Children learn what you don't tell them.
“My mom smokes, because I’m a bad kid.”
These are the words of a 6-year-old that I’ll never forget.
In the prevention department, we sometimes do what is called a “smoking cessation” lesson. In these lessons, we teach our audience (could be children or adults) about the dangers of tobacco—cigarettes specifically. On this day, I was teaching multiple groups of elementary students, back-to-back, about tobacco, big tobacco advertisements, the health consequences of smoking, and addiction to nicotine. After this group of youngsters listened to the information I had for them, I gave a demonstration with two different sets of lungs: one pink, healthy set that represents naturally normal lungs, and one black, smoker’s set that represents the effects of long-term smoking. Then we talked about things like cancer and emphysema. Every little one got a coffee straw, and we danced, did jumping jacks, yelled, spun around, did sit ups, skipped in place, and eventually worked up a little sweat. We grabbed our coffee straws, held our noses closed, and breathed through the coffee straw. Breathing was difficult, and many students could not do it for longer than a few seconds without needing to take out the coffee straw and gulp a big breath of air. This is our emphysema simulation.
After all of the fun and games was over, the students on this day lined up to go to their next class. One little girl came up to me with her face looking at the floor. She held her hands behind her back and said,
“Yes, sweetheart. What’s the matter?” I replied.
“My mom smokes,” she whimpered.
This not having been the first time a student approached me with this statement, I confidently replied, “That’s alright, hun. My mom smokes, too. But if we have family members that smoke, does that mean we have to smoke, too?”
“Ew, no. I don’t want black lungs! I’m never gonna’ smoke.”
This conversation went on, and she told me a little bit about her mom and home life. She asked why her mom would want to smoke if the cigarettes gave her black lungs. That’s when I was able to explain to her about nicotine and the body’s response to feel like it needs the nicotine, which in turn makes smokers want to continue to smoke.
But I was not prepared for the next part of our conversation.
“No, Miss,” she said. “I know why my mom smokes. My mom smokes, because I’m a bad kid,” she told me with such a feeling of guilt in her voice.
In that moment, my heart shattered. I could feel my eyes misting and did what I could to keep my composure. At first, I was so saddened that this little girl felt solely responsible for her mother’s actions. Then, I felt angry that no one had ever told her differently.
The conversation ended with some more details about her home life and why she felt responsible. We discussed how adults have responsibility for their own actions, and that children are not responsible for the actions of their parents. I like to think she left school that day feeling a little more at peace with understanding the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
I bring up this story many times in my presentations to adults. I am the coalition coordinator for the Erath County Community Coalition (EC3): an alliance of volunteers with a focus on educating the community about the dangers of underage drinking, prescription drug abuse, and marijuana use.
According to a research article, “Children of alcoholic and other drug-abusing parents appear to be especially vulnerable to the risk for maladaptive behavior because they have combinations of many risk factors present in their life.”
For EC3, when we do educational lessons to adults, we many times discuss the dangers of using alcohol, prescription drugs, and marijuana in front of children and youth. Sometimes, the adults go into defense-mode and may claim, “My children know not to do that. They know it’s only for adults,” or, “I don’t do it in front of my kids,” or, “It is fine, as long as I am monitoring them,” or, “I never go overboard with them around.”
After hearing a few defenses, I ask them if their children know how addictive these substances can be. Then, we discuss how their children might feel if they knew the substances their parents were using were potentially addictive. Finally, we talk about children’s emotions, and how many times children do not know how to fully understand a situation, or how they may react negatively to confusion or inability to understand a family member’s use. These reactions could be anger, rebellion, depression, fear, and even false guilt. We discuss how, when we were children, what we felt at fault for and how we felt we may have been able to change things. We also reminisce on the emotions we felt as children in response to these situations. Now, as adults, we look back and realize with clearer minds that we were powerless to these things as children.
In her article in Exquisite Minds, Stacia Garland explains false guilt and the feeling of responsibility in children very well:
“…it is natural to blame themselves for the turmoil in the family. For many children it is very difficult to change their feeling of guilt because it has become their default position when problems occur in their family. It is difficult for the child to blame their parents because the parent is their source of correct behavior. After all, wasn’t it the parent who taught the child how to follow the correct rules? The child reasons at their developmental level, ‘How can my parent be at fault? I must have done something to cause this.’”
Discussion with your kids about addictive substances is vital to their health in adolescence. Every day, they are exposed to substance use: advertising of cigarettes, alcohol in restaurants, prescriptions their friends take, marijuana on social media, and maybe even some use in their home or their friends’ homes. As a parent, you have more influence on your children than any other person on the planet. Even though sometimes it may not seem like it, most children do care what their parents think of them and their decisions. Having an honest, open, respectful, caring discussion with your children about addictive substances can make more of a difference than you could imagine. Talk to them; you could change their life.
Break the cycle. Talk to your kids about the dangers of addiction. They listen.