Talking about sensitive issues like smoking with your Little Brother or Little Sister can be very challenging. This section describes some strategies for how to have successful conversations and how to encourage your mentee to lead a smoke-free life.
Before implementing any of the strategies described here, it’s important to remember that it is generally not an effective tactic to start a conversation about smoking out of the blue, as it may cause your mentee to feel like they’re being questioned or accused. Be patient and wait for the ‘teachable moments’ that frequently arise with matches.
Set the Right Tone
When interacting with your mentee on sensitive topics, how you communicate is often more important than what you communicate. If an opportunity arises to discuss smoking, you should:
- Avoid blaming or judging
- Avoid overreaction or scare tactics
- Maintain appropriate boundaries (you’re not a parent, guardian, physician, counsellor, therapist or peer)
- Invite your mentee to share their perspective
- Validate their feelings and encourage further discussion
- Offer information or advice only if welcomed
Activity: Choosing the Right Response
What would you respond if your mentee made these statements?
- I've tried cigarettes, but I'm not going to do it again.
- I smoke and I have no plans to quit.
- I wish I could quit smoking.
- Most of my friends smoke.
- Cigarettes are nasty.
- I hate that my friends smoke.
- If my parent/guardian smokes, why can't I?
- You [the mentor] smoke, don't you?
Choose the Right Words
If your mentee brings up the topic of smoking or discloses that they have tried smoking, it’s helpful to be ready with comments and questions that can facilitate a positive discussion on the topic.
Situation 1: Your mentee says: “My friends are always smoking around me.”
- I’m here to listen if you want to talk about it.
- I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me. Do you feel like talking about it?
- What kind of situation does that put you in?
- How do you feel when your friends do this?
- Why do you think your friends do this?
- What are some things you’ve done/could do in this situation?
- Would you like some help in planning what to do in this situation?
- Who in your life would care about the decision you make in this situation?
- Have you told your parent/guardian about this?
- How would you feel about telling your parent/guardian about this?
- This is a situation I experienced when I was your age. Can I talk with you about how I handled it?
Responses to Avoid:
- I can’t believe your friends do that!
- You should tell on your friends.
- You’d better not start smoking.
- You should stay away from those people.
- I’m going to tell the program staff and your parent/guardian about this.
Situation 2: Your mentee says: “I’ve tried cigarettes [but I’m not yet a regular smoker].”
- Have you thought about some things that could happen if you do that again?
- Have you told your parent/guardian or another adult about this?
- Is there anyone besides me you’d like to talk to about this? Is there anyone you want me to talk to?
- Who in your life might be concerned about this?
- That was a choice I also faced when I was your age. Can I talk with you about the choice I made?
- I’ve learned a little bit about smoking recently. Would you like to hear what I know?
- Should we talk about this again when we get together next week?
Responses to Avoid:
- Just say no!
- Don’t you know that cigarettes can kill you?
- I’m going to tell the program staff and your parent/guardian.
- You have to tell your parent/guardian.
- That’s terrible!
- I’m very disappointed in you.
- Promise me you’ll never do that again.
- You should really follow my advice about this.
Activity: Conversation Starters
How would you approach bringing up the following smoking-related topics with your mentee? If they were open to talking about the issue, what would you focus on?
- The influence of peer pressure on smoking behaviour.
- The perception that smoking leads to weight loss.
- The perception that smoking helps people cope with stress.
- Quitting smoking (if your Little Sister or Little Brother has disclosed that they smoked).
- The health consequences of smoking.
- The financial consequences of smoking.
Start Productive Conservations
If your mentee doesn’t spontaneously mention smoking, you may wish to gently broach the subject. You should do this only if you have developed a strong rapport and a high level of trust with them. If you start a discussion and your mentee chooses not to talk, don't push them. Try again another day, or simply acknowledge that they may not be comfortable with the topic.
Conversation Starter 1: Comment on Something in your Environment:
If you and your mentee are reading magazines together and one contains a tobacco advertisement you could say, “I can’t believe they still put tobacco ads in magazines. What do you think about that?”.
As a second example, if during one of your outings you see a person smoking outside in the cold or rain, you could comment on how smokers are forced to be separated from everyone else in public places, and ask how they would feel if they had to do that.
Conversation Starter 2: Steering “Small Talk”
If you are having a conversation with your mentee and you’re both relaxed and at ease, you may want to try gently steering the conversation toward smoking. For example, you could mention how you recently learned that stores aren’t allowed to have cigarettes within view of customers, or you can talk about a friend or family member’s struggle to quit smoking. Or your struggle to quit smoking! Their response will indicate whether they are interested in continuing the conversation.
Smoking Conversation Do’s and Don’ts
- Act as a friend and guide. While you are not responsible for your mentee’s decisions, you can help direct them towards a smoke-free lifestyle.
- Take your mentee's family situation into consideration. Youth who have received strong “no smoking” messages from their family for many years may not ever be tempted to try smoking, while others may unquestioningly start smoking because all their family members smoke. They may also have family members who struggle with addiction to alcohol or illegal substances, making smoking seem like a minor issue in comparison.
- Consider culture and ethnicity. Different cultures and ethnic groups may have different values with regards to smoking. For example, recent-immigrant families may be more tolerant of smoking because of aggressive marketing by tobacco companies in their former country or because they have not yet been introduced to our anti-smoking culture.
- Be honest. Chances are you have not always made healthy choices, and talking about the mistakes you have made may capture their attention engage them in an honest conversation. If you are a current smoker, you may, for example, tell your mentee how hard it is to quit and how much you regret ever having started.
- Focus on resilience. Reinforce any positive changes or choices your mentee makes and avoid criticizing poor choices.
- Practice tolerance and kindness. Your mentee is much more likely to respond to you if you approach them with good intentions and an open mind.
- Don’t ask your mentee if they smoke. Let them make this disclosure if they choose.
- Don’t assume that you have no influence on their decisions. A caring adult is a very important factor in a young person’s decision about whether to use tobacco. Your consistent presence in their life may prevent negative behaviours such as smoking.
- Don’t assume your mentee understands how easy it is to become addicted to tobacco. Not all youth will have been taught this, so it may be useful to bring this up in a discussion.
- Don’t pass judgment. If your mentee mentions having smoked, be careful not to preach. Have a constructive response ready to keep the conversation going. If you are unsure what to say or do, talk to your program staff who will have helpful advice.
- Don’t use scare tactics. Showing your mentee pictures of smoking-related diseases, death statistics related to smoking, and other alarming things will set the wrong tone for the conversation and may turn them off of future discussions.
- Don’t focus your discussion on the illegal nature of underage smoking. This may not motivate your mentee to avoid smoking.
- Don’t criticize the behaviours of a friend or family member. If your Little Brother or Little Sister decides to approach you about a family member, be ready with a non-judgemental response that facilitates further discussion.