McNerney: Found Out Your Teen is Vaping? Now What?

By Neil McNerney

If you have a middle or high schooler, you might have heard about vaping. In my practice with teens and families, I realized that there is a varying level knowledge about this new product.

What is Vaping?

A vape pen is a delivery device used to vaporize a liquid that can then be inhaled into the lungs. Basically, a battery delivers electricity to a set of coils, which are then heated. The coils are saturated with a liquid that is easily vaporized, creating “smoke,” which is then inhaled.

The primary liquids in the vape liquid are vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, flavorings, and nicotine. Vape liquid comes in a large variety of flavors, including bubble gum, cotton candy, peppermint, and mango.

[See related article Vaping Trend Captures Loudoun Teens While Parents Work to Catch Up.]

What is a Juul?

A Juul is a brand of vape pen. It is about the length of a regular cigarette but is flat. It looks like a very long USB stick. The vape liquid comes in pods and look very similar to a small USB plug. A “starter kit” costs $50 retail.      

Is it Harmful?

Very little research has been done on the effects of inhaling the substances in vape liquid. Although glycerin and propylene glycol are both FDA approved, they have not been well studied on their effect on lung tissue. Very little is known about the flavoring agents and their effect on the lungs.

Nicotine, on the other hand, has been well studied. It is the active ingredient in tobacco and is the reason cigarettes are addicting. Most vape liquids have significant levels of nicotine, and many of them have 2-4 times the amount of a cigarette.

In addition to significant effects to the executive brain functions, nicotine is highly addictive. Once exposed to nicotine, the brain very quickly begins to crave more nicotine. The almost immediate absorption of nicotine into the bloodstream allows for the release of dopamine and similar biochemicals which produce euphoria. This “instant euphoria” reaction then becomes a craving, leading to seek more nicotine.

What should I do if I find a Juul or Vape?

First, the don’ts:

  1. Don’t freak out. Emotional outbursts in situations like this almost always backfire.
  2. Don’t try to use guilt. Using phrases like “I raised you better than this,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself” rarely have the desired effect. It tends to increase shame and decrease the chances of behavior change.
  3. Don’t catastrophize. It is easy to take a mistake such as vaping and allow yourself to consider worst case scenarios. Don’t go there. It doesn’t help your leadership abilities and your teen will just tune you out.

Instead:

  1. Tell your teen what you found. Let them know that you are aware of what it is and ask them how long they have been using it. Often, teens will start with the old excuse: “I’m holding it for a friend.” Let them know that you don’t believe them, and you can’t imagine why they would risk it to hold it for a friend. Then move on quickly to the next topics.
  2. Ask them why they are using it. When you ask this, it is important that you keep the attitude of concerned curiosity. You are interested in learning more about their reasons, not trying (yet) to convince them to not use it. Did they get one because it looked fun? Because it causes a high? Due to stress in their life? Depending on how they respond, you can then help them problem solve for ways to have fun, reduce stress, etc. that are healthy and legal.
  3. Let them know about the school and legal consequences of vaping. Most teens are unaware of how a criminal charge could affect their future. Ask them to consider the risks versus the rewards so that they can think about whether it is worth it.
  4. Destroy the equipment. Let them know that their costly equipment has been destroyed.
  5. Consider logical consequences. Financial consequences can often be beneficial. For instance, if the money they used for purchasing the vape was a given from a relative, have the teen do something of service for a relative. Also consider removing their access to any money for a few months so that they don’t make the same mistake again.

The good news about teens these days is that the level of tobacco smoking has dropped significantly. The bad news is the teens have traded one nicotine delivery device for another. Our role, as leaders in their life, is to use calm and strength to assist them in this latest challenge.

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.”

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