How to teach a teen not to smoke

smiletrain48 asks: What punishment should be given when a 13-year-old girl is caught smoking?

Hi smiletrain48 –

I’m a big believer in certain sorts of punishment, for certain things.  I never would have learned not to pee in the house, or not to climb onto the couch, unless Handsome had let me know that such things weren’t acceptable.  But in truth, he didn’t have to do much about them.  Once I knew they were outlawed, I was pretty good at avoiding them.

But when I was a puppy, Biting was another story!  I knew he hated it, and I bit him all the time!  Bit his ankles, bit his shoes, bit his hand any chance I could, I just loved it.  So he had to scare me a bit, by yelling “NO,” to teach me not to do that.  He also, though, learned a great trick of having doggy toys around, so that when I wanted to bite him, he could, after telling me not to, stick one of those in my mouth, and then cover me with kisses and “Good Girl!” comments and pats, so that I learned that chewing toys was a much more pleasant activity than biting him.

(Well, most of the time.  Sometimes he really deserved a good nip!)

Anyway, here’s my deal about smoking.  This thirteen-year-old girl isn’t doing anything that hurts anyone (except herself).  She isn’t being mean or bad.  She’s just trying something that she thinks is grown-up and cool.  The reasons you don’t like her doing it are because you know it’s unhealthy and addictive and potentially fatal… Good reasons!

So my take is that you don’t really need to punish her, as much as you need to teach her why you hate it, and then set up a reward system for taking care of herself.  In that sense, you’d be doing what Handsome did with the chew-toys, giving her a better alternative.

Therefore: first of all, yes, sit her down and annoy the daylights out of her with a lecture (illustrated with pictures from the internet of course!) about what smoking does to one’s health.  Now understand, smiletrain48, a thirteen-year-old has absolutely no concept of what early death means, or emphysema, or lung cancer.  She might even think things like that sound kind of cool.  What you want to do is to work with teenage values: show her what smoking does to one’s complexion, show footage of someone unable to stop coughing, show someone coughing up blood.  Best of all, let her hear the sound of someone who’s having trouble breathing.

Then I’d add something else, which seems to hardly ever get mentioned, about smoking.  Humans (and dogs) are born with something called cilia in their lungs.  Cilia are extremely tiny hairlike things that cover the whole surface of the lung tissue, and help the lung clean itself.  When someone gets a cold, the cilia grab onto the mucus and help get it out of there.  But when someone smokes, the smoke actually destroys the cilia.  Not in fifty years, not in one year, but in the first few times they smoke.  And it never grows back.  So when that 13-year-old sees an older person with a hacking cough, you can point out to her that there’s a good chance they have burned out their cilia, and will have a far more difficult time with every cold they ever get, for the rest of their lives!  Now that makes sense to a teenager!  They do understand colds and coughing!

And once you’ve taught her all you can, then I’d suggest you make a deal with her.  Try to set up a reward system for doing the exact opposite of smoking.  Like, maybe, see if you can get her to go swimming a few times a week.  And if she does, she won’t only have fun, and get stronger and fitter and better-looking, but you’ll give her a reward for it.  Maybe you’ll pay her a little for every time she goes.  Or you’ll give her and a friend a ticket to the movies every time she’s gone swimming ten times.  Whatever works.

What we want is for you to give her the feeling she’s trying to get from the cigarettes.  She wants to look cool?  Great, offer her some new clothes for choosing healthier activities.  She wants to look mature?  Cool, find out what else would feel that way for her, and work on ways for her to earn that.

THEN, absolutely, bring in the idea of punishment:  Let’s say you’ve set up all these rewards, and you catch her smoking again?  Whoops, then she loses a privilege.  Something that makes her feel cool and mature (Cell phone?  Internet?).  In other words, just as you’ve rewarded the part of her that wanted to smoke, now you can punish that same part.  But don’t make the punishment last too long.  A week maybe?  All you want to do is to make the point.  She’ll figure it out quickly enough.

smiletrain48, the day will come when that girl learns for herself that smoking makes people weak and stinky, and she’ll start to think that smokers look stupid.  Your job is to get her to that day as healthily as possible.

Thanks for your great question, and for caring about this kid.  She’s lucky to have you around!




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