05/10/2011 03:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Lowdown on 420: Guiding Your Teen Through the Weeds

A highly astute, very funny client of mine suggested the other day that, if you're the parent of a teenager, and you don't know what "420" is, you must be high.

Some 30 or so years ago, legend has it, a group of Bay Area high schoolers decided they would meet after school, at 4:20 p.m., and get high. Over the years, the date, 4/20, has become a de facto celebration. April 20 was, effectively, National Pot Smoker's Day. One young man described it to me as a day off, a "holy day" for pot smokers.

And believe me, pot smokers do not mess around on 4/20. They smoke pot. A lot of it. Weed, grass, Mary Jane, dope, bongs, bowls, blunts, joints, vaporizers, volcanoes, all floats in the 420 parade. I've learned this the hard way over the years in my practice. I've had many a slack-jawed, slow-responding teen on my couch on this anniversary many times. It just took me a while to figure it out.

The truth is, this is a strange time of year to be the parent of a teenager. The end of the school year is approaching, and most parents agree that the fourth quarter brings with it a palpable shift in energy, a nervous, "can't-wait-for-summer-but-there's-still-so-much-to-do" kind of energy. Many of us are also vaguely aware that some real tragedies have taken place right around this date. April 19 is the anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine, for instance, and I work with parents and school personnel, who are still anxious for that last bell on the 19th.

And then there's 420 itself. You may think that your child is still young enough, that your community is protective enough, that her friends are good enough kids, that your teen is somehow immune to these negative outside influences -- we'll call them the "420s", for now. You may fear that just bringing up the whole pot thing would be a mistake, the potency of the power of suggestion. You may be sure that your baby would never be a 420-er.

I get that.

But on days like 420, I encourage you to err on the side of openness and communication over fear and silence. Talk to your child about the "420s." More importantly, ask her about them:

"What happens, and where?"

"How do kids go home high without their parents finding out?"

"How do you decide what you're going to do?"

In my opinion, if in your mind pot is going to be the devil, at least make it the devil you know.

Be aware of the possibility that your child has some thoughts, feelings and perhaps fears about the 420s, and be open to hearing her out. But keep in mind that you will only be consulted if you are calm, open and non-judgmental. Otherwise, you are tuned out immediately.

Admittedly, it can be tough to keep this dynamic in your lens of awareness at times. After all, the 420s make a lot of us pretty nervous. I've known many a parent who holds her breath through a quick lecture on the perils of, say, drug use: how wrong it is to do drugs, how they can kill, how addictions can ruin lives, how one drug may be a gateway to another and so on. Once the lecture is delivered, I think we can fool ourselves into patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, and we can check the drug talk off the "good parent" to do list. Most of us can tell ourselves quite honestly that, with said lecture, we have officially done more than our parents ever did with regard to talking about drugs.

But it's not that simple. The one-sided, one-time-only lecture clashes directly with the concepts of openness and availability. Many teens have told me in the wake of lectures that their parents clearly don't understand. Far from helping the cause, many lecturing inadvertently send a "don't talk to me, I'll just lecture you and perhaps ground you" vibe to their teen. Don't let this be you. It's always a better story to be part of the discussion. If you listen, you might find that your teen has some interesting thoughts on the 420s.

And let's face it, there are a lot of "420s," those days where things can slip off track for your child, when she'll have to make a tough call: prom night, sleepovers, keggers, sex, drugs, and so on. You want to have talked about it beforehand. You'll want your voice to echo in her head when she makes her call. It may not always be the right call. Making mistakes is a part of adolescence, a really important part. But she won't be heading into situations naïve, ill-informed, or misinformed. Because you will have talked to her, openly and without judgment.

Effectively, she won't be alone. How great is that?

The 420s are actually an excellent opportunity for connection with your teenager, as long as you're willing, as a parent, to take a leap of faith.