My 15-year old son just told me that he tried marijuana a few weeks ago with his buddies. I don't know if I should punish him or if doing so will only make him become dishonest. He said he didn't like it, but I'm not sure I believe him.
Within the world of parenting teens, the issue you've raised is one of the most difficult to address. Despite all the talks we have about the dangers of drugs with our children when they are young, most of us are resigned to the fact that our kids will probably experiment with at least alcohol and pot once they arrive at adolescence. Here's my advice:
• Assess your child's risk. A youngster who is generally doing well in life -- happy, well adjusted, engaged with the family -- generally poses less risk for potential problems than one with a family history of drug or alcohol abuse, depression or in the midst of a family crisis. If your son falls in the high risk category, I would urge you to get outside professional help to nip any serious problems in the bud.
• Be cautious about punishments. If there is no history of addiction in your family tree and you are certain that your son is generally doing well socially, emotionally and academically, focus on keeping the lines of communication open. If your teen is afraid of your reaction, it is unlikely that he will continue to confide in you. Punishing him may simply encourage him to become better at hiding any future use from you.
• Strengthen connection. When we feel seen, understood and cherished by someone, it is much harder to keep secrets from them. Teens often give us signals that suggest they aren't interested in having us around, but look for ways to keep nourishing the connection you and your son share -- cooking together, walking the dog or even chatting about music or sports while you unload the dishwasher together. The more he feels anchored to you as his North Star, the less influenced he will be by peer pressure.
• Talk with him about how he felt when he smoked. If he tells you that he really liked it, discuss why drugs and alcohol make people feel better. Explain the way the brain works, and the impact these substances can have on lowering inhibition or lifting mood --temporarily.
• Model healthy ways of unwinding. Consider what your son sees you doing to relax at the end of the day, or when you socialize with your friends. If you have a glass of wine the minute you get home from work or immediately open a six-pack when friends show up, you may be "teaching" him that enjoyment cannot happen without some kind of substance. Show him you can enjoy life without leaning on something to help you lower your inhibitions or numb out, and you will send the message that he can do the same.
• Don't force unwanted advice. Instead, ask him if he would be open to listening to your concerns. Explain that while you understand "everyone" may be smoking weed or drinking, the stress relief many kids experience while under the influence of pot or alcohol can quickly become at least psychologically addicting, and that there are better -- and healthier -- ways of handling social anxiety and pressures. Show him the impact these substances have on the brain; there are some great scans at brainplace.com.
•Keep your eyes open. If you start to sense that your son's use has escalated beyond normal experimentation, do not hesitate to set guidelines that send him a clear message that it is not okay. At 15, his brain is still in a vulnerable and formative stage, and it is your responsibility to help him make sound decisions that preserve his health and safety. Some kids tell me that they actually appreciate it when their parents tell them that they might start conducting random drug tests; it makes it easier way to say "No" at a party if they can tell their buddies, "I can't; my parents are drug testing me."
Most kids in today's society are going to be offered the opportunity to try alcohol and marijuana many times. But while it's likely that our youngsters will be offered the chance to try illegal substances, it is not in their best interests for parents to look the other way. Teens still need us to help them make good choices. Acting like it's no big deal can send a confusing message to a youngster who might not want to drink every weekend, but may not know how to handle the peer pressure to do so. Stay lovingly connected to your son, keep your eyes open and keep those lines of communication open.
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