Your Teen Is Vaping, Smoking, and Experimenting: How to Navigate These times as Parents.

“I discovered my teen has been experimenting with vaping (smoking, weed, etc). What do I do!?”

This is a question several parents have been asking  me lately, after finding rolling papers, vape paraphernalia  and messages on their teen’s phone indicating they might be experimenting.

How do you  address this issue? How do you parent around this without freaking out or going worse case scenario? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super aware of the potential consequences surrounding substance use for teens and it is definitely something to pay attention to.

I also know if I confront my teen guns blazing and panicking, I will shut them down from trusting me and ever opening up around these situations. If you are a little unsure here, you are not alone.

Read on to check out  how you can navigate these situations going forward.

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Start A Conversation

People have different values and beliefs when it comes to substance use and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Factors that influence your response may depend on who, when, where and under what circumstances.. A lot of parents hope their teens just won’t try any of it at all.

It’s really important to address this, no matter what your beliefs or values are. I highly encourage open discussions about it with your teen. Not always easy for sure, and sometimes met with blank stares and silence. Share your expectations regarding this issue. Where do you stand on cigarette use, vaping, alcohol, drugs? Do you have hard lines on things? Do you want them to come to you if they are in a tricky situation?

Finding a message (or paraphernalia) that indicates your teen is experimenting can send you into a crisis mode tailspin. Before you let fear take over, consider this an opportunity (of many) to have a conversation with your teen where you can start becoming clear on where you stand with your values around substance use, and your expectations for your teen when it comes to experimenting.

If you’re co-parenting, this is also a great time to get on the same page (or at least in the same chapter!) as your co-parent.

This will not be a one and done conversation – you will want to think about it as multi-layered:

1. Responding to the situation that’s happening in the moment (e.g. finding the vape pod) How are you going to deal with this as a family and as the parent?

2. The long game conversations. How are you going to handle these issues going forward? What are your expectations around their use and how can you support the likelihood of them making choices in favor of their wellness most of the time?

3. Keeping the relationship at the foundation. How do you make it about the behaviour and not the person? How do you get the messages across around expectation and hold as a priority that you are there for them with unconditional love regardless of mistakes and choices made?

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Understanding Why

Conversations around substance use can be awkward and difficult. They can often seem very one sided. However, Understanding why your teen is experimenting with substances is a really important piece.

The more you can put out an invitation for your teen(s) to be open and let you know what’s going on, the better. Let curiosity take the lead here if you can. Let them know that the stakes are not super high in exchange for their honesty. That doesn’t mean you’re condoning their behaviour or that there won’t be consequences for the behaviour… It is just being clear with your teen that opening up around why they are experimenting, is a place of you trying to understand and not that they will be punished for speaking their truth.

It’s a bit of a tricky balance.

Here are some of the reasons why teens may be experimenting:

Curiosity and Experimentation.
Teen brains are seeking dopamine, which is the body’s natural chemical related to the  pleasure/reward system. They will seek things that are thrilling and exciting to them that will boost dopamine levels. You will see higher risk behaviours. It’s just the way it is. This is part of the process of an adolescent becoming an adult.

Some teens have channeled this into a sport or an activity that they do (mountain biking, playing an instrument, doing things with friends that are more exciting etc.) All of these things are ways to increase dopamine. Various drugs will increase dopamine the brain making them alluring to some.

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Pressure/Stress.
Some teens will turn to certain behaviours to avoid, or get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings – things like self-harm, contemplating suicide, diving deep into distraction as a way to avoid the thoughts and feelings, or using substances that alter some of their brain chain reactions. Of course, there can be negative long term side effects to some of these choices. But, at the moment they can seem helpful; they give temporary relief.

Peer/Social Pressure.
If teens are in an environment or spending time with people who are exploring and using substances there’s sure to be a  certain amount of  peer pressure. A sense of belonging – important for humans in general – is heightened for adolescents that are in identity formation; they are really trying to find who their people are.

Push Back.
Teens are in the process of becoming more independent and gaining autonomy from their family of origin. This can look many different ways, including using substances as part of pushing back against family rules, values, and beliefs. If the teen’s family is highly against trying substances, then part of the experimentation could be a teen pushing against this. (Please know I say this part with no judgement whatsoever for your belief system around substances).

Modelling.

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If a teen has a parent  or adults in their world who are using substances recreationally or as a way of coping and living their daily life, it can model particular behaviours for teens.

 

Social Media.
Teens are constantly exposed to  images and messages around substances  on various social media platforms. Whether that’s prescription medications, vaping, drinking – it’s everywhere. There’s a lot of influence there.

Boredom.
Similar to avoiding the feelings of stress with substances, some teens will experiment as a way to relieve boredom temporarily .

Self-Medicating.
Teens may have an underlying mental health and other condition  that is unmanaged leading them to using substances.

Lack of Information.
Teens may truly not understand the risks and consequences are, how it affects the brain, or what is in certain substances.

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Educate Yourself and Your Teen

Understanding more about what your teen is experimenting with is important for you, and them. What are they using? What are the impacts? What information or resources are available?

As parents, we need to be informed. And in fact our teens can be helpful resources. In conversation with them, we can begin to understand what their peer groups are using, how many of the kids are experimenting, and some of the slang words for things.

It’s also important to gather your own information . You can check out different resources, websites, articles, podcasts, videos and you can even share some of what you learn with your teen. Here are a few resources to get you started:

  • Kids Health
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • Ask Alice is a website run by Columbia University health professionals that have brought their information together to answer a lot of health based questions. You can find information about lots of different topics, from sexual health to substance abuse and many other things.
  • Drug Free Kids Canada has many tools available, including how to have a conversation around substance use.

Help your teen find meaning and excitement in other activities in their lives (e.g. a group, club, sport, key friendships, volunteer or community opportunities, new interests, etc.)

You may decide that some external support to communicate with your teen around these issues would be beneficial or that it could be helpful for your teen to have someone to talk to. Reach out and find a therapist who focuses on supporting teens. If you’re wanting to reach out, you can book a free consultation with me here to see if I am a good fit for your teen.

Love,
Chantal


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook. 

The Vaping Culture: What do to when your teen is using e-cigarettes

This was a difficult post for me to write. I understand that teen experimentation is a normal part of development. On the other hand, I have read enough to understand that vaping is seriously addictive, especially to the teen brain, and there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of the health consequences of its use. ​

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Perhaps you have found evidence that your teen is experimenting with vaping. Maybe it’s nicotine, maybe it’s marijuana. You confiscate the vapes, tell them about how dangerous it is, and even threaten to take them for a visit to your local coroner’s office for an educational experience of what real lungs look like after vaping. But instead of getting the results you’re wanting (for them to stop vaping), you get yelling, frustration, hiding their habit and even lying.

Here is tough to swallow news: if your teen doesn’t want to quit, there is no amount of yelling, consequences, or arguing that will make them quit. AND if anything, it may push them further into their use.

​But wait, don’t stop reading! There are things you can do to be an important part of their choice making for their health and future.

A LITTLE ABOUT WHY

The truth is that addictions are complex. Research tells us that the developing teen brain has an active dopamine release, peaking about midway through the teen years.

Why is this important to know?

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Well, dopamine is your brain’s natural chemical linked to pleasure and reward. Why do you think a lot of that risk taking, impulsive, invincibility behaviour shows up during this time? Yep, dopamine! This increases the likelihood of teens experimenting and trying things that are “thrill seeking” which may include substances. Because the brain has this more active dopamine release, it does increase the addictive potential of substances during this time.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Here are 5 things that you can bring to the table to help encourage your teen to make choices that bode for their health.

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1. What’s the Root – Digging Deeper
Teens just love when parents ask tons of questions (please pick up on sarcasm here). Understanding the root of their choice to vape is delicate work as a parent for sure.

Ask yourself what is driving me to want to help them? If you are spiraling out in fear of worse case scenarios, you will vibrate at that level in your conversations with them, which is going to shut things down pretty quickly. Whatever shows up for you is ok (no blame here), acknowledge it, name it, share it with your partner, therapist, or best friend, and then take a deep breath and put it on the shelf (I know this is not easy) before you have those conversations with your teen.

It can sometimes be helpful to start by normalizing the ups and downs of life. Try to be curious and come from a place of really wanting to understand what is going on for them and what it is that is leading them to vape. You might learn they are vaping because it helps with their anxiety, they may have lots of friends who are smoking and vaping, or they may be struggling to manage their stress.

Show the love by creating opportunities for your teen to feel safe to open up and discuss the issues and concerns they are dealing with.

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2. Be Clear About your Expectations
It’s 100% ok to not be ok with vaping, smoking, drugs, and so on. The most important part of this message is your Why. Be clear that this choice will never be ok with you because they are important to you and you love them.

Be ultra clear on your limits around the behaviour (e.g. no vaping in home or car). Punishing and consequences are likely going to be counterproductive however,
you can try working with your teen to offer some incentives to help them support them to quit.

3. Learn About It
Get informed about nicotine addiction and the health consequences. You can share some of what you discover with your teen. Research does indicate that information on the long term health consequences is not that effective in reducing tobacco and nicotine use in young populations.

You will likely have more traction in sharing about the shorter term consequences that may have a social impact on your teen such as, wheezing during activities, bad breath, a chronic cough, inflamed gums, rotting teeth, no money, and so on. You can start with the effects on teeth here.

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4. Offer Supports
Keep the dialogue open with your teen. Check-in on their desire to quit. If they offer you a yes or a maybe, you can start supporting them by scheduling an appointment with your family doctor. Your doctor will most likely have some good resources and information to get things started. Share information about cessation programs. Try and find out beforehand if they are geared towards supporting teens. Smokefreeteen and Albertaquits are great resources for quitting supports.

5. Counselling
​Specialized cessation or addictions counsellors can support teens specifically on how to create a cessation plan, how to deal with cravings, and answer questions about substances. Other counsellors will have skills to explore the underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress that may be leading to the vaping behaviour.

Knowledge is power here and working on staying close in your relationship with your teen will ensure that you are a part of the support team to make it easier to quit when they are ready.

​If you found this post helpful, pass it on by emailing a friend or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook- Thanks!

 


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook.