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Question: I’ve heard about vaping-related illnesses and that a lot of teens are trying e-cigarettes. I want to talk to my son about it but I’m not sure of the best approach. Do you have any advice?

Answer: I assume that he has either not tried vaping (or other potentially harmful activities) or that he has perhaps done some very minor experimentation. Some experimenting is normal. If you are concerned about habitual tobacco, drug or alcohol use, or if your teen seems to be depressed or exhibiting self-destructive behaviours, I urge you to speak to a counsellor or your family doctor immediately.

Ask your son what he knows about vaping and the illnesses being reported in the United States, and to a much lesser extent, Canada. It’s great to make sure he is educated and has all the facts. Let him know that you hope he never tries it, but don’t assume that he will blindly comply. (Wouldn’t that be easy!) He needs to be able to make his own choices. You can’t police him 24 hours a day. I would look up some articles together with a non-judgmental and curious attitude of learning more about the potential health risks. In fact, I hope this is just one of many conversations you will have with your son about substance use, whether it is alcohol, cannabis, prescription drugs or tobacco.

It may seem roundabout, but the most important thing right now is your relationship with your teenager. Research consistently shows that a connected relationship with parents is strongly linked to lower incidence of teen problem behaviours, including drug and alcohol use. Our relationship is the best way we have to influence our teens and appears to be almost protective in nature.

Make sure you are regularly spending time together. You’re the consultant now, not the manager, so make sure you listen more than you talk. Let him know that you are glad to be his parent. He might not act like it, but he still wants and needs to be close to you.

Teenagers can be impulsive and risk-taking. Due to normal brain development, their prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain that is responsible for logical thought and planning, is lagging behind the more emotional and impulsive part of their brain. They might know in their more considered moments that vaping is not a great idea, but they can get caught up in the moment. Michael Riera, author of Staying Connected To Your Teenager, suggests we practice offering them a drink or a smoke, and have them practice what they will say and have their “excuse” at the ready. This helps their thinking brains stay engaged when it is an issue, not just an abstract possibility.

When teenagers are asked why they vape, or adults remember why they started smoking, a common theme is, “to rebel” or “to feel like their parents can’t control them.” I think it’s really important to pay close attention to this. Does your son feel like he can make his own decisions about his life? Do you leave any important decisions up to him? Of course, I am not suggesting that he doesn’t need your guidance. He does. But if he feels you are trying to control his life, he may feel the need to rebel against this control by making choices he knows you disagree with to prove to himself that he is his own person.

Finally, this period of development is almost defined by experimenting. We have to remember that they are deciding who they want to be in the world and find their place in it. They are both driven to forge their own identity and to fit in with their peers. It’s so important that your son has a place to come home to where he is loved and accepted for exactly who he is, treated with respect and given opportunities to take charge of his own life so he doesn’t need to make self-destructive choices just to prove that he is the boss of himself.

Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, aged 12, 15 and 18.

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