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What to expect at this age
Your grade-schooler is probably fully aware that cigarettes are dangerous, unappealing to many people, and banned in most public places. In fact, the appeal of smoking is still likely to be mysterious to her, because most children don't like the smell. But she may know some older kids who have tried cigarettes – according to the U.S. Department of Education, 70 percent of all children try cigarettes, 40 percent of them before they get to high school. So this is an important time to teach her the facts and help build the self-esteem that can shield her from the temptations of cigarettes in the years to come.
The good news is that, "at this age, if you tell them it's bad, they think it's bad," says Paul Coleman, a father, family therapist, and author of How to Say It to Your Kids. So state your values firmly, work on establishing good communication with your child, and set an example by taking good care of yourself physically.
How to talk about it
Focus on health. At this age, it's important to praise your child for taking care of her body and overall health. Just as she knows she needs to eat sensible foods and wash her hands after using the bathroom, make sure she knows the dangers of cigarettes – including the hazards of breathing in second-hand smoke.
Make your values clear. Many parents assume their children are aware of their attitudes toward cigarettes, but if you haven't stated them clearly, she may not know what you really think. And you've got competition, given that friends, the media, and especially advertising often depict smoking as cool. It's your job, as the parent, to communicate your values clearly. You can point out when you think a TV or movie character is doing something foolish. "Why would she want to smoke cigarettes?" you can say. "There's nothing cool about poisoning your body like that." Of course, it's best if you don't smoke yourself, but even if you do, you can talk about how hard it is to quit and how much you wish you had never started smoking. Children can learn from their parents' admitted mistakes as well as from their good example.
Be approachable. Now is the time to establish yourself as a parent who will answer any question – no matter how challenging or troubling – calmly and thoughtfully. When your child reaches middle school and starts to face peer pressure from friends who smoke, it's best if you've already got a history of having heart-to-heart talks. Right now she may not have specific questions about smoking, but you can set the stage for tomorrow's talks about tobacco, alcohol, and peer pressure by answering today's questions about sex, health, and bodily functions. And since many grade-schoolers do have relatives or family friends who smoke, at this age she could have a lot of questions about cigarettes. Make sure you answer them straightforwardly.
Teach your child how to make good choices. Trust your child to make good decisions. Support her attempts to make practical choices affecting her own daily life, such as which clothes to wear in the morning, which shoes to put on when it's raining, and what food to pack in her lunch bag. Don't scold her for making a choice that's not yours – tell her calmly why you'd make a different one, and give in to her preferences whenever possible. Praise her for making good decisions whenever it's appropriate.
Teach your child how to say no. If your child can learn from an early age to assert her views confidently, she'll be better able to withstand the peer pressure of the preteen and teen years, when smoking becomes more common. Listen to her when she states her opinions, and when you disagree with her, do so respectfully. Kids who consistently hear, "That's a silly idea, why would anyone think that?" or "Don't you argue with me!" are, as teens, less sure of themselves, more rebellious, and less able to heed those inner voices preaching good sense.
Reassure your child that you approve of her. Children are more likely to experiment with cigarettes and alcohol if their self-esteem is low or if they're starved for affection and attention. Spend time together: Children who eat at least one meal each day with their family and share at least one activity a week are less likely to smoke than those who don't. Be sure to keep telling your child how much you love her, and praise her whenever she deserves it.
What kids ask...What parents answer
"Why are cigarettes bad for you?" "When people smoke, poisonous chemicals get into their lungs and make it hard for them to breathe properly. It can take a long time before it really hurts, so some people who smoke don't realize right away that they're damaging their body. But smoking causes lung cancer and heart attacks – two things that you can die from. It's also bad to be around people who are smoking, because you're breathing air that has all that cigarette smoke in it – so it's bad for your lungs, too."
"Why does Aunt Sarah smoke?" Your child may be confused and worried when she sees a beloved relative or friend smoking. At this age, you can help her begin to understand the problems of addiction. Tell her, "Aunt Sarah started smoking when she was young and didn't know any better. A lot of her friends were doing it, and she thought it was cool. Now she knows it's not cool, and she wants to stop – but it's really, really hard for people to stop smoking once they start. That's called being addicted to something, and you can easily get addicted to cigarettes." Your grade-schooler may go on to ask if smoking is going to kill Aunt Sarah, and you need to respond honestly. "Well, I don't know," you can say. "But cigarettes are so bad for you that they can kill you eventually, even if it takes a long time. There's a good chance that she could eventually die from lung cancer or heart disease. Even if she doesn't, she could definitely live a longer and healthier life if she didn't smoke."
If you are the smoker your child is asking about, the question is naturally harder to answer. You may want to emphasize, "I'm going to try to stop smoking, and if I can do that I'll be a lot healthier." Then act on that promise – your child will thank you.
"Did you ever smoke?" Be honest with your child if the answer is yes. She'll find you more approachable if you don't pretend you never made a mistake. "I used to smoke when I was younger. I stopped when I was pregnant with you because smoking is very bad for babies growing inside their moms, as well as for the moms themselves. And cigarette smoke is also really bad for little babies to be around once they're born. I was lucky that I was able to quit; some people have a very hard time stopping smoking even if they want to. That's why it's best not to start."
"Can I try your cigarette?" Families differ in their approach to this question, with some actually letting their child try a puff as a deterrent. But if you think your child should never touch tobacco, tell her, "No. Cigarette smoke is bad for everyone – even me – and especially for children, because your body is still growing. That's why it's illegal for anyone to sell cigarettes to kids."