Would You Know If Your Child is Vaping?

The signs of e-cigarette use are subtle, but the health risks are clear.

Medically reviewed in November 2022

When people smoke, it’s usually fairly obvious. The distinct tobacco odor may cling to their hands, hair and clothes. Their breath may also betray a recent “smoke break.” It’s more difficult to know if your child is vaping. If there are clues, they are going to be subtle, according to  Russell Delaney, MD, a pediatrician affiliated with LewisGale Medical Center in Salem, Virginia.

“That's the scary part,” Dr. Delaney says. “You're not going to smell it. Nicotine is a stimulant, and you might notice some subtle behavior changes if your child has recently used it, especially if he or she is new to the drug. They could seem a little more on edge or a little jittery.”

Spot the warning signs
Parents wondering if their child is vaping should take any sudden or noticeable change in behavior as a sign that something could be up, Delaney cautions. Suddenly wanting to spend more time alone and not engage with the family, for example, is a clue that your child may be vaping, he suggests.

Simply being aware of vaping trends and learning more about e-cigarettes themselves can also help parents know when they’ve stumbled upon one of these devices—which can resemble pens or USB memory sticks—in their child’s room, pocket or backpack.

“I hate to encourage parents to go snooping, but I recently had parents tell me that they found a vape device in their child's video game case,” Delaney recalls. “Just be aware that these things are so small and can be easily hidden. It might just be sitting on their dresser and parents might not even realize what it is.”

Start the conversation now
It’s never too early to start talking to your child about e-cigarettes or substances in general, according to Delaney. “Even in early elementary school, you should talk to your child about not taking something that someone else gives you,” he explains. “When you see people smoking or vaping in public, you can talk to your child and say, ‘Oh, that's called a JUUL, it’s sort of like smoking and it's bad for you.’ Keep it simple.”

As children approach middle school and gain more independence, these conversations can become more detailed, Delaney adds. “That's when more vaping opportunities are going to become available. Talk to kids about how they might handle that situation.”

It’s also important to lead by example. Parents who vape as a way to quit smoking should consider the effects that this may have on their children’s behavior, Delaney points out. They may want to try an alternative strategy to kick their habit.

How to help your child say “no”
There are some other ways that parents can help ensure that their children make healthy choices and steer clear of e-cigarettes, despite curiosity about vaping or peer pressure to try it. As your children navigate their teen years, be sure to:

  • Stay in touch with them. “Play a game, go out for a walk. Do stuff with them to keep them engaged in family activities—even if it's going out and shooting some hoops in the driveway,” Delaney says.
  • Establish a clear smoke-free policy. Be direct and tell your children you do not want them to vape or use any form of tobacco—at home or when they’re out on their own. Don't allow anyone to smoke indoors and make sure the places your children go are also smoke-free.
  • Know their friends. It’s important to know if your child is socializing with people who smoke or vape. Talk to your child about how they can effectively say “no” and refuse an offer to use an e-cigarette.
  • Be clear about the harms. Young people should know about the near- and long-term health effects of nicotine, vaping, smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Talk about the bottom line. Remind your child about how much money vaping costs and how much they could save by avoiding this habit entirely.
  • Give them a reality check. Try to make your child aware of the misleading portrayal of tobacco and e-cigarettes in ads, movies, social media and magazines, which may make them seem glamorous, fun or cool.
  • Don’t skip well visits. Over the years, children get to know their pediatrician during routine office visits. Establishing this rapport will help kids feel more comfortable speaking with their doctor about any concerns.
  • Encourage doctor-patient time. Allow your pediatrician to have just a few minutes alone with your teen or tween. This provides young people with an opportunity to be open and honest about any health issues that they may be too embarrassed or afraid to talk about in front of their parents.

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