A reader inquires about helping a thirteen-year-old boy who has “stopped participating in organized sports, grades are not great anymore, he’s lying about his activities, and only wants to hang out with his friends (playing video games, riding bikes). His mom recently found weed in his room. She is just at her wits end on how to help him (and her) get through the next few years…
Any good advice on how to make sure this mom can stay connected to her child, honor his need to individuate, but keep him safe too?”
Whether the weed is the problem, or merely a symptom of the problem, my sense is that this is where our initial focus is best directed.
I have admitted to my kids that I smoked pot as a kid—and that I regret it. It is my own experience that leads me to believe that the pot is not helping anything in this situation. In brief, when I was fourteen my best friend was killed. I started high school in a state of shock and depression. By that winter I was riding up a gondola in Colorado with some “faster” kids, who offered me pot. It was my first time and I literally got high while riding into a white shroud of descending snow that mingled with the first blush of THC to transport me into a different feeling.
Pot became my new best friend, and I used it to self-medicate for the better part of two years—clueless that poor grades and deepening isolation were only dimming prospects for the total lack of future I could imagine for myself. Meanwhile my father was oblivious to my pot use and my mom believed me when I told her, over and over, that I just “had a cold,” to account for the red eyes and checked-out demeanor.
At some point I just decided to stop on my own, realized it was getting me nowhere and was done with pot by the time I got to college and there was a lot of smoking all around me. Conversely, in college I realized that I cared about learning and my future brightened along with my clearer mind. But I consider myself fortunate—as I’ve had many friends, and later clients, who got into chronic pot use and/or truly out-of-control drug and alcohol issues.
The good news in the case above is that mom already found the weed. This could very well mean that the boy wanted her to find it, even if it is at an unconscious level.
But that doesn’t mean that when confronted, the boy will admit to using. Once drugs are involved, we parents are talking to the drugs as much as to the child (it’s basically a triangle of parent, child and pot). The drugs make us cunning and duplicitous, because we do not want our access to our newfound comfort threatened. Thus kids will likely say that the weed isn’t theirs, they were holding it for a friend, etc. If caught smoking they will minimize the amount they use—this is the nature of the game.
The first thing we need to do as parents is look at our own attitudes about drugs and alcohol. Let’s say that we smoke pot but think our kids don’t know—my view is that kids are psychic and know things they don’t even consciously realize that they know. Modeling is key; so thinking about giving up our own vices is a great foundation for inspiring kids to make good and healthy choices.
The case against pot includes the fact that it is a depressant. Thus despite it’s mild euphoric initial effects, the pot-smoker generally needs to increase the amount they use over time, with the underlying effect of introducing more and more depressant into the system. THC stays in the fat cells and the depressant effects systematically bring one’s overall mood down to the point where chronic pot use is necessary just to “feel normal.”
Thus if a person is depressed, medications are not the first place to go (yoga, talk therapy, mindfulness practices, diet, exercise, etc. can all be effective). However, if anti-depressant medications are in order, a depressant like Cannabis might not be the best idea. I am not a psychiatrist, and I am aware that Pot may have some promising treatment effects on cancer, glaucoma, and other disorders; but unsupervised and self-administered depressants taken by children really strikes me as a bad plan.
Conversely, the above-referenced boy’s behavior can be seen as a cry for help. If we view his declining grades and high use of video games we can guess that self-esteem had dropped. This becomes a cycle where the worse we do, the worse we feel about ourselves. Taking away the pot needs to coincide with offering support and guidance; all of this needs to happen in a non-shaming, non-blaming, non-critical context. I recognize this is exceedingly difficult to pull off as a parent—that’s why I write this blog.
An unconventional approach that I endorse is for the parent to go to therapy, but in the service of their child. Even a good therapy only has a direct effect of one hour per week on a kid while a good parental therapy can have a ripple effect of much more than that. Also, parents in therapy model taking responsibility rather than pointing fingers. By working toward our own happiness we give our children a great gift—as those of us with depressed parents can attest, it a drag of inestimable weight.
As for helping the boy not smoke pot, follow the money. If a kid has no access to cash, he’ll soon have less access to drugs (unless he turns to stealing, not unheard of). Also, sensitive kids (orchid kids) may be drawn to weed, but loosening an already highly imaginative and creative mind can sometimes be harmful, even though the kid may think it makes them more creative. After looking at what one has created on pot once sober, the sobering fact that it usually sucks aught to help us see that pot is not a great enhancer of innovation.
A good next step might be to look into drug counseling (AA/NA) as de-toxing, followed by some sort of twelve-step treatment, while roundly rejected and resisted by virtually every still-using person with a drug problem, has been, in my clinical experience, the most effective course of action. Denial in parents is all too common, and only prolongs the situation. Rehab is expensive and only an option for the affluent, but many kids are surprised when I tell them that more and more people are ending up in rehab for pot. As we parents are also aware, today’s pot is not our old-school seventies pot; I have had adult clients end up with rather frightening experiences after just one hit (and the realization that this drug has nothing good to offer them).
Keep in mind that the teen brain is in the midst of developing, which means that intermittent good judgment alternates with abjectly terrible judgment—like a person walking across a slice of Swiss cheese, at risk of falling through a hole at any moment. This development process is not complete to early twenties, so it is rather scary as thirteen becomes sixteen, driving, etc.
My final salvo in my case against pot is that it’s simply played out and uncool. Scenes like the pot-smoking would-be-hilarity in It’s Complicated struck me as somewhere between lame and pathetic (poor Steven Martin…). Trouble-prone boys are likely to not smoke pot if it is deemed uncool—so lame movies about rich middle aged people who think they need to redo their kitchen (when it’s already a kitchen to die for) just might prove to be our secret weapon in getting kids to just say no thank you.
My goal as a therapist for my clients is: Good Feelings That Last. Pot is sometimes a bringer of immediate bad feeling, but even when it’s good, it does not last, and it leads to bad feelings over time. I realize that this post does not directly address how this mom can connect with her kid, and I will take up the theme of oppositional, defiant and resistant kids in coming days, however, broadening our perspective on what’s truly the matter (i.e. depression and low-self esteem, as evidenced by pot smoking) is a first step toward effective intervention.
So, let’s dedicate today to Good Feelings That Last, to finding the courage to confront the pain and mistaken coping strategies in ourselves first, and then in all our collective children, and to seeking loving and compassionate ways of healing through connecting.