Concerned about a graduating student? Ask this key question

Around this time of the year I am frequently called by parents expressing concern about their offspring, particularly those about to graduate, or who maybe left university last year and are struggling to find a path.  I always enjoy working with this age group, but after extensive experience have added a new question to my intake process.

When was the last time you took cannabis?” followed by “how often do you take cannabis?” 

Notice I don’t ask “do you take cannabis?”  I don’t even ask about smoking. There are any number of ways to ingest the substance. Parents almost always respond in horror  “no, of course she/he doesn’t “  The young person will generally be more forthcoming and usually admit to trying it “but didn’t like it”  or like Bill Clinton “I didn’t inhale

I have come to understand that these responses may not be factually accurate.

Behaviour patterns

Parental concerns are usually centred around noticed changed behaviour patterns of their kids  who they report appear to be: lost, lacking in confidence, not knowing what to do, lacking energy and drive,  not following through, disengaged, having financial issues, moody, withdrawn, sleep and appetite issues, attention difficulties and reduced concentration.

There are of course a number of perfectly valid explanations to explain these patterns of behaviour.  Some of them are associated with normal young adult life.

They might also cover unidentified learning difficulties,  for example recently at least one student had undiagnosed ADD.  They can also cover depression.  44% of US college students report symptoms of depression.

In these cases for concern, I am talking about behaviours that are a barrier, which very often the young adult wants to change, but can’t.  The one area that I’ve learned in the past 12 months that cannot be ruled out is, marijuana usage and even dependency.  Before starting a coaching programme,  I separately ask both parents and students for input on substance use.


According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists  cannabis is the most widely used substance in the UK. Frequent use of cannabis is about twice as likely amongst young people, and nearly 5.3 million 16-24 year-olds have used it in the last year. Although there are strong  health warnings, the drug is perceived in many circles to be a relatively harmless substance that might even be good for physical and mental well-being, unlike its counterparts alcohol and cigarettes. Although in many geographies sale and possession is illegal, there are widespread movements to legalise the drug and some areas it has been. 

This post is not to make judgments about cannabis use, but to consider the potential risks to entry level job search. This may seem self evident to many (I hear an echo of why is she writing about this?) but the number of incidents I have encountered in the last 18 months, would suggest that it actually isn’t.  The discovery has left many parents shell shocked for not reading more into the patterns they have observed under their noses. Perhaps they are “just being kids”  – but for some it means significant long term danger.

If any of the following patterns are evident in the behaviours of a young adult in your life, either as a parent, friend or family member – it maybe time to ask some serious questions:

Here are some red flags


Marijuana usage can be  at the root of under performance or lack of productivity. Whether this is failing grades, failure to deliver projects or results, be on time, stay on task, embark on a job search, get a job or stay in one.  The right questions need to be asked.

Financial mismanagement   

Substances cost money. If your offspring is constantly asking for loans, whether large or small or you are missing re-saleable household items  – these are all warning signs. Combine this with an inability to get, or hold down even a basic job then again a conversation needs to happen

Time mismanagement

Cannabis users frequently are unable to manage their time effectively. They may be late for appointments, procrastinate on tasks they need to tackle, or lose focus once they have started. Perhaps they will prioritise activities which are less important.

Erratic sleep patterns

Sleeping patterns  are strongly impacted by cannabis usage in both ways – sleeping for long stretches, followed by bouts of insomnia. Very often users claim that marijuana helps them sleep, but it also increases heart rate which prevents it.

Memory impairment and problem solving skills impacted

Substance use or dependency has a profound effect on problem solving skills as well as short-term memory. If you see any signs of forgetfulness, these could be important indicators. You might find your child lying about certain things or making  weak excuses for not doing something.

Mental health issues

There is growing research which suggests to connect serious mental illness, including depression and psychosis, with cannabis usage.  Anxiety and even paranoia are reported with habitual cannabis use which worsen over time and  in extreme cases, even schizophrenia.

Eating patterns disrupted  

Clearly if you see your kitchen turning into a brownie production unit that should do it. But generally bursts of appetite, particularly for sweet products and drinks after consuming the drug is commonplace, as is loss of appetite in a withdrawal phase.

Friendship group changed

As with any behaviour pattern it’s no fun spending time with people who are not going to endorse the activity. You may observe your child hanging out with a different group of friends and perhaps being more secretive. If they live away from home this is of course difficult to monitor.

Change in relationships

Managing a young adult whether in your house or as part of your family is challenging anyway, but if there is a shift in your relationship,  you see locked doors, lack of engagement with the family, use of room fragrances, eye drops or cologne, temper outbursts and requests for privacy,  these can all be indicators that substance abuse is involved.

Drug equipment

If there is evidence of drug paraphernalia  – nothing could be clearer.

I’m not suggesting that all young people who struggle to find a path or a job, are necessarily cannabis users – but parents need to ask the right questions if these patterns of behaviour persist. 

Career Coaching

Career coaching, or any other coaching, can’t take place if the client is in an altered state. So if there is a strong feeling that cannabis usage  is part of your young adults lifestyle, then specialist help should be called in. 

Many employers also run drug tests and cannabis can stay in the system for as long as 60-90 days for habitual users. There is much online advice on how to get round these medical tests,  but if employers use behavioural interviews or psychometric testing, candidates under the influence of any substance, are likely to under perform.

One parent discovered his son indeed was an habitual cannabis user, which had negatively impacted his academic results, general behaviour as outlined above and outlook on life. We involved specialist help from the outset. He is now drug free and can start a proper career transition programme.

It’s always easy to avoid looking at the obvious, but sometimes it’s necessary.  What have your experiences been? Please share!

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