Q: My Teen is Smoking Marijuana and Changing Before My Eyes. What Do I Do?
Is your teen smoking weed? Are you noticing drastic differences in behavior? It’s tempting to confront your child, but to truly help them, you first need to build trust and better understand them. From learning more about the unique effects of cannabis on the ADHD brain, to opting for compassion rather than confrontation, here’s how to get your teen on track.
Q: “My son is 15 and was diagnosed with ADHD at age 10. He takes medication. I suspect he is smoking marijuana with friends, and I know he occasionally smokes in the garage. We confronted him, and he says he has things under control. I’m not sure of that. His grades have dropped (from Bs to Cs), and his attitude and behaviors have changed. He is spending more time with his pot-smoking friends. What should I do?”
You probably want me to tell you how to change his behaviors. I wish it were that simple. It’s hard when our kids start to make choices that we don’t support.
When we make assumptions about what they’re doing, we get more worried. It will help to focus on understanding your son’s perspective and his motivations, so that you can begin to positively influence his behavior.
Dealing with Marijuana and ADHD Teens
Step 1: Understand Why He May Be Using
I don’t know what is motivating your son’s behavior, but it’s common for kids diagnosed with ADHD to start using marijuana. There are a variety of reasons for starting.
- Sometimes, it’s just poor impulse control management. When something that is easily available is commonly used by your peers, it takes a lot of willpower to say no.
- When smart kids struggle in school, they begin to feel embarrassed that they aren’t keeping up with their peers. They may gravitate toward students who are lower performers as a way to protect their self-esteem.
- Some teens with ADHD “self-medicate,” either as an escape from the frustration of living with ADHD, or because they think it helps them. When a teen has been on medication for ADHD for years without learning self-management skills, he may not see that ADHD medication is helping, but he knows that marijuana makes him feel better.
Step 2: Help Your Teen Better Understand ADHD’s Role
Helping kids learn to understand and manage their own brand of ADHD is a key part of preparing them to tackle life’s challenges, and is a gradual, collaborative process. It requires creating a judgment-free zone, minimizing guilt and shame, so your kids feel safe asking for and accepting help.
It’s not easy to start this process with a teen. At 15, your son is wired to seek independence; it’s developmentally appropriate for him to want to (and begin to) make independent choices. And since he hasn’t yet learned to manage his ADHD, he becomes defensive in response to your input.
Lecturing him about what he shouldn’t do won’t change his behaviors, and trying to force him to follow your advice will probably backfire. If you establish limits authoritatively, without his participation, he will not learn problem-solving. Confronting him won’t build trust or cultivate decision-making skills. Instead, it’s likely to push him toward his new friends for validation and reinforcement.
Step 3: Build Trust by Valuing Compassion Over Confrontation
Prove your concern for what’s going on with your teen by shifting your tone. Your goal is to inspire him to make good choices, instead of lecturing him about what he should or shouldn’t do.
Here are a few strategies to get on a constructive path:
1. Don’t get furious, get curious. When you notice yourself judging your son’s behaviors, try to identify what might be causing them. Ask yourself:
- What’s motivating him?
- Why is he hanging out with this crowd?
- How does he feel about school these days?
- Have his perceptions about school changed?
Use this curiosity to shift your focus.
2. Do your homework. The recent changes in your son’s behavior — falling grades and a change in friend-groups — are causes for concern. There is evidence that teen use of marijuana is not healthy, particularly when it is routine. There are probably some positive things happening with him, some ways that he is taking on responsibility. Look for things to celebrate, and collect some data that supports the positives.
3. Know that managing ADHD takes more than medication. Recommended treatment for ADHD in children is a combination of medication for them and behavior therapy for their parents. Behavioral parent training helps you communicate with your son, and will teach you how to educate him about his ADHD. When he’s ready, working with a therapist can be helpful. But until he is open to getting help, start by shifting your approach and the talks you’re having with him.
4. Lean into your relationship. Make an effort to reconnect with your son, like playing video games, going rock climbing, or whatever he likes. Don’t direct or correct, just connect. You want him to feel safe talking to you about any problems he is having with friends or school.
5. Schedule a conversation. Ask him to think about what he’s feeling proud of lately, and where he might like to see some improvement. Tell him you want to hear about his perspective, and share yours, too. Give him time to think about it, so that you don’t spring it on him with “Son, we have to talk.”
6. Begin an open dialogue. In an open, honest conversation, ask, “What’s working?” Celebrate everything you can about how he’s doing. Ask him to do the same. Then ask, “What’s not working so well?” Let him talk first.
In this conversation, share your opinions about cannabis use disorder and the effects of marijuana on teen brain, and ask what he knows. Offer to share materials with him if he doesn’t know a lot. Ask why he’s using it, and what he finds to be helpful, rewarding, or fun about it. Discuss what he thinks is appropriate behavior for a teen his age.
To shift this behavior, you can set expectations and identify consequences. But if you want his compliance, make sure it comes from an open dialogue built on trust and respect.