Dear Mr. Dad: I just found out that my 14-year-old is smoking. I was stunned. She accused me of “freaking out about nothing” and says she “can quit any time.” Then the big one: “Everybody is doing it.” Is it just a phase, or should I be concerned?
A: Be concerned. Be very concerned. While experimentation and line-crossing are a completely normal part of adolescence, smoking is a serious health issue that you can’t ignore. Let’s take a look at your daughter’s claims one at a time:
First of all, you are not “freaking out about nothing.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, smoking kills over 430,000 people each year in the U.S. alone. That hardly falls into the “nothing” category.
“I can quit any time” is the confident—and usually false—cliché that addicts of all kinds have been mouthing for hundreds of years. (Just ask any adult smoker. Most of them started when they were young and, like your daughter, thought they could quit any time.) Doesn’t matter whether the addiction is smoking, alcohol, gambling, food, or anything else. Research indicates that nicotine addiction is one of the most difficult to break. Like other addictions, it works in a fiendishly clever way to keep the smoker smoking, signaling the “reward” circuits of the brain to release dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure. One of the many problems, of course, is that keeping those pleasurable sensations going requires ever-higher levels of the drug (in this case, nicotine). That means that today’s three-cigarettes-a-day habit could gradually turn into three packs a day.
As for “everybody is doing it,” there was a time when that was a little closer to the truth, but thanks to a lot of good programs in schools and elsewhere, the news is much better now. Today, around one fourth of today’s high school students are smokers, down from roughly a third in the mid-1990s.
Okay, now that we’ve debunked your daughter’s claims, what can you do for her?
1. Take it seriously. It’s going to be a lot easier to quit now than it will be in a few years.
2. Be sure she knows the specific and detailed health risks of smoking. At the very least, it causes bad breath, yellow teeth, and stinky clothes—things no self-respecting teen can afford to have. It also reduces stamina, causes sore throats and coughing, and is very expensive. Oh, and don’t forget about cancer and emphysema. Ask your family doctor to lead the discussion, since there’s a better chance that your daughter will hear it from a non-parent.
3. Make it clear that it’s a big deal to you, and that no smoking is allowed under any circumstances or in any amount. Be sure to base your position on health risks, not simply on “because-I-said-so.”
4. Be involved. Support and encourage your child in quitting. Get professional help if necessary. Start by visiting www.smokefree.gov or calling 1-800-QUITNOW, a service of the centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The way you handle this issue with your child is as important as doing it. Be very careful not to come in with guns blazing and accusations flying. That’s a sure fire way to shut down communication, which will make it less likely that you’ll be able to see her through this important decision. Speak calmly. Make it clear that you love and respect her, that you trust her ability to do the right thing for her health and well-being, and that you will support her every step of the way.