If you spend any time with kids, chances are you know that they ask a lot of questions. Now that cannabis billboards dot California’s highways, and legal, adult-use markets have reached 10 states and D.C., it’s probable that kids will have questions about cannabis. It could come up at the dinner table, or when one of the many weed-themed TV shows happens to pop up on your streaming list. Even if they’re not talking about it, an estimated 45 percent of American teens have used some form of cannabis by age 18, and social exposure can start in middle school (ages 11-14).
As a parent and cannabis user, I’ve wrestled with the question of when and how to talk to my kids — ages six and nine — about this substance that has both medicinal and recreational value to me. How do I help them stay safe and informed without scaring or shaming them for their curiosity? How can I create an open environment for discussion while responsibly guiding them into their teen and adult years, when they will make their own decisions about cannabis?
First, let’s take a look at the science. As we know, cannabis is composed of many different compounds; the most prevalent of these are CBD and THC. CBD is used therapeutically and under a physician’s care for children with intractable epilepsy, and further pediatric medical uses are possible in the near future. THC, on the other hand, “can have an effect on developing brains, negatively impacting memory and mood,” according to cannabis educator Emma Chasen. “Young people should not consume high levels of THC, as it may cause cognitive distortion," she told Civilized.
In most of the studies on young people and THC, the negative impact of frequent cannabis use can be found up to the age of 25, which is the average moment when brain development slows and the rational, pre-frontal cortex becomes more active in decision-making. A new meta-analysis of 69 studies by the University of Pennsylvania found that the negative effects may be overstated, but experts and parents can agree that discouraging heavy cannabis use in young people is a social good.
Here's what to say about cannabis to your kids
“History has shown us that the 'abstinence only' approach to sex is utterly ineffective,” said Bronwyn Wrobel - a Marriage and Family Therapist at Wize Therapy who provides teletherapy to clients of all ages. Lacking information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, teens still have sex but experience poorer outcomes.
“The same logic applies to cannabis," she said. If adults “preach and judge and wield fear to control kids, children will only get better at hiding their curiosity and usage.” Further, she says, they will have less information with which to make responsible choices.
"Developmentally, teens aren't a place where they can visualize, understand, and prioritize negative consequences," added Cyndy Etler of The Teen Life Coach. "So, while we might fear the outcomes of substance use, for kids — especially once they get to the age where use of cannabis is a viable possibility — fear tactics won’t work."
Chasen recommends that parents and educators “approach the subject rationally without hysteria or fear-mongering.” She says that it's important to give young people credit for their intelligence and to let them know that cannabis is a medicine with side effects nonetheless, even if it's used for a variety of reasons by adults.
Experts recommend sticking to facts, asking questions about what young people may have heard from peers, and adopting a non-judgmental tone. As a parent or educator, if you are too emotionally invested in convincing kids about the evils of cannabis, young people “will intuit that you are not a reliable source of information on the subject,” Wrobel told Civilized.
When to start the conversation
Sonia (whose real name has been withheld, as she risks professional consequences for her views on cannabis), a registered nurse and mother of two teenagers, says that she began talking to her kids about cannabis when she became interested in its health benefits for herself. Her kids were 10 and 12 when she started experimenting with growing, juicing and occasionally smoking.
“I wanted them to understand what it was — not from a fear-based point of view, but from me, a reliable source," she told Civilized. "This is cannabis,” Sonia told her children. “I didn’t call it pot. I didn’t call it marijuana.” Sonia told them that even though it was legal — and she had a medical card at the time — many people still had negative beliefs about cannabis. Other people, she explained, experienced it as medicinal and health-promoting. “In some forms, it will get you high and change your mood, like alcohol does,” she told them.
Realizing that her kids would likely know other kids using cannabis while in high school, and that a certain amount of curiosity and experimentation is normal, she told her children when they were in their mid-teens, “If you were to choose anything to alter your senses, I would approve more of cannabis than I ever would alcohol.” She even offered to help facilitate their first experience. Her teens, she says, never took her up on the offer, though she believes that this conversation helped them feel comfortable coming to her with questions about a variety of issues.
Experts agree that building that relationship with your children and establishing yourself as someone who can be relied upon for information is more important than what you actually say. According to Etler, it's important to create an environment where kids feel comfortable speaking to you about whatever is on their mind.
However, while there's no minimum age to start talking to kids about cannabis, parents also need to be conscientious of an individual child's maturity level and pre-existing awareness of the topic.
Your own cannabis use: To tell your kids or not to tell them?
If you’re a parent, you may wonder whether it’s appropriate to tell your kids about your past or current cannabis use. If you feel that it would enhance or contextualize the conversation for your kids, sharing can be helpful. "Pretending, hiding, or lying about cannabis use sends mixed messages and implies shame and wrongdoing," said Wrobel. Fostering openness and honesty with children might include a discussion, or even an examination of cannabis products together. Like alcohol and prescribed pharmaceuticals, it should be acknowledged and discussed — with an emphasis on why it’s not safe for children. “If you feel okay consuming cannabis responsibly, discussing it with your kids when they are able to comprehend and manage the facts is a perfect opportunity to model responsible, informed, substance use,” Wrobel added.
My approach: "The Talk" About Cannabis (and Sex) is an Ongoing Conversation
Personally, I have chosen to start talking to my kids about cannabis well before they are exposed to it by peers. Because I keep cannabis at home and don’t feel comfortable sneaking around, I’ve shown it to my children and explained why — just like certain supplements and prescribed medications meant for adults — it’s not healthy for kids. We have family members with histories of drug and alcohol abuse, and that’s also provided a segue to these kinds of conversations.
At age three, my daughter asked me about how babies are made — I told her. Not every detail, of course, but enough for a basic notion of how things work. She asked me again a few months later, then about a year after that, and it’s become a pattern that we discuss sex and reproduction every so often. I supply more information as she’s equipped to handle it.
My son, while not particularly interested in this aspect of biology, has been present for these conversations; I’d like to think he’s learned something. In other words, I’ve never quite had “the talk” with either of my kids, but rather, a long-running series of talks. It’s a complicated subject, after all. I suspect that’s what it will be like with cannabis: a nuanced and ongoing conversation.