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How To Talk To Your Child About Cannabis

Your child will hear about cannabis at some point, whether they see it on TV, a parent is a medical cannabis patient, or they attend “anti-drug” programming at school. Naturally, they will have questions about what they learn: They may hear contradictory information and wonder why cannabis is medicine for some and a non-starter for others. 

The subject of cannabis can be difficult for any parent to tackle in a way that acknowledges the complexities of Prohibition-era policies, what science says about cannabinoid medicine, and the reality that millions of adults can purchase cannabis for any reason. To help you decide how to speak with your child about cannabis, we are highlighting the perspectives of two medical professionals: Gregory Garber, MSW, LCSW, of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and cannabinoid medicine specialist Dr. Rachel Knox, MD, MBA. Here’s what they had to say.

Meet the experts: Gregory Garber and Dr. Rachel Knox

What you need to know before speaking to your child about cannabis

First and foremost, you know your child best. As a parent, you’re attuned to your child’s ability to think rationally, handle nuanced conversations, and process new information. What you share, and how much you share, should be shaped by your child’s developmental stage and maturity. No matter their age or in which context they initially learned about cannabis, you will ultimately make the final decision about what you want to tell your child.

“It’s the parents’ job to continue to reorient their children to the knowledge and values you’re cultivating in the home,” Knox said.

While the level of detail and approach may vary, there are a few key areas that you may want to use to shape the cornerstone of any conversation with your child about cannabis.

Parent talking to child about cannabis

Separate cannabis from dangerous drugs

Why is cannabis often lumped together with other dangerous substances? This goes back to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970: This classified cannabis and other substances as “Class I,” which means federal authorities deemed those substances to be highly addictive and have no medical value. Now that it’s known that cannabis indeed has medical properties and has low potential addiction (around 9% — about as much as caffeine), Garber said clarifying the difference between cannabis and other “drugs” is clear.

“Cannabis got lumped into this group because of the political climate at that particular time,” Garber said, referring to President Richard M. Nixon’s administration and its anti-cannabis stance that eventually led to the creation of the CSA and other anti-cannabis policy stances.

“Cannabis isn’t a drug – it’s a plant, and some cannabis varieties have higher concentrations of phytochemicals (i.e. drugs) that have physiological effects when introduced to the body,” Knox added. 

Garber recommends focusing on the medical value of cannabis to differentiate it from other Class I substances.

“If Mom has cancer or Dad has arthritis, you can explain how cannabis helps them feel better in these specific ways,” Garber said. “You can explain to them that it’s hard to conduct everyday activities or enjoy what you do every day without [the help of] medical cannabis.”

Acknowledge how Prohibition affected what we know about cannabis

Knox said that parents should be honest about the realities of Prohibition-era policies, such as the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which outlawed both medical and recreational cannabis use. This can create an opportunity to dispel the anti-cannabis rhetoric your child may hear at school or in anti-drug programming.

“Cannabis is an incredibly dynamic plant species with myriad uses, [including] agricultural, industrial, medical, and nutritional uses,” Knox said. “When you frame cannabis in this context, we recognize there is little if anything to fear about this plant. This fear has put us over a century behind schedule in industrial, medical, and scientific advancement.”

“You may want to acknowledge that some people thought cannabis was bad when Prohibition began, but we are learning more about how cannabis helps sick people,” Garber added. “You can give them the language they need to have those conversations at school.”

Knox noted that parents may wish to express their concerns directly to the school if they find their child coming home with misleading information about cannabis.

“Do what you can to ensure that our schools and other public sector institutions are not misinforming our children, because they need to be preparing them for the real world,” Knox said.

It’s not for everyone – including underage people

Garber said that it’s important to acknowledge the biological reality that research has yet to determine how cannabis affects developing brains.

“You want to strongly discourage use in teenagers and in children [unless medically necessary],” Garber said. “The downsides on a developing brain are still being researched, but what we do know is significant: It can affect short-term memory, judgment, and educational outcomes.”

He also said that parents should press the illegality of cannabis possession and consumption for those under 21.

“It’s illegal for people under 21 to buy and consume cannabis – period,” Garber said. “This should be the foundation of discussions… The consequences should be the same [for consuming cannabis underage] as if they brought home alcohol.”

Of course, there is a time and a place for those under 21: If they need medical cannabis to address the symptoms of a serious illness, such as a seizure disorder or symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

“[The] physiological effects [of phytocannabinoids found in cannabis] have been studied and have been determined to be therapeutic when used appropriately – even by children,” Knox said.

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

Garber believes that conversations around cannabis should not start before age 11 unless your child asks first, adding that more advanced discussions can be held with children 12 and older.

“You don’t need to talk about cannabis with a 5-year-old, but when they are curious, you need to respond,” Garber said. “Some children are more curious and will ask questions, while others will be indifferent.” 

However, Knox said that she believes parents can, and should, have honest conversations about cannabis with their child at any age.

“It’s important for children to understand cannabis more holistically and in more measured terms than the generations that have preceded them,” Knox said. “Cannabis hysteria has done far more harm than people realize and no good at all. It’s time we focus harm reduction efforts around competency–education about the plant and its responsible use.”

Garber said that teenagers are generally better equipped to handle more nuanced discussions around cannabis, including distinctions between medical and adult use and the political reality around the subject, than younger children, who may be best off with a simple explanation.

“You don’t want to appear hypocritical to your teens,” Garber said. “You need to present explanations and reasons that will help them make informed decisions about cannabis and why it may not be best for their developing brains.”

Tips for speaking to your child about cannabis

As you prepare to talk with your child about cannabis, these four tips can help guide your conversation:

Provide facts

Both Knox and Garber emphasized the importance of anchoring conversations in truth and knowledge.

“Children are very observant, learning all they can from the world around them and the adults in their lives,” Knox said. “Cannabis is legalizing all around us, [and] many parents are turning to cannabis preparations for medical use or wellness purposes. We cannot hide cannabis from children and they likely have questions. It’s best to provide them with as holistic a perspective as is possible.”

Garber added that a child or teen will try to fill in the blanks on their own if they are not provided with facts and reasons, which creates opportunities for misinformation and confusion to creep in.

“Putting it all out there is important: good, bad, and what we don’t know,” Garber said. 

Create space to talk about cannabis, and check in periodically

Once the cannabis topic has been discussed for the first time, Garber recommends checking in with your child to address their questions and concerns. He recommends structuring this time so your child has a dedicated space to explore their feelings and ask questions about things that might be confusing to them.

“You can address your child’s concerns directly when you create an opportunity for them to talk about it,” Garber said.

Utilize the “teach back” method

Garber recommends utilizing the “teach back” method, a technique used by healthcare professionals to assess how well a patient understood the information provided to them. With this method, you ask your child to explain to you what they learned about cannabis once the discussion is over. According to Garber, this allows you to assess what your child understood, what may need clarification, and provides an avenue through which to continue the conversation.

“The teach back method provides space to validate children and ensure that what they heard is what you said,” Garber said. “It can also be a helpful reinforcement to drive home the most important takeaways.”

Whatever you decide to share, don’t avoid the subject

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health analyzed cannabis use rates in teens from three parenting groups: One group ignored the subject, one group had open conversations about cannabis, and the last group took a strict, discipline-oriented approach to underage consumption. The study found that children in the latter two groups had much lower rates of underage cannabis consumption than the group that did not talk about cannabis at all.

“Maintain your family rules, answer questions honestly, and you don’t need to be completely secretive,” Garber said. 

Tips for talking to your child about cannabis

Having tough yet honest conversations starts with opening the door

It can be difficult for anyone, let alone a child or a teen, to wrap their head around the nuance and detail that comes with discussing cannabis. However, no matter what you decide is best for your family, honesty and openness are key to productive and helpful discussions that will help your child understand the benefits, risks, and the political and cultural realities that shape how cannabis is discussed in media, at school, and with their friends.

“Sentiments are changing, but what the mainstream still purports to know about cannabis is the result of over a century of misinformation and propaganda delivered to us in the form of criminalization, racism, suppression, and the War on Drugs,” Knox said.

At the end of the day, the best person to address your child’s concerns is you.

“Bottom line is, you should tell your child, ‘I’d rather you come to me with your questions than somebody else, and if I don’t know the answer, I will find out for you,’” Garber said.

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