EXPERT ADVICE

How to Talk to Your Kids About Vaping

It’s all over the news. The activity known as vaping has raised alarm bells among federal agencies, health professionals, and parents for its rampant use among more than 10 million Americans—including pre-teens and adolescents—and its harmful effects. 

Vaping happens through highly popular e-cigarettes, electronic devices that often masquerade as everyday gadgets like thumb drives or styluses.  These “e-cigs” heat liquid to produce smoke that can be inhaled—typically nicotine or marijuana, with as many as 70 chemicals mixed in.

The CDC notes that some e-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes—while others resemble pens, USB sticks, and various everyday items. Image Credit: CDC

“We are dealing with a new epidemic,” says Melodi Pirzada, MD, chief of pediatric pulmonology at NYU Winthrop Hospital, who has treated more than 26 young patients with vaping-related illness or injuries. “When e-cigarettes came on the market in 2007, they were designed to help smokers lose their nicotine addiction. But now, these companies have made it desirable for middle and high schoolers to vape instead. The products are odorless and flavored and are being used right in classrooms.” 

Dr. Pirzada notes that the flavors are made from dangerous chemicals—and that non-regulated substances purchased from friends, family members, or elsewhere on the streets pose an even greater danger.

“There are a lot of vaping products made in someone’s basement or garage, and teens often buy these since they may be cheaper than what’s regulated in the dispensaries,” she notes. “That’s actually quite dangerous. You just don’t know what’s in there.” 

Dr. Pirzada emphasizes that vitamin E oil is particularly risky. Commonly used in street marijuana to thicken its main ingredient, THC, the oil can cause serious and potentially deadly injury to the lungs when inhaled—and it’s suspected as the main killer for those who have succumbed to vaping-related sickness. Researchers continue to investigate other chemicals of concern as well.

Opening a dialogue with your child

Although vaping’s dangers can spark urgency in parents to confront their kids and forbid e-cigarette use, it’s important to approach the topic thoughtfully, says Randi Bennett, PhD, a licensed psychologist at the Child Study Center within Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone.

“I encourage parents to remember that developmentally, adolescence is a time of rebellion and experimentation,” Dr. Bennett says. “Vaping is now among the list of unsafe and common behaviors that teens engage in—as common as alcohol or staying out late with friends when you’re not supposed to.”

Still, Dr. Bennett reminds parents that it’s okay to feel worried.

“It’s really scary when things like vaping are out there in the world and you have no control over whether your kids will do it,” she says. “There’s no straightforward way to prevent your kid from vaping. It’s not simple.”

Dr. Bennett suggests that approaching the topic nonjudgmentally and with curiosity will set the conditions for an honest, productive conversation with your son or daughter.

6 conversation tips for parents

Dr. Bennett offers concrete ideas on how to approach the vaping issue with your child:

  1. Open up the channels of communication if they’re not established yet. “I encourage parents to create a culture of openness within your family. If a parent is not communicating on a regular basis and they suddenly ask, ‘Are you vaping?’ that probably won’t go very well. Can you find a little time each week to get lunch together or do an activity together? That’s a good start for creating ongoing communication.”
  2. Educate yourself about vaping. Bennett suggests that you read up on vaping terms, risks, and news before engaging with your teens about the behavior. Online resources are abundant, including this comprehensive tip sheet for parents from the Surgeon General.
  3. Ask, listen, learn, repeat. “I always go back to learning more about what your kids are doing and why before passing judgment or coming up with a solution. If they are vaping, ask them what substance they’re using and why: Is it to feel cool? To relax? To fit in? To forget your problems? Get to the reason why they’re doing it.”
  4. Suggest alternative behaviors. Once you understand the function, you are in a better place to suggest alternatives. “If a teen tells me that vaping calms them, we talk about basic distress tolerance skills: self-soothing techniques, listening to music, baking, doing yoga. These may not replace vaping, but we can try to diversify their tools.” 
  5. Help reframe their thinking. “When teens tell me that vaping is the cool thing to do, I try to challenge their thinking. I ask, ‘Are you sure vaping is cool? Have you read this article about the side effects? Do you want to keep pursuing athletics or music or dancing? How could this keep you from doing so?’ Help them to remain focused on their long-term goals and interests.” 
  6. Emphasize your household’s values and issue right-sized consequences. Dr. Bennett quickly points out that understanding does not equal acceptance. Parents need not condone vaping or allow it in their households. But outright forbidding the activity, without understanding the function, won’t necessarily work, either. “Consequences should fit the circumstances. They should be enforceable and reasonable.”

Ultimately, Dr. Bennett recommends that parents keep returning to education, communication, and support.

“The more that teens can buy into something not really being safe, and the more they can be aware of that, hopefully the less cool it becomes,” she says. “You’re constantly balancing fostering your child’s independence with the fact that they are still a child under your roof. There are no easy answers—just continued openness and clear talk.”