Why Marijuana is Not the Answer to Teens’ Anxiety

Many people — adults and teens alike — don’t think of occasional marijuana use as being particularly risky. How many times have you seen characters in films or television smoking pot with little to no consequences? If anything, they often appear to be more relaxed when they’re using it. For young people dealing with stress and anxiety, that can make for an attractive picture.

In recent years, several states changed their policies on the legalization of marijuana. Others have eased restrictions on its recreational use. Depending on where you live, there may be state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries popping up in your neighborhood. Or maybe you’ve seen pop-up trucks on the street selling marijuana-related products. These are some of the factors behind a decline in perception of the dangers of marijuana use. But there’s a difference between perception and reality, especially when it comes to teen use of marijuana.

We have a lot of information about what works for anxiety. It’s a mixture of therapy and medicines for people with severe symptoms. Those medicines do not include medical marijuana.

Why Teens Should Avoid Using Marijuana to Cope with Anxiety

Some teens and young adults may use marijuana because they are curious about it or feel pressured to fit in with friends. Others may choose marijuana to cope with anxiety or stress. And because some adults have seen success in dealing with their anxiety using medical marijuana, some teens may think it could work for them in the same way. 

Dr. Krishna White, an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has seen an increase in use among young people in recent years. She says it’s a cause for concern because marijuana affects teens differently than adults. Those differences can harm teen brains. Dr. White says, “We have a lot of information about what works for anxiety. It’s a mixture of therapy and medicines for people with severe symptoms. Those medicines do not include medical marijuana.”

Teen Brains Could be at Greater Risk From Marijuana Use

During adolescence (between the ages of approximately 11 and 24), the brain goes through a stage of rapid development. It rivals infancy in the ways it’s creating new connections and developing ways to work more efficiently. But if your teen uses marijuana, they risk the possibility of slowing or stunting their brain development.

This can happen because of an ingredient in marijuana called Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC for short. THC is the ingredient that produces the “high” that most users experience. The THC binds itself to certain receptors in the brain known as the cannabinoid – or CB1 – receptors. When that happens, it blocks their normal functions. And for the time the THC stays in the CB1 receptor, it can slow down, or even halt, the brain’s learning, memory, and development.

Today’s marijuana is known to have much greater amounts of THC than it had 25 years ago. THC can also remain in teens’ brain receptors longer than it does in adults. It can lead to a range of issues for young users including, — but not limited to — concentration and memory issues, trouble problem-solving, negative impact on school or job performance, and possible addiction.

Younger Brains are More Likely to Develop Addictions

“The younger your brain is when exposed to substances, the more likely you are to develop an addiction,” Dr. White says. So, while young people may want treatment for their anxiety, “I don’t think any parent wants their child to be addicted to a substance, just because they started it for anxiety when they’re 15,” she adds. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), using the drug before the age of 18 can increase the likelihood of becoming addicted. Dr. White says that’s a concern for parents to keep in mind.

Marijuana Could Worsen Teen Anxiety

Dr. White also cautions not only will marijuana not help your teen’s anxiety over the long run – it could make it worse. “For people that develop an addiction, one of the signs of withdrawal is anxiety,” she explains. So, for those who use it and later experience withdrawal symptoms that lead to anxiety, they then face having to try to rid themselves of marijuana-induced anxiety.

Is Your Teen Using Marijuana? Look For Signs

Today there are lots of ways to consume marijuana. The dried leaves of the plant can be smoked. It can be vaped or applied to the skin in an oil. You can ingest it through edibles, including baked goods, drinks, and candies containing marijuana. Many of these products, like “pot gummies,” for example, are seemingly marketed to teens. Some of them can also make it hard to recognize if your teen is using it.

The experts at SAMHSA suggest some common signs to be aware of if you’re unsure if your child is using marijuana. These may include strange smelling clothes, bloodshot eyes, the use of room deodorizers, unusual forgetfulness or laughter, coordination issues, frequent requests for money, or the presence of drug paraphernalia such as rolling papers, pipes, or electronic cigarettes. If you are concerned, pay attention to noticeable changes in their behavior.

Choose Different Approaches to Deal with Anxiety

Dr. White reminds parents and caregivers, “It’s important developmentally to remember that teens are learning how to cope with things. We don’t want to be teaching our kids that to cope with normal stresses of life, you’re going to need to take a substance.” Instead, she suggests tweens and teens must have a variety of coping strategies to use. “Those could range from the physical, like exercise, to social, like reaching out to family and friends, to emotional, like therapy or even connecting with some higher power.”

Consider also that many young people who are anxious or stressed possess deep levels of sensitivity. That is something to celebrate. Our challenge as parents and caregivers is to help our children also learn to celebrate – rather than hide – their feelings. This can include needing to acknowledge that sometimes it can be hard to feel emotions. 

Express Disapproval

One factor that may help in preventing substance use is parents setting firm expectations. Dr. White suggests parents can tell their teens, “The expectation in our family, despite what might be happening in other peoples’ families, or in our state or in the country, is that we expect you not to use substances.” She adds that sending that important message can also help delay or prevent the use of other substances – not just marijuana. Consider explaining to your teens how using drugs can harm their safety and may conflict with your family’s values.

Protect Your Teen

Your tweens and teens may face some hard decisions when it comes to marijuana use. Help prepare them for what lies ahead. Start talking about the issue early. Be clear about your expectations regarding the use of marijuana and other drugs. Look for informal times and comfortable environments to check-in with them. Try to listen to what they have to say.  

If your children are dealing with stress or anxiety, help them create a personalized stress management plan. Offer them coping strategies that may work in your home. Tell them that you love them and will always be there for them – no matter what. By taking action, you empower your teen to make smart decisions for themselves. 

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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