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Talking to teens about vaping: How to prevent them starting or helping them stop if they’ve already vaped

Recently I delivered a webinar for parents for the Mid North Coast Local Health District on the topic of vaping. Like so many other parts of the country, schools and parents in the area were requesting information and assistance around the use of e-cigarettes, particularly in relation to school-based young people. The event was well-attended and I provided some basic information about vaping.

Particular attention was given to how parents should talk to their teen about vaping, particularly if they’ve recently discovered their child has used or is currently using these devices. Since that presentation I have continued to use the same material in other talks I have given. Nothing I said was particularly earth-shattering but I’ve been surprised by how many emails and DMs I’ve received from parents who, after hearing what I said, have gone away and used my advice and have had a positive outcome.

Before the advice here’s a quick summary of where I believe we are currently at in this country when it comes to school-based young people and vaping:

  • anecdotal and recently-released survey data suggests that teen vaping is increasing, however, we’re not talking about an ‘epidemic’ – most young don’t vape
  • new data indicates ≈10% of senior students and around one in 20 Year 9s and 10s are vaping ‘regularly’ and anecdotal reports suggest that some teens are nicotine dependent as a result
  • public health groups and harm reduction advocates are currently debating this issue (i.e., vaping is a ‘gateway’ to smoking for teens versus it’s a useful tool to assist smokers quit their habit)
  • teens ‘cherry-pick’ comments from this debate to justify or support their vaping
  • one thing both sides agree on is that teens shouldn’t vape

So, how should you talk to your teen about vaping? Firstly, when it comes to trying to prevent use, ensure you actually do discuss the issue with your child. A recent survey conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne of parents and caregivers found that although 73% were concerned their teen might try e-cigarettes, less than half (43%) had talked about vaping with their child. They were far more likely to discuss alcohol (87%), other drugs (71%), and even cigarettes and smoking (71%).

As well as underestimating their influence on their child when it comes to these issues, parents also struggle with when and where to raise these topics. In terms of preventing use, get in early and often, and make these discussions just part of everyday conversations. If you see someone vaping as you and your child are walking down the street make a comment or ask a question. When it comes to children or young teens, linking vaping and smoking together is powerful. Most young people view smoking in a negative light, so helping them to understand that vapes were developed to help smokers quit, i.e., they’re part of the ‘smoking experience’ could be helpful.

If you’ve discovered your teen is vaping, before you say anything, ensure you give yourself some time to calm down and, most importantly, be as prepared as possible. Remember these four simple steps in the preparation process:

  • know the facts and be as informed as possible – take the time to collect some basic information, ensuring you access it from different sources. Collecting your facts from one website that pushes a particular viewpoint is not going to be helpful
  • remember what it was like to be a teen – this can be tough but think back as to what didn’t work when your parents tried to have ‘the talk’ with you – what should you be avoiding?
  • practice what you want to say – you want to have a conversation, not to lecture or to fight. Writing down some dot points to keep you on track can be helpful but don’t read from a script
  • find the right time and place – the best time to have these type of discussions is in the evening, never attempt them over breakfast! Make sure you have a place where you won’t be disturbed and you both feel comfortable

So, when you sit down to have the chat, what should you be saying?

  • ask for their perspective on vaping – you want to know it all, what’s their side of the story? Why did they vape or continuing to vape? This is such a new phenomenon (the first e-cigarette was invented in 2003), when your teen says “You just don’t understand”, in this case that’s absolutely true. It’s vital that you let them speak, don’t interrupt or make comment, this is their time – you want to know it all
  • once they’ve finished saying their piece – express your views about teen vaping and why you feel that way. Ensure that they allow you the time to speak without interruption or comment. What you say has to be well thought through and stick to what you’ve planned. It’ll be tempting to respond to comments they’ve just made but this is not the time – use the information you’ve collected to support your view on the issue
  • avoid judgment and the use of ‘scare tactics’ – if they’ve talked about their friends vaping as one of the reasons they’re doing it be careful not to criticise them (remember, that didn’t go down well when you were a teen!). Most importantly, don’t throw horror stories at them that you’ve seen reported in the media. Most of these are based on some degree of truth but they’re not the norm and young people know that – stick to a couple of concerns based on the facts
  • clearly state your family expectations on vaping. You do have an influence on your child, no matter what their age. Does this mean that they’re going to do everything you tell them to do? Of course not, but letting them know how disappointed you would be if they continued to vape can be effective. This is the time where you can clearly state a family rule or boundary around vaping such as “As much as I would love to be able to stop you vaping, I can’t control what you do when I’m not with you. I can control what is done in our home. No vaping devices are permitted in this house …”
  • once you’ve finished, allow them time to respond to what you’ve said and any of the rules or boundaries you’ve outlined. This will likely be the time where they will try to bamboozle you with statements like “But it’s safer than smoking” but keep calm and composed. Getting angry and frustrated isn’t going to help. Once again, let them say their piece and, if you’ve done your homework you may be able to respond without too many problems but I guarantee there will be times, particularly around vaping, when you’ll reach a stalemate
  • if you get to a point where you’ve got different information on the same issue, e.g., “It’s just water vapour”offer to learn together and look at each other’s sources. Ask them to provide their reference and you can show them yours. Sitting at a computer together provides a valuable learning opportunity for both parties and demonstrates that you’re willing to listen to what they have to say and hopefully teaches them that they should be willing to show the same respect to others

Now is this likely to stop all young people from vaping? I highly doubt it. The truth is, if your teen wants to vape there is very little you can do to stop them. Do we have a ‘vaping epidemic’? No, but significant numbers of teens are experimenting and a smaller number appear to be vaping regularly. The current ease of access to cheap, brightly-coloured, flavoured disposable vapes to very young people in this country is of great concern. Having a conversation with your child about vaping is extremely important. Using the approach outlined above could help parents raise the issue in a more positive way and, if nothing else, assist you to connect with your teen around a topic that could so easily pull families apart.

Published: August 2021

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