The average age for kids to start smoking is between 12 and 14—the same age that "being cool" becomes crucial to a child’s self-worth. This is no coincidence.
Fitting in, being cool, looking older, losing weight and being like their friends are the reasons kids start smoking, and nearly all are linked to self-esteem. Children—and they are children, despite the fact that their bodies may appear closer to those of grown-ups—have such a strong desire to be accepted, they’ll do whatever it takes.
While you may think that advice from an old-fashioned parent is hard-pressed to stand up to peer pressure, there are many things you can do to help your young teen resist smoking. Statistics confirm that kids who know their parents would be mad or disappointed are less likely to start.
To help your child make a healthy choice about smoking, try the following:
Talk about it. Ask your teen what she thinks about smoking, and listen carefully to her answers. Try to have an honest, open discussion that will draw her in, rather than a lecture that will cause her to shut you out. Listen to her feelings and ideas, and then speak from your heart about why you don’t want her to smoke.
Help your tween develop inner strength and confidence. A kid who believes in his inherent self-worth doesn’t need to smoke to appear cool. Help him develop that confidence by focusing on his strengths and accepting his weaknesses. Offer him unconditional love, while at the same time setting appropriate limits to help him learn responsibility and self-discipline.
Give your kid practical suggestions for responding to "C’mon—just try one." The Youth Smoking Prevention Program suggests using humor with statements such as, "No thanks, cigarettes don’t go with my outfit." Or reverse the pressure by saying, "Is that what you do to be cool?" or "I bet you can’t go a week without smoking." Ask questions such as, "Why would I want to do something that smells so bad?" "Do you know any professional athletes who smoke?" or "Why would I want to do that to my lungs?" Change the subject with a line such as, "No, thanks. Hey, have you seen any good movies lately?" Or, simply be direct: "No, thanks, I’m not into that," "I’d rather spend my money on other stuff," or "No, thanks, I like being healthy." Let your tween rehearse with you and pick the responses he or she feels most comfortable with.
Explain the instant unappealing effects of smoking. Kids in the tween and teen years are "immediate-oriented." They don’t realistically conceive of the long-term future, so they are rarely affected by the idea that when they’re 40 (1,000 years from now) they could develop heart, lung, gum or throat disease. Appeal to the present day instead. Remind them that smoking will give them bad breath and yellow teeth just in time for prom. It will make hair and clothes smell bad. It will cause them to cough up phlegm and wheeze. It will make kissing them taste like kissing an ashtray. If any kid is concerned with being attractive, these visions can be effective.
Present the graphic facts. Ask if they would willingly ingest acetone (nail polish remover), ammonia (toilet cleaner), arsenic (rat poison), butane (lighter fluid), carbon monoxide (car exhaust fumes), hydrogen cyanide (gas chamber poison) or naphthalene (moth balls)—just a few of the chemicals found in cigarettes. Inform them about nicotine—once used as a pesticide, but banned when people became sick from eating food sprayed with it. Nicotine can also damage ovaries and eggs, leading to infertility. It can cause impotence and lower testosterone levels.
Hit them in the wallet. Sit down with your child and a calculator and determine how the monetary cost of smoking will affect them. A pack of cigarettes costs about $5. Figure out how many CDs, video games, earrings, shoes, skateboards, tubes of lipstick, movie tickets, gallons of gas or pizzas they won’t be able to afford if they spend their money on cigarettes.
Show them the long-term effects of smoking in a way that will stick in their minds. Hearing the word "cancer" is a far different experience than being in a hospital room talking to someone whose jaw has been eaten away by cancer cells. Don’t hesitate to shock your tween with reality.
Set and follow through on consequences. Health issues aside, underage smoking is illegal, just like stealing or vandalism. Let your children know what the consequences will be if they break this law, and be sure that you follow through.
If you smoke, try even harder to discourage your child from starting. Make a genuine effort to quit or explain to your kids how hard it is to quit—which is one of the reasons you don’t want them to start. Smoke only outside your house so your kids aren’t susceptible to the dangers of second-hand smoke. Explain how you started smoking and express the regrets you have about it now.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.
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