McNerney: Caught Your Teen Smoking Weed?

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

One afternoon, while moving your teen’s backpack, you notice a clinking sound inside the backpack. When you open it, you find a small bag of marijuana, a spice grinder, a vape pen, or maybe a small vial of thick liquid. What do you do now?

As a counselor who works with teens, this is something I deal with on a regular basis. I have developed a step-by-step approach that is effective in dealing with marijuana use in teens.

Step One – Stay Calm

Your goal in such situations is to take this matter very seriously but remain calm at the same time. Freaking out will not allow you to handle the situation in the best manner possible.

Step Two – Don’t say: “I raised you better than that.”

Don’t turn this into a moral issue. All kids make mistakes; our goal is helping our kids learn from their mistakes, so they make fewer of them in the future.

Instead, focus on the seriousness of the issue. Remind them that besides the very important issue of it being illegal, it also disrupts the mood regulation system and significantly decreases brain development in adolescents.

Step Three – Start testing immediately.

Even if he has admitted using, it is important to begin getting a baseline of testing using urine test strips. These can be purchased at most local drug stores but are expensive. Amazon and other online stores sell very reliable tests for as low as $1 each.

I would also suggest starting with a test that will indicate levels of THC in the system. Buy five of them so that you will be able to determine if the level of THC is going down over time.

No matter how awkward, it is important that you follow a specific procedure for testing. Don’t let your teen be in the bathroom alone. Observe that they don’t fill the cup with tap water from the sink or the toilet. Make sure their pockets are empty and that they don’t add any else to the cup. If they say they can’t go, tell them to drink some more water and try again in 30 minutes.

I would suggest testing twice a week for the first three months. This might seem extreme, but I have found it more effective to over test vs. under test. After three months, consider testing on a weekly basis for another six months.

Step Four – Strong consequences

Teens make mistakes. It is our responsibility to help them learn from mistakes. Punishments can be a great way to help teens learn.

My first suggestion is to not turn a blind eye to the issue. Parents will sometimes say: “I smoked weed when I was a kid and I turned out OK.” This thinking is dangerous on many levels. We have recently learned quite a lot about the neurological effects of THC on the teenage brain. Who knows how much smarter and successful we might have been if we didn’t expose our brains to THC during adolescence?

The first step is to make sure you have found all substances and equipment. Most teens are not very clever in hiding their stash. Backpacks are the most common place. Also look for a “spare” backpack that they have started using while going over to their friend’s house. If they have a car, check it thoroughly. Check wherever they tend to hang out in the home, such as the basement or their room.

Temporary grounding, or restriction, is one of the most effective first consequences to consider. You might be tempted to ground them for life, but it’s important that they know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Consider at least one week longer than their first clean drug test.

Temporarily taking their phone is also a good step. I would suggest doing this for a shorter period of time, such as a week. This sends a strong message that there will be consequences for drug use.

Step Five – Know when to seek professional help

I usually suggest that parents view the first offense as misbehavior, rather than immediately viewing it as an addiction that needs treatment.

I try to answer two questions to help me determine whether the teen is experimenting or is dealing with an addiction:

1. Is this a regular occurrence? If your teen has been caught and punished before and is still using, it might be a bigger issue.

2. Is he using alone or does he do it to stop feeling lousy? Using alone suggests that there might be symptoms that he is trying to use weed to cope with life vs. using it recreationally.

If you are at all concerned about the seriousness of the issue, it never hurts to seek the advice of a health care profession with experience in substance abuse issues. There are specific assessments that can be given to determine whether this is an addiction issue or not. In the meantime, remember to stay calm and take it seriously, but not personally.

Neil McNerney

[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.” He can be reached at]