No ifs and butts: Talking to your teen about smoking

Finding out your teenager is smoking can be a terrible shock for most parents. But how you deal with the issue can help make a difference.

It’s a nightmare scenario for many parents: the lighter falling out of their kid's pocket, the smelly clothes and hair, the sneaking around. It’s the realisation that your child is smoking. 

According to a 2014 survey by the Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, the decreasing social acceptability of smoking means fewer kids are smoking these days – in fact, almost 82 per cent of the 12-17-year-olds surveyed had never picked up a cigarette. But that suggests that 18 per cent of teenagers in the general population do consider themselves smokers. 

And, as cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris so succinctly put in its now-infamous 1981 report: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”

Where there’s smoke…

Before you think about bringing up the issue with your teen, it’s important to remember how most teens start smoking. “Seeing people around them smoking is the single biggest influence,” says Sarah White, director of Quit Victoria. 

“If you are a parent who smokes, it is likely your child will smoke. If both parents smoke, it’s very likely. Also, tobacco companies spend a lot of money putting cigarettes into movies, TV shows and online games. There is still some marketing going to kids.” 

As any parent of a teen will tell you, talking to teenagers – about anything – can be challenging. But parents can be a great source of care and emotional support for teenagers, even when it might not seem like it, according to associate professor Julie Green, executive director of parenting website Raising Children Network. 

“Teenagers and their brains are still under construction – they’re still working out who they are,” she says. “Testing boundaries is all part of the process, so it helps to be realistic about your child’s behaviour. Being non-judgmental and uncritical is more likely to help teenagers feel connected to their parents.”
Mother and daughter talking

Having the conversation

Sarah White advises that the best time to start talking to kids “is before they even enter the dangerous ages of 14 to 16.” And the best way to broach the smoking subject is in what she calls “teachable moments” – when, say, a relative or friend who smokes is coughing or if someone has passed away from tobacco-related disease. Ramming the subject down kids’ throats when Australian take-up rates are so low, however, is actually counter-productive, as is going nuclear if you do find out your child has been smoking. 

“When you need to have a difficult conversation, it’s a good idea to think ahead about what you’ll say and how your child might feel,” advises Green. “This can help you head off conflict. Try and stay calm. Arranging a time and place where you can have some privacy also helps.”

Keeping those lines of communication open is crucial. Use open-ended questions – not, “Do you think smoking is okay?” but rather, “How do you feel about smoking?” It’s important to discuss, not lecture, according to Green, whose video tutorials on talking to kids about tricky subjects are valuable viewing.

Lifelong benefits

Appealing to a teenager’s vanity can be an effective approach, particularly for girls. Remind them that smoking is dirty and smelly, gives you bad breath, speeds up the ageing process and yellows their teeth. (Not to mention that smoking is known to cause a number of health issues, including cancer.)

Arm your teen with the ammunition to resist peer pressure and still be considered cool. Ask your kids how they would refuse a cigarette if it was offered to them – perhaps, “No, I don’t like the taste.” Or, “Actually, smoking’s gross.” 

“Tackling difficult conversations together with your teenager is a sign that you have a healthy relationship and it helps develop trust,” says Green. “If parents know what’s going on in their teenager’s life, they’re better placed to help them manage difficult situations.”
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