As a mother and a mental health professional, I’ve been reading everything I can about the explosion of e-cigarette use among tweens and teens. When I come across stories of young users like Matt Murphy, who was profiled in The New York Times, I feel deep concern for all our kids – and angry at manufacturers who don’t seem to have our children’s best interests at heart.
Like every generation of parents, we want to protect our kids from harm. We don’t want them to get hooked on costly products that will damage their health. Yet we know that scare tactics and threats can backfire so easily. Kids don’t want a fiery lecture – but they do need to feel our active concern for their well-being.
Realizing we won’t be standing next to them when they are offered their first hit, we need to empower our children with solid reasons to say “no.” How can we engage them in conversations that will enable them to make good choices?
IT STARTS WITH KNOWING THE FACTS OURSELVES
Arming ourselves with knowledge is the first step. Here’s what every parent should know about vaping.
E-cigarettes are the most widely used tobacco product among middle and high-school students in the U.S. These are electronic devices that create an aerosol by heating a liquid held inside a cartridge, or pod. Some look like regular cigarettes, but many resemble USB flash drives or pens, which makes them easy to conceal. Juul, a popular brand with young users, gives off such a tiny wisp of vapor that others may scarcely notice.
Easy as it is to hide, Juul packs a tremendous punch. The fluid, or “juice,” inside a single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. Every hit delivers a euphoric “head rush” that users find irresistible. It’s not hard to see how addictive this habit can be for kids, especially with flavors like chocolate, peach schnapps, java jolt, piña colada, peppermint, bubble gum and more. Even more worrisome are findings that suggest e-cigarette use can rewire kids’ brains in a way that opens the door to marijuana use – and makes them more likely to crave addictive substances in general. Other studies show that e-cigarette use can turn kids into tobacco smokers later in life.
So far, regulations designed to protect our kids haven’t had much impact. The legal age to buy e-cigarettes is 18, but many online stores often require proof of age – and local gas stations and convenience stores don’t always card young customers. The FDA has stopped short of banning retail sales of the flavored pods that are so popular with kids.
WHAT DO WE WANT OUR KIDS TO KNOW ABOUT VAPING?
Sharing what we know about the dangers of vaping in a caring, non-judgmental conversation with our kids can help them make informed choices. Here are a few points you might want to cover.
By delivering such high levels of nicotine, e-cigarettes are literally made to be addictive.Matt Murphy says he became so dependent that his Juul felt like “an 11thfinger.” Eventually, his whole life revolved around getting his next hit – and he hated being controlled by the habit that cost him at least $40 per week.
Kids often think about college, careers, creative expression, travel and other objectives. Talking to them about the value of brain power in attaining these goals may help you tap into their natural motivations. They may not realize that the brain is such a powerful, intricate system that it continues developing until age 25! Early nicotine use can harm the parts of the brain that drive attention, learning, mood and impulse control. Protecting the brain at all ages and stages will help your kids live the healthy, satisfying life they want to live.
If your kids are interested in sports, remind them that young people who vape often find themselves short of breath during athletic activities. E-cigarettes are so new to the market that we don’t know the long-term effects, but many health experts are concerned about lung damage. The fact we don’t know all the chemicals present in vape juice makes this an even bigger concern.
SEEING VAPING AS A FAMILY ISSUE
Being chained to any addictive substance is costly, unhealthy, and frustrating. Matt Murphy describes his daily struggle to quit and how desperate he felt to break the cycle. The support of his parents made a tremendous difference, he acknowledges.
Matt’s father, David Murphy, spoke thoughtfully in engaging his son. “I said, ‘Nicotine is a lifelong burden. There’s a big company with its hand in your pocket, distracting your thought process continuously. Juuling is a huge undocumented risk. Now, how do we come back together as a family and solve this problem?’”
We can learn so much from this family’s journey. It’s important to align ourselves with our children – making clear to them that we love them and feel responsible for guiding them as they build the foundation for a good life. If we can manage our own fears, arm ourselves with the facts and encourage our kids to respect their growing minds and bodies, we can do a great deal to strengthen them in making the best possible choices.
For helpful suggestions in engaging your tween or teen, check out this tip sheet for parents from the U.S. Surgeon General. It offers a wealth of information about e-cigarettes and describes very effective ways you can talk with your kids.
FIND THE SUPPORT YOU NEED AS A PARENT
If your child is struggling with vaping, addiction, or any other concern that touches on mental health, please don’t blame yourself. We are raising kids in a uniquely difficult time, and you are not alone. If you are interested in joining a support group for parents of teens, please call or email me. I am also happy to meet with you in my Oak Park office to help you find the resources you and your family need.