Courtney Stursberg Schiffrin, LCSW
A family therapist at Freedom Institute, Courtney earned her Masters in Social Work from New York University and her Certificate in Family Therapy from the Ackerman Institute for the Family. She specializes in working with adolescents, adults, couples, and families managing mood, anxiety, substance use, and personality disorders.
The subject of marijuana often comes up in family therapy with adolescents and their parents. We expect parents and their teenage children to have differing ideas and levels of worry about many things, including the impacts and consequences of marijuana use. After all, it is the adolescent’s job to question and be skeptical, and a parent’s job to try to keep their child(ren) safe.
Here at Freedom Institute, recent family sessions with adolescents and their parents have focused a lot on the contradiction inherent in the adolescents’ belief that marijuana must be safe for recreational use based on the ongoing legalization in so many states, and the increasing worry parents feel based on the emerging research documenting the long-term and possibly permanent damage done by marijuana to the teenage brain.
This debate often leaves parents and adolescents polarized over whose argument is more ‘valid’ and can shut down opportunities to discuss with teenagers what legalization really means, as well as opportunities to have real conversations about expectations, risk, and making informed decisions.
And we know teenagers who feel they are being dismissed or lectured to are a lot less likely to listen to what adults have to say. What I have found in family therapy is that adolescents are much more willing to share their ideas and engage in conversations when they feel that the significant adults in their lives are genuinely curious about how they have arrived at their ideas.
Joining teenagers in open-ended conversations about their own observations about both the perceived benefits and consequences of using marijuana in their own or peers’ lives tends to open up a dialogue. Empowering parents to identify their expectations about their teenagers’ use/non-use of marijuana, as well as provide guidance, is a crucial component of these conversations.
I often challenge parents and adolescents to work together to discuss what they believe legalization actually means. What are the pros and what are the cons? We know all too well that legislation alone does not mean that something is safe or healthy for you. Cigarettes and alcohol serve as the most useful examples of this idea. Engaging in conversations that open up opportunities to have teenagers and their parents identify and discuss risks, rewards, and set clear expectations helps to reduce some of the conflict adolescents and their parents experience around this topic.
In some instances, parents underestimate the impact of their own past or present use of marijuana on their teenagers. In all instances, opening up a direct dialogue to discuss how parents and adolescents have come to their conclusions is useful. On top of current New York State law, most adolescents spend most of their time in settings that have zero-tolerance policies with respect to drugs and alcohol. Joining teenagers and their parents in questioning why these policies have been created, and exploring together what the stated consequences mean and what the parents’ expectations are is another way to open up these conversations.
Many teenagers have a hard time relating to the emerging science “suggesting that regular marijuana use – once a week or more – during adolescence harms the parts of the brain responsible for memory and problem solving which can lead to problems with cognition and academic performance.” Teenagers often make the argument that they know plenty of friends or classmates who use marijuana regularly with little obvious consequence. We know that teenagers are far more likely to trust their own perceptions rather than accept adult warnings of danger and risk. Some parents agree with their teenagers here and are also skeptical of this emerging research, as they or other close family or friends have used marijuana recreationally over time with little perceived consequence. Other parents are extremely worried about the risk of long-term effects and permanent harm done to the teenage brain from regular use of marijuana, having seen relatives or peers descend into lifelong apathy or depression, underperformance and even addiction.
Regardless of where on this continuum parents land, joining adolescents in expanding the conversations about what the emerging science suggests about their still growing and developing brain gives adolescents the chance to bolster both risk assessment and complex decision-making. It may also foster greater comfort in turning to their parents for guidance when they are weighing risks and/or making decisions.