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Talking to teens about pot now that it’s ‘cool’ in Washington

While 1.8 million residents in Washington voted in favor of recreational marijuana, a little over 1 million voted against Initiative 502, which is now law. Schools who are noticing mixed messages about marijuana can be difficult for young people who are confronted with making decisions about using or avoiding this drug. (AP/MyNorthwest file photo)

It’s just fine with the majority of people in our state.

By a public vote, a small amount of marijuana for adults age 21 and older is legal. Since then, the President, Governor, and mayors have said it’s alright.

Busting people for marijuana possession is a low priority for police too.

“When we see the perception of the harm of it going down, use does go up,” says Frank Couch, executive director at the Science and Management of Addictions (SAMA), an intensive outpatient treatment center in Seattle.

While 1.8 million residents in Washington voted in favor of recreational marijuana, a little over 1 million voted against Initiative 502 also.

Mixed messages about marijuana can be difficult for young people who are confronted with making decisions about using or avoiding the drug.

How do parents talk with their kids about a substance that is legal for adults and suddenly seems okay in our culture in Washington?

“I can’t be the only one who thinks marijuana is still not good for my kids, just like alcohol isn’t something I want them to use,” says Sheryl, who has a son and daughter in a Tacoma middle school. “Other parents have such a laid back attitude like it’s no big deal, it’s cool and I should light up with the kids.”

Couch will be speaking to high school parents this week. He won’t give them a definitive answer about whether marijuana is harmful, but he does note a young person’s brain is generally not helped by drugs.

“Brains develop from the inside out, from the back to front and if we know anything about the brain the front is the executive functioning,” he says. “That’s where all the decisions are made, ‘Am I going to do my homework? Am I going to pay my bills? Is it right or wrong?’ All of that happens in the executive functioning and that’s the last thing to develop. Putting chemicals in from the outside cannot be good.”

That’s the extent of his discussion about whether marijuana is bad for kids. He’d rather spend his time giving parents suggestions for how to talk with their children about marijuana because simply telling a teen he or she can’t do something doesn’t work.

“They get up in the morning and it’s us telling them what they need to be doing – get up, get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast – and then they’re off at school where they’re getting positive reinforcement from their friends for six hours. Then we see them at dinner time when we’re asking them did they do what they’re supposed to, did they follow through, what did they do wrong? When they’re with us it’s a negative feeling,” he says. “When they’re out there in the world with their peers it’s a positive feeling.”

In order to have an effective discussion with a young person about marijuana, Couch suggests an approach called the “PIUS” method which is an acronym for Positive, I statements, Understanding, and Shared responsibility.

Conversations should begin with kids with positive reinforcement. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially if you’re upset with them because they’re in trouble for something.

“Talk about something that they’re doing well. When you start with something positive they’re more likely to hear something you have to say later,” Couch explains. “Then you use an I statement. ‘I wanted to talk to you because I’m feeling anxious about what I’m seeing. I’m seeing paraphernalia or people in your class are smoking and I’m worried.’ That’s about you. That’s not about the youth, so they’re still hearing you at this point.”

Show your child you understand what’s going on in their world. He suggests an understanding statement could be: I understand a lot of folks are using marijuana and that there’s a lot of political talk about it right now in the country after Washington legalized recreational pot here. I get it, but we still have to talk about it because the bottom line in our family is…

Is what?

What is your policy on pot use? I’ve discovered as a parent you need to have a policy on a variety of subjects, dating for example, long before it will become an issue.

“After they come up with a plan on how they might do something different or avoid first use, a parent should ask ‘How can I help?’ Then we become not the punisher but the assist-er,” says Couch.

Coming up with a strategy together is part of the shared responsibility. One example of a strategy is giving the young person an “escape route.”

“Put my number on speed dial, then you can just push one button if you’re challenged with people smoking or you want an escape route and you can say ‘Oh that’s my mom calling or my dad calling’ and then you can get off the phone and ramble off anything ‘you mean I have to come home now’ that’s a strategy,” he says.

This method might be helpful for parents, but Couch acknowledges that most kids learn more by example than by words. The old adage, “do as I say, not as I do” isn’t the best parenting strategy with most things, including marijuana.

“It’s a tough sell to say, you can’t but I’m going to because I’m old enough to,” he says.


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