Kids who experiment with smoking may eventually become hooked without ever really intending to make it a habit. According to new research, even the many who quickly realize the unhealthy error of their ways and decide to try to quit can face years of frustration, failed attempts, and the harsh realization of just how tough it is to kick the habit.
In a study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, researchers surveyed nearly 1,300 teens (starting at just 12 or 13 years old) every 3 months for 5 years to see whether and when they started smoking, if and when they tried to stop, and the pitfalls they encountered along the way.
The good news is that of the more than 300 teens who took up smoking, many decided to make a serious go at quitting (after just 21/2 months of smoking, on average). The bad news: More than a year and a half after starting to smoke, many had "lost confidence in their ability to quit."
The researchers also found that, after their very first puff, teens usually started smoking:
- monthly within 9 months
- weekly within 20 months
- daily within 24 months
By about 2 years after making it a daily habit, teen smokers were totally dependent on tobacco. And although almost three-quarters of the teens wanted to quit, not even 20% had actually stopped smoking for a year or more.
What This Means to You
Quitting smoking (officially called smoking cessation) can feel like an uphill battle for anyone at any age. But when you're a teen — already dealing with so many other changes, worries, insecurities, and pressures — it might seem like an overwhelming, seemingly impossible feat.
And because smokers are literally addicted to nicotine, their bodies often go through a pretty uncomfortable withdrawal period while they attempt to quit. That means kids who try to stop smoking may feel physically drawn to go back to it and may experience:
- headaches or stomachaches
- crabbiness, jumpiness, or depression
- lack of energy
- dry mouth or sore throat
- the urge to eat a lot
But offer reassurance that it will get better — the cravings to smoke and the symptoms will lessen with time, usually in a matter of weeks.
You also can guide your teen through the process by helping to devise a quitting plan. Encourage your child to:
- Choose a stop date and mark it on the calendar. (Although it can be helpful to work toward several smaller goals like 2 weeks, 1 month, and 2 months without smoking.)
- Write down all the reasons to quit (e.g., to save money or have more stamina for playing sports) and keep that list in plain view.
- Find an online or in-person support group, especially if friends are smokers and aren't very supportive of the decision to quit.
- Throw away all cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays.
- Get rid of that smoky smell on clothes and cars (to eliminate the constant reminder of smoke).
- Avoid people or situations that encourage or "trigger" smoking (like going to parties or hanging out at a certain friend's house or restaurant).
- Find something other than a cigarette to hold — carrot sticks, sugar-free gum, mints, toothpicks, even lollipops.
- Stay busy (some people like to quit on a Monday since the week is so packed with school and activities).
- Earn some sort of reward for reaching (and sticking to) the goal.
If you find that none of these strategies is working, you might want to talk with your child's doctor about treatments. Using a nicotine replacement, such as gum or patches, can be very helpful, but it's important to see a doctor before buying over-the-counter nicotine replacement products.
However, the decision to stop smoking — and to stay smoke-free — is ultimately the smoker's. As much as you may want to, you can't make your teen nip the bad habit in the bud — your child has to want to quit and to be ready to take on that kind of commitment.
If you're a smoker yourself, now's the time to admit you made a mistake to ever start and work on quitting, too.
But the best thing you can do as your teen makes the very wise, commendable, and adult choice to quit is to be an understanding support system — to never criticize or judge, but instead offer guidance and unconditional love during the frustrations, triumphs, and setbacks.
Just be there for your child, offering plenty of praise and encouragement for taking this enormous leap toward improved health today and down the road.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2008
Source: "Milestones in the Process of Cessation Among Novice Adolescent Smokers," American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), published online ahead of print July 16, 2008.