This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on April 29, 2021, by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine.
Question: I recently found out my 17-year-old is smoking marijuana. He said he does it to help with anxiety and that he finds a lot of relief in it. I don’t love the idea at all, but I also feel powerless to stop him. How can I talk to him about the risks but also be supportive if I lose this battle?
Answer: This is a difficult time for parents. At 17, your son is on the cusp of becoming a legal adult. This can give teens a feeling of not needing guidance or permission. Passing the milestone of 18 will not suddenly make him mature enough to all make decisions that are in his best interest. However, if your son is just starting to use at 17, studies show he is less at risk than a teen who starts at a young age, who smokes/vapes for years. A University of Montreal study says that the more teenagers delay smoking marijuana (cannabis) until they are older, the better it is for their brains, but there may be little ill effect if they start after age 17. That may give you some comfort. However, the human brain takes 26 years to reach full development so introducing substances does have risks when it comes to full potential.
That being said, I find a troubling issue in your question. What is causing the anxiety at age 17 for him to self-medicate with marijuana to relieve it? Many people have found cannabis calming, yet at seventeen or any age really, understanding the underlying cause of the anxiety is key. There are many non-drug ways of treating anxiety worth exploring.
Teens have lots of reasons to feel anxious and the pandemic has increased this anxiety. Life looks uncertain, relationships and future plans may be on hold, decreased social activity can add to general unsettledness and hopelessness. Under normal times, this age is challenging—adult responsibilities and major life decisions loom and teens question themselves. They are also developmentally pulling away from parental influences which can sometimes cause problems at home.
I commend you for wanting to address his marijuana use, but an overall conversation needs to include healthy coping and understanding of what is contributing to his anxiety. Living with anxiety can be a lifelong struggle and he should seek help at an early age to prevent this. Assure him that he does not have to talk to you about it, but a counselor might be a great help to him. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based successful treatment for anxiety which many therapists use in their work.
I urge you to do more research to give you what you need for the discussion. For parents with younger children, talking about marijuana and substance abuse needs to happen before they start using and should be an ongoing conversation. Here are some talking points (taken from the references below) for you and other parents to begin a conversation about marijuana use.
Marijuana can affect driving. It is extremely important that teens who drive understand how dangerous driving under the influence of marijuana can be. Reaction time and judgment can be impaired coupled with inexperience behind the wheel.
Importantly, marijuana is illegal. The fact that many states have legalized recreational marijuana has given a lot of young people the idea that it is legal and okay for them to use. It is not. Recreational marijuana is only legal for adults age 21 and older. Legal trouble can be incurred by a teen for possession and/or dealing.
Marijuana is not good for teen brains. Studies have shown that early marijuana use (16 and younger) causes problems with judgment, planning, and decision-making that may lead to risky behaviors. Some studies show problems with memory, motivation, and academic performance. Not the best situation with which to step into adulthood. The teens who may have a predisposition (possible family history) to mental illness and/or addiction may find themselves struggling with depression, psychosis, or further substance use.
There are very real health reasons not to smoke/vape cannabis. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine states that teens who vape are twice as likely to experience respiratory problems along with coughs, bronchitis, congestion, and phlegm than peers who do not vape.
Lastly, I like that you want to have a conversation with your son about marijuana. This is hard for parents who are often confused themselves or have mixed messages on the subject. I also like that you want to be supportive no matter the outcome. It is a conversation worth having and it will show your love for him.
Here is further information about cannabis use in teens and about anxiety:
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine.