Talking with your kids about cannabis

Q: “How do I educate my teenagers about the effects of cannabis?” – Dan, parent.

We asked parents who are planning or are already having this conversation with their kids, what their approaches are so we can share their different approaches and advice with you. There’s some great advice ranging from talking about brain development all the way to comparing cannabis to hot sauce (spoiler alert: it’s a great analogy). Parents answered the question more broadly than just to teens so whether you have an eight year old or a teenager, there’s something helpful here for you.

Article Index

In case you’d like to jump ahead, here’s an article breakdown:

Some themes that will notice throughout this article are:

  • Education over instilling fear or avoiding the topic altogether.
  • Comparisons between alcohol and cannabis.
  • Focussing on brain development as a deterrent for young kids.
  • You can’t ‘stop’ kids, so there’s a need to foster honesty, support and moderation.

While we are using parents as the experts for this topic, you may also want to consult your child’s physician, school or even a child therapist to understand whether your approach is right for the outcomes you’re working towards.

If this article is helpful, or you have questions or thoughts on this topic, please feel free to share or comment below.

The ‘Right’ Age For The Cannabis Talk

Parents often find that talking to their kids about traditionally taboo topics such as sex and alcohol is a difficult task. As a taboo topic, coupled with the changes in legislation regarding cannabis, broaching this topic with your children may seem even more challenging.

Knowing what age to talk with your child about cannabis is the first step in actually having the conversation. So, we asked parents

What’s the right age to talk to your child about cannabis?

Based on our survey, about 50% of parents said the right time to speak with your kids is between the ages of 8 and 12 (tween years). The rest said the best time is when they can understand.

Every household is unique. The “best” age will be determined by a combination of the parents values, the time at which a child may start to learn about sexual health and drugs at school and from their peers, and various other factors.

There are quite a few variables to think about when planning time for this conversation. To help get you started, here’s a shortlist of factors to think about when you’re considering starting a conversation about cannabis in your home:

  • Are you educated about the facts of cannabis use? Or is your conversation based purely on your personal experience and opinion? 
  • What personal biases are you bringing into the conversation?
  • What age did you first try cannabis (if at all)?
  • Do you regularly have a drink in front of your child?
  • Do you regularly use cannabis (in any form) at home?
  • Does your child’s school offer any sort of drug and alcohol education?
  • Have you considered where and how your child could already be exposed to cannabis? E.g. social media, TV and films they may watch?
  • At what age are kids in your child’s school starting to drink or use cannabis?
  • Does anyone who spends time around your child use cannabis regularly?
  • Who do you want to be in control of the first story your child hears about cannabis?
  • How do you want to approach the conversation (education, support, fear, teamwork etc.)

There isn’t a ‘right’ time for every family to have this type of conversation. Each parent and child are different, and their environments are unique. You should allow your circumstances and conversation goals to guide the timing of the conversation. Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a better understanding of what age to speak with your child about cannabis. Here are insights from parents that may help you think about timing too.

“I feel that once kids are in 7th grade or higher, they are probably already starting to hear things about weed. Depending on where you live, it may begin even earlier. I would want to talk to them before their peers do.”
– Mum

“I think around sixth grade they’re hearing stuff we’d prefer they’d not, so that’s about when we will probably start talking about it.”
– Mum

“I would say it depends on the age range of their peers. If she knows anyone 13 or up, I’d talk to her. I’ve known people who started that talk then or even a little younger.”
– 23 year old mum

“First time I smoked was 13, so I’d probably to them by the 6th grade (11-12 yrs old)”
– 37 year old mum

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How to talk about cannabis with your child

Just as there’s no ‘right’ time to talk about cannabis with your son or daughter, there isn’t a right way to talk about it. The best things you can do? Educate yourself about the process, about cannabis, and learn from parents who are going through this with their kids.

Preparation & Self Education

knowledge about drugs and addiction

Once you have decided on the right time, it’s time to prepare for the conversation itself. 

A key determining factor in how the conversation will go is whether or not you (and your partner), are on the same page. One united message is going to be better than having different opinions and separate conversations. You must talk about your values, and how they play into the way you’ll speak with your son or daughter about cannabis.

As adults, it’s our responsibility to understand the research behind cannabis and its pros and cons. A few of the parents we spoke to suggested that it’s essential to understand the neuroscience behind addiction. These parents also recommended Gabor Mate’s interview with Tim Ferris, and we thought you might also like this interview on how not to screw up your kids.

“For children (and their parents) it’s important to learn the mental mechanism of why something seems addicting and how it’s mostly a sign that the mind tries to evade an anxiety or stress. None of these reliefs work to fix the problem, though many grown-ups haven’t understood this themselves.”
– Father

Knowing about drugs and how addiction works will allow you to have a more thoughtful conversation.

Preparation Questions

After you have done your research and education, you’ll want to think about the following questions: 

Who should start the conversation?
  • Who is the most suitable person to do it?
  • Should it be you or your partner?
  • Do you want to do it together, or could that be overwhelming?
  • Who is your son or daughter more comfortable having ‘awkward’ or candid conversations with?
How do you want your child to feel?
  • Do you want them to feel comfortable with you, supported, open to learning more, scared?
  • How did you feel when you were a child and learned about cannabis?
  • Do you want your child to feel comfortable talking to you about encounters with friends about cannabis?
What specific topics do you want to cover?

While there may be topics you feel are necessary to cover, it’s also important to remember that you’re having the conversation for your child. You must answer the questions that they might have or address situations they will face. With that in mind, here are some things you can address with your child, depending on their age:

  • The definition of cannabis.
  • The differences between medical and adult-use cannabis.
  • Your experience with cannabis.
  • How to identify cannabis, including names for cannabis and cannabis terms.
  • The legalities of cannabis.
  • What your child can do if they’re offered cannabis.
  • How your child can talk to you about it going forward.
  • Next steps in their life journey in relation to cannabis.

It’s good to consider role-playing the conversation a few times. Preparing for that moment and having a few great responses practised will make it easier for you and your child when the time comes.

Different ways to approach the topic of cannabis with your child 

are they going to face this with support or alone

Here’s what parents shared about how they will or have approached the cannabis conversation with their kids.

Parent’s use of fear and a child’s promise of abstinence

Often we hear of parents using fear to get their children to do, or not do something. It can look like: fear of punishment from parents, fear of ruining their lives, fear of dealing with the police. The list goes on. As a very traditional approach, people are starting to question whether this is the best approach. 

Think about how you responded when you were a child. Sometimes, even as an adult when you’re told not to do something or not to look at something, doesn’t that make you want it more? Weaving fear and consequences (not punishment) into the conversation is reasonable, just not the main point.

“Creating education rather than just inducing fear is a far better way to reduce poor reactions to limitations and boundaries set by parents.”
– 40 year old father

“Abstinence pledges aren’t effective, you can’t expect teenagers not to be curious, but you can give them the tools they need to make proper decisions.”
– Female, nanny of two

“I’m a firm believer that making something “bad” or off limits encourages secrecy and a thrill of doing something taboo. Above all, we will be teaching them that recreational ANYTHING should not take over your life, may it be drugs, exercise, hobbies, etc. There’s a balance to everything, and you need to find it while still paying your bills and having fulfilling relationships with friends and family.”
– Mum

When we look at the responses from parents about the cannabis-child conversation, the overwhelming response is education and support.

Cannabis conversation through education and support

It’s clear that it is the responsibility of both the parent and the child to educate and be educated. In a generational shift, parents today are interested in working with their kids rather than just telling them what to do. A parent of teenagers that we spoke with said:

“I think the core question is, are they going to face this on their own or with my support? If I prefer that they are open to support, then I cannot punish them in any way for what they do, because punishment will lead to them withholding information. I also cannot lie or exaggerate harm or use “official” talking points because they will lose trust.”
– Father

While the comment above may seem a bit extreme, it makes a lot of sense from a child’s perspective. You may have been the kid who did precisely the opposite of what your parents said. If not, you probably had at least one friend who was. As I write this, I think about how often I disobeyed my parents. I was often told what not to do without an empathetic explanation of why.

If you want your child to listen to and trust you, you have to have a conversation that makes your child feel supported. A simple presentation of what you want won’t do the job. As one parent put it, “I also do not expect to be able to control the lives or choices of teenagers. They will go to parties/concerts etc. hang out, they will get (a chance to get) high, drink, possibly take psychedelics.” 

As a parent, it’s your job to make sure that your kids make the best decisions based on the knowledge they have, not just the choice you want them to make. True collaboration between parents and parents and children will provide the best outcome.

Child Brain Development: Cannabis is for adults

32% of parents talk about brain development and cannabis

We don’t have much data on long term effects of cannabis in general. However, one more recent study was the effect of cannabis on the teenage brain (the developing brain). A study out of Montreal looked at 3,826 teens starting from seventh grade over four years. The study showed “lagged (neurotoxic) effects on inhibitory control and working memory and concurrent effects on delayed memory recall and perceptual reasoning [in adolescents]”. 

The findings suggested that young people should do everything they can to delay the onset of their cannabis use. Ideally, they avoid it entirely.

While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop your child from using cannabis altogether, explaining the impact on their brains may make them think twice about how to approach it. 

“The number one thing I would want to stress is that their brains are still developing. During this time their brain is particularly sensitive to damage from drug/ alcohol exposure. I would strongly encourage kids to wait until adulthood to smoke/ drink.”
– Mum

Most children will stay away from, or at least limit, things that can hurt them long term. It’s also important that you don’t over exaggerate things – keep it factual and get your point across. Dr. Karen Leslie, an adolescent medicine specialist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, says that while it’s okay to compare cannabis and alcohol, it’s not a good idea to say one is better than the other. 

Researchers will continue to study cannabis and brain development as the popularity of cannabis rises. As a parent, it’s important to stay as up to date as possible so that you can coach your kids through their challenges around cannabis.

Based on the brain development aspect, you can make the connection that cannabis is for adults, not for kids. This part of the conversation is where you can gently approach the consequences and issues your child may experience. One parent said:

“I’ll explain that marijuana is a plant that people use both for medicine and fun. I’ll explain that you have to be an adult to use it and that it’s not for children. And one day when she becomes an adult and decides she wants to use it, that I’m perfectly fine with that if she does so responsibly. Till then, I would explain that it’s not ok to use it because she could get in trouble with my wife and I, the police, her school, etc. I would paint it in a similar light to alcohol, and that it’s for adults only. I’d also tell her that it can be abused, just like alcohol.”
– Father, 37

Teaching them that cannabis is for adults, not kids is a logical transition into comparing cannabis with alcohol.

Treat Cannabis Like Alcohol

60% talk to kids about cannabis and alcohol similarly

With ACT legalising cannabis, other countries changing their cannabis laws, and an increasing percentage of the Australian population using cannabis illegally for adult use purposes it’s reasonable to think that cannabis will at least be decriminalised in the near future. Cannabis is becoming more and more akin to alcohol. Not only that but unlike alcohol, cannabis does have medical benefits for certain medical conditions.

Many parents suggested that they will speak with their kids about cannabis in the same light as alcohol. Here’s what they had to say:

The similarities between alcohol and weed are that you shouldn’t do anything high that you wouldn’t do drunk like driving a car. You also shouldn’t do anything drunk you wouldn’t do sober. Drinking can make you feel a bit free, but it can be dangerous if you have too much.
– Mum, 27

“I plan to treat it very much like alcohol. My husband and I smoke recreationally, but it’s not our entire life, and we treat it much like we treat alcohol – a once in a while thing. We don’t plan on hiding it at all and will be up front about what it is. Obviously I’m not smoking in my kids direct vicinity, but I’m not worried about being “caught” I’m not going to hide my glass of wine, so why would I hide my joint?”
– Mum

To wrap up parents’ comparisons of cannabis and alcohol we’ll use a quote from a mum.

“They can both create a dependency, although I consider alcohol much more dangerous. But, some people use one or both as crutches.”

Explaining that all substances have their downsides and that moderation is crucial is important for a child’s views of cannabis.

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Interesting cannabis conversation ideas

hot sauce and cannabis comparison

Cannabis, controlled substances & hot sauce

Here’s a really unique way of explaining the effects of cannabis to your child. This comes from a mother of two:  

Kids will have lots of questions about cannabis, especially as they grow older. I believe that the topic of access to controlled substances is the most important conversation to have as kids are ageing. I would never defer answers about cannabis or any controlled substance to my children’s friends or the media.

When I talk to my kids, I try to keep it straightforward. I use the language and images they know.  Talking to them about cannabis and other controlled substances, I’d put it this way.

Everything we do has consequences, some good and some bad. Like, hot sauces. Some of it’s great and some can hurt you.

Hot sauces, depending on Scoville scale rating, can have serious consequences to your mind and body. Never mind the sweating and burning sensation in your mouth/nose/throat. The consequences or hurting your mind and body are also true of other controlled substances, cannabis included.

The point is, you just don’t dive in and do what your friends say or someone tells you.  You think for yourself.  You ask questions.  Questions like what does cannabis do.  And just as important, what doesn’t it do. You can start with an obvious fact, like why is cannabis illegal in some places and legal in other places.

Talking about cannabis is another way to teach your kids about responsibility and trying to make smart decisions.

In terms of controlled substances in general, I’d explain the following:

Hot sauces are self-controlled substances. You go to the grocery store to buy them. A doctor-controlled substance is where you go to the chemist with a prescription to buy it. There are also government-controlled substances which means you can’t buy it legally and will go to jail for buying it illegally.

I’d focus on why certain substances are controlled and come with instructions for proper use, especially instructions for daily dosages and where and how the substance can be obtained. These instructions have been developed by medical professionals and subjected to rigorous medical standards. Those standards shine light on both the benefits and downsides of controlled substance use. 

While the instructions help explain why it is dangerous to buy controlled substances on the street and why it is illegal, some people still do it. I know they’ll have lots of questions. Our discussion will be a journey of discovery:  to find out, calmly and intelligently, what cannabis is and what it isn’t. And, why answers aren’t necessarily easy or obvious.

Establish a “Bug-out” policy

As discussed in the education and support section, it’s vital that your children feel comfortable talking to you about the problems they are having or the adverse situations they encounter. This parent encourages a ‘bug out’ policy which allows you to have a better understanding of what your child is doing:

“I do not expect to be able to control the lives or choices of teenagers. They will go to parties/concerts etc. hang out, they will get (a chance to get) high, drink, possibly take psychedelics.

Also, I am aware of the clear relationship between substance abuse and the need for self-medicating (I recommend Gabor Mate’s Interview on the Tim Feriss show).

So with that, gently navigate the space, without blame or judgement. And, offer insight and support, observing more and intervening less.

If they get shitfaced or get in trouble, have a conversation post-event, but mostly asking questions and avoid blame/guilt/shame.

Also, of course, have a bug out policy in place. If they feel uncomfortable in any situation, they are one text message away from getting picked up. No questions asked, no punishment no matter what.”

A Wants Vs Needs Approach

When asked how to explain cannabis use, this parent said they will take a needs vs wants approach. This takes into account that idea that you may not be able to stop your child from doing things but you can educate them:

“I think it goes hand in hand with teaching kids the simple and oh so important differences between wants and needs. 

Needs never change and include food, shelter and the means to secure those things. Being able to form a clear distinction between a want and a need plays into how they manage their entire lives. But, the other thing that most people forget to teach is how the wants affect needs and when to recognize that a want is hampering a need. 

This is how I plan to approach it since if it’s legal, it’s not prohibited except for house rules like no smoking/vaping in the house since I don’t want to smell it or have the stuff damage the drapes etc.

So with drug use, if your drug use is hurting your school or work life, then you’re going to need to make a change. I’m not fooling myself that I’m going to find a magic bullet that will magically turn my kids into responsible adults. But I want to give them the chance to fail. Failure is the best way to learn because it sticks with you. More than just trusting something.”

Relationships are most important

Another approach that can be used in conjunction with some of the other ideas in this article is relationship-based. This mother of an eight year old boy said:

“I believe this issue has to be treated like a relationship. There are good and bad relationships; the good ones being those that help you grow and flourish and make you a better person. And the others that take your peace away, that weaken your mind by invading it with thoughts that do not make you a better person at all. 

In order to talk about this or another complex subject such as drugs, sex, or even work and life, what we must do first as parents is to show them how wonderful they can be, to show them all the things that they can accomplish through constant accompaniment and development of their skills. And only there, they’ll be able to value themselves for what they are and for what they can do. They’ll also be able to understand what they’re really doing to themselves in whatever choice they make.”

A taste of wine cannabis with dinner?

One of the parents we spoke with raised an interesting point. He learned about alcohol by tasting it here and there at dinner with parents. We’re guessing you may have too? What do you think of this?

“I plan to treat it similarly to alcohol, though I’m not sure how to handle the ‘social tasting’ cannabis version of having a small glass or taste of wine with your parents at dinner yet. I smoked cannabis as a teen much more than I drank alcohol. 

My parents let me have wine at home, it was normal but, we never really discussed cannabis outside of ‘don’t do drugs’ – I’m not sure if that had an effect on my cannabis vs alcohol choice but I would imagine so. 

I will give my kids tastes of alcohol as I had, and as they get older, they can have their own responsible supervised glass of wine. I plan to talk to my kids about how both cannabis & alcohol affect the developing brain and that I understand curiosity but to try and limit it until at least college years for that reason. 

Logically it probably makes sense to do a similar thing with cannabis, maybe with the availability of edibles that would be better than smoking (edibles weren’t a thing when I was a teen). It sounds weird but I still have this mental hurdle to get over letting them try it under parental supervision because when I was a kid only the minority of parents let their kids do that and, the rest of us hid it as best as we could.”

As a parent, what’s your take on these ideas? Comment below.

In summary

In conclusion, it would seem that parents these days are on the same page about a broad approach. Educate yourself and plan to have a conversation with your children. Talk to your kids about cannabis at an early age. Take control of the narrative using your own values and the factual information available to you. 

It seems that having a conversation about cannabis and alcohol in a similar light is the standard approach. Using the research on cannabis use and underdeveloped brains is normal. The consensus is also that getting your child to do what you know is right is out of your control; educating them and allowing them to make the best decisions are within your control. 

There is also a parallel here between raising your child, the conversation you’ll have, and how your child responds. As a parent, you’re researching, learning different possible approaches, and talking about this subject with your children. You’ll take what you learn on board, think about your values and weigh the potential positives and downsides to the approach you choose. Then, you’ll do your best. 

In a similar light, your child is doing the same. They are navigating the world of childhood, friendships, relationships with their parents, growing up and so much more. They have a vast amount of information coming their way and will be put under all sorts of pressure to do things that may or may not improve their lives. They’ll weigh up the outcomes of their decisions and, they too will make a choice. 

The best thing you can do is to educate and support your kids so that they know they’re not alone no matter how difficult the challenges.

If you found this article helpful or know a parent who it might benefit from the knowledge of other parents, please feel free to share or use it as a reference.