The other day, my 16-year-old son dropped his school bag and the contents fell out, revealing a packet of cigarettes. Neither my husband nor I smoke and I didn’t have any idea that he was smoking. I’m worried about his health. How do I tackle this?
I can imagine it must have come as a shock; it is a worrying issue among teens, and it’s one that’s sadly prevalent. In fact teenagers can be the hardest ones to convince of the harmful effects, usually because they feel pretty invincible at this age.
They start smoking for a variety of reasons; peer pressure, the sense that they think it makes them look more grown-up and most frequently because one or both of their parents smoke. As this doesn’t apply in your case, the first thing to find out is why he started and how long he’s been smoking.
Doing this in a confrontational and judgemental way would probably be counterproductive. It’s important to keep calm and stay measured. As with all parenting issues, it’s good to present a united front and discussing how you are going to deal with it beforehand will be more powerful in the long run.
Once you’ve established the ‘why’ and the ‘how long’, you’ll better understand how to help him quit. Then send a strong clear message telling him how you both feel about him smoking and that you will support him in any way to quit. Ask him to tell you what he thinks the risks of smoking are, and be armed with the facts, so you can correct any misunderstanding.
It’s my experience that teens don’t fully comprehend the risks, so it’s also worth appealing to their vanity too. Heart disease, cancer and stroke are very worrying health messages for adults, but teenagers often feel they don’t apply to them. Telling him it makes his breath and clothes smell, that it literally takes his breath away so that it’s more difficult to be involved in sports and fitness, and that it causes skin to dry and wrinkle and teeth and fingers to go yellow might be a more compelling set of arguments for a teen.
I think it’s also important to tell him you understand that smoking is an addiction and that it can feel like giving up is a scary prospect, but that you will be with him every step of the way. Get him to think of the future and what he wants to achieve in life, so that he has positive reasons to give up. However, it’s wise to be aware that the desire to give up has, in the end, got to come from him. All you can do is make it plain that you want the best for him and that includes his health and well-being, make it clear what the consequences of smoking are and that you will help and support him in any way to avoid the consequences and that you will reward him when he’s successful.
If he is keen to move forward, then helping him to create a plan of action is a good first step. Putting a date in the diary to quit is the first step and helping your son identify any trigger points that might destabilise him, including others in his social circle who smoke and might draw him back into the habit, is also an important part of kicking the habit.
I hope you are successful in convincing him that smoking is a damaging habit. The younger you start to smoke, the more likely you are to carry on, but with your support, he stands the best chance of a smoke-free future.