My friend Teddy was shocked. “My daughter Anna just told me her classmate got busted for vaping at school,” he told me. “They’re only 11! Now she’s asking me a million questions about marijuana, half of which I can’t answer. You’re a school counselor; isn’t she a little young for this stuff?”
I validated Teddy’s instinct to say something and encouraged him to seize the opportunity to answer Anna’s questions. I also told him I understood his instinct to shield her from the topic, but explained that withholding information would impede her ability to make healthy decisions.
Even with many kids spending more time at home and with their parents than ever before, these conversations are crucial. With the weight of a pandemic and six months of quarantine, preventing youth substance use might be a topic far from your mind, but preparing kids to make healthy decisions when faced with a risk in the future is critical.
If talking to tweens about cannabis seems counterintuitive, consider the developmental phase. Young adolescents are malleable and impressionable, yet smart and sophisticated. They’re starting to pull away from parents and identify more with peers, but they still care what the adults in their lives think. They’re insecure and want to fit in, and they’re wired for novelty and thrill-seeking behavior.
They’re years away from having a fully formed prefrontal cortex, too. As a result, they’re more likely to take unhealthy risks – like underage drinking or underage cannabis use – and less likely to predict the consequences of their actions. They need parents and teachers to educate them about risky behavior, help them identify safe risks, and preview scenarios.
Tweens also are getting bombarded with data — both accurate and inaccurate — from friends, the 24-7 news cycle and social media. That means they may be subjected to a lot of bad information. The good news is that tweens hate to be manipulated, and adults can use that to their advantage by pointing out when false information may be misleading them into believing that cannabis can’t harm their still-developing brain.
Cannabis can harm kids, but avoid scare tactics. The best way to reach a young adolescent is to honor their intellect, avoid lecturing, and focus on developing their critical-thinking skills. That’s where Ask, Listen, Learn’s unit on cannabis comes in. It covers the risks associated with youth use, the ways that cannabis affects a tween’s developing brain, body and behavior, and the basics of the endocannabinoid system.
While school can teach your kids the facts about cannabis, you can (and should) talk to them about your values, beliefs, and expectations. Approach them from a stance of curiosity. You might ask, “What have you heard about cannabis?” or “Do you think you know more or less than what I think you know?” or “Do you think most kids think it’s dangerous to use cannabis?” Stay calm and make it safe for them to be honest.
Resist the temptation to pry into your child’s personal life. Instead, use news stories, books, or movies to broach the topic. You might say, “I just read an article that said that nearly ten percent of eighth graders are vaping. Does that surprise you?” or “We got a note from the principal that kids are using cannabis at school. Is that something you’ve seen?”
Practice patience if your kid is slow to open up. If you lob questions at them like a tennis ball machine, they’re going to duck for cover. Trust that they’re listening, and talk to them on their terms. I recognize that this whole topic might feel overwhelming–much like raising a tween!–but your child needs you to get the conversation started and arm them with developmentally appropriate, factually accurate information.