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Wednesday
Mar062019

Ask Dr. Barb: How to have the marijuana talk with teens 

Dr. Barbara RosenbergDear Dr. Barb: I am concerned about the prospect of legalized marijuana. Throughout my young life, I avoided it because it was considered a “gateway drug” that could lead to stronger drugs. I’m told that marijuana is not addictive, but I know people who seem to need to smoke it every day. I have never tried it, but I have actually had people tell me that marijuana can have health benefits. My concern is that legal weed will encourage younger people to try it and use it as a form of escape instead of dealing with their problems. I know some people use it for physical pain, but my concern is those who will use it to dull the emotional pain that signals a need to get psychological help or make life changes. Am I just a square who is out of touch with recent science? I would appreciate your insights on ways to talk with my children about a substance that was previously illegal now entering the mainstream.


Dear Reader: I definitely understand your concerns about legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults. Marijuana is now more potent than it was decades ago, and there are high-risk derivatives being made for use with the popular vaping devices.

The chemical changes in today’s marijuana pose serious risks to adolescent development. There is evidence that regular marijuana use during teen years can potentially damage cognitive processing and memory functions, resulting in a lower IQ.

Research has shown that teens around the age of 16 who start smoking marijuana daily can become dependent on it by age 18. Currently, the risk of addiction is one in ten for adult users; however, for teens, the risk rises to one in six. Moreover, withdrawal from routine marijuana use can cause bouts of depression, anxiety, insomnia and loss of appetite.

In general, current research shows that teens and young adults are more susceptible to the negative effects of drug use. The adolescent brain is not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses, does not fully mature until the age of 25, and for some even later. Due to this unevenness in brain development, many adolescents and young adults can be prone to poor planning and faulty judgment. As a result, they are more likely to engage in impulsive behaviors like experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

In his forthcoming book, “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence,” former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson notes that mental illness is rising nationally with the sharpest increase among people ages 18 to 25, who also are the most likely to use marijuana.

Individuals with mental health concerns have higher rates of substance abuse because they tend to use drugs to distract from emotional distress instead of learning how to cope in healthier and safer ways. When they turn to marijuana, they are likely using a drug that is much more potent, with selective breeding and more advanced cultivation techniques.

In the 70s and 80s, marijuana was considered a relatively weak drug. At that time, the content of THC, a chemical compound responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects, was generally less than 5 percent. Marijuana now sold at legal dispensaries often has a THC content of 25 percent, and many people use extracts that are pure THC, according to Berenson. Added to these are high potency forms such as “dabs” or “wax,” where THC is highly concentrated.

With more potent marijuana and products containing high levels of THC, there has been a recent dramatic rise in psychosis and psychotic reactions in both medicinal and recreational use. Psychosis is a disorder characterized by abnormal mental content such as delusions, hallucinations and severe paranoia, as well as inappropriate mood, agitation and poor impulse control. Some reported cases
have required anti-psychotic medication with weeks in a psychiatric unit. 

Benefits that some may receive from THC are often outweighed by physical risks. In a rapidly changing industry that still has players who won’t abide by laws and regulations, marijuana and its derivatives can include unknown components that present added risks.

Research from the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that regular marijuana use can contribute to the possibility of a heart attack, including heart rhythm disorders and stroke even in young people who have no other cardiac risk factors.

While medical benefits are being discovered in certain compounds extracted from marijuana, more research is necessary. In the meantime, it is important to address concerns about marijuana use with teens because even occasional use can lead to risky behavior.

Conveying anger or panic, or using scare tactics and lecturing will result in their tuning you out and shutting down. On the other hand, by calmly showing open-mindedness and curiosity, a child interested in marijuana is less likely to feel judged or condemned.

There is a lot of misinformation online and among peers who encourage drug use. Approaching a conversation in this way, you can help your child learn to question sources and seek out factual information.

Your teen might say that marijuana is no big deal, as they only use it once in a while, or that you should be happy that they are not drinking alcohol. In a calm and curious way, you could say, “I am interested in knowing why you think weed is safer than alcohol.”

Showing respectful interest in his or her thought processes will help your child to be less defensive and feel safer opening up to you. Questions like these also will get them to think about their future and their priorities.

Of course, in some cases, it will be necessary to establish rules and consequences. Do not just assume children know you don’t want them to use illegal drugs or alcohol. Teens, and some young adults, do not deal well with gray areas, and when they are offered drugs or alcohol, they can become confused, especially when vulnerable to peer pressure.

Deep down, your child actually may want rules and to know that you care about his or her safety. Putting the rules in a written contract is a great way to make sure your child clearly understands the limits and any consequences that will follow. No one wants to be a mean parent, but the bottom line is that setting limits is about keeping kids safe.

Barbara L. Rosenberg, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist whose Summit practice serves individuals of all ages, as well as couples and families. She previously chaired educational and social programs for the Essex-Union County Association of Psychologists. Contact her through BarbaraRosenberg.com.

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