Smoke Signals: Talking to Your Child About Smoking

Start talking to your kid about smoking now and she'll be less tempted to try it later.
Talking to Your Child About Smoking

When you picture your child's future, you may see her as a doctor, a veterinarian, an artist, a singer, or a tennis player. Chances are you don't see her as a smoker. And why would you? This is the kid who holds her breath when she walks past someone with a cigarette and wonders loudly why anyone would do something so gross. Still, it's a sad fact that between now and her teen years, this repulsion could give way to curiosity. Every day, about 4,100 kids between age 12 and 17 try cigarettes for the first time; there are even some 10-year-olds doing it. More than a third of these children are hooked by the time they graduate from high school.

Although it might seem premature to talk about the dangers of cigarettes with your second- or third-grader, experts say your actions and words today can make a huge impact on your child's future decisions. "Parents have two things working in their favor at this age: Children generally learn early on that smoking is repulsive, and they still look to their parents as role models and voices of authority," explains Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for public policies to protect children from tobacco use. This means that the more you drive home the health dangers of cigarettes, the more she'll pay attention to your messages -- even if you're a smoker. Put these tips in play to keep your antismoker on the right path.

Paint an ugly picture.

Point out that smokers are more likely to get sick and die young from many types of cancer, heart disease, lung problems, and other ailments than people who don't light up. However, it's also the more immediate effects -- brown teeth, gum disease, and stinky hair, clothing, and breath -- that have an impact on kids. "Keep sending consistent messages about how poisonous cigarettes are," says McGoldrick. "They make you sick, make you ugly, and make you die sooner." Kids will also pay attention to the negative effects that smoking has on sports performance, and even playtime. Tell your kids that smoking will slow down how fast they can run or how long they can play without getting out of breath. Plus, you should mention that smoking makes you more prone to skin problems, like acne.

Stress the dangers of cigarettes, and how fast people get addicted.

Because cigarettes are heavily marketed and widely available, grade-schoolers often don't grasp that they contain nicotine, a drug that is dangerous and addictive (even more so think that something so unsafe would never be sold. In their eyes, teenagers smoke to be cool. What they need to hear is that these older kids actually have a drug addiction that makes it incredibly hard for them to quit, even if they want to. Experts say a teenager's still-developing brain may be especially sensitive to nicotine's effects on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that induces pleasurable feelings.

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