Thursday 27 April 2017

David Coleman: My son just began smoking

Young person smoking
Young person smoking

My son just began smoking, I think because his friends are doing it -- what should I do?

I have five children between the ages of six and 15. Overall, they are very well-behaved and we have a good relationship. However, one problem has come to light in the last few days.

My 13-year-old, who is in his first year in secondary school, has had the odd cigarette or two. He is not aware yet that I know and I want to handle it in the best way possible.

We think he has just started in the past two or three weeks, and we know some of his friends smoke because he told us about them when he started school with them. We live in a rural area, and I am not a smoker so I get the smell straight away.

He is very close to his older brother (aged 15) and his younger brother (aged 12) and they do everything together. However, he has not mentioned a word to them about smoking even though they have been trying to draw him out.

I think he is testing the waters to see how to smoke and how it works. He has not been seen smoking in school yet but that is not to say that he hasn't done it. It seems such a shame because he is into sports and music.

My husband does smoke, but not at home or in the car. What action should I take?

Smoking is such a pervasive habit in Ireland that even with all the health advertising and smoking restrictions, it is still a widely tolerated social behaviour. However, when children dabble with or develop a habit of smoking, it can create real dilemmas for parents.

Research demonstrates that youngsters' own attitudes toward smoking are primarily influenced by their peer group. So I am not surprised to hear that your son's friends smoke. A survey of children aged eight to 17 years showed when children did not smoke, only two out of 10 of their friends smoked. Of children who did smoke, nine out of 10 of their friends also smoked.

Amongst children and teenagers, it seems smokers will hang out together. Not only do you have to counter the addictive nature of the cigarettes themselves, you also have to counter his feeling of being part of a group -- a group that smokes.

I think there can be a real danger of polarising your relationship with him if you try to catch him out, by waiting to see if he admits it, even though you already know. If you catch him smoking, or prove to him you know that he smokes, he will most likely become defensive. Very few children will want to admit to something they know will probably get them in trouble. So catching him out in a lie about smoking will lead to conflict, denial or a refusal to discuss things.

I am always much more in favour of being upfront about what information we have about our children and their behaviour. If you have strong suspicions that he smokes, then sit him down and tell him this. Then in a very genuine way you can invite him to give his opinion, or his response to what you have said.

You are aiming to encourage and invite him to genuinely discuss smoking rather than lecture him about it.

Even if you are direct, open and non-judgmental about your worries he might still deny it. If so, then accept his denial but explain to him about your concerns about his health, especially as he is a sportsman. Let him know that no matter what stuff he tries you would rather that he tell you so that you can have a proper discussion about it.

I think it is good if you can show him how passionately you feel about smoking and the dangers involved in it for his long-term health. If he knows his dad smokes then you need to be careful that you don't come across as hypocritical.

For example, if you lambaste him for the same behaviour as you tolerate in his dad, he might feel that you unfairly apply different criteria to judging the behaviour.

Even though his dad is an adult and can make his own free choices, your son is unlikely to make that distinction. So you do need to appear balanced, albeit determined to guide him away from smoking.

It could be very powerful for him to discuss this with his dad, who might be able to really describe the drawbacks and dangers of smoking from real experience. Although the 'do as I say, not as a I do' approach is rarely successful, it can sometimes give children a real insight into aspects of the behaviour they hadn't considered.

This is a window of opportunity for him, as he might not yet have developed an addiction to cigarettes. You are fortunate you have discovered his behaviour early in his smoking career -- it is still possible for you to shift his attitude.

One way to do this is to find positive role models for him, ones that don't smoke. Perhaps local sports stars that he admires, or relatives of yours, or anyone he looks up to could also talk to him and try to guide him away from smoking.

It is also worth getting him to think about why he smokes. Talk to him about how his behaviour might be less about enjoying cigarettes and more about fitting in or trying to be cool amongst his peers.

If you feel his brothers can provide a bit of leverage, then engage them too. If they also feel passionate about not wanting their brother to come to harm it might be that bit of extra external motivation that he needs to stop.

Despite your attempts at persuasion, it could be that he doesn't stop smoking because stopping smoking requires internal determination.

If you simply punish him, then he will most likely continue to smoke, but do it more secretively. If you keep showing him that you are interested in his smoking, and his health, and that you genuinely care about him enough to want him to stop, I think you stand a better chance of leaving the lines of communication open.

Once you can still talk to him about his smoking then you stand a better chance of influencing him to stop at some other time.

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