I think my son is smoking cannabis. What should I do?
Ask the expert: I’m concerned about how to raise it with him in case he flies off the handle
Raising a worry about alcohol or drug use with a family member is a difficult conversation to get right. Photograph: iStock
Question: I am pretty sure that my 19-year-old son is smoking cannabis. I am concerned at how to raise it with him in case he flies off the handle. We have had a tricky relationship throughout his teen years and things have begun to settle in the last year when he started college.
We get on okay, have good chats, etc – so I am worried to do anything to change this or damage our relationship. He started smoking cigarettes when he was 16, which was a big source of conflict, but I just had to accept it when he became 18. The rule is that he is not to smoke in the house, which he more or less keeps. He drinks a bit with his friends, but seems to be what you expect for his age group.
What would you advise me to do, especially now that he is over 18?
Answer: Parents continue to have an important role in young people’s lives beyond the age of 18. Young people benefit from having a parent looking out for them and being ‘on their case’ when this needed. However, raising a worry about alcohol or drug use with a family member is a difficult conversation to get right so you are right to take time to plan how you are going to do it. You want to raise the subject in way that opens conversation and does not drive your son away, yet allows you to influence him in a positive way and increase his safety.
Think through your concerns
Before saying anything at all, it is a good idea to think through what you are most concerned about if he was using cannabis. Is it the health concerns or the associated lifestyle that worries you most or is it the illegality of his using cannabis and the risks associated with this? Think through also what your goals are in raising the discussion. Are you hoping he will stop altogether or use less in safer ways or use outside the home only. Think also how you might influence him the best. Do you think he might be concerned himself about his use or even be willing to seek help from a counsellor etc?
The HSE runs both a freephone drugs helpline (1800 459 459) and an email support service (email@example.com) and also provide lots of great resources on drugs.ie for concerned relatives. As a concerned parent, you can also avail of these supports and contact the helpline so they can help you think through your options and advise you on how to help your son.
Pick a good time to raise the subject
It matters when and how you raise a tricky subject with a family member. Identify a time when he is relaxed and you have time alone together. This might be over a cup of tea or doing something such as walking the dog together. Try to initially talk about positive or neutral things before starting the conversation. It can help to ask his permission to raise the subject – “there is something important that I want to ask you about, would that be okay”.
Raise your worries in a direct way
You don’t say what makes you “pretty sure” that he is using cannabis, but assuming you have good evidence, the best way to start a discussion is to present what you know in a matter-of-fact way and then describe your concerns. For example, you might say, “I recognised the smell of cannabis in your bedroom the other night, which make me worried that you are using”.
Be prepared for a defensive reaction
He may fly off the handle and deny that he is doing anything or attack you for your behaviour – “what were you doing searching my room” etc. The key is to listen and respond calmly as you outline your concerns. “I am only discussing this because I am worried about your health . . . I wouldn’t be a good parent if I just let it slide.” Listen as he talks about his drug use even if he is defending or justifying it – you want to hear as much about what he is thinking as possible. If he initially finds it too hard to talk about it (as he may be shocked), consider postponing a conversation until another time. Often, it can take a few attempts before a teenager might open up and discuss their substance use.
Explore potential solutions and ways forward
Once he is open to talking, try to explore potential ways forward. Ask him if he is interested in stopping or reducing his cannabis use. If he is, you could explore what strategies he might use or what supports he might access to help him. Or, if he won’t immediately stop his use, you can explore how he can reduce risks and make sure he is using safely. Explore with him what supports/ information might help him, You could look these up online together or suggest he contact the confidential helpline listed above or identify a drugs counsellor if he is open to this.
Think through what you will do if he won’t talk to you
Think through how you will respond if he won’t negotiate with you about his drug use or even if he won’t admit he is using in the first place. At this point, you could just express your concerns about him using and say the door is always open if he wants help stopping. From your perspective, raising concerns does not have to ‘damage’ your relationship with him. Indeed, it is a sign of you caring for him while being upfront and treating him like an adult. You can continue to have the chats you normally have and daily life doesn’t have to change. Indeed, keeping the lines of communication open is very important.
If his drug use deteriorates and you become more concerned about his behaviour, do seek more help as a parent from resources such as the helpline listed above.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering Positive Parenting workshops in Galway on February 16th and in Dublin on March 7th, 8th and 28th. See solutiontalk.ie for details.