How To Talk To Your Kids About Drugs

How to Talk to Your Kids About Drug Use

By Dana Klosner May 23, 2017

With changing laws and attitudes about recreational marijuana, it’s more important than ever for parents to talk to their kids about drug use.

Popular opinion on the legalization of recreational marijuana has changed dramatically in the last decade. Today, 57 percent of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal. A decade ago, opinion on legalizing marijuana was nearly the reverse: 32 percent favored legalization, while 60 percent were opposed, according to a 2016 Pew Research Poll. While marijuana is still illegal federally, recreational and medical use is permitted in eight states, and medical use is allowed in more than half the country, including New York and New Jersey.

“With legalization [for recreational use] comes increased availability and a decrease in the perception of harm among children and adolescents,” says Amy Goldstein, communications director of the National Family Partnership. But studies from the World Health Organization and The National Academy of Sciences show just the opposite: Marijuana can be addictive and harmful. Chances of becoming dependent on marijuana can be up to 50 percent for some users, according to Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an alliance dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy, and regular use is dangerous to the adolescent brain—in some cases linked to permanent reductions in IQ, respiratory problems, injury, psychosis, and suicide. “When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. Marijuana’s effect on these abilities may last a long time or even be permanent,” Goldstein says.

But with these new state laws, kids are being inundated with messages that the drug is harmless—and it’s more important today than ever that parents understand the risks of marijuana when used recreationally.

“There are new television commercials coming after kids and young adults,” says Sue Rusche, president and CEO of National Families in Action. She refers to the T-Mobile Super Bowl commercial featuring Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog having a potluck supper with thinly veiled references to pot. “There were purple cushions, marijuana vines, and other pot references,” she says. “That kind of stuff comes after kids. It’s the new tobacco industry, only worse.”

Medical marijuana—which has been approved for treating symptoms of a number of diseases including cancer, HIV infection or AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy—is a different story: Though it remains controversial and the American Academy of Pediatrics disapproves of its use in children, it is a topic that parents should discuss with their doctor if their child suffers from one of these diseases.

RELATED: Medical Marijuana & Children: Risks & Benefits

In states where marijuana is fully legal, there are billboards advertising where to get it. Nationally, there are websites such as that tell you where you can buy pot and even have it delivered.

Paraphernalia is not the only way to indulge anymore. Legalization has spurred a boom in pot “edibles.” THC concentrate is mixed into almost any type of food or drink, including candies, soda, and baked goods. Today, these edibles comprise at least half of Colorado’s marijuana market, according to a report by SAM. There are even edible recipes on the Internet. “These foods are being left around,” Rusche says. “Babies and toddlers are eating them. They are rushed to the ICU.”

“Marijuana is more potent today than it was in the 1960s and ’70s even through the ’90s,” Rusche continues. “In those days the THC levels were 1, 2, 3, 4 percent. As marijuana growers begin cross breeding the average level of THC is now 12-15 percent.”

But all is not lost. “Parents have the power to help our children grow up to be healthy and drug free,” Goldstein says. And it is never too early to start.  

Tips for Talking to Ages 3-6

Model a healthy relationship to drugs and alcohol. “In very young children parents want to model behaviors,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist who specializes in parenting issues. “Always use drugs and alcohol moderately. You think kids aren’t watching but they are.”

Take advantage of teachable moments. “There are teachable moments,” says Peggy Sapp, executive director of the National Family Partnership. “You can use gummy vitamins. You can say, ‘These taste like candy but they’re not, they’re medicine and you can only have one a day.’”

Eat dinner as a family. Even at this young age getting together for meals has a positive impact on kids, Newman says. You can model listening and sharing events of your day. “There are several studies that show the more dinners you have with children, the less likely they are to try dangerous substances,” she says. “They feel supported, they get heard, and it’s a great opportunity to talk about all this.”   

RELATED: Family Mealtime: All Kinds of Nourishment

Tips for Talking to Elementary School Age

Express clear disapproval for drug use. “Marijuana use was much less prevalent among youths who perceived strong parental disapproval for trying marijuana once or twice than for those who did not,” according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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What happens when you see commercials and billboards? “Help [kids] become media literate by asking questions about what they think the commercial or message are trying to tell them and why. It’s a good opportunity to ask questions about what they think they know about marijuana, what they’ve heard from their friends, who they perceive to be using it—and responding to those questions with facts, calmly and clearly,” Goldstein says.

Tell your kids that even in states where marijuana is legal, it is only legal for adults of a certain age, and regulated by law the way alcohol is, until age 21. It is still considered illegal and harmful for teens and the developing teen brain, which is not fully matured until age 25, according to Josie Feliz, director of communications for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Talk about family values. “Discuss incidents with friends in general about anti-social behavior,” Newman says. “If some child in the neighborhood throws rocks at someone’s dog, you need to discuss values and what’s important. For example you can say, ‘In this family we value respect and not following negative examples.”

Address negative behaviors. According to Joseph Lee, M.D., American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry member and expert specializing in substance abuse, there can be telltale signs and many years of behavior before a child turns to substance abuse. “A child might have behavior problems in school,” he says. “He could be telling white lies and have trouble with remorse or empathy. These issues should be addressed.”

Tips for Talking to Middle School Age

Know your kids’ friends. Studies show younger teens, those 13 and older, are much more influenced by their peers. “Be aware of where your kids are and who they are with,” Newman says. “Being vigilant can pay off.”

“Ask them how their friends are using and why they are,” adds Susan Weiss, Ph.D., director of the Division of Extramural Research at The National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Tell them, ‘Your friends may be taking risks with things you may not want to do.’”

Team up with other adults in your kids’ lives. “Know who the parents are,” Goldstein says. “Work together with the parents of your children’s friends to set common boundaries and monitor behavior. There’s strength in numbers. By getting to know your children’s friends’ parents and joining forces, you are essentially building a safety net for your children. Plus, supporting each other during times when you feel worn out can empower you to stay focused on helping your kids grow up healthy and drug free.”

Model and introduce healthy coping mechanisms and hobbies. Middle school can be a time of high stress, Goldstein says. Children go through puberty while experiencing pressure to fit in and gaining more independence. It’s important for children to be exposed to healthy ways of coping with stress, whether it’s through daily exercise, getting out in nature, yoga, meditation, or playing their favorite sport.

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Tips for Talking to Teens and Young Adults

Be available. Parents should be honest about the risk to kids, Weiss says. “But if your child is using it find out why—some are depressed, some are anxious. They are using it to solve problems. Tell them this is not a good way and there are better ways of coping.”

Discuss family history and what they see in the news. Talk about family members with addictions and family members with mental illness, Weiss says.

“When a celebrity or local person in the news is in trouble for marijuana or other substances, it is an opportunity for parents to take advantage of the situation and discuss it in detail,” Newman says. “You want to say something like this happened to this person and these are the dangers of using marijuana and other drugs.” 

Make them aware that not everyone is doing it. According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 7 percent (1 out of 14) of 12- to 17-year-olds have reported using marijuana in the last month. “Sadly the misconception that everyone is doing it, which is common for teens, leads to increased use,” Goldstein says. “Many prevention organizations are aware of this and are investing in marketing campaigns, which help to reduce alcohol and drug use by educating teens about the actual use by their peers, based on surveys done in a school or community.”

“You can show them a site like and say, ‘Look how many sites are exploiting kids and breaking federal laws. These folks don’t care about your health, they only care about making money’,” Rusche says.

Cultivate a positive family culture. It’s important that you spend quality time with your kids and have a good relationship, Goldstein says. Your kids need to know that they can trust and talk to you.

“You don’t know what outside influences are going to do to your teenager,” Newman says. “The only way to combat this is by how you as a parent behave.”

Main image: Introducing tweens to new to hobbies such as hiking as a healthy way to cope with stress is one way to help prevent them from turning to drugs.