This can be a very emotional and personal topic, so I want to make sure that you know my intention in posting this response. What follows is my opinion, and nothing more than that. I offer it solely as something for you to consider as you make your own decision about what course to follow.
I do not believe there is a right or wrong way to handle this situation (or any situation, for that matter!) If you read this, and find yourself vehemently opposed to what I say, then I will be glad that my words contributed to your sense of clarity even if it lies in the opposite direction from mine. Parenting is a journey, not a destination, and each of us must follow our own guidance.
So, on with my response. To avoid the he/she awkwardness, I simply switched pronouns halfway through:
Q: I just found out my middle schooler tried pot. What now?
Whew! If you are like many parents, your first reaction is a shocked thought of ALREADY? In middle school?
A: Give yourself time to absorb this new information without feeling like you have to say or do anything immediately. If your teen knows that you know, tell her that you will need some time to think about this, and will let her know when you are ready to discuss it.
It's important, crucial really, that you settle down before you engage with your teen about this. So wait until your mind feels relatively clear, your heart rate is fairly normal, and you are not feeling rage, anger, or powerlessness. If that takes a week, so be it.
When you have settled down enough to feel some curiosity about your teen's experience, you are ready to engage. The point of this first conversation is not to lecture, vociferously restate your family's values, or punish. It is simply to gather information. You want your teen to be doing most of the talking in this round.
So you ask, "Tell me about what happened." And you listen. You bite your cheeks if you have to. You listen, and then you ask, "What else?" until there are no more answers. At that point, you ask, "What are you thinking and feeling about that now?" And you listen some more.
Then you thank her for sharing with you, and tell her you'll think about what she has said, and will get back to her later to talk some more.
The point of all this listening is to find out how your teen has processed this experience. You want to know if she feels guilty, defiant, unconcerned, or enthralled. Without this information, it will be very difficult to determine your next step.
I may leave a lot of you in the dust with what I'm about to say next. I don't believe punishment or consequences are always a good idea in this situation. If your teen is already feeling shame, regret, or remorse, I wouldn't necessarily want to detract from this inner feedback loop by imposing external punishment.
I want her focused on how bad she feels for her own reasons, not sitting in her room hating me for grounding her. Not because it bothers me to be hated, but because it distracts her from her real work of deciding who she wants to be in her life. I want her to decide that smoking pot is not worth the bad feelings that happen inside her afterwards. Guilt and remorse can be very healthy sources of internal control, and if I see those happening, I want to let them do their jobs.
That said, remorse or not, I would most likely suggest some sort of restriction of freedom to minimize blatant opportunities to do it again. For example, if it happened after school, I might request that he come straight home for a while. I would tell him that I think it might be helpful to break up the pattern that led to the behavior, and make it harder for him to feel tempted. I would also ask him how I can support him in refraining from this behavior in the future.
To that end, I may also institute random drug testing. I think this is often a good idea anyway, even without evidence of use. In my opinion, it bolsters their refusal skills when they can say, "No, my parents could test me at any time." Anything that can plant even a small seed of doubt within that feeling of invincibility and certainty that they will not get caught seems like a good thing to me.
So here's one example of how conversation #2 might go:
Son, I really appreciate the courage it took for you to be so honest with me, and I want to thank you for that. It sounds like you thought it would be okay to try it because _________. Do I have that right?
I have some concerns that I want to share with you. Will this be a good time to do that, or should we set up a time later today?
Well, first of all, there's some research to suggest that marijuana damages the teenage brain in ways that may not be obvious to you. Would you like me to share this information with you now, or would you rather look it up on your own and tell me what you've learned?
Go on to share all of your concerns in a format of this type. Give information and data, then ask what your teen thinks about what you just said. His feedback is an important part of this process, because it makes this an interactive discussion rather than a lecture. If he can share his opinion, he is far less likely to close down and become defensive. It will also help you tailor your information to fill in the gaps in his understanding.
When it comes time to share your values, make sure you frame them as such. "And this part is about my feelings, and what is important to me. I want you to know where I am coming from. And then I want to hear where you are coming from, and what is important to you."
The thing all of us parents really hate to hear is that when it comes right down to it, we cannot prevent our teens from doing this again. Well, maybe we can, if we send them off to Outer Mongolia or something, but that's not very practical. So our best bet is to fortify them with the information and support they need to make a better decision the next time they have to choose what to do when they are offered pot. And there will be a next time.
So to recap: Find out how they have processed their experience. Let them know the specifics about why you think it's not wise or healthy for them, and listen to their perspective.
Ask them how you can support them in refraining from future use; would less freedom, more supervision, more information, or random testing help them resist peer pressure? Do they need more structured activities to keep them busy and entertained? Are they ready for a membership to the rock climbing gym or rec center, so they have alternative social activities to suggest to their friends?
Some teens will tell you they need some fairly severe consequences to keep them out of future trouble -- several weeks of grounding, loss of their computer or iPod, long lists of chores, or the like. They may feel like they need to pay a major penalty so their friends will understand that they just can't risk using again. In that case, it's fine to dole out the consequences. Whatever works!
The point is to partner with your teen to help them avoid future use. Experiment with ways to minimize opportunities and temptations. Keep your eyes and nose open. Hug and kiss them when they come home. Stay involved and closely engaged, and keep the lines of communication open.
I'll say once again that this is a very complex and emotional topic, and there's no way I can do it justice in an article. There are infinite ways that parents can handle this situation. If you'd like some support in figuring out your own approach, let's schedule a consultation.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/
Thanks Karen! Lots to think about as a parent. As always, I truly appreciate your wisdom, insight and constant focus and support on how we can stay connected with our kids as we move through this journey.
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