THE BLOG

When It Comes to Our Kids, Is a Little Marijuana Okay?

08/19/2010 12:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Adolescent use of marijuana has become almost as acceptable as staying out a little past curfew. Most agree the latter shouldn't happen, but it's understandable and -- as long as things don't get worse -- easy to address with a clock and threat of grounding. No big deal. Not so with marijuana. If your child is smoking pot and it starts to get worse you won't know when or why until you have a child for whom a grounding is a mere impediment to a dangerous new lifestyle. And more importantly you will have missed critical opportunities to help your child address his problems in a healthy, positive way.

I see a lot of adolescents in my practice, many of whom arrive after a lengthy relationship with pot... But my first contact is usually with the anxious parents. "Something is going on," they say. "His grades are going down; She's spends all her time in her room; He's moody and uncommunicative; she's lost interest in her flute. " "He's different," they say. "She's like a stranger."

How long has this been going on I ask? Around six months says mom. Closer to a year says dad.

I ask a few questions -- a sort of psychological triage looking for any recent changes or traumas that might offer a clue.

Then I put it out there. "Do you think your child is involved with drugs?"

Here is the answer I almost always receive.

"No. I don't think so. Maybe just a little marijuana."

So, let's stop here. I want to say this loud and clear.

The correct answer to my questions is a simple "YES."

I realize there is a battle afoot to legalize the stuff. I understand that most parents when asked if their child smokes marijuana will usually respond in a tone rife with defeatism, "Of course. They all do." I get it. There is comfort in numbers. But unfortunately this beleaguered answer tends to end a conversation instead of inspire a look at the heart of the matter.

"Why does my child choose to do drugs?"

Certainly I know there are some teens who dabble with marijuana every so often at a party. Maybe she wants to fit in. Maybe the munchies and some frenzied laughter feel like a fun release. But this same adolescent stays on top of her grades, enjoys long term friendships and converses typically peevishly with her parents on a regular basis. I don't meet these kids or their parents in my office. Obviously not every child who smokes marijuana is going to dance around the drain.

But from what I can see, more and more kids are doing just that . At this point you might be thinking, " When I was young I smoked all the time. I was fine!." Well, the truth is marijuana is more powerful now, 20 to 30 times according to some estimates, and is more often laced with other drugs. The information age has also made it far easier to get it when you want it. All of this makes a big difference.

I recently attended a lecture at a private Residential Treatment Center for adolescent drug addicts, at which the director made a point of saying there wasn't a child there who hadn't convinced their parents or themselves that a little marijuana was okay.

Adolescents are walking into my office in increasing numbers having grown alienated, unproductive and increasingly self-destructive. They are standing on a long road of marijuana use. These are unhappy kids and whether they are smoking a little on occasional weekends, every weekend, everyday or are already into heavier stuff, they need emotional help.

The sooner they get it the better. Which is why it is critical that every parent recognize that their pot smoking teenager, who may be doing what everyone else is doing, IS STILL DOING A DRUG and that it is a form of self-medication.

This is no time to seek comfort in numbers. It's a time NOT TO PANIC, but to pay attention.

Marijuana helps kids hide from the painful and negative feelings with which so many teens struggle. By minimizing pot, parents may be neglecting to look around for the REASON their particular teen is needing to stifle his or her feelings. They are looking away from their child's emotional health which may in fact be far more fragile than it seems. Most kids don't connect hating life with identifiable painful feelings. They just think life stinks and drugs offer a vacation..

So how do you help open their eyes?

If you ask your child if she is depressed or anxious she will likely say "no." This is because she doesn't really know what the words mean and anyway believes she's found a way to stop feeling "bad." Ask anyway. It's an opportunity to teach emotional vocabulary. For example, "You've been so quiet lately. Not laughing much and you're not hanging out with your friends. You seem depressed, kind of sad to me." Your teen will most certainly say you're wrong, but that's okay. Her education has begun.

As for how to ask your teen about drug use it's really quite counterintuitive. Don't ask when he is bleary eyed, or comes home laughing hysterically, or if you walk in his room and find yourself in a haze of AXE. Wait for a quiet moment when you're child is not going to be highly defensive, or out of it and express the question with concern as opposed to accusation.

Point out what you noticed the other night, say you're worried about drugs including marijuana, and then center on your concern for how she is FEELING. If she closes down just smile and invite her to talk when she's ready. If she snaps that everyone smokes a little marijuana try, "I understand the way it is out there but it doesn't make it right or healthy." Then let it alone. Return to the subject when there are more clues or you can sense there's an opening. The point is not to let her waste energy being angry at you. She needs that energy to just think.

When it comes to their well-being teens rarely do that.

Which is why you have to.

Marijuana is a drug. For many kids it will become addictive. It could become the first step to the use of other drugs. Drugs that could ruin and even end lives.

So watch your child. If there's a problem you'll see it...because too many times just a little marijuana, despite what you are being told, is simply not okay.

And remember, "just a little" is dangerously subjective.

Visit Meg's website at www.megfschneiderlcsw.com