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Opinion: Preventing underage use of cannabis

By: Martin “Marty” K. Jeane PhD, LPC-S, LMFT

How do we prevent underage use of cannabis?

No one ever said that parenting was going to be easy. When children hit the teenage years, significant threats to their health and safety like drugs, are always a concern. So when you are nervously sitting on your couch at 1 a.m. waiting for your 17 year old to come home, please know that you are not alone. Most parents feel this anxiety.

While research is often quoted, sifted, championed and vilified, no neuroscientist would advocate a developing teen brain be introduced to cannabis. A child’s brain around age 10 and 11 begins an amazing transformation. At this point there is an explosion of growth in neurons. Through the teen years and all the way up to age 26, the brain goes through a rebuilding process of removing some cells and fortifying the remaining. When teens start using cannabis they are prone to developing long lasting problems in basic thinking, memory and learning functions. This is a critical time for the developing young brain. As the brain is rebuilding itself, cannabis negatively affects how connections for cognitive functions are formed. After age 26, I tell my clients, “It’s all downhill cognitively, anyway.” However, we must find a way to protect the younger population.

I am also very concerned about the significant increase in potency of THC in marijuana, especially in cannabis extracts. These forms of cannabis do not bode well for the developing brain. In spite of the heightened addictive potential, the introduction of enhanced THC is detrimental at this critical juncture of development of the younger brain. The risks of neurological damage to multiple brain functions are too great for this vulnerable population.

So how do we keep vulnerable minds off drugs? Parents are vital to inhibiting underage use. They play the most important role in keeping kids off of drugs. Many parents think their children’s friends are more important in the formation of decision making. This is not so. Research indicates that parents are the most underutilized tool in preventing youth substance abuse. We know that when parents connect with their kids they are less likely to use mind altering chemicals. The most long-lasting effects can occur if we can change family systems.

Children who have a warm and supportive relationship with their parents are less likely to abuse mind altering substances. Teens and parents with a close relationship have lower conflict when parents monitor behavior and social activities. When families have high conflict, treat each other badly and children are degraded, those children are at a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Parents will want to maintain clear, appropriate and firm boundaries. This helps children develop personal responsibility for their behavior.

Parents help reduce underage use of mind altering chemicals when they model appropriate use of drugs and alcohol. Drinking to excess or using illicit drugs around a child will increase the likelihood that child will abuse drugs. Higher likelihood of underage use occurs also when kids see a parent not explicitly following instructions on all prescription drugs. Kids observe how parents manage their stress. When parents indulge in intoxicating substances to lower their stress levels, kids get the message it is OK for them to do so. Parents want to model healthy stress management such as exercising and relaxation techniques showing kids they can manage stressors in a drug free manner.

Texas Marijuana Policy Advocacy Workshops — January 2018
Texas Marijuana Policy Advocacy Workshops — January 2018

Parents also must evaluate if their children or teens are those at risk for substance abuse. Some are more at risk than others. A family history of substance abuse puts a child at greater risk for substance abuse themselves. Genetic markers of a tendency toward risk acceptance by an individual and a greater tolerance for substance intoxication are found within substance abusing families. Children also have a greater risk for underage use if that child has a diagnosis of a mental or behavioral disorder. There is no guarantee that the child will use, but these children have a greater risk for use. Another risk factor is a history of trauma. Early trauma has been shown to increase the likelihood of poor internal behavioral controls in later life. Parents will want to make sure children receive help for any traumatic occurrence. Also, children with impulse control problems are at a greater risk for substance abuse. There is simply a greater tendency for risky behavior.

To help inhibit underage use of substances also, early on in your child’s life, you want to set the foundation for who your child has as friends and the homes with which they are allowed to interact. It is important to get to know the friends as you volunteer to drive the kids to their various activities. You will observe the behavior controls these children have and what kind of rules they are expected to follow. It is equally important to attempt to know the parents of your children’s friends. You will want to know what house rules exist for their kids and guests. “Supervised” smoking and drinking parties do not discourage underage abuse. Children whose parents allow drinking and drug parties put those children at greater risk for substance abuse in other settings.

Another significant factor for hindering underage use is when responsible parents monitor, supervise and set boundaries. Teens with boundaries have a lower risk for using drugs and alcohol. If parents know where their kids are, who they hang out with and how they spend the money they give them, many instances of drug and alcohol abuse can be stopped. When parents stay involved and supervise what is going on, kids clearly know how far they can go. Avoid being a “helicopter parent” that sets unreasonable rules. Early on, as kids learn what is expected of them–they prove they can be trusted. Children learn confidence and independence through successfully respecting rules. When kids know their parents disapprove of underage use, those teens are less likely to use. Boundaries are emotional fences which protect our kids.

The final factor that hinders underage use is when parents have consistent conversations and provide accurate information about drug abuse. Parents who give their children accurate information about drug abuse are 50% less likely to use than those who don’t. Parents will want to talk regularly about their disapproval of drugs of abuse, using public media failures as examples, using open-ended questions for dialogue, discussing health concerns and avoiding lecturing related to underage use.

Our children’s developing minds are our society’s greatest natural resource. I encourage all parents to take seriously the risks of underage drug use and act like they believe the dangers are real.

Martin “Marty” K. Jeane PhD, LPC-S, LMFT
Executive Director
Center Street Counseling Services, Inc.
Substance Abuse Mansfield

Marty received a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Pastoral Counseling from the School of Theology at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has been a Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist since 1981. Profile

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