DEAR DOCTOR K: I recently discovered that my teenage son is smoking. How can I help him quit?
DEAR READER: Parents can do many things to help their teens quit smoking. First and foremost, if you smoke, stop. It will be hard for your teen to take you seriously if you’re telling him to do something you won’t do.
If you did smoke and have already quit, talk to your son about your experience. Discuss the challenges you faced when trying to quit. You may have noticed that teens often believe they are both immortal and invincible. They often believe they can quit smoking whenever they want. But adolescents often spend less time than adults mentally preparing to quit smoking. That can reduce the chances that they will succeed.
Teens are also more likely than adults to act on impulse and discount long-term consequences. You may have noticed that, too. As a result, you may need to spend extra time educating your son about why it’s important to stop smoking. Provide specific advice about how to avoid situations where peers might be smoking, and discuss what he will do when the temptation to smoke occurs.
Ask your teen why he is smoking, and what you can do to make quitting possible. If your son is smoking to relieve stress, suggest that the two of you play some games (ideally, athletic, but computer games are OK, too) a few times a week to burn off steam in a healthy way.
Another strategy is to take advantage of your teen’s motivations. What things are really important to him, and how can quitting smoking help him achieve those things? Teenage boys, for example, may be more likely to try to quit smoking if they want to participate in school sports. If that’s the case, emphasizing the physical benefits of quitting may help.
There’s no sport that doesn’t require healthy lungs for maximal performance. Your teen may not connect smoking to diseases like lung cancer and heart attacks that generally occur decades later. But smoking is damaging your son’s lungs now: He is not getting enough oxygen into his blood, or removing enough carbon dioxide waste from his blood. That will negatively affect his performance. If his sport is basketball, and he is as gifted as LeBron James, his smoking may not matter. But if he is a normal kid, it may matter a lot.
In another example, if a teen is smoking in order to stay thin or lose weight, he or she should be given information about nutrition and exercise along with stop-smoking strategies.
When your son tries to quit, be ready for the mood swings and crankiness that can come with nicotine withdrawal.
If you are not making progress, look into stop-smoking programs for teens. Smoking cessation programs can help teach behavioral techniques to manage temptations.
Finally, ask your son’s pediatrician whether quit-smoking medications are an option. These include nicotine replacement, bupropion and varenicline.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.