I fear my teenager is smoking

ASK THE EXPERT: JOHN SHARRY answers your questions

ASK THE EXPERT: JOHN SHARRYanswers your questions


I think my 13-year-old daughter, who has just begun second year, has started smoking. One day last week, when she came in from school, I got the whiff of smoke from her. When I asked her was she smoking, she denied it and gave an elaborate story, which I didn’t believe, but left it at that. Two nights later, I searched her room and did find a packet hidden with a few cigarettes in it. I asked her about them and she said she was minding them for a friend (15 year old), which I didn’t believe either. I really hope she isn’t smoking (I’m an ex-smoker myself) and am wondering how to approach this when she keeps denying it. She is a good girl otherwise, does well at school, has good friends, although she is a bit impressionable and easily led my them.



From what you describe, it does sound like your daughter is smoking or is at least experimenting with it. You are right to be concerned as a parent, as the younger a child starts smoking, the more likely they are to become hooked and the higher the risk of problems.

It is also important to try to intervene early as a parent as your daughter may have tried only one or two cigarettes and may not yet have developed a habit. (While it is unlikely, she may not have even smoked a cigarette yet, though she is clearly at risk of doing so). The earlier she pulls back from smoking the easier it will be for her to stop as although she may still have to deal with a smoking peer group, she won’t have the difficulty of overcoming an addiction.

You are right to think carefully about how best to respond, especially when your daughter is consistently denying any problem. You can help her open up and talk about things by directly (though gently) confronting her – “Whatever you are saying, it does seem to me that you might be smoking and this is something I am worried about.” If she gives excuses or continues to deny it, you can persist – “Even if you are minding them for a friend, it is not acceptable at all that you are keeping cigarettes in the house. Either way we need to talk about it.”

Of course, the ideal is that she would talk to you honestly about whether she has smoked and the circumstances of this, though you can still address the issue and take steps to ensure she is safe even if she continues her denial.

In helping her quit, a number of different approaches can be taken such as being empathic and supportive as well as being clear about rules and expectations. For example, you can be understanding about the pressures to smoke and her desire to fit in, but you can be clear that at 13 she is too young to do so and your preference is that she does not smoke at all, due to the potential health problems.

When expressing your concerns, it is important to match your explanation to what might motivate her. For example, at 13 she might not be as troubled by the serious long-term health problems, though she might be upset at some of the unattractive aspects of smoking such as stained fingernails, bad breath or lack of fitness if she is motivated to play sports.

If she is a free-thinking person, she might be put out by how she is being manipulated to buy cigarettes by the subtle advertising of the companies that sell them. She also might be inspired by your own story of how you regretted smoking and how you finally gave them up. When having this conversation it is important to ask her questions, to listen and to check what she thinks. You could also go online together to check the various websites discussing the problems with smoking and how to avoid it.

It is also important to check if she is being pressured into smoking by a peer group. In this case, it is important to explore how she can resist this. Lots of teens start smoking or engaging in other dangerous behaviours because they don’t know how to say no to their peer group. Help her think how she can say no in a cool way that gains her respect, and also how she might be better off with other friends who respect her making her own decisions.

Given she is only 13, you should consider your discipline options to prevent her smoking to encourage her to stop. For example, you could be more vigilant about who she is going out with and where she is going. You can be clear with her that until you are convinced she is not smoking, you will be restricting her freedom and that she has to earn her privileges at home by taking steps to stop smoking.

Also, as smoking costs a lot of money, you need to check where she is getting money and take action to stop the supply. You can be clear with her that she will only get pocket money when you know for sure she is not smoking. You can also set a positive goal and then reward her if she makes an effort. For example, you could tell her that if she avoids smoking for the next two or three months, then you will buy her something special or support her making a trip and so on.

If smoking has become a habit for her and she needs support to overcome it, you could explore with her the various options and programmes that could help her quit. A good place to start is the national smoking quit line helpline at 1850-201203 or quit.ie. The helpline may also provide more information as to how you as a parent can influence your daughter to stop smoking.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and director of Parents Plus charity. Visit solutiontalk.ie for details on his books and upcoming courses.

Readers’ queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but John regrets that he cannot enter into individual correspondence.