October is National Youth Substance Use Prevention month and there’s no better time than the present to talk to your teen about drugs and alcohol. It can feel hard to know what to say to your teenager. We all want to discuss tough subjects in a way that will lead our children to feel comfortable about sharing openly about what they know as well as their personal experiences with substances. It is important that we proactively have these conversations to help our adolescents make informed and healthy decisions about substance use. In this blog, Stephanie Clymer, LCSW, CADC, Primary Clinical Therapist, Compass Health Center, covers marijuana as it relates to mental health symptoms, why it’s important to talk to your teen about the drug, and how to have these challenging conversations effectively. 

Rates of Marijuana Use in Teens  
Nationwide, 2.08 million teens between the ages of  12-17 report substance use within the last month, and 83.88% of them report using marijuana.1  In Illinois, nearly 15% of all teens between the ages of 12-17 have used marijuana within the last year.1 By the time a student finishes high school, nearly 37% of them have tried marijuana.2 Research shows that 1 in 10 people who use marijuana develop addiction, and that ratio increases to 1 in 6 people when marijuana use begins before the age of 18.3 Whether your teen currently uses marijuana or not, talking with them about it can help increase their awareness of the risks associated with early substance use so that they can make informed decisions. 

Risks of Early Marijuana Use

Many adolescents and even adults are not aware that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Through the teenage years, the brain goes through a key stage of rapid growth and development. When a drug enters the brain, it can impact how the brain grows and changes. Marijuana use during these years has been shown to impact the brain in several ways. Objectively talking to your teen about the science and the ways that drug use can impact their brains can be helpful. Presenting these facts in a non-judgmental way empowers them to make prosocial and informed choices that align with their values. Below is a list of 5 ways that marijuana impacts the brain and its key functions.  

Difficulty problem solving and changes in thinking patterns. Using marijuana at an early age can cause a decrease in IQ, leading to a loss of up to 8 IQ points.3 Unfortunately, even after marijuana use stops, these IQ points do not come back. During adolescence, the brain develops its ability to think critically, and marijuana can slow down our processing speed.4 This is like working off slower internet speed; we can still get the job done, but it will take us a bit longer and may cause more frustration. The teen years are also a crucial time for learning how to manage challenging situations and emotions. If a teen uses marijuana in high school to cope with stress, it can be challenging to learn other ways to cope as life goes on.   

Challenges with learning and memory. Marijuana directly impacts our ability to store short-term memories leading to challenges with learning and recall.4 The active drug in marijuana, THC, interrupts the part of our brain that stores memories. It is shown to lead to a roughly 10% reduction in the brain's ability to form memories associated with both verbal and nonverbal information.4 You can imagine how this would impact an adolescent’s ability to perform academically in school and to remember important instructions and information across all areas of life.  

Reduced coordination. Coordination, timing, and movement have also been shown to be impacted by marijuana.2 This again has to do with the portions of the brain which are most impacted by the presence of marijuana. THC affects the cerebellum, cerebral cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and nucleus accumbens. The cerebellum controls our balance, coordination, and posture. It is what makes it especially dangerous to use marijuana when doing things such as driving or playing sports.  

Interrupted attention. Teens who use marijuana report difficulty paying attention and focusing during school.2 Studies show that the ability to pay attention can drop by as much as 10% in those who use marijuana.4 When we have a harder time paying attention, it makes it harder for us to learn. This can lead to lower grades, lower performance, and the likelihood that an adolescent would not be as able to meet their full potential.  

Problems with school and social life. Marijuana also leads to problems in our relationships.2 Drugs can make it harder for us to communicate, regulate our emotions, process what others tell us, and feel connected to others. It can also lead to getting in trouble at school, on sports teams, or at home when rules are broken, and consequences are levied.  

Tips for Talking with Your Teen

You are one of the most important adults in your teen’s life. Talking with your teen about marijuana can impact their thoughts about drugs and whether they choose to use them.  

Talk early and often. Normalize talking about marijuana use with your teen so that it feels less awkward and more comfortable. Talking about it before they are presented with opportunities to use and decisions to make about use is key. Consider using a non-alarmist tone and incorporating humor so that the discussion is a true dialogue and doesn’t feel like a lecture. Use objective facts and include science. Be curious about what they think about marijuana and truly listen to their concerns. Allow them to speak freely, ask questions, and share what they know. Providing a safe space is one of the best things you can do for your teen.  

Establish clear expectations. Help your teen know and understand your family’s rules about substance use in the same way they do with other household rules and expectations. They must understand why your family has these rules and expectations and what any associated potential consequences are for breaking them. This can include both natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences occur without any adult involvement. For example, a natural consequence of breaking your family’s rules about substance use might be a loss of trust. Logical consequences are imposed by another person. For example, a logical consequence for driving under the influence might be revoking a teen’s driving privileges for a period of time.   

Discuss mental health. Nearly half of people with a mental health disorder also experience a substance use disorder at some point in life.5 If your teen struggles with mental health issues, you can be proactive and connect your teen to mental health support to decrease the likelihood of marijuana misuse. In your conversation, review with your child that marijuana use is linked with symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychosis, and suicide planning.3 If they take medications, talk with them about the potentially dangerous effects of mixing substances with prescription medications. Help them identify positive coping skills to use to manage challenging emotions and symptoms instead of leaning on substances and other negative coping strategies.  

Support connection to prosocial peers. Adolescence is the developmental stage where children are forming their identities and where peer relationships have the most influence. It is a time when young people are experimenting and trying new activities and ideas as they figure out who they are and who they want to be.  Having friends that use drugs can make it more likely that they will also drugs due to increased access and potential peer pressure. Talking to your teen about how they might handle situations where friends are using substances, and they don’t want to is helpful so that they can feel prepared in the moment with strategies. Helping them identify their own values and discussing how substance use would not be aligned with those priorities can help point them toward making safe choices.  

Offer safe transportation home. It is so important to talk about safety. No matter what situation they find themselves in, the safety of your teen comes first. Make sure your adolescent knows that you are always willing to be a safe ride home.

Guidelines for When and How to Seek Help

It can be hard to know when your teen would benefit from external support for substance use. You know your child and if you feel there are significant concerns or that they might need outside help, trust your gut. Below are several factors to consider when weighing whether and to what degree your adolescent may need more help:  

Your teen is not following established boundaries. You have set boundaries with your teen about what is expected, and your teen does not follow the boundaries. This is a sign that something deeper may be leading to the behaviors you are seeing.   

Your teen is struggling with mental health. Learning ways to cope effectively with mental health symptoms can reduce the risks of substance use. Working with a professional can help your teen develop coping skills to feel more confident when facing challenges.  

Your teen is spending time with friends who use substances. Your teen is more likely to use substances if they have friends who use them. Providing a therapeutic space to discuss the benefits and risks associated with friends who do drugs can support your teen in deciding what is best for them.  

Significant changes in behavior. It is typical for teens to be moody from time to time, or they might try on different ways to express their identity during adolescence. However, rapid and/or significant personality changes can signify that something deeper is happening. Noticing an increase in risky behavior, quick mood changes, change in daily functioning, or an inability or unwillingness to decrease or stop substance use are also markers that professional support is appropriate.  

PHP/IOP Treatment. Intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs are short-term, crisis stabilization services to support a teen and your family as you work to return to expected routines. They are skills-based and focused on learning effective, evidence-based ways to cope with symptoms. If your teen is currently struggling to go to school, falling behind in assignments, quitting activities, constantly irritable, using substances to escape, or having thoughts of harming themselves, an assessment at this level of care may be helpful. Compass Health Center offers treatment for co-occurring substance use disorders for adolescents, young adults, and adults participating in its Mood & Anxiety, Trauma, and OCD PHP/IOP programs.  

Outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment is effective when distress or substance use is having a negative impact but not getting in the way of any daily routines or completion of work. It is less frequent and for fewer hours per week. This can be a great place to start if you are uncertain of the severity of your teen’s symptoms or if you do not see any impact on school performance or friendships. 

Additional Parent Resources

If you are interested in learning more about substance use and ways to talk to your teen, please check out the following resources. If you feel your child might benefit from additional support, please get in touch with Compass to see if one of our PHP/IOP programs may fit your needs.  

Having a conversation about substance use with your teen may feel daunting. Knowing the science, keeping communication open, and reaching out for support are some of the ways you can be proactive as a parent to support your teen. It takes a village to raise our teens, and resources are available to you, so you don’t have to figure it out alone. 


1 Substance abuse and addiction statistics [2022]. NCDAS. (2022, June 18). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://drugabusestatistics.org/  

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 8). Teens. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/health-effects/teens.html    

3 Know the risks of marijuana. SAMHSA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/marijuana  

4 Squeglia, L., Jacobus, J., & Tapert, S. (2009). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 40(1), 31–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/155005940904000110  

5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, September 27). Part 1: The connection between Substance Use Disorders and mental illness. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness

SU Prevention for Youth (Substance Use Awareness Month) (3)