How to talk to your teen about cannabis

Expert advice on how to kickstart the marijuana conversation with your kids

If your teenaged child hasn’t tried cannabis already, there’s a decent chance he or she will soon.

This is not hyperbole: Canadian teens are the top cannabis consumers in the developed world. Young adults, or youth aged 18-15, represent the largest age group of cannabis users in Canada, reporting three times more cannabis use than adults.

Talk to your teen about marijuana

These are all good reasons for starting a conversation with your kids, but knowing you need to have one isn’t the same as knowing where to start. To get advice on kickstarting a cannabis conversation with your teen, we spoke to two top researchers on youth and cannabis.

Dr. Rebecca Haines-Saah is an assistant professor at University of Calgary, working in community health sciences. Previously she conducted qualitative research with the Teens Report on Adolescent Cannabis Experiences (TRACE), where she and colleague Emily Jenkins focused on adolescent substance use and mental health. Thanks to an earlier stint starring on the CBC hit Degrassi (where she played troubled teen Kathleen), Haines-Saah says that talking to youth about important issues comes naturally.

Jenna Valleriani is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Collaborative Addiction Studies at the University of Toronto. She’s also the strategic advisor for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). Through CSSDP, Valleriani worked with the government’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation to organize a youth roundtable and ensure young voices were represented in the Task Force’s framework for legalization.

Here, Haines-Saah and Valleriani offer evidence-based tips for talking to your teens about cannabis.

Don’t wait

“We think that if we talk to kids about drugs that this is the same as enabling them or encouraging them to use drugs,” says Haines-Saah, but when you look at the numbers, this concern doesn’t hold–after all, nearly a third of Canadian teens are already experimenting with cannabis, irrespective of the law. “I'm thinking that’s not going to change post-legalization,” she adds. “We’re talking about those kids who are not going to care what the legal age is, or not going to care that it’s illegal. They're going to experiment, so we need to equip them with information they can use.”

Say no to ‘just say no’

There are plenty of evidence-based reasons to want your kids to abstain from–or at least, delay experimenting with–cannabis, but research also shows that just like abstinence-based sex education programs, abstinence-based approaches to drug education simply don’t work.

“I think the first step is to try and open up the dialogue in a way that has the boundaries that are appropriate for your family, but keeping it as non-judgemental as possible,” says Haines-Saah. “Don’t be authoritarian, but you can certainly be authoritative.”

Focus on harm reduction

“Harm reduction can be a loaded term,” says Valleriani, but the approach, which “focuses on the risks and consequences of substance use rather than on the use itself” is increasingly popular among substance abuse experts (although not without some controversy).

Also controversial, notes Valleriani, is cannabis’s real impact on developing brains. “I think parents are overwhelmed by what the evidence says about the risks and harms of cannabis,” she says. “They’re hearing things like there’s links or associations with cognitive brain development, but perhaps aren’t so research savvy that they would understand that a link doesn’t imply causation.”

That said, both Valleriani and Haines-Saah stress that there are clear, evidence-based benefits to delaying the onset of use. “The earlier people start, the more that’s associated with problematic use later and poor outcomes,” says Haines-Saah.

Also noteworthy is that most of cannabis’ potential for negative psychological outcomes are associated with THC, the cannabinoid—or active ingredient—famous for its psychoactive effects. It can be hard to know what you’re getting in an illicit market, but if you know your teen is using marijuana, encouraging them to seek low-THC strains, or those high in the cannabinoid CBD, which may actually have an antipsychotic effect, could mitigate potential risks. 

Encouraging moderation is also sound. “The links [to problematic outcomes] are stronger when youth are consuming more frequently, and more volume of product,” says Valleriani. “So it’s not that cannabis is the cause, but we know these outcomes are worse when people are using more frequently and consuming more cannabis.”

Choose your resources carefully

Many current parental resources are too generic to be effective for families who fall outside the parameters of a normative, middle class family, says Haines-Saah. “They’re like, ‘Oh make sure you have dinner around the table as a family and keep the communication strong,’” she says, “and that’s not a reality for parents living in poverty, that’s not a reality for a single mother, that’s not a reality in communities experiencing violence and trauma.”

It’s also common for educational materials to start by assuming that parents themselves don’t consume or condone cannabis, and parents who do may wonder whether it's appropriate to disclose past or present use to their teens. “We don't develop our alcohol resources assuming that parents are abstaining from recreational drinking,” says Haines-Saah, who recommends cautious honesty.

Below, we’ve gathered a list of broader resources. Depending on your particulars, some will work better than others, so it’s best to sort through them and see what resonates for your family.

Craft your conversation around your family, and your kid

Cannabis and negative mental health outcomes are linked, but that’s not the whole story.

“I get calls and emails quite regularly from parents who have typically older, high school, young people that are using cannabis and they’re just unsure of how to approach it,” says Valleriani. “And the first thing they ask me is what are the actual harms? And that’s a tricky conversation to have, because it depends on a lot, particularly on predispositions and risk factors and a whole bunch of other things.”

If your child or family is predisposed to mental health issues, the chances of problematic use are higher, and that warrants a discussion. And if your teen is already consuming cannabis, it’s important to understand how and why. “One of the things we found in the TRACE project was that there were kids who were waking up every day and smoking just to get through the school day or smoking at night just so they could sleep,” says Haines-Saah. “They had issues that may or may not be a formal diagnosis of anxiety or stress, or health issues they were trying to address. So is a child using because they’re self-medicating or is it something that they’re going to be using in a party context?”

Take heart—this will get easier

For many–although not all– families, legalization means that cannabis will soon shed the moral weight surrounding its current illegality. This will open the door for parents and educators to start the conversation from a health or broader social perspective, much as they currently do with alcohol.

And as social restrictions around cannabis loosen, we’ll see an increase in the quality and quantity of educational resources. Just this week, Canopy Growth Corporation announced a partnership with CSSDP and Parents Action on Drugs (PAD), to develop educational materials for parents and educators around responsible cannabis use. According to a press release, the objective of the two-year project is “to develop interactive tools to support informed conversations between parents and youth.”

For now, these tools are a good start:

Cannabis use and youth: A parents’ guide (A cannabis-specific pamphlet from The Centre for Addictions Research BC)

Art of motivation (An online resource outlining conversational tools to help youth avoid drug problems from The Centre for Addictions Research BC)

Building Resilient Youth (a general guide to helping teens avoid dependency from Parents Action on Drugs)

Parents: Help your teen understand what’s fact and fiction about marijuana (a fact sheet from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse)

Cycles (a film-based resource from the UBC School of Nursing that encourages teens to talk openly and honestly about why some young people use cannabis)

Cannabis conversations (Age-by-age resources from Washington State’s Prevent Coalition)

Safer cannabis use (Facts on safer consumption for youth who are already using cannabis from The Centre for Addictions Research BC)

Are you a parent with questions about cannabis? Send them to, and perhaps we’ll use them to inform our next story.

Feature image via Pexels

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