How to Talk With Teenagers
By Lisa Damour
E-cigarettes are only the latest entrant into the longstanding category of perils we might wish for our teenagers to avoid. Vaping - using an electronic cigarette to inhale vapor infused with flavor, nicotine, both or neither - holds promise as a path away from the harms of conventional cigarettes.
But a report released last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found evidence that vaping might prompt teenagers or young adults to try cigarettes, making it a route toward smoking for a generation of teenagers whose cigarette use is at a 40-year low.
Even when vaping doesn't lead to smoking, parents have reason to be concerned about the impact of nicotine on the developing brain and the potential health risks associated with inhaling aerosolized flavoring chemicals. Vaping is generally understood to be less risky than smoking. But not vaping is healthier than vaping.
So how do we have successful conversations with teenagers about the hazards of e-cigarettes? Here's a guide to how you might address vaping - or almost any other form of risky business - with the teenagers in your life.
Accept That Facts Don't Go Far
Research consistently finds that having good information doesn't necessarily lead to making smart choices. Adolescents (and adults) routinely do things they know to be unhealthy, such as speeding, skipping sunscreen and eating fast food.
We should ensure that our teenagers are working with the facts about the potential dangers of vaping, having unprotected sex, using drugs and so on. But we should not assume that simply dropping knowledge on a teenager, especially as a way to get a conversation rolling, will get the job done.
Get Their Perspective
Instead of leading with facts, consider starting with genuine curiosity. Setting judgment to the side, ask, "What's your take on e-cigarettes?" or "Do you know kids who are vaping?" or something along those lines.
Finding out what adolescents already know and think about vaping, or any other hazardous behavior, does two things at once. First, it shapes how the rest of the exchange might go. If your teenager wrinkles her nose and says, "I tried it and thought it was weird," you're having one conversation; if she responds slyly, "Lots of kids are doing it - I don't see why it's a big deal," you're having another.
Second, asking teenagers what they know about any topic increases the odds that they'll want to hear what we know about that topic, too. To get our teenagers to take our concerns about vaping - or anything else - seriously, we should start by recognizing that they may have already drawn upon firsthand observation or personal experience to arrive at their own conclusions.
Ask Why Before Suggesting Why Not
Adolescents have their reasons for vaping. Some do it for the thrill of defying authority, often in view of their peers. Compact vaporizers like Juuls, which look like flash drives, allow teenagers to easily conceal their e-cigarettes and take quick, discreet hits at home, in school hallways and even in class. And some teenagers may enjoy the stimulant quality of nicotine while trusting that they are swimming in the risk-taking shallows by forgoing harder drugs. Adolescents, by their nature, often seek ways to push the limits set by adults; vaping happens to offer a convenient vehicle for doing so.
Other teenagers may simply find themselves wanting to sample flavors with names like "German Chocolate Beefcake" or be drawn to e-cigarettes by mesmerizing videos of tricks done with the exhaled vapor.
If adults address only the downsides of risky temptations it's easy for adolescents to dismiss us as killjoys who just don't get it. Appreciating the allure of vaping and the other chancy things teenagers sometimes do can make it easier for adults to say their piece. In the end, we want our teenagers to weigh their options and be self-protective. We can model this approach by saying, "Look, it's not that I hate fun. It's that I love you."
Share Your Concerns
Teenagers can be quick to tune out adults when we treat all hazards as equal. To this end, we should allow that experimenting with conventional e-cigarettes is almost certainly less harmful than experimenting with illegal drugs, while also helping teenagers understand that using e-cigarettes is not without risks. Of course, vaping is also replacing the traditional ways of smoking marijuana - what may seem like a strawberry-kiwi flavored vape could contain cannabis-infused oil.
"We are still learning new things about vaping, none of which are reassuring," says Dr. Skyler Kalady, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director of complex care at the Cleveland Clinic.
"The developing brain is a lot more susceptible to addiction," she notes, "and nicotine is highly addictive." Even vaping solutions without nicotine sometimes contain compounds that may become toxic or even carcinogenic when vaporized. In addition, metal microparticles that are released by the e-cigarette's heating coils can, according to Dr. Kalady, "put kids at risk for reactive airway disease, asthma and even emphysema."
We keep our teenagers' trust when we are forthright about what we know and what remains unclear. "Nicotine is highly addictive," we might say, "and even if you don't get hooked, it can affect the way your brain is developing. As for the long-term impact of inhaling chemicals and metal particles, there's still a lot we don't know. But why risk it?"
Concede the Limits of Your Power
Parenting teenagers would be a lot less stressful if we could lay down the law and leave it at that. But adopting a thou-shalt-not stance overestimates the adult's control and underestimates the teenager's autonomy. It can also inspire teenagers to abuse their independence to make a point.
To stay out of a fruitless (if not counterproductive) cat-and-mouse game, it's often useful for parents to take a two-pronged approach, articulating high expectations in one breath and acknowledging the limits of their power in the next. "Vaping isn't harmless," one might say, "so I hope you will steer clear of it. That said, I don't have the power to make this choice for you. It's something you'll decide for yourself."
Parents who feel inclined to make rules about e-cigarettes could add, "If we find out you're using them, there will be repercussions." We serve our teenagers best when we remind them that all choices come with consequences, just as we parent most effectively when we remember that our teenagers will always have choices.
It's not always easy to engage our teenagers about the dangers they face. But adolescents care what their parents think and take fewer risks when we keep the lines of communication open. In discussing dicey choices with adolescents, there are many ways to get it right. And one of those ways is to be sure that we are talking with, not at, them.
Lisa Damour (@LDamour) is a psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the author of "Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood."
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