Cannabis and Parenting

A guide to the challenges parents face teaching kids about cannabis and navigating their own use of the plant while remaining responsible parents.
Last Updated: May 02, 2019

Teaching kids about marijuana used to be easy. Back in the Nancy Reagan days, when “just say no” was repeated ad nauseam in television commercials and in schools, the message was clear. Marijuana and other drugs were dangerous, and kids should never, ever touch them. For parents that were on board with this message, there wasn’t much more they needed to say. Of course regarding marijuana, these messages were inaccurate, uninformed, and simplistic.

Today, as legalization spreads around the world, and people recognize both the medicinal value of the plant and the safety of its use recreationally, the conversations parents need to have with their children have gotten far more nuanced and difficult.

It’s also become more difficult to use cannabis as a parent. Because in many cases it no longer needs to be hidden, which means it’s far more likely that kids will be aware of their parent’s cannabis use. And this creates further important conversations between parents and their children.

Talking to Kids About Cannabis Use

Talking to kids about marijuana has always been difficult to navigate for some parents, and the wave of legalization that’s sweeping across the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world is making it even more difficult.

The reality is that kids smoke pot and legalization will only make it easier for them to get it. Parents now need to weigh the reality of kids and cannabis with the existing laws, possible health issues, and the desire for their children to be responsible.

Even If Marijuana is Legal, It’s Still Illegal For Minors

In every state that has legalized cannabis, either for medicinal or recreational purposes, it’s still illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess or use any sort of cannabis product. In Canada, the legal age can vary between provinces, but some set it as low as 18. This presents a challenge to parents. On the one hand, they may be free to use cannabis at will, but they must, if they’re to comply with the law, prevent their kids from using it.

In this case, the way parents handle alcohol and cigarettes can be a good guide for how to talk to their kids about marijuana. The concept is exactly the same. Parents can make it clear to their children that marijuana is a grown-up activity. It’s safe for adults, assuming they use it responsibly, but it isn’t safe for kids, as we’ll see later.

It’s important for children to understand that laws exist to protect them. You can talk about how kids can be impulsive and don’t always show the best judgment, and so the legal age is set to help them make good decisions.

And of course, marijuana is still illegal federally in the US, so kids between the age of 18 and 21 can face serious problems if caught with cannabis products in states where they aren’t yet legal.

Stick to the Facts

In most cases, scare tactics don’t work. And, particularly when you’re talking about cannabis, they frequently aren’t true. Many of the dangers surrounding marijuana, like it being a gateway drug, are fabrications, and its fairly easy to debunk them particularly with the internet. If you’re talking to older kids about marijuana and you employ factual inaccuracies in an effort to scare them away from using, the tactic can backfire, and your kids could call into question your credibility on the subject, which could be damaging to future efforts.

Instead, try to combine interesting and bizarre cannabis facts, as well as interesting facts like talking about the actual effects of the drug. You can talk about how it affects the brain, motor functions, and perception. You can, and should talk about how some people enjoy it, and the reasons why adults use it. Your conversation can come off as disingenuous if you discuss nothing but the negative aspects of cannabis. People use it and use it safely. That won’t make sense to your kids if all you tell them is how dangerous it is.

You should certainly talk about the research into how cannabis affects developing brains, and how extended use by pre-teens and teens can cause problems later in life. This article will drill down into these topics in more detail later.

Particularly if you’re talking to older kids, make certain to have data to back up your claims. Telling kids that something can hurt them tends to go in one ear and out the other unless you can demonstrate that it’s true.

What’s most important is that your kids hear you as a credible source. They need to be able to trust what you’re telling them, so if you encounter a question that you can’t answer, tell them that you’ll do some research and get back to them. Don’t make something up, and definitely don’t lie. Your credibility is the best tool you have to get your kids to listen to what you’re telling them. Once that’s been compromised it’s difficult to get it back.

Make Sure the Dialogue is Two-Way

With younger kids, this is less important, as it’s likely your conversation with them will be the first time they’re hearing about the subject. But with older kids, they’ll be bringing pre-existing “knowledge” in with them. It’s important to ask them what they already know about marijuana.

In most cases, what they “know” comes from peer groups, school scare tactics, and other potentially unreliable sources. By getting them talking you can discover the flaws and holes in their knowledge, which will allow you to correct them. This is important because misinformation can have unintended consequences. As we said earlier, facts and accurate information are always the best choices.

If you’re talking to an older child that you caught using, it’s important not to freak out. It’s perfectly natural that some kids will be drawn to marijuana. Punishment may not be the best tactic. Instead, take the situation as an opportunity to educate the child on the truth about the substance, and about the negatives. An honest discussion can go a long way toward encouraging a responsible use pattern. They’ll likely smoke again. If you allow it under certain responsible conditions the child is more likely to honor your wishes.

How to Tell if Your Child is Using Marijuana

Snooping in their things is never a good idea. This is a violation of privacy and can damage trust. Instead, keep an eye out for telltale signs. Look for distinct changes in behavior. When talking to your child, note if their eyes are glassy or overly bloodshot. Notice if they’re having undue trouble remembering things, if they’re unusually giggly, or seem dizzy and lacking coordination. Also, notice if they’re avoiding making eye contact.

If you don’t already know what cannabis smells like you should find a way to familiarize yourself with the scent. Marijuana has a very specific odor, and if you smell it on your kids, or wafting out from under their bedroom door, there’s a good chance they’re using it.

Health Concerns Parents Should Be Aware Of

Marijuana is generally considered to be safe for adult use. However, a number of studies have found developmental problems from prolonged use by teens and young adults. This is something parents need to consider as they work through how to parent children around the plant.

Cannabis and the Developing Brain

Not all studies agree on the effects of cannabis on the developing brain, and a few haven’t found a statistically significant effect, but enough have turned up hard evidence to support the notion that extended cannabis use can have negative and permanent effects on the developing brain that it’s worth taking note of the results.

Animal studies have demonstrated cognitive declines from heavy THC exposure in early childhood and adolescence. One in particular, performed on monkeys found that spatial reasoning and working memory could both be adversely affected by frequent THC exposure during adolescence and that these deficits were far more likely if the exposure happened while the neural circuitry involved was developing.

Human studies tend to confirm this conclusion. One study performed in New Zealand found that frequent cannabis use, starting in adolescence was associated with an IQ loss of six to eight points, when measured as adults. These points were never recovered, even if the person stopped smoking in adulthood. By comparison, people that start smoking with equal frequency in adulthood do not suffer the same IQ loss.

Another study found that the risk of psychosis, which is present, even for adults using high THC strains of cannabis, though fairly unusual, is considerably higher in teens. The study credits this increased risk to emotional immaturity and a brain that’s more easily influenced by aberrant neuro-chemical reactions.

The general consensus currently is that frequent, heavy use by teens and adolescents can cause lasting changes in the brain, and should be avoided. However, “frequent” and “heavy” are the operative terms. Occasional and light use has not been implicated as dangerous, so the fried egg analogy of the “this is your brain on drugs” era is not accurate.

Being a Parent That Uses Cannabis

Using cannabis as a parent is not a shameful thing. As long as it’s used responsibly it’s no different than having a beer or a glass of wine. However, because cannabis has been illegal for so long, there are far more negative connotations surrounding parents that get high compared to parents that get a bit tipsy, and many parents are afraid they could be judged unfairly if their use is discovered. Thus even in areas where marijuana is legal, some parents feel they still need to hide. Is that reaction warranted? The question can be viewed from a number of perspectives.

Is It Okay to Get High When Your Kids Are in the House?

There is no right answer to this question. As a parent, your first priority is the health and well being of your child. Once this is taken care of, many would argue that parents should be free to do what they like. However, can using cannabis put your children at risk?

The Guardian polled over 200 parents that use cannabis to get their thoughts on this issue. While there was certainly a diversity of opinion, some general trends were clear. Most parents agreed that moderate use after the kids have gone to bed, is perfectly fine, and most used in this manner.

Moderate use is key. One can imagine a scenario where there’s an emergency that requires fast, specific action. If the adults in the house are all extremely high, it’s conceivable that they may not be prepared to avert the crisis. This can put children in danger.

But the same is true for alcohol, and most people have no problem having a moderate amount of alcohol around their children or once their children have gone to bed.

Is It Okay to Get High in Front of Your Kids?

There was less agreement on this point. Many parents were uncomfortable using cannabis in front of their children. Some were okay going off somewhere else and then returning to their children’s company, but many weren’t interested in being high around their children at all. This is a personal choice. One anonymous person from the Guardian poll said, “I have two awesome sons that are 8 and 4. I smoke around them occasionally, most of the time I go outside or in another room. I feel that smoking pot makes me a better person in general, not just a better parent.”

This person feels using cannabis benefits his or her children. So the decision isn’t one that can be made for you. Most people don’t think twice about having a glass of wine with dinner, with their children at the table. Smoking a joint shouldn’t be any different, particularly in places where it’s legal. It’s only the longtime stigma that makes it seem different.

Should You Use Cannabis With Your Grown Children?

To answer the question of whether this is okay, we need to consider it, not from a legal perspective, but more pragmatically. Because if it’s purely a legal question the answer is a hard “no”. It’s illegal for kids under 21 to use marijuana. But depending on the state you live in it could be illegal for adults to use marijuana, too, and yet people still do it.

Although it’s never recommended for kids under 18 to use cannabis, given the possible harm that can come to them, for kids over the age of 18, a purely legal perspective isn’t helpful. What’s in question then, is whether what there is to be gained by sharing cannabis together outweighs what can be lost.

Cannabis and Emotional Maturity

It’s often said that parents need to be parents first, and friends second. If you treat your child as a friend it becomes more difficult to be a parent when faced with difficult situations. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to set an example for your kids, which does require a certain level of emotional separation. Of course, you love your kids with all your heart, but there are healthy boundaries that need to be maintained. You are the parent and they are the child.

However, marijuana has a tendency to break down emotional walls and expose raw emotions. This is fine between friends, spouses and other adult relationships. But when applied to a parent/child relationship, that level of emotional entanglement can be problematic.

Teaching Responsibility

As a counterpoint, some parents consider sharing the occasional joint with their grown children an opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. And there is some merit to this perspective.

Parents have said the same thing about alcohol. By letting their older children drink responsibly around them, in a safe environment, it teaches them how adults can drink without drinking to excess. Some would say it’s better to learn how to drink from responsible parents than from irresponsible peers.

If this is your perspective, it’s important to remember that, if you’re using shared cannabis as means to teach responsibility then you need to do it responsibly. If it’s still illegal where you live, consider the message you’re sending. You’re saying it’s okay to break the law when you want to. Kids may find it hard to square this with the idea of responsibility. Be prepared to make a strong argument for why some laws are unjust. Regardless, it’s a difficult ethical position to support.

However, if it is legal, remember that it may not be legal for your under 21 kids. The same issues apply. Let them know that you’re only allowing them to smoke so that they can learn what it’s like and how to use it responsibly, but that it’s still not okay for them to use it outside of your limited teaching sessions.

Can Using Cannabis Make You a Better Parent?

Parents that use cannabis often claim it makes the better parents. Take this anonymous Toronto mom, who was interviewed by Today’s Parent magazine before marijuana was made legal in Canada. It’s important to note that her son is on the mild side of the autism spectrum. She says, “Marijuana absolutely makes me a better parent. When I get stressed out, I tend to feel tense and cry, and my son picks up on that. But when I can step out and take a hit off my vaporizer, it’s like a knot untying in my chest.”

Since cannabis can affect people differently, it’s hard to judge whether cannabis can help one person’s parenting skills based on another person’s experience. It’s a very subjective question. But there has been research done on the subject, and it tends to support the notion of helpful cannabis usage.

Cannabis Helps Make the Mundane More Enjoyable

One study, carried out by Miner and Co. Studio, a media and brand consultancy in New York, polled parents that used cannabis in states where it is legal, and asked the question about cannabis, parenting, and television habits. Respondents were between the ages of 21 and 50, and 77% had incomes above $75,000 a year. Nine out of ten said they saw themselves as “mindful”, “present”, and “professional” and not your typical stoner stereotype.

The study found that eight out of ten respondents felt that using marijuana helped them engage more with their children during TV time. They watched more children’s TV shows with their kids and enjoyed them more. They felt they discussed the shows more with their kids and overall found the time to be a more effective bonding experience than it otherwise would be.

Cannabis Increases Social Bonding

Research has also been done on THC and its effects on social bonding. This study found that oxytocin, a brain hormone connected to feelings of happiness and satisfaction, triggers the brain to synthesize anandamide. This molecule binds with receptors in our body’s endocannabinoid system and produces feelings of motivation and increases the pleasure of social interaction. These same receptors are also activated by THC, and the researchers theorize this is the reason many cannabis users claim feelings of increased social bonding and attachment. This is exactly the experience many parents claim cannabis helps them achieve with their kids.

Of course, neither of these studies closes the book on the topic, but they do provide evidence that when a parent tells you that cannabis helps them parent better, they may be right. Ultimately a parent that’s more at ease with their children, more focused, more present, happier, and more emotionally tuned into their children will be a better parent. If cannabis helps someone achieve that state, assuming they’re being responsible about it, it’s likely a good thing.

Watch: ‘Marijuana Moms’ claim pot makes them better parents

Health Concerns About Parents Using Cannabis Around Their Children

Besides the social and legal aspects of using cannabis as a parent, there are possible health and well-being ramifications for the children to consider. Certainly, it’s important for parents to keep any cannabis products away from children, particularly edibles, that are easy for kids to take and that often look like candy or other sweets. But there are subtler issues that are worth examining.

Is It Safe to Breastfeed While High?

There hasn’t been a lot of research done, compared to other medical interventions, mainly because of cannabis’s status as a Schedule 1 drug. The research that has been done is inconclusive.

We do know that THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis, does accumulate in breastmilk. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that, depending on the frequency of use, THC can be found in breast milk in concentrations in excess of blood serum levels, and can last in breastmilk for up to six days. However, this doesn’t answer the question about whether the amount of THC found in breastmilk is enough to have adverse effects on infants.

The majority of studies done on the subject find that psychomotor development can be hampered slightly in infants that receive THC through breast milk. However, in nearly all of the studies where this affect is found, it has all but vanished by the time the child is a year to a year and a half old, which means there doesn’t appear to be long term consequences for these children.

Because the jury is still out, most pediatricians still recommend against using cannabis while breastfeeding. However, their perspective, as it should be, is about reducing risk in general, regardless of how high or low the risk is to begin with. Science seems to suggest that the risk of harm is very low, and so it’s really up to the mother whether the benefits she derives from cannabis outweigh the risks, small as they may be.

Is Secondhand Smoke or Vapor a Danger to Children?

Just like secondhand tobacco smoke, it is clear that secondhand cannabis smoke does make it into the lungs of bystanders. And studies confirm that cannabinoids can be found in the bloodstream of people exposed to secondhand cannabis smoke.

Vaping cannabis hasn’t been around long enough to be studied in any depth. Certainly, it’s less dangerous than cannabis smoke simply because it isn’t smoke. But if cannabinoids can enter the bloodstream of nearby children from smoking, that’s likely true of vapor as well.

As the study above points out, the presence, and amount of cannabinoids found in the bloodstream of secondhand recipients is metered by the size of the room, the number of people smoking, whether the area has good airflow, etc. People tend to smoke far more cigarettes in a given period than they do cannabis, so in general, there will be less secondhand smoke from cannabis use.

A number of studies over the years have demonstrated possible ramifications for children, teens, and young adults that use marijuana heavily. However, it’s unclear whether secondhand smoke would present the same danger, as the concentration of cannabinoids in the bloodstream is far lower from incidental, secondhand exposure. What is clear is that the younger children are exposed the more likely impairments can occur.

Since the primary responsibility of a parent is the safety and wellbeing of their children, and because it isn’t difficult to simply go outside, or smoke in an area of the house off-limits to their children, it’s generally better to avoid exposing kids to secondhand smoke or vapor.

The Future for Parenting and Cannabis

As legalization continues to spread, access to cannabis will become easier and easier for teens and even young children. Parents will need to examine very closely the message they want to send their children, both with what they say, and by their actions, so that their kids are prepared to make good decisions when presented with marijuana by peers.

Fully legal cannabis is already a reality in Canada, and is likely coming to the US in the next few years. As difficult as the conversations with children around cannabis can be, parents can at least rest assured that, as long as they prepare their children with good information, they’ll generally be safe and free from harm.

Clyde Jenkins - CNBS Author: Clyde Jenkins
Clyde is a former journalist and a cannabis connoisseur. He is an expert in well researched journalistic writing, which includes industry overviews, technology-related topics, lifestyle and culture topics, product reviews, and in-depth buyer’s guides. From common practices to what is currently hot and trending – when it comes to the practical side of this plant, Clyde is our guy.
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