I recently received a question from a concerned mom. She suspects that her son may be smoking, but he denies it. She says her son never smells like smoke or cologne (to mask the smell), but his car smells like a cigarette. Her son claims his friends smoke in his car.
So far this sounded like a letter I’ve run across often, but then she asked one more thing. She said, “Is there a way I can tell for sure if he is or isn’t smoking, such as a drug test?”
To answer this question directly, yes there are nicotine tests. However, my concern is that approaching a child in this manner might backfire.
How I would typically advise parents to handle a situation like this depends on the child’s track record for honesty and responsibility. If he has behaved well in the past, and owned up to his mistakes, you don’t want to jeopardize the relationship you have with him by insisting he take a test for nicotine. He may feel ambushed and be resentful. It may spark rebellion, especially if the child is, in fact, telling the truth.
On the other hand, if he has a history of using illegal substances or lying about other things that he knows are not accepted by his parents, then more scrutiny may be warranted. Parents can explain this by letting him know that he can earn back the trust he has lost by going the extra mile of taking tests for a period of time.
In this specific case, there is a better and simpler way to handle it. I would suggest this parent address the issue of tobacco smells in the car with her son as a “second hand smoke” concern. Whether he is smoking in the car or his friends are, the smoke is getting into his lungs and causing damage. How much damage is a game of Russian roulette — and not a risk worth taking. What’s the rule going forward? “Nobody smokes in the car. Period.”
And, be sure to explain that if it turns out the rule has been broken, there will be consequences to breaking the trust given to him. A good logical consequence for breaking this rule would be loss of the car for a period of time (except essential uses like school and work).
Each parent has his or her own style for communication. Perhaps this mom can say something like, “I’m glad that you don’t smoke, and that I can trust you when you tell me that you don’t. But the issue of second hand smoke is important enough that you need to understand that your use of the car depends on your keeping this agreement. I love you and don’t want to take a chance on your health.”
I urge her to be respectful and encouraging when she discusses this with him, being sure to explain the issue fully. Possibly research second-hand smoke online with her child if it suits her style. It’s important to be prepared, and just the right touch can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful conversation.