Talking to Teens About Vaping, Alcohol & Drugs

By: Collett Smart

For parents and teachers alike, vaping, alcohol and other drugs are high on their radar right now, so I decided it was time to address it on the Raising Teenagers podcast, by chatting to Paul Dillon. Paul is my go-to expert on all things drug and alcohol related. I don’t usually write or speak about this topic without referring to his work. Despite his topic, Paul is hopeful about young people and provides very practical support.

Teens and Alcohol Consumption

In episode 9 of the podcast, I covered alcohol, parties and binge drinking, and refer to information from my previous post where I discuss the effects of binge drinking. Yet, research encouragingly, indicates, overall fewer teens are choosing to drink.

There is great debate about the reasons, but one of the reasons we know about is the reduction in parental supply, shown in recent reports.  For example, parents have become more aware of the detrimental effects of alcohol on the developing brain.

Listen out for Paul’s story in my interview with him on this week’s episode, about the change in parents’ response over the years, to his seminars on alcohol.

The Risks of Drinking

The concern is for teens who do drink heavily, as they are binge drinking at dangerous levels.  We know that alcohol lowers inhibitions and when paired with an underdeveloped brain, it is more likely for teenagers to make risky decisions.

One factor Paul highlights is that, for some, parents are one of the main suppliers of alcohol to teenage drinkers. This comes from a long-standing myth, that providing a teenager with alcohol will help their child to drink ‘more responsibly’, and that because they are ‘under supervision’ teens will then make better drinking choices when going out.

However, the research tells us that this in fact has the opposite effect. Teens who are supplied alcohol at home, tend to go on and drink higher quantities of alcohol when out.

FARE – the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education’s indicates:

“In Australia, almost 60 per cent of alcohol consumed by 12-to-17 year-olds is supplied by adult friends, relatives or strangers, despite the fact that the provision of alcohol to young people under the age of 18 by someone other than their parent or guardian is in fact illegal in most Australian jurisdictions.”

Teens and Vaping

Young man vaping
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

For many years, we’ve seen a downward trend in smoking. i.e., people are smoking less. The community got behind the issue and saw smoking as something that not only harmed the individual but also harmed other people.

Vaping then, is the topic on every school principal’s mind right now. Paul Dillon tells me that we have not seen this kind of drug related issue come back on school grounds since the early 80s, with kids both vaping and selling vapes at school. He mentions how easy they are to get online, through social media. But not every kid is vaping.

What is Vaping?

From Paul’s website:

“Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol (referred to as a vapour), which is produced by an e-cigarette. An aerosol is a mixture of ultrafine liquid particles that can contain a range of chemicals.” (DARTA – vaping fact sheet)

In this fact sheet for parents, Paul provides definitions, as well as information on what we know and don’t know about vaping currently. Paul does warn, that just because we can’t yet ‘prove’ the long-term negative effects of vaping, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We thought the same about smoking decades ago.

Is Vaping ‘Safe’?

From one of his fact sheets again:

“There is no evidence to support that vaping is ‘safe’, i.e, that they are completely risk-free.

“It is important to remember that vaping is a fairly new phenomenon and, as such, we know little about the long-term harms associated with the use of these devices. As with any new product, it is possible that some harms may emerge over time and it is important that vaping is monitored carefully for any possible adverse effects.

“We know little about the harms associated with the use of the illicit disposable vapes sold in Australia, as research has been conducted on vaping more generally rather than specific devices. There are, however, a number of issues of concern. Around 90% of all disposable vapes are believed to be manufactured in China, with some factories producing half a million of these devices per day. … very little is known about their contents. As they are mass-produced there is little to no quality control.”

“Nicotine is addictive and if they are vaping the drug regularly they could become nicotine dependent. As with smoking cigarettes, when they stop vaping the nicotine level in their system drops, resulting in a range of withdrawal symptoms. These can include feeling irritable and restless, having headaches and finding it difficult to concentrate, as well as a strong urge to vape. These symptoms can be extremely difficult for young people to manage, particularly if they are still going to school.”

If you believe your child is nicotine dependent, it is important that you discuss the matter with your family GP.

When you Discover Your Child is Vaping

Your teen will be aware of vaping. Vapes are lying around every high school bathroom by the end of the school day.

For any parent, finding out your child is vaping can be a shock, no matter how much you prepared yourself. As Paul says,

“Vaping is a new phenomenon that most parents know little about and that lack of knowledge can make the situation feel even more overwhelming.”

Regardless, it is vital that you prepare yourself with helpful facts and accurate information, and think through the steps you will take in your response. Practice what you would like to say in conversation – not as a lecture.

As with any tricky conversation – choose the right time and place. I.e. not in the middle of their favourite game or show, or as they walk in the door exhausted from a full day at school.

Many teens do better without direct eye contact, on more serious topics. So, ask your teen if they would mind going for a walk, or a drive, even to throw a ball, or to have a hot chocolate out in the garden, so that you can chat. They will know something is up, but try to make it relaxed.

Don’t forget that being a teen is hard!

What to Say to Your Teen

There is no perfect response. Try to breathe, go for a short walk or wait a day if you need to first. Be honest about what you heard (on the podcast perhaps), or saw in a school email or found in your child’s belongings. Don’t pass judgement.

Don’t underestimate your connection to your teen. Lean in, show that you truly want to understand and connect with them. Paul and I talk about the influence that parents actually do have on their teen’s decisions and choices with alcohol and vaping.

Here I have used Paul’s steps with some added examples:

1. Ask for their perspective on vaping

My favourite saying, is the one in the image above, because this is exactly what I encourage parents to do on most topics they want to chat with a teen about.

‘Ask what their friends are doing.’

Not in a way that your teen feels like you are prying, but in a curious way. Teens need to believe that we will not judge them or their friends if they tell us something.  They also respond better when they feel that the topic is part of a conversation, rather than an interrogation. Try to do everything in your power to check your tone and body language when you speak with your teen about a tricky topic.

Sure, you will have strong opinions about drugs alcohol and vaping, – your teen already knows that. What you are aming for at this point is for your teen to feel comfortable enough to talk with you.

Some questions to try:

“So can you tell me about vaping in your school? I know it’s something I never had to face when I was young. You don’t have to give me any names. I’m just curious about what’s happening in your year group.“


“Honey, I found a vape in your bag. Can you tell me about vaping in your school? I know it’s something I never had to face when I was young.”

Let them speak and don’t interrupt (model good communication skills.) Use nods and a few soft interjections like, “Hmhm”, “I see”, “Oh ok”. You want to know it all, what’s their side of the story?  Have they tried it? Why they vaped or continue to vape?

Paul emphasises that when your teen says, “But you don’t understand”, in this case that’s absolutely true. You don’t. We never had vapes around to this extent, even a few years ago, let alone in high school.

2. Express your views about teen vaping and why you feel that way

You only do this bit only once they have completely finished talking. It is important that they allow you to speak without interruption also. This is another opportunity for learning communication skills, but be sure that what you say isn’t a looooong lecture. It needs to be well thought-out, researched and planned. Stick to your plan. Don’t respond to comments they have made. Paul emphasises that this is not the time. And then this one….

3. Do not use ‘scare tactics’

In Paul’s words: “Most importantly, don’t throw horror stories at them that you’ve seen reported in the media. Most of these are based on some degree of truth but they’re not the norm and young people know that – stick to a couple of concerns based on the facts.”

4. Avoid judgment

If your teen has opened up about their friends vaping, this is because they believe they can trust you with the information. Don’t blow it here. If their friend vaping is one of the reasons they’re doing it, Paul emphasises that we need to be careful not to criticise them here.

5. Clearly state your family expectations on vaping

You can finish your bit by clearly stating your families view and expectations at this point. We have more influence on our teens than we sometimes think we do. Keep your statement matter of fact.

A helpful script from Paul: “As much as I would love to be able to stop you vaping, I can’t control what you do when I’m not with you. I can control what is done in our home. No vaping devices are permitted in this house.”

6. Give your teen time to respond

… to any thing you have said, or any of the boundaries you have set around vaping.

7. This is an important bit… offer to learn together and look at each other’s sources.

There are a lot of poor sources floating around the internet. The pro and anti vaping lobby groups are both loud. Ask your teen to show you their refences so you can sit together and look through what they found. Show them your sources and look at who provided funding or how reputable a source is. Also, talk about what makes source reputable.

Paul has another great tip sheet (here) for how to respond to your teen factually, when they use common vaping statements, like “But it’s just flavoured vapour” etc.

Final Thoughts

Keep connecting with your teen. They need you more than you know and often more than they show. Boundaries are important to a young person feeling safe and loved, but boundaries can only come if the relationship is overflowing with love.


Helpful Links

Paul is at the forefront of research into these topics and his website ‘DARTA’ is a treasure trove. He has information for schools, even providing downloadable worksheets and power point slides for teachers to use to begin conversations with teens. He has even more information sheets specifically for parents.

Article supplied with thanks to Raising Teenagers

About the Author: Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. She lives with her husband and 3 children in Sydney, Australia. The heart of Collett’s work is to support and bring Hope to parents of tweens and teens.

Feature image: Photo by Nery Zarate on Unsplash