What if you found a pack a of cigarettes in your teenage daughter's purse? How would you feel if you spotted your 16-year-old son taking a drag of a cigarette before passing it along to one of his friends? What if your kid was the nearly one in four high school seniors who smokes? While yes, it would have been ideal if he or she had never started smoking, at this point, you and your teen can only work on quitting.
"Parents should recognize that it's not too late if their kid has started experimenting with tobacco, or even if they're regular smokers," says Yvonne Hunt, program director in the National Cancer Institute's Tobacco Control Research Branch. "Parents can really be influential by showing interest and engaging their teens in conversations about it."
But where do you start? Here are tips for parents to effectively communicate with teens about their smoking and help them quit.
Take a breather. Upon finding out your child smokes, "It might be natural for parents to feel upset, angry, scared, worried or like they're losing control of the situation," says D'Arcy Lyness, a child and adolescent psychologist and behavioral health editor for KidsHealth.org. With these emotions brewing, you may feel inclined to find your teen and bark out a lecture or ground him or her for eternity. Instead, take a moment to collect yourself and decide how you want to react, Lyness suggests. Yelling and screaming is probably not going to be helpful, she says.
"To be taken seriously, parents should utilize that position of authority in a credible, balanced way as they communicate," she says. Parents should be calm and clear as they tell their teen they feel strongly that they do not want him or her to smoke. Ideally, with this respectful tone, parents can open a dialogue with their teen as opposed to a lecture.
Quit your own habit. "If a parent smokes, they need to quit," Lyness says. "They need to walk the talk." Surely it doesn't help parents' case for their kids to quit smoking if they themselves are lighting up. Modeling the positive behaviors parents wish to see is much more effective, so try to quit smoking – perhaps together – with your teen.
If quitting isn't an option, or you choose not to, know that you're still influential in helping your kid quit, Hunt says. Disclose your own struggles with tobacco, and perhaps remind your child about the many times you've tried to quit without success to hammer home the seriousness of the issue.
Plus, Hunt adds, "Whether or not the parent is a smoker, they can certainly communicate what their expectations are for their kids and set limits." Speaking of which...
Set limits and expectations. Declare your home smoke-free, Hunt suggests, which means no one – not your child, their friends, guests or you – can smoke inside. Setting limits helps control your teen's smoking behaviors, and also your own if you smoke. Not smoking inside is a rule you can follow together.
Dictating where smoking is prohibited is also one of the few ways you can curb your teen's friends' smoking, too. While you can't parent another person's kid, you can set limits to his or her behavior around your own child. Expand no-smoking zones to your teen's car and other spots where he and his friends smoke, such as garages, driveways, porches and decks.
Provide help and support for quitting. Simply telling your child to quit smoking – like you used to tell her to clean her room or do her homework – usually isn't very helpful. Even if teens are not yet daily smokers, they likely still need support. Nicotine is a powerful drug that acts on the brain, and teenagers' brains are still developing. "That may be one reason many teens feel dependent on tobacco after using it for only a short time," states a 2012 Surgeon General report. Both frequent and occasional teen smokers can still experience cravings and withdrawal, and Hunt says their attempts to quit on their own are often unsuccessful.