We all know kids are vaping. E-cigarettes have been around since 2007, and they come in all different types, flavors and levels of nicotine, so there’s been plenty of time for people — naturally curious teens and tweens included — to experiment with them. But it turns out that a lot of kids are doing it. Like, way more than we thought. So how do parents even begin to talk to kids about vaping — without eliciting a massive eye roll and a hundred cringes?
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students (so yes, maybe even yours) currently use e-cigarettes. Your kids may think of vaping as harmless fun (all those flavors!) and a way better alternative to traditional combustible cigarettes. And while it’s true that tobacco use is down among middle and high school students and a recent study out of the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center suggests that increased vaping is leading to a decline in smoking rates, experts say the teen vaping trend is troubling.
In fact, last month the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare public advisory on the epidemic of e-cigarette use among youth, noting, “[T]he recent surge in e-cigarette use among youth, which has been fueled by new types of e-cigarettes that have recently entered the market, is a cause for great concern.”
So if like many of us, you’re the parent of a tween and you haven’t had a conversation with your kid about vaping yet, you’re late to the party — but not too late. We asked experts for advice on the best way to talk to kids about vaping. Here’s what they said.
1. Make sure you’re speaking the same language
“Kids don’t typically call them e-cigarettes; kids call them vapes,” Dr. Susanne E. Tanski, a practicing pediatrician and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Tobacco Control, tells SheKnows. “So the very first thing you need to do is figure out, ‘What are you talking about? What terms do you need to use?’”
It turns out that when we talk about vaping, we can be talking about a lot of different things. “It’s really complicated, and I don’t think most parents know the complicating parts of it,” Tanski says.
While traditional vaping devices like refillable vaping pens and “cig-alikes” certainly still exist in various flavors and with varying levels of nicotine, newer “pod-based” devices (like Juul, Mylé and other brands) have become the vapes of choice for tweens and teens, in large part because they’re discreet — they’re super-small (think the size of a flash drive), sleek and release very little vapor, says Tanski.
They’ve also changed the vernacular. “Some kids use the term ‘Juul’ like we say ‘Kleenex,’” Tanski says. “Kids will say ‘Juul’ and may actually be referring to other [pod-based] brands, all of which are nicotine-containing vaporizers that are discreet and have low vapor. But they may also use the same term or refer to a vape if they’re talking about a refillable device.”
They may also simply call them a pod, as in, “I want my pod” or “I want my vape pod,” Tanski says. So make sure you start with their language.
2. Ask them what they know — before you think you need to
Remember that ‘1 in 20 middle school students’ stat above? Yeah, this is something your tween likely knows about and may even be experimenting with, so start talking about vaping sooner rather than later in order to help get your message across.
“Say, ‘OK, there’s this vaping thing going on. What do you know about it?’ And find out what they know,” says Tanski. You might be surprised at how savvy your kid is.
Dr. Sarah Garwood, a Washington University adolescent medicine physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, recalls how her oldest child was 13 and going into eighth grade last summer when someone offered her an e-cigarette. “I hadn’t had a conversation with her about vaping,” she tells SheKnows. “I had a major wake-up call.”
3. Find (or create) opportunities
If you’re with your kid and see someone vaping, that’s a great time to bring up the topic — but don’t wait for an opportunity that might not present itself. The fact is any quiet time when you have your kid’s attention can be a good time to talk about vaping. “Car conversations can be pretty awesome,” Tanski says. “Kids are captive and you don’t have to make eye contact.”
4. Think short & frequent
Sitting your kid down for the vaping version of the sex talk is a surefire way to get your kid thinking about Fortnite. Or how interesting the floor is. Or anything else. So reframe the idea of the “vaping talk” as vaping talks, plural. It’ll be easier for both of you. “People feel overwhelmed by the big job of having these big conversations,” Garwood says, “but repeated messages over time can be more effective than a big lecture. Plus, it feels more approachable as a parent.”
5. Be empathetic — but emphatic
Don’t dismiss the curiosity factor. Kids may be (understandably) intrigued by the flavors, comfortable with the idea of using another device and unsure of whether vaping is really risky — especially if they’re only vaping flavors and not nicotine (or think they’re only vaping flavors and not nicotine). They may see their friends vaping and think, “Why not?”
You can acknowledge all of this while still getting your message across. “It’s OK to state clearly that you don’t approve of vaping,” says Garwood, “but you also want to have the conversation with them in a nonjudgmental manner.”
6. Get real about the risks
“Probably the biggest myth is that there are no downsides or negatives,” says Garwood. While focusing on the known health risks of nicotine on the adolescent brain may not hit home with every kid, it’s important to discuss them — along with other potential consequences of vaping (for example, will they get suspended it they’re caught vaping in school?).
Vaping is still a worrying trend even when it comes to nicotine-free products, says Tanski. “There’s no research whatsoever about what happens when you heat these flavoring compounds up and break them down and bring them into your lungs,” she says. “So we’re doing this huge experiment and we have no idea if it’s safe. And every single flavor has a different potential risk.”
7. Be approachable
“If your kid asks you a question about vaping, stay calm and don’t panic,” Garwood says. “You have to be approachable so they know they can trust you in the future.”
8. Vape yourself? Acknowledge it (& yes, try to quit)
Many parents vape in order to quit smoking; others may simply enjoy vaping and not want to give it up. “But you do have to have that conversation of why it’s so hard [to quit] and why you don’t want this for your child,” Tanski says. “Put it in terms of avoiding harm; parents may have chosen vaping to get off cigarettes; the wrong decision is to start in the first place.”
9. If they’re already vaping, don’t freak
See No. 7 above. Find out exactly what (and how much) they’re vaping and seek help from your child’s pediatrician or medical provider, Tanski says. “We don’t have all the answers, but we can help kids make behavioral changes.”
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