Q: I was putting clothes away in my teen child's room and found marijuana. Now what do I do?
A: This is tricky. How you respond depends on many things including your relationship with your child, the understood rules and expectations in the household, previous discussions regarding your family's values about substances and the ways in which you handle rule violations.
So here are some things to make sure you do before anything like this happens:
• Have ongoing conversations with your child about your concerns and values regarding substance use. The door should always be open to discussing these issues.
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• Respect that they are the experts on the teen world in which they have to make these difficult choices. Keep communication open, so that it is not just a lecture on what you expect, but you are open to your teen's perspective and concerns.
• Have rules and expectations regarding privacy, what-ifs, and what is OK to do or have in the house already in place that have been part of open discussion (including if your child's room is truly his or her room).
• In clarifying expectations, be clear about what will happen if your teen violates this rule or expectation. Make sure the consequence matches the transgression, is appropriate for the developmental age of your child and is something you, as the parent, can live with.
• Make sure you are modeling the behavior you expect from your child. If you are using alcohol or marijuana, using or abusing prescription drugs or don't think taking prescription medications is a big deal, this may be sending an inconsistent message to your child. Kids are often very black-and-white thinkers and will quickly pounce on what looks like hypocrisy.
While some studies indicate marijuana damages the developing teenage brain, with legalization becoming more common, it is difficult for this message to resonate with kids. As far as they are concerned, "weed" is safer than alcohol, easier to get, often has medicinal uses and may make them "feel better." Developmentally, it is also an uphill battle since kids have a hard time seeing how their current behavior will impact them in a future that seems too far away for them to see at all. They see themselves as invincible, and it's a hard sell to convince them that they should care about what happens to them when they are "old."
So, given all this, the best position to take is a consistent message about the consequences of marijuana use (especially the impact on their developing brain and the real here-and-now legal risks while marijuana is still illegal in North Carolina). Then, you can set boundaries about what is acceptable to do in the house and help them address and manage risk. For example, legally you cannot allow them to smoke in the house, but smoking in public puts them at very real risk of getting caught by law enforcement.
Also, understand kids are not likely to be honest with you about their use, but the less reactive and punitive you are, the more likely they are to be open and discuss their concerns. Openness and mutual care and respect are the best chances you have for impacting the choices your child makes when he or she is not in range of your watchful eyes.
Michelle Topal is the owner and a therapist Change for Living Counseling in Raleigh ( changeforlivingcounseling.org).