I was sorting through my teen's laundry pile and found a vape pen in a sweatshirt pocket. I've never seen him use it and he hasn't told me if any of his friends smoke, but I know I need to say something now. What should I do if I think my kid is vaping?
Dear Smoke-Free Mama,
As a mom, if I found out my kid was vaping, I would want to lock them in their room until their brain fully developed at age 25. As a rational human, I know this is not the answer, and it's impossible to guarantee our children never do anything that's bad for them.
Adolescence and bad decisions go together for a reason. Neurologically, the parts of the brain responsible for good judgment, planning decisions, and slowing down impulses, are still growing. Developmentally, adolescents are figuring out who they are outside of their family and in the world at large. This has to involve some level of "trying on" different identities to see what's the best fit (picture Cinderella and the glass slipper). The under-developed brain combined with the normal developmental "tasks" of being a teenager can make them especially likely to make dumb choices. No matter how normal it is, it doesn't mean we just need to stand by waiting for them to grow out of it.
In the case of experimenting with substances, including this new version of smoking known as vaping, we do need to address it. The hard part is knowing how to do it in a way that works instead of pushing away our child to hide and lie, which makes it more likely for them to do other risky things that could get them in even greater trouble.
We know from the days of the prolific but totally useless "Just Say No" drug campaign, frying egg on the skillet and all, that fear tactics do not work. Teenagers feel invincible and are very present-focused, so scaring them about what is going to happen in the future often barely makes a dent in their curiosity and impulse to rebel.
As more information has come out about the dangers of vaping, we can use it for our own education and to strengthen our resolve as parents to address it, but don’t expect the same impact for your vaping teen. Some evidence suggests that an effective approach is to focus on immediate downsides, like the cost of vaping, how addiction can set in especially fast with nicotine, or the recent cases of sudden lung failure associated with THC oil.
The trick is finding a balance between starting a dialogue so your child continues to be open and honest with you, while also unequivocally giving the message that the vaping needs to stop. From research on drinking behaviors, we know that teens are more likely to engage in risky drinking behaviors if their parents accept it (and encourage it by allowing underage drinking at their home). Vaping is too new a behavior for this kind of research yet, but there’s no doubt about the importance of parent messaging.
If you know your kid is vaping, you need to talk to them about it. You want to get enough information to understand the behavior itself, and what might make it hard to stop. Find out what your child likes about vaping, what they are vaping (nicotine or THC), when they do it, with whom they do it, and their understanding of the risks (before you give them the laundry list). It’s also essential to get a sense of how long they have been vaping, how often, and if it’s hard for them to not do it.
Putting all of this information together gives you a barometer of whether the vaping is at the level of experimentation or addiction. If you can approach the conversation with curiosity rather than the impulse of a long lecture or grounding them indefinitely, it will help your child be more honest, giving you better information for what to do next.
After talking about it, partner with your teen to come up with a plan to stop. Of course, your child needs to buy into the plan, so you need to find their kernel of motivation to stop, but the more collaborative the process, the better. If a teenager feels involved, the more likely they will be to follow through.
Throughout the process of talking about it and crafting a plan together, you may uncover that your child is depressed or anxious, and a sudden stop to the vaping may even increase these symptoms. In this case, seeing a therapist is a good next step. If you are concerned your teen is addicted, which will make it much more difficult to "just stop," a specialist in teen addiction is a great resource to support all of you.
There is not yet one tried and true "answer" for how to stop vaping, but with good family discussion and support, you and your teen can find out together the best answer for them. Here are some resources I recommend to educate yourself on vaping and prevention:
- Facts About E-Cigarettes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Tobacco Prevention Toolkit from Stanford Medicine
Teens Weigh In
In collaboration with our column 'Teen Talk', where teens write to help parents understand what's really happening in their world, we asked teens how they would want their parents to approach them about vaping. "I’d want my parents to tell me that vaping is just like smoking cigarettes," says Ryan Murphy, 19, from St. Paul, MN. "I'd want them to tell me that we don’t know the long term effects of vaping yet so it’s not wise to do it. But they should explain why it’s bad for me and why I shouldn’t do it rather than just telling me no.”
Teens also want their parents to be approachable for a conversation about vaping. "If kids do decide to experiment with vaping, they should be made to feel comfortable talking to and getting information about the topic from their parents," says Morgan Patsy, 17, from St. Paul, MN.
Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom' columnist Emily here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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