How to Overcome the "Stay Out Of My Life, Mom!" Phase

I'm always appreciative when readers reach out to ask questions. I recently received the following email from a mother struggling with the "Stay out of my life!" stage most teenagers enter. Adding to her worry is the fact that she suspected her son was smoking. Read below to find out her concerns and my advice on how to handle the situation.

Dear Dr. Popkin:

I am a mother of two teenage sons, 12 and 15, and both seem to be going through a "stay out of my life, mom!" phase. Lately I've been noticing the smell of stale cigarette smoke on my younger son but haven't seen any evidence of him smoking. The problem is that I've noticed the smell when he comes home from school, so I'm not sure where or when he would have been exposed to smoke. I've tried chatting with each of my boys about the dangers of smoking but I'm not sure how effective that is. Like I said, they're both going through a phase where they seem to blow off anything I say and don't want to confide in me.

I can't figure out how to approach the situation. Should I ask if he's been smoking, and if not, why he smells like cigarette smoke? I'm concerned he will lie to me. But then again, I don't want to further strain our relationship by snooping through his things for evidence. I also don't want to accuse him of something he may not be doing in the first place.

First recognize there's a world of difference between accusing and having a conversation. Accusing is, "You smell like cigarette smoke. What have you been doing?" A conversation around smoking doesn't even have to address the fact that your son has smelled like smoke on occasion. It could be something as simple as seeing someone smoking on TV and asking your boys what they think about people who smoke and letting a conversation develop from there.

Obviously, that conversation may be stalled if you're met with the infamous teenage wall of "Stay out of my life, Mom!" But even instigating regular conversations about smoking-whether or not your sons are heavy participators in the conversations-will let them know you're "on" to them if indeed they are smoking and perhaps give them pause.

An alternative and more direct way to handle it is to sit your son down and say, "This probably isn't a conversation you want to have, but we're going to have it. I've noticed the smell of cigarettes on you lately when you've come home. I'm not accusing you of anything, but I need you to recognize that I'm scared and worried for you. If you are smoking, I hope that you'll talk to me about it."

Don't allow your son to be excused before a conversation has taken place. One danger I see in parenting today is the tendency to allow our kids, especially teens, dictate the way households are run, conversations are held, or what does or doesn't take place. You don't want to rule with an iron first but neither should you be passive and allow your son to dismiss you. Firmly but politely let him know this is a two-way conversation and you expect him to participate.

Finally, you didn't mention anything about your children's father in your letter. If you or married, or even if you are not, but the father is still actively involved and you have a good co-parenting relationship, try to involve him in the conversation. Providing a untied message that you are both concerned and want to divert any smoking that may occur will be even more powerful than going it alone.

Kids will often step up to the levels we ask of them. Unfortunately, far too often, parents simply don't ask. Good luck!

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