussion may be needed. For example, some parents may want to have in-depth conversations about cannabis if their family has a history of substance use disorders. In this case, ask permission from your kid and arrange a time to have a conversation. Like everyone, teens tend to be more receptive to dialog if they are included in the decisions about when and how to talk.
Start early and talk often:
Start cannabis conversations with your kid before they start asking questions about it or consider experimenting with it. Your kids will need a different conversation in middle school than they will in high school or college. Conversations don’t need to be long. Simply asking questions and sharing your family’s values when opportunities arise can be effective. Adjust your conversations as needed to make them age appropriate. Check out The Cannabis Conversations Toolkit from Youth Now to learn more about the different types of conversations for different age groups.
It’s also helpful to remind your teens that even if it feels like everyone around them is using, the majority of their peers choose not to use cannabis. Learn more about cannabis use trends among youth here.
Set clear rules and consequences for cannabis use:
Teens are less likely to use cannabis when parents set clear limits. Communicate to your kid that you do not approve of cannabis use while they are underage and let them know what will happen if they don’t follow the rules. Connect your concerns about cannabis use to the rules you’ve put in place to make it clear that these rules are there to protect them. If your kid breaks your cannabis rules, make sure to calmly but firmly enforce the consequence that you established with them.
Express your concerns about underage and young adult use:
Talking about your concerns is powerful! Parents are the most influential adults in adolescents’ lives so don’t discredit the power of your words. When talking with your teen, express a variety of different concerns such as how cannabis use impacts their health, their job opportunities, or the amount of money they have. Try to focus on the consequences of cannabis use that matter to them. For example, if your kid enjoys sports, talk about how cannabis can affect their lung capacity, reaction time, and coordination.
To learn more about how to talk to your kid about cannabis and the different consequences of cannabis use that matter to them, visit Good Conversations Lead to Healthy Decisions (Colorado Dept of Public Health & Environment).
Even when your kids reach the legal age for cannabis use, young adult brains are still developing (until age 25), making them very susceptible to harms from cannabis. Young adults see cannabis as less harmful than teens, so it’s important to keep these conversations going even after your kid graduates from high school.
How to talk to your kid about cannabis as a cannabis user yourself
If you’re a parent who uses cannabis, your conversations with your kids will look similar to the ones other parents are having. You can still talk about the risks associated with adolescent cannabis use and set rules and consequences for your kid using. However, you should anticipate that your kid will ask about your use, whether you use in front of them or not.
If it’s brought up, it’s important that you make the distinction between underage use and adult use. Explain that teens are at a greater risk for negative health effects because their brains are going through a critical period of development. Make it clear to your kid that they should not use cannabis until they reach at least 21, and that, even then, brain development and related risks from cannabis use continue until they’re 25.
Simply having easily accessible cannabis in your home can increase the risk your teen will try it. To help protect your kids, think of ways to securely store your cannabis so they can’t get to it. Cannabis should be kept out of reach and locked away in secured cabinets or drawers or in a separate lockbox.
Locking up cannabis is important. Even if you’ve explained to your kids that they’re not allowed to touch your cannabis and trust that they will follow your rules, locking it up gives an extra layer of protection for both your teen and their friends. It also protects younger children and pets in the household who may unintentionally consume it without knowing what it is. To learn more about safe storage, visit Secure Your Cannabis.
Finding out or suspecting that your kid is using cannabis can be very challenging. It’s natural to be concerned, mad, or sad about their use and want them to quit using immediately. However, approaching your kid with these emotions and demanding that they quit will often cause more harm than good. It may make them angry and resentful, which decreases their openness to listen to you or have open conversations.
Instead, when approaching your kid about their cannabis use, stay calm, avoid ultimatums, and help them understand what worries you. Consider whether you are certain they have used cannabis or if you just have suspicions. Investigate whether your kid has used cannabis frequently or has just tried it once or twice. Knowing these things can help inform the conversation and provide some context.
Remember that quitting or cutting down is often not easy for those who use cannabis regularly, so offering quick solutions (“just throw away everything you have”) or ultimatums (“if you don’t quit by next week then we’re taking off the door to your room”) will make the process of quitting or reducing their use even more difficult. What’s the Deal: Talking with a Young Person About Cannabis (National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre) is a great resource for parents and friends about how to talk to a young person about quitting or reducing their cannabis use.
In cases where communication has broken down between you and your kid, or in cases where your kid needs extra assistance beyond what you’re able to provide them, seeking professional help is the next step. Start with your kid’s doctor or school counselor to see what options are best for your kid and what’s available in your area. Washington State also provides 24-hour confidential referral and help with substance use, problem gambling, and mental health through the Washington Recovery Help Line. The Help Line can assist family members looking for treatment options for teens and can provide information on community groups that may be helpful for parents, too.
Authored by Lexi Nims, Cannabis Education & Research Program (CERP). Last updated August 2023.