Dr Ruth Dennis: smoking

We moved to France 4 years ago and my son has settled well at school, making lots of friends. However, last week I saw a group of them, 14-16 year olds, lighting up as soon as they got out of lycée. I don’t think my son smokes, but it seems likely that he will soon if all his friends do. I really don’t want him to start – is there anything I can do? 

Smoking amongst young people is on the increase both in the UK and in France. Teen smoking seems immune to the standard campaigns that are used with some success to deter adult smokers. The reasons for teenage smoking are complex and sometimes contradictory.  
Part of being a teenager is establishing your own sense of identity. The perceived image of toughness or being cool that is projected by smoking can make lighting up an attractive option. 
On top of this, teenagers are driven to be accepted by a peer group - if your son’s friends smoke, he may be tempted to begin smoking simply to maintain their acceptance. 
Rebellion is also a recognised aspect of adolescence - many teenagers take up smoking because they know it bothers their parents so it gives them a way of challenging them. Other teens think that smoking makes them appear more adult – particularly if the teenager is growing up in a household where most of the adults smoke.
On top of these pressures, the physical effects of smoking should not be underestimated. Research shows that nicotine increases the level of dopamine in the brain, accounting for the pleasurable effect the smoker experiences when lighting up. Cigarettes can be used to cope with the social and academic stresses of being a teenager. 
With so many possible reasons for smoking, coming up with a response that will prevent your son smoking is complicated. What is clear is that just telling him that smoking is bad for him is unlikely to work. Teenagers find it difficult to see the link between what they do now and what might happen to them in later life and he would probably just see your advice as nagging. 
Try considering the pressures that may encourage your son to start smoking. Are there any ways you can help him to fit in more or feel more socially accepted? Does he have the confidence or language skills to resist peer pressure in a way that will not lose him his friends? 
If not, these are things you could work on. 
Another approach is to teach your son about how the big tobacco industries entice people to smoke. Programmes in the USA and Canada have found that teenagers tend to rebel when they see that they are being manipulated. This in itself could help your son to develop his identity and gain kudos with his friends. 
Finally, take a look at your own habits. Talking to your son about not smoking and then sneaking down the garden for a quick cigarette yourself won’t work! If you do smoke, plan to become ‘smoke free’ together. Draw up a plan of how you will stop (or not start) smoking, building in treats and other incentives. 
The motivation of preventing your own untimely death may just be enough to persuade your son to resist the pressure to smoke! 
Dr Ruth Dennis is a chartered educational psychologist and member of the Health Professionals Council. She divides her time between Bradford, UK, and Normandy. 
image from theparentszone.com

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