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How to Talk To Your Teen About Smoking

Teaching Your Child By Example Not To Smoke

Most parents, whether they smoke or not, do not want their children smoking. But how are we to accomplish that task in a world where so many young people seem to ignore the anti-smoking message?

It All Starts at Home

To begin with, parents should remember that the best anti-tobacco message comes right out of your home. "Young children learn best through observation," says Michael D. Smith, assistant professor of psychology for Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pa. "No discussion of the dangers of smoking will be particularly influential if they see parents smoking themselves. Teaching by example is the most powerful tool that we have to educate our children in good health behaviors."

So what about those parents who haven't been able to quit yet? Smith says that the message doesn't stop with observation. You can open up conversations with your children in other ways.

Heather Winne, mother of three from Bloomington, Ind., is a smoker who desperately hopes her children never pick up her habit. Unable to quit at this time, Winne has made discussing tobacco a priority. "My daughters started first grade and quickly learned from their teachers that smoking was a bad habit and harmful to your health," she says. "They've talked to me about it a lot, and I've spent some time explaining what addictions are as well as how they start. I've tried explaining that sometimes people, usually when they are teenagers, get curious about smoking and try it. They don't plan on smoking forever or getting addicted to it; they are just curious or trying to impress someone."

Winne also has explained to her children that if they don't want to be smokers they will have to fight the curiosity and not ever try it.

Talking to Your Children

Smith believes tailoring your conversation to fit the child is the best way to go about opening up the discussion. "When talking to children, it is very important to take into account the child's level of development," he says. "This will influence what type of communication will be most appropriate, and most effective."

If your child is younger than 6, it is best to communicate with short, clear statements, as they do not understand complex discussions where both sides of a case might be presented. Anti-smoking messages at this age should be simple: Smoking is bad for your health. "There is no need to get into a long discussion of the various health risks or the reasons why people smoke," Smith says. "This will confuse the young child. If children ask, 'Why is so-and-so smoking?' parents can reply with short statements that avoid moralistic judgments. A simple, 'It isn't good for them. I wish they wouldn't smoke,' would be good."

Children between 6 and 12 may have more advanced thinking but prefer to communicate in clear "yes or no" and "right vs. wrong" terms. Discuss the health effects of smoking, but avoid terms like "bad" because the younger children especially may link the term with the person rather than the behavior. At this age, parents can add their expectation that their child should not smoke into the conversation. "Children at this age actively try to understand what their parents want and usually try their best to deliver," Smith says.

Another aspect parents need to consider is that children ages 9 and above are at high risk for peer-influenced smoking. Dr. Lawrence Shapiro, author of The Secret Language of Children (Sourcebooks Trade, 2004), believes that the best preventive measures have more to do with teaching your child proactive behaviors rather than simply discussing the dangers of smoking. "You should teach your child refusal skills or assertion skills at this age," he says. "You can do this by role playing or telling stories."

Another proactive stance is making sure your child has good social skills. "Children who have difficulty making friends are at a higher risk for all sorts of negative behavior," Dr. Shapiro says. "They are more likely to start smoking than the child who has a satisfactory social life."

Kick Butts Day

In many ways it is becoming easier for parents to talk to their children about tobacco and addiction because of a multifaceted effort made by the media, our schools and organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in getting the word out. The Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids holds an annual event called Kick Butts Day, which encourages kids to become involved.

Holly Aprea, youth advocacy and partnerships associate for Tobacco-Free Kids, says that events like Kick Butts Day not only serve as a chance to educate kids about the dangers of tobacco but also act as an opportunity for kids to take matters into their own hands and achieve real results in the field of tobacco prevention, control and education. "Kick Butts Day is a great opportunity for kids and parents to learn more about this important issue and stay tobacco-free," she says. "It offers young people the opportunity to take action and become leaders in the fight against tobacco."

As children grow and become more autonomous, the choices they make will affect the rest of their lives. It is our job as parents to give them all the tools necessary to turn and walk away from any temptation they may have to experiment with this highly addictive and destructive substance.

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