Health, Food & Nutrition

Is Your Teen Vaping? Why ADHD Brains Get Addicted & How to Quit

Is your teen vaping? Are you sure? Vaping is clandestine — and nicotine’s powerful effect on the ADHD brain makes stopping especially tough. Here are parents’ best strategies for breaking their kids’ vaping habits.

teenage boy vaping with face partially covered from smoke

Most parents are keenly aware of the dangers of vaping. After decades of decline in teen smoking, nicotine is again finding its way to teens and young adults. Among youth, a primary appeal of e-cigarettes, like Juuls, is the fact that they can keep their smoking private. Unlike stinky cigarettes, vape devices emit nearly odorless vapor, and they’re small and easily concealed.

Vaping and the ADHD Brain

The vaping problem is worse for teens with ADHD because nicotine is a stimulant, hitting the same dopamine receptors that Adderall, Vyvanse, and Concerta do. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that sends signals from one nerve cell in the brain to another. Nicotine activates dopamine receptors in areas of the brain responsible for producing our sense of gratification. The brain learns, remembers, and seeks out these positive sensations. Nicotine’s impact on the nucleus accumbens — the area of the brain that controls cognitive functioning, pleasure, motivation, and reward — produces a sensation similar to the pleasure we feel when we eat.

In the amygdala — the emotional control center of the brain — nicotine reduces anxiety, improves motivation, and sharpens memory. That sounds great for people with ADHD, but it’s not. The effect of nicotine is short, leaving the brain craving improved cognition and more of the substance that brings it. Its absence results in users feeling cognitively impaired when they are not vaping. This is why people with ADHD are at greater risk of nicotine addiction. They like the way their brain feels when nicotine is present.

Both teens and adults overestimate the safety of and myths about vaping. In a recent article in The New York Times, Sharon Levy, M.D., director of the adolescent substance abuse unit at Boston Children’s Hospital, notes, “Everybody who comes in smoking cigarettes knows it’s going to kill them [but] until very recently, people thought vapes were the healthy alternative. There are kids who come to our clinic thinking we’re making a big deal about nothing.”

The Power of Teen Talk

To counter vaping, parents should remember what originally killed teen smoking: teen culture itself. A government campaign or parental admonishment rarely registers with teens, but when teens begin telling each other that something is good or bad, they listen. We see this with binge drinking. Teens and young adults have reduced their drinking over the last five years, perhaps because blackout drinking is now associated with rape culture. It’s no longer unusual for a teen or young adult to say — and mean it — “I don’t really like drinking, I do it only once in a while.”

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At the same time, marijuana has become more popular. Teens see it as liberating and engaging, without the jagged regret associated with alcohol. Young people tell each other the virtues of weed, and discuss the many strains of it, as their parents would assess a fine wine.

Through Instagram, Snapchat, and text messaging, teens give vaping their stamp of approval, echoing the marketing of vaping as being cleaner and safer than cigarettes. Vape devices can be converted for smoking marijuana, which carries an additional risk.

There is greater dependency on vaped nicotine than was the case with cigarettes. If a teen uses a high-concentration, easily hidden nicotine cartridge every day or two, he or she gets the same dose of stimulant as that from a full pack of cigarettes, far more than most teens used to smoke. This makes quitting tough. And when that much nicotine is hitting the dopamine receptors of an ADHD teen’s brain, it’s not easy to give it up.

How to Change Your Teen’s Vaping Behavior

There are treatment methods for teens who want to stop vaping, including medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. But none of that works if the teen is unwilling to quit. Willingness comes from changing the message of permission that teens whisper to each other.

[Get This Free Resource: Boost Your Teen’s Executive Functions]

The good news is that teens will listen to parents because, for the most part, our children want to emulate us. To gain their confidence and inspire them to follow rules they don’t want to follow, proceed with love. Begin the process by having a frank, rational, and persuasive conversation, using these talking points:

  • Despite the news stories, you’re probably not going to die from vaping next week. Those deaths are isolated cases, mostly involving black-market weed cartridges. So, don’t panic.” Inflating the danger of certain drugs closes teen ears. Calm always wins.
  • The real problem with vaping is addiction. While the list of chemicals in these devices isn’t always known, the nicotine is. If you vape more than once or twice a week, you’re moving toward addiction, needing more hits to get the same effect. This leads to tolerance, dependency, and addiction. That is how nicotine works.” This is a truth that teens can see for themselves. No one questions the addictive impact of nicotine.
  • As parents, we can’t control what you do after you’re 18 and on your own. But we can work to prevent you from using a nicotine product now. We won’t allow use in our home, and we’ll do what we need to do to enforce it.” You’re the parent. You get to decide. The longer your teen waits to start vaping, the less likely he is to begin.
  • We can’t easily control you outside of our home, but we also don’t have to support you with cars, money, phones, and so on if you’re doing something we see as dangerous.” Far too many parents try nagging to get kids to change. This message admits that you have limited power to curb vaping.
  • We’ll pay for you to engage in vaping cessation options, and, as long as you’re progressing, we will not withhold support.” This is the carrot to the stick. You will do what you can to stop vaping if the child is actually interested in stopping it.

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