Convincing someone to give up smoking

Dear Alice,

My 15-year-old son has started to smoke. (We do not smoke, although I did smoke for 4 years some 22 years ago.) We have presented him with as much information as possible about why he should not smoke, he has committed to try to stop — but I am not sure how much pressure to put on him — do I continue to ask? I am tempted to leave him some of the information I found here and on tobacco.org — only as a reminder.

I want to trust him and believe him, but I do not want to be stupid and gullible as well. I guess trust is more important, and he has earned that in the past — so I might as well continue now.

Thanks for listening and I really would appreciate any comments.

— A concerned Mother

Dear A concerned Mother,

It’s great that you’re looking out for your son’s best interests, both now and for the future. You might find that your experience with quitting could be a way to relate to your son’s experience. Knowing the motivation and willpower it takes, you can be there to support him through the process. That being said, many teens begin smoking because their friends and family do, but they may continue because quitting is difficult. Additionally, many young folks are using new products on the market such as e-cigarettes, which when used is referred to as vaping. E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid, that often contains nicotine, to produce an aerosol to mimic a regular cigarette. While this device doesn’t create smoke, the aerosols do contain a number of chemicals that could prove harmful to those inhaling or those nearby. These products are particularly popular among teens because they come in a variety of flavors and are often odorless. Read on for more tips for how you can help support someone who’s trying to quit smoking or vaping.  

It sounds like you’ve got a good relationship with your son, so that’s a great place to start! Being supportive through this process can keep the communication channels open when he may be struggling. Yelling, punishments, threats, and commands tend to create barriers. To help him stay motivated, you might encourage him to make a list of the reasons he wants to quit. If you think creating some external motivations might help, you could set house rules that limit the opportunity to smoke or vape such as no smoking in the home, no smelling like smoke at home, or smokers wash their own clothes, may also make sense for your family.

Another thought to consider: since you've spoken with your son about quitting, he’s likely aware of the harmful health effects of smoking and vaping. Instead of sharing the same information again, you might continue to have respectful, frank discussions with your son about your concern for his health and your hope that he will quit. Some questions you could ask include: What are the main reasons you would like to quit? Do you see yourself as a smoker when you're an adult? What would make you feel ready to have your last cigarette or e-cigarette? Having these types of conversations might help you and your son approach the issue as a team, rather than potentially feeling like adversaries.

Through these conversations, you could also offer to help your son or encourage him to make a plan for how to quit. Here are a few strategies you could try may include:

  • Helping him pick a date to quit and write it down, though you might try to avoid very stressful times such as final exams.
  • Helping with practicing “saying no” if friends are also smokers or encourage friends to quit as a group.
  • Talking about what triggers him to smoke and what he could do instead of smoking on those occasions. Chewing on gum, sucking on hard candies, and avoiding places where you usually smoke have all been known to help.
  • Helping him create a plan for slip-ups, and reminding him that it doesn’t equal failure! It’s helpful to examine why a slip-up happened and what can be done in the future to avoid it.
  • Talking with your son’s health care provider about whether he may be a candidate for nicotine replacement therapy such as the gum or patch, as these products weren’t designed for teens.
  • Talking about nicotine withdrawal including the signs, symptoms, and how to cope so he’s better prepared if he experiences them.
  • Offering to help him connect with quitting support groups specifically for teens. You can also find support online — Smoke Free Teen offers support online, by phone, or by text message (they also have a lot of other great resources to help teens quit).
  • Planning rewards along the way. This is a tough process so rewarding your son every couple of weeks or once a month is a great way to encourage him to stay a non-smoker!  

It sounds as though your son is getting to the age where he has enough independence to make many decisions for himself, including whether to smoke. Given the trust that your son has earned up to this point, now may be the time to entrust him with making his own decision about quitting smoking. Hopefully this will keep the paths of communication open, even if he continues to smoke for the time being. Knowing he can turn to you for support will be a great relief, whenever he decides to quit.

Wishing your family health,

Last updated Dec 11, 2020
Originally published Sep 27, 1996

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