What to Do When You Catch Your Teenager Smoking

By Kathryn Walsh
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Every day in the United States, about 3,800 minors smoke their first cigarette, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1,000 of those kids and teens will become regular smokers. Catching your teen with a cigarette, whether he claims it's his first or he's already a regular smoker, is upsetting for most parents. You can't force a teenager to stop smoking, but you can show him why he should quit and how to do it.

Get the Facts

Your first reaction upon catching your teen smoking might be to scream, lecture or send him to his room for the next year, but it's unlikely that any of these options will get through to him. Instead, take a deep breath and use your calmest voice to ask some pointed questions. Ask him to tell you honestly how long he's been smoking, with the promise that you won't blow up or punish him if he tells you the truth. Ask why he started smoking to find out whether social pressures are behind his habit, suggests the American Lung Association. If he's smoked more than a few times, ask whether he feels cravings for cigarettes so you can understand how addicted to nicotine he's become.

Talk About Consequences

Taking away his phone or grounding him won't necessarily keep him from accepting a cigarette from a friend at school, especially if he's already addicted to nicotine. Instead, use your parental influence to help inspire him to give up the habit. Tell him in clear terms that you do not approve of him smoking and that it's not acceptable to you. Let cold, hard facts do some of the convincing for you. Tell him that 90 percent of smokers, according to HealthyChildren.org, started as teenagers, so he might end up being saddled with a long-term, expensive and harmful addiction if he keeps up the habit. Appeal to his vanity by telling him that smoking will make his breath and hair smell and can turn his nails and fingers yellow. Remind him often of the many dangers of smoking such as the risks of developing cancers and emphysema.

Make a Plan

Your teenager needs a plan for resisting cigarettes going forward, and you can help him form it. First talk about the social elements of refusing cigarettes. Offer suggestions for what he can say when a friend offers him a smoke or when he finds himself around other smokers. If he's willing, role-play these scenarios, with you pressuring him to smoke and him saying things such as, "No, thanks, I'm just not into smoking anymore." A teen who has become addicted to nicotine also needs a plan to break the addiction. MayoClinic.com suggests asking your teen to choose a date by which he plans to fully quit smoking, because the process can take time. Have him write the date, along with the reasons he plans to quit, on paper that he can post in his room as motivation. If you're a smoker, be an example by quitting now, too.

Help Him Quit

A teenager probably doesn't know where to turn for resources to help him quit smoking. This is where you come in. Talk to his doctor about smoking cessation products such as gum and patches that are appropriate for a teenager. MayoClinic.com also suggests arming your teen with gum and toothpicks that he can chew when he's fighting cravings. Offer frequent praise and support, telling him how proud you are of his efforts and urging him not to give up in his fight. Your teen's doctor or school counselor can also suggest local support resources for teenagers who want to quit smoking, and your child can always call 1-800-QUIT-NOW, a free smoking hot line sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Your teenager will speak with a local "quit coach" who is trained to provide support and resources to people who want to kick the habit for good.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.