For Parents: Understanding Teenage Smoking and Helping Your Teenager Avoid the Habit

For Parents: Understanding Teenage Smoking and Helping Your Teenager Avoid the Habit


My name is Marshall Brain, and as the author of the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World I answer a quite a few questions from both teenagers and their parents. I also answer quite a few questions from various media sources. An extremely common question is, "How can we prevent teenage smoking?" In this letter I would like to address this issue and give you, as a parent, several different ideas to think about if you are faced with a teenager who begins, for whatever reason, to consider or actually take up smoking.

Approximately 3,000 teenagers pick up the smoking habit each day in America. That is roughly one million new teenage smokers per year. Nearly every smoker starts as a teenager - as you can imagine, it is extremely unlikely that an adult (21-years-old and up) non-smoker would make a decision one day to begin smoking. Since no adult would ever make the decision to smoke, why do so many teenagers miss the boat?

Teenagers start to smoke for four reasons:

The question is, why do these forces outweigh the rational forces that drive adult thinking? No adult would ever make a rational decision to smoke, so why do the four factors listed above overwhelm the rational reasons for not smoking known to all adults? These rational reasons are, by the way, many and powerful. Let's look at four of those reasons simply to compare:

These reasons make smoking look very stupid to any thinking adult.

So why do teenagers start smoking? Because the teenagers who start smoking are not yet thinking adults. They are, in large part, not thinking at all. They are reacting and doing, and a reactive mind does not include rational thought. Many teenagers simply have not turned on their brains and started thinking about the world as an adult yet.

As a parent, what is your goal? Your goal is to help your teenager to become a thinking adult. At some point you are going to have to release the person who if your teenage child into the real world. When you do that, what you want is for your child to have started down the path of becoming a thinking adult. No 18- or 19-year-old is yet a complete adult - that is what the 20s are all about. Nonetheless your goal is to have helped your teenager to start down the road. The purpose of the teen years is for the teenager to make the transition from reactive child to thinking adult. The sooner that happens, the sooner your teenager is outside the danger zone that smoking (and drugs) represent.

If you want your teenager to skip smoking what you need to do is help your teenager turn on his or her brain and begin to think like an adult. You want your teenager to realize that he gets to design his own life, and that many of the choices made now will affect him for the rest of his life. You want your teenager to understand that she gets to make her own decisions about life from an infinite pool: where to live, whether or not to go to college, what kind of car to drive, what sort of lifestyle to attain, what sort of person to marry, how many kids to have, whether or not to smoke, and so on. You want her to understand these decisions in detail. You want her to understand that she is the only one in control of these decisions. A teenager's life is a blank slate, and the teenager is in complete control of all the decisions that will form his or her life. By helping your teenager to see the infinite possibilities, the level of control that can be attained over his or her life, and the responsibility that goes with that freedom, you help your teenager to become an adult. For further information on the topic of designing your life as a teenager, click here.

Another way to help your teenager is to implant in his or her head the key idea that "being a teenager" is a temporary state meant to be outgrown. "Being a teenager" can be equated to "being a child" at some level. The idea is for a teenager to outgrow teendom and become an adult. Once your teenager sees that, the transition often becomes easier.

In other words, if you can help your teenager to begin to think like an adult, then the power of adult thinking will cause your teenager to see how stupid smoking really is. Of course, for any of the ideas in the previous paragraphs to work you and your teenager need to be able to talk with one another. That in itself is a challenge for many parents. However, in relation to smoking there are several things to think about. First, have a rational discussion about the disadvantages and effects of smoking. Two keywords to note in that last sentence are "rational" and "discussion". It cannot be a sermon, and it cannot be a monologue. It needs to be a conversation. Explain things rationally and let your teenager ask questions. Respond to the questions rationally rather than emotionally. Second, remember that you cannot teach in sound bites or commandments. You must become your teenager's advisor rather than his or her ruler. If you are not in the habit of having rational two-way conversations with your teenager, then now might be a good time to start. You might be surprised what can happen when you open up a true conversation with your child. In having these conversations, what you are trying to do is help your teenager to come up to a higher adult perspective.

If you find it impossible to have a conversation with your teenager, or if you don't think the conversation you have "works", you might try asking your teenager to read this article and this article.

Let's say you do this. What if your teenager were to then move up to the level where he or she came to you and said, "Look Mom, Dad, I understand what you are saying. I understand the health problems associated with smoking and the other disadvantages of the habit. I am willing to accept the cost. I realize that I will become addicted. However, this habit is extremely important to the self-image I want to project when I am with my friends. Therefore I would like to choose to smoke, and I would like you to support me in that decision." One thing you will notice is that you might find it impossible to imagine your teenager dealing with you and the topic with that much maturity. For most parents this sort of rational, thought-through decision would mark a major milestone even though the decision is the wrong one! If you can help your teenager to rise to that level, you know you have truly accomplished something as a parent.

You can imagine that it is extremely unlikely a teenager working at that high a level would choose to smoke. Nonetheless, if smoking is important, what you would want to do is respond at a similarly high level and lay down your rules on the subject: no cigarettes in the house, no smoking in the house, no smoking in the car, etc. Then you would likely accept your teenager's decision to smoke. Your other choice would be to quarantine your teenager and prevent any freedom of motion. That would likely have a number of negative consequences, but perhaps the health of your child outweighs the consequences for you. You are the parent, so the choice is yours.

We often hear the phrase, "We must do something now to stop teenage smoking!" That sentence is often heard in relation to teenage drug use as well. It is unlikely that "we" will ever "stop" smoking or drugs. However you, as the parent of your teenager, can do a tremendous amount to help your teenager rise to the level where he or she makes an adult and rational decision for himself or herself.

Marshall Brain.

PS - For books and links for parents of teenagers, click here.