Below, Dr. Michael
H. Popkin answers your questions to help you get the
conversation started - and keep the conversation going.
to ask Dr. Popkin your question.
Do I have to be an expert on the health issues related
No, chances are your child already is getting a lot
of useful information about that in school. You may
even ask what he’s learned about the health risks
smoking. Ask him to share information from textbooks
or other print material. Go to the library together
or search the Internet. Make it a project you do together
and you will strengthen your relationship while you
strengthen your argument.
What if I’m a smoker?
Even if you smoke, you can still have a positive impact
on your child’s decision to not smoke. One of
the most important things you can do is tell your child
you don’t want her to smoke. Second, don’t
smoke around your child. If you want to quit, tell her,
but you must follow through and at least make the effort
to quit. You should stress that while you smoke, it
is not appropriate for kids to do so. Tell her that
you know smoking is very easy to start, but it’s
also very hard to stop, so don’t get started.
How old should my kids be when I start talking
to them about not smoking?
We know that by the time they reach middle school, the
vast majority of children believe that smoking is dangerous
to one’s health. Despite this knowledge, a high
percentage of teens still become smokers. To stop youth
smoking before it starts, many experts recommend opening
the discussion with your child as early as age 8. Point
out the health risks, but don’t dwell on them.
Most kids are more concerned about what happens now
than what may or may not happen in 20–30 years.
What if my child is already smoking?
It is upsetting for any parent to learn that their child
is doing something that is harmful to them. It is also
normal to feel angry that your child has broken an agreement
with you. Tell him that you want him to stop right now
and express that if he continues to do so, there will
be consequences, like grounding or loss of other privileges.
When you follow through with the consequences, stay
calm and remind your child that you love him and want
to see him grow up happy and healthy.
How can I help my child to realize the consequences
Many children are not motivated by what may or may not
happen in 30 years, so it’s important that you
make your argument as graphic as possible. This will
ensure that it is emotionally powerful. Find photos,
videos, or anything else that will give your health
message some “yuck” effect. You can also
increase the impact of your message by having it delivered
by a victim of a tobacco-related disease. If your child
is into sports, point out that professional athletes
don’t smoke, as it strains their heart and lungs,
and reduces their performance and endurance.
What if my child’s friends smoke?
Teens who have friends who smoke are nine times as likely
to smoke as those who hang out with kids that don’t
smoke. Parents are never going to seem as cool to their
kids as the cool kids do. However, what we tell our
kids about smoking can make an important difference.
Along with talking about the consequences of smoking,
help your child by practicing peer pressure refusal
lines. Ask them what they can say when offered cigarettes
so that they will not feel foolish doing so. Helping
them to come up with clever refusal lines can give them
the confidence to say no when the time comes.
How often should I bring up not smoking with my child?
As often as possible. It’s best to make your
point of view clear before your child has the opportunity
to try smoking. Because kids are being offered cigarettes
at younger and younger ages, you can begin talking with
them about smoking as early as age 8. Keep in mind that
almost 90 percent of smokers began before the age of
18. In fact, the middle school years of 12 to 14 are
the prime time for experimentation and to begin getting
hooked. The teen years provide a critical opportunity
for parents to prevent any experimentation with tobacco
or to intercede in the addiction process before it becomes
How can I avoid sounding like I’m lecturing my
Begin by asking good questions. Then listen
to the answers actively and with empathy. Do not become
judgmental or critical of their ideas, but look for
ground where you can agree. Let your kids know how bad
you would feel if they became smokers, and give some
good concrete reasons for wanting them to abstain. Be
sure to talk from the place in your heart that loves
them and cares about their health and happiness. If
they ever feel that you are just trying to run their
lives, there is a good chance your words will backfire,
making smoking more appealing.
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