By Neil Bernstein, Ph.D.
You’ve probably heard this one many times. The teenager insists that the reason he smokes marijuana is because it helps him to chill out. Never mind the documented evidence of the risks, parental disapproval, and legal ramifications. “And why is it so important for you to smoke marijuana to relax?,” you might ask the young champion of chill. Explanations range from reasonable — I’m stressed out from school or my parents are bugging me, to unrealistic — it just makes my life better. Needless to say, challenging this “chill defense” is central to reducing and or stopping the teen’s marijuana use.
I no longer debate teenagers on whether marijuana really helps them to relax or not. Unfortunately, in some ways it does, but there is a huge price to be paid: decreased motivation, memory impairment, and dependence. Indeed, self-medication is not the road to success. Teens must be confronted on why they have to smoke weed to relax, and more importantly, on why they can’t find more constructive ways to reduce their stress and deal with the family and school issues that plague them. This is no simple matter, but it lies close to the heart of the issue.
Indeed, stressed-out, lonely, angry, rebellious, and school-challenged kids are more susceptible to marijuana use. So, why not take them at their word? I don’t blame you for wanting to get stoned, I’ve told teenagers as a starting point. But the stakes are way too high. You’re smoking away life’s opportunities and you deserve better. Surely, there must be other ways for you to unwind and deal with your parents getting on your case. What have you got to lose by trying?
Parents too, must help their misguided teens to find healthier ways to relieve their angst. In recent years, I’ve spoken with quite a few parents who have had some success. It goes something like this: The parent tells their child that they won’t argue about marijuana for a while (they’ve often been arguing for months or even years) if the child agrees to get involved in ongoing constructive activities and address the issues at hand. Naturally, the teen resists but is reminded of the heavy monitoring, restrictions, and whistle blowing he will face if his marijuana involvement continues. Reluctantly, he consents and gradually enters a world outside his “stoner circle” which proves to be more gratifying than his repetitive discussions of the virtues of marijuana and seeking opportunities to get high.
Will this approach work for everyone? Probably not, because sometimes, young people have grown so dependent on marijuana that they can’t break away from the culture and need more powerful interventions (e.g. therapy, drug treatment, and prevention programs). But some teens can be weaned from their drug reliance through immersion in activities such as volunteer work, martial arts, relaxation focused exercises, creative pursuits, and outdoor adventures, to name but a few. It’s certainly worth a try before bringing in the heavy artillery.
And keep in mind that well-deserved and valued freedom, independence of thought, and self-worth are the natural enemy of negative peer influence and the illicit drugs which induce a false sense of well-being.