Should I allow my 14-year-old son to smoke electronic cigarettes? He’s been hounding me about it and claims that they are medically safe and that there is no reason I should not let him engage in and enjoy this activity. I’ve been telling him “no” even though I know nothing about e-cigarettes and have no basis for my decision. It just doesn’t “feel” right to me. Do you have any advice?
There’s an art to talking with teenagers about subjects of this nature. In this case, your intuitions are on target, and as the parent of a minor you have every right to lay down the law with no questions asked. But in the long run, a flat, unsupported “no” will be far less effective than a calm and reasonable discussion of the medical facts and the deeper issues underlying your son’s desire to smoke.
We suggest you begin by asking your son to research the issue with you. Say something like, “Let’s go online and read every scientific article on the health aspects of vaping and e-cigarettes that we can find. After we’ve gathered and studied all the information we can locate, we’ll get together, compare notes, and see if the facts have changed your attitude in any way.” This, as you can probably see, will accomplish something far more important than simply helping you resolve the e-cigarette question – it will teach your teen to do the hard work required to become an informed decision maker. That’s a skill that will serve him well for the rest of his life.
To get you started, here are a few illuminating tidbits we’ve uncovered through our own efforts to explore this controversial topic.
It’s true that e-cigarettes are “safer” in the sense that they burn nothing and as a result produce no smoke. Instead, these electronic devices employ a small heating element to vaporize a liquefied concoction of chemicals, thus producing a smoke-free source of nicotine.
The bad news is that, according to several recent studies, this chemical cocktail turns out to be far more toxic than many advocates of vaping formerly supposed. For example, e-cigarettes deliver high levels of microscopic aerosols and nanoparticles, which can trigger inflammation and have been linked to asthma, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
In addition, the vapor they produce contains traces of the solvents in which the nicotine and flavorings have been dissolved. These solvents are known lung irritants. What’s worse, they can transform into cancer-causing chemicals called carbonyls, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
It’s also believed that e-cigarette vapors can make it much harder to kill dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
As part of your research, you and your son will also discover that the most recent studies suggest that young people who use e-cigarettes are much more likely to become smokers than those who don’t. According to one nationwide survey, more than one-third of teens and young adults who experimented with vaping and e-cigarettes took up smoking within one year, compared to only 10 percent of those who had never used the devices.
After you’ve covered the medical and technical angles, it would be a good idea to make things more personal by asking your son why he has such a strong desire to use electronic cigarettes. There’s no need to blame, shame, or condemn him. On the contrary, you can point out that there’s a reason why activities like smoking and drinking tend to become addictive: namely, there’s an aspect of pleasure, excitement, adventure, and novelty about them that appeals to everybody, especially during the teenage years. In this context you can bring up the subject of “wants.” Help your son understand that we all have wants, and that learning to manage those wants is an important part of growing up. Make a distinction between “wants” and “needs,” and between “surface wants” (the immediate wish) and “core wants” (the deeper emotional need that is driving the surface level desire). Explain how these various desires have to be weighed and balanced against each other. Ask him what he thinks would happen if everybody just did what they want to do all the time.
At this point you can say, “What core want or need do you think is behind your desire to smoke e-cigarettes? Do you need acceptance or affirmation? Are you trying to ‘fit in’ with the kids at school? Or are you simply looking for thrills? If so, I can understand what you’re feeling. Why don’t we work together as a team to find something else – like surfing or skiing, for instance – that can help meet that core need and desire?” Explain that, in making this suggestion, you’re not trying to “control” or “restrict” him. Instead, your desire is to teach him “life ownership” – to help him set boundaries for himself that will reinforce self-control and thus help him face the challenges of an independent adult life. If negative peer pressure seems to be at the core of the issue, brainstorm ways you can help him say, “No.” For example, we’ve always told our children to use “us” as the excuse. We’ve said, “feel free to tell your friends that we might randomly drug test you and if you are found to be positive for any substance, getting your driver’s license will be delayed.” Better yet, help your child internalize Asset #35: Resistance Skills. A personalized and heart-felt conviction and ability to say, “NO” when faced with negative pressure, will ultimately help them in numerous situations they will face in life.
What if he refuses to cooperate? In that case, it all comes down to the bottom line. As the parent of a minor, you do have the right to make the rules. Just say something like, “At 14 years of age you are still under my authority. As long as you live under my roof, I cannot permit you to do something that I consider harmful. You and I both know that I have sound medical reasons for coming to this conclusion.” Emphasize that you are doing this for your son’s own good, and that it has nothing to do with any desire to “control” on your part. Ask him, “What would you do if a younger sibling ran out into the street and you saw that he or she was in danger of getting hit by a car?” Explain that, as a parent, you are instinctively geared to protect your child from danger, and that you can’t just sit back and allow your child to engage in harmful and dangerous behaviors.
Before closing, it’s worth noting that this entire process will probably prove far more difficult for you if you’re a smoker yourself. In that case, your son will probably try to call you on the carpet with some pointed questions about your own harmful habits. If so, it might be a good idea to take his words to heart and think about making some changes in your own life.
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