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Don't allow the smoke to distract you from the fire

Dealing with young people smoking is problematic at the best of times. While not wanting to condone the practice you sometimes need to move through the vale of smoke so that you can work on other important behavioural problems. That means accepting that they are going smoke. Here is some idea's on working with adolescence smokers.
Smoking is addictive so always view that the behaviour is possibly driven by an addictive need. It might have started out as trying to be seen as cool or to belong in a group but at some point it turns into a physical craving for nicotine.

Depending on you context, sometimes there are more important things to deal with in the list of priorities. Having worked with at risk youth, some organisations while not condoning smoking, allow it to occur so they can focus on more serious matters. For example if a young persons other behaviours is about to see them expelled from education or kicked out of home, refusing them access because of a smoking habit is just going to limit their ability to get the help that they desperately need.

If you are going to allow smoking to occur then of course there needs to be some strict rules regarding use. There are ways of managing the impact and discouraging it. For example:
  • Clear statements that you do not condone or encourage smoking but allow it to occur so that you can work on other important issues
  • It is only allowed in set areas which are safe
  • Must be away from non smokers
  • Must be outdoors
  • Can only occur in their own free time or breaks
  • There might be established set times such as only after breakfast, lunch or dinner
  • Anyone smoking will have their parents or guardians informed that they were smoking
  • Staff will not lend or provide cigarettes or buy them on their behave
  • Staff will not provide assistance to help those smoke such as lending them lighters
  • There might be a negotiated limit to the number of smokes a person can have per day

Last week I crossed paths with a youth group on an extended snow camping expedition. To get 2 of the young people to come the leaders had to negotiate the smoking issue even though the normal policy for programs banned smoking. The young participants could only have 1 cigarette a day and had chosen to have that cigarette after dinner. The time once set was not able to be changed. But the best twist was to remove all the social reinforcement and coolness from it by only being able to smoke alone at different times. They took turns who would go first. And of course they had to stand out in the snow to do it. This controlled the situation and ensured unsafe practices like smoking in tents or wandering away from camp to hide their smoke did not occur.

While allowing smoking is not going to be an option for everyone, with at risk youth sometimes you need to prioritise what is the most important issues for them. If you do not accept smoking then remember this is an addictive habit. Treating smoking simply as rule breaking does not address the reality of it being a complex behaviour driven by a variety of needs.
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