A Guide for Parents: How to Help Teens who are Vaping or Using Nicotine 

Vaping and nicotine use is one of the 1st warning signs that things are not going well for your teenager. Here are our tips on what to do if your teen is using. 

The scary stuff we all know about nicotine… but it doesn’t hurt to refresh on. 

  • Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable morbidity and mortality in the United States. 
  • E-cigarettes are the most common tobacco product currently used (use on one or more days in the past 30 days) by 2.55 million students or almost 1 in 10 of America’s middle school and high school students.
  • Almost all (88%) of adult smokers start before the age of 18, and adolescents have difficulty quitting successfully.
  • Nicotine use in teens has rapidly evolved with the new influencer culture. Although advertising for nicotine is banned, we are now seeing loopholes with influencer endorsements. Read this NY Times article
  • The teenage brain is especially vulnerable to nicotine dependence. Even without daily use, teenagers can exhibit signs of a full addiction and experience withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly painful, ongoing, and persistent for weeks to months and sometimes years after quitting. 

How to help:

There are a few things to keep in mind when supporting a teen through nicotine dependence:

  1. One of the best ways to support teens with vaping is to have general conversations about peer pressure. Navigating peer pressure is a critical skill for teenagers, especially when it comes to making decisions about substance use. Love and Logic principles provide valuable strategies for addressing peer pressure with your teen. Encourage open dialogue by sharing your concerns and expressing your confidence in their ability to make wise choices. Emphasize the importance of setting boundaries and sticking to their values, even in the face of peer pressure. Remind your teen that it’s okay to walk away from situations that make them uncomfortable and that true friends will respect their decisions. Encouraging this kind of independence in your teen will likely mean that they begin showing up more strongly with you at home. However, by equipping your teen with practical strategies and fostering a supportive relationship built on trust and respect, you empower them to navigate peer pressure confidently and make choices that align with their values and goals.

2. Often, if a teen is struggling with nicotine addiction, it is easier to help them with other parts of their life that they are motivated to change first. As teenagers begin to see improvements in other areas of their lives that may be challenging, they often become more motivated to address their nicotine addiction. It’s a reminder that positive changes in one aspect of their well-being can have a ripple effect on others. 

3. Finally, if your teen is already deeply struggling with nicotine, make sure you talk to them and understand about cravings. Nicotine cravings can be especially intense and last for months or even years. Be sure to support your teen in developing strategies for their drug cravings.

What to say when your teen shares the ‘Smoking is bad for you, not Vaping’ argument

If your teen is vaping, you will inevitably hear the argument “Smoking is bad for you, not Vaping”. Here are some pointers on debunking that myth with your teen. 

  • “Safer” does not equate to “safe.” 
  • E-cigarette aerosol contains a cocktail of harmful chemicals, including cancer-causing compounds, heavy metals, and ultrafine particles that can deeply penetrate the lungs and wreak havoc on the body. 
  • The long-term health effects of inhaling flavorings and other additives are still being studied.
  • Nicotine exposure during adolescence can have profound and lasting effects on the developing brain, which continues to mature until about the age of 25. This critical period of brain development makes adolescents particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of nicotine, which can disrupt essential functions such as attention, learning, mood regulation, and impulse control. 

At Antelope, we frequently return to the basic principles of Motivational Interviewing when working with teens struggling with nicotine addiction. Motivational interviewing is a particularly useful modality to use when there is a lot of ambivalence, low confidence, and low importance placed on the situation. 

Motivational Interviewing Skills (OARS):

  • Open-ended questions: These questions encourage teens to share. While asking these questions, you will likely be met with eye rolls and scoffing at first. But keep asking. Continue trying, and eventually, they can and will start to open up. These questions work especially well while doing side-by-side activities such as puzzles, fishing, eating dinner, or hiking.
    • “What’s been on your mind lately? I’d love to hear how things are going for you.”
    • “What are you looking forward to these days?”
    • “What music are you listening to these days?”
  • Affirmations: Affirmations involve acknowledging and reinforcing the strengths and positive efforts of the teen. This has the MOST potential to support your teenager. Teenagers need to know you see them.
    • “I can see that you’ve been working hard to improve your grades, and that’s really impressive.”
    • “I’m really proud of how you’ve been managing your responsibilities lately; it shows a lot of maturity.”
    • “I admire your determination to overcome challenges. You’ve been handling things really well.”
    • “Your kindness towards others is something that really shines through, and it makes me proud to see.”
    • “It’s clear that you care a lot about your friends, and that’s a great quality to have.”
  • Reflections: Reflections involve paraphrasing or summarizing the words of adolescents, allowing them to hear their thoughts reflected and facilitating insight and self-awareness.
  • Summarization: Summarization involves recapping key points or themes discussed during the session with adolescents, helping to clarify and organize information while reinforcing their autonomy and agency in the change process.

Resources to help youth Quit: 

When is a recovery program necessary?

Substance use is deeply intertwined with a powerful and interconnected “drug culture” for many teens. Recovery programs offer an alternative “recovery culture” specifically tailored for teens. When a teenager embarks on the journey of sobriety, parting ways with familiar friends, language, routines, and connections that once provided comfort and joy can be an intensely challenging experience. The primary role of a recovery program is to provide a supportive culture that empowers the teen to courageously embrace change while leaving behind harmful influences. Moreover, such programs often incorporate evidence-based interventions like Contingency Management and family therapy, which not only assist in setting boundaries within the home environment but also facilitate constructive dialogue between parents and teens. This holistic approach aims to create a foundation for long-term recovery and sustainable growth.

Free Resources:

Quitline trained counselors 

  • 1-800-QUIT-NOW 
  • 1-800 Dejélo-Ya (Spanish) 
  • 1-855-5AI-QUIT 

Nicotine and THC move in parallel: 

Research has revealed an intriguing relationship between nicotine and THC use. These two substances often move in parallel; when one goes up, the other tends to follow. Many teenagers use nicotine to modulate the high they experience from THC. This interconnectedness presents an opportunity: by targeting one of these substances, you can get your foot in the door to target both. 

Assessing Nicotine Dependence

Surprisingly, many programs do not assess tobacco dependence among teenagers. At the very least, we should acknowledge the issue rather than ignore it. 

Teens using patches or gum (Nicotine Replacement Therapy)

We usually strongly discourage this option for teenagers. Nicotine replacement therapy is an option for teens dealing with nicotine addiction, but it should be used with caution. Adolescents may not have full-blown dependence, and we must avoid pushing them further down the path of addiction. Other medications like Wellbutrin may also be considered. Saliva cotinine tests can help assess nicotine levels and dependence.

Nicotine in School 

For teens engaged in nicotine use within school settings, we advocate for school counselors and teachers to view such behavior as a potential indicator of underlying dissatisfaction or personal struggles. While we do not recommend being permissive of vaping or nicotine use, we recognize that direct punishment often proves ineffective and may exacerbate sneaky behaviors. Instead, we suggest focusing on establishing positive support systems in their lives. Encouraging involvement in extracurricular activities such as afterschool jobs, participation in school sports, or engagement in hobbies they enjoy can offer constructive outlets and avenues for connection. Additionally, implementing consequences such as community service, with involvement and oversight, can provide opportunities for reflection and growth. It is essential to involve parents in the process, as their support and guidance play a crucial role in addressing underlying issues and fostering a supportive environment for their child’s well-being and success. Together, by offering both support and accountability, we can work towards helping teens overcome nicotine use and thrive in school and beyond.

A Hopeful Future

With support, teens can find freedom from these negative forces in their lives. Recognizing vaping and nicotine use as early signs of distress in teenagers is the first step toward positive change for an adolescent. Despite the prevalence of these habits, there is hope and support available. By engaging in open conversations, affirming their strengths, and providing resources like recovery programs, parents can empower their teens to break free and embrace healthier choices. Together, we can guide our youth towards brighter futures filled with potential and opportunity.