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What to do when your teen is vaping.

Discovering that your teen has been vaping can cause you to worry and bring up more questions. It’s felt like vaping has exploded in popularity among teens over the last five years in particular.  Due to the nature of “e-cigarettes,” it can feel impossible to know exactly what substance your teen is consuming, and how to talk to them about the impacts on their health and wellbeing. This guide will cover some facts about vaping and how to support your teen when vaping becomes an issue.

The therapists at Joon are teen experts, and are available to provide support for common issues like vaping and substance use —we can help.

Katey Nicolai, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
VP of Clinical Services

Understanding teen vaping

What is vaping? 

Vaping is using an electronic device to simulate smoking. Users purchase cartridges filled with liquid, and the device (a “vape,” “vape pen,” or customizable “mod”) turns the liquid into a “vapor” that they inhale. Vaping was originally marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, but these claims have been largely debunked. Vape manufacturers have also been heavily criticized for marketing to children and teens with fruit and candy-flavored products, colorful designs, and cartoon themes that make their products appear both harmless and appealing to young users. 

What substances can you vape? 

The most common vape products are tobacco/nicotine products (“e-cigarettes”), followed by marijuana/THC/CBD-based products. Depending on local laws and regulations, it can be relatively easy for teens to purchase or acquire these products. Technically, any substance with a liquid formulation, or that can be mixed with water, can be vaped, and there are some reports of other vaping other drugs like LSD - though this is rare given its impracticality in formulation. The short answer is that, if you find your teen vaping, it’s most likely nicotine or marijuana.

How common is vaping in teens? 

According to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey, and several other youth surveys, vaping tobacco/nicotine declined last year: from 16% to 12% (source). Of that 12%, ¼ vape tobacco daily. Vaping appears to have steadily grown to a peak in 2020, and has been in slow decline since. Marijuana use can be harder to track due to shifting laws, but based on self-report data, about 1 in 10 teens are “casual” marijuana users, meaning using marijuana/THC/CBD at least once per month, while 1 in 40 use daily (source). Overall data indicates that it’s common for teens to have tried vaping once or twice, but its popularity may be beginning to wane.

Is it actually less harmful?

Yes and no. Vaping tobacco appears to be less harmful than smoking cigarettes on the surface, however tobacco/nicotine vape cartridges can have 4x the amount of nicotine as a cigarette, and long-term health impacts of inhaling vapor aren’t fully understood, but unlikely to be harmless. Vaping marijuana products may spare the lungs from harmful smoke, but marijuana/THC use still can have harmful impacts on a developing teen brain. Marijuana products are often touted as a “natural” solution for common ailments like anxiety, depression, sleep trouble, and physical pain. But research has shown that marijuana use can actually worsen these symptoms over time for teens (source). 

Is it time to get support for your 13-26 year old? We’re here to help.

Why would my teen start vaping?

Why do teens vape?

The most common reason teens cite for vaping is to “try something new” (source). An urge to try new things, including some risky things, is a common teen experience; this, paired with popular beliefs that vaping is harmless, makes vaping seem like a relatively easy thing to try! Vaping becomes habitual when the behavior is rewarding. They may receive positive social feedback (“I look cool”), experience relief (“I’m taking a break to clear my head”), or enjoy the substance (nicotine is extremely addictive). Vape products are also easy to acquire.

How do I know if they’re addicted?

Every teen is unique, and what’s problematic for your teen should be understood in their personal context. If you’re worried, the first step is having a conversation to understand more. 

While there are no universals, here are some common warning signs of problematic substance use: 

  • Secrets: It’s normal for teens to hide things and want more “privacy,” but actively lying or hiding substance use can be a sign of something more 
  • Spending lots of money and time: Have you noticed your teen acquiring a lot of vape supplies? Do they seem to go everywhere with their vape, and get upset when it’s missing? Are they asking for money or spending a lot on vaping? Are they skipping things like meals or classes to vape?
  • Attempts to stop backfire: Has your teen said they were going to give up vaping, only to retract that later? Do they get angry and insist they can stop, but don’t follow through?
  • Negative feedback has no impact: If others in your teen’s life have given them negative feedback, like a romantic partner or friend becoming frustrated with their fixation on vaping, or they’re getting in trouble at school, but continue using, this usually means there’s an issue
  • Distress: If you teen ever tells you they’re worried about their use, or feeling emotional or guilty about it, or observes it causing problems in their own life, validate their worries and recruit support for them right away

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What to do when your teen is vaping

If you discover your teen is vaping and you’re concerned, the first step is having a conversation with them:

Setting the tone

It’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy and an open line of communication. Be curious rather than accusatory. Avoid reacting with anger or judgment. As the parent, it’s your responsibility to set a tone of non-confrontational concern, even if you anticipate a strong reaction from your teen.

Listen first, then respond

Listen actively to their perspective, even if you disagree. Encourage them to share their thoughts without fear of punishment. No one, not even adults, changes their mind if they feel misunderstood.

Avoid getting into arguments about “facts”

There is a lot of misinformation available about health and vaping online. Teens may come in “armed” with knowledge they’ve been told by people they trust, and may believe strongly that they know more about substances than you. Pointing out harmful impacts of vaping may feel tempting, but avoid this if you see it escalating the conversation. Your teen can search online as well as (or maybe even better than) you. There is one thing that you are an expert in, though - being their parent. You care. Make this your primary agenda.

Know when to get help

As an adult, you may have a clearer perception of when it’s necessary to get your teen some extra help with vaping. Here are some indicators that therapy a good next step:

  • Vaping is interfering with their life or relationships
  • Vaping is one of several concerning behaviors that might indicate a mental health problem
  • They are showing signs of problematic substance use or addiction
  • They tell you they struggling or want help
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Therapy can help when vaping becomes an issue

When you’re seeking therapy for your teen for vaping or other substance use issues, make sure you find a licensed provider who is experienced with adolescents and uses evidence-based approaches. Research on teens and substance use demonstrates that the most effective interventions for teen substance use are evidence-based therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy, and family therapy (source). Motivational interviewing - a branch of CBT developed for substance use - can help teens understand what’s driving their substance use and develop healthier coping strategies. 

A qualified mental health provider can also help address any other mental health struggles that might be contributing to your teen’s vaping, and make steps toward positive and lasting change. Therapists at Joon are all licensed providers who are experts in teens and evidence-based therapy, and they can personalize a targeted plan with your teen and family in mind. You can read more about our latest data on the effectiveness of Joon for treating 13-26 year olds.

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