My BYU son is smoking…

I’m hoping you can help me with an issue I’m having with my 26-year-old son. He is a full time student at BYU and he is living at home right now because he is “off track.” He is a temple recommend holding return missionary, has always been very active in church, holds a responsible calling, supports himself financially, and is mostly very respectful and obedient. I suspect most everyone who knows him would be shocked to hear about my concern. For some time now, every time he returns home from anywhere–work, church, an errand, whatever–he smells of cigarette smoke. I made a comment the first couple times, and he shrugged it off. A few days ago after he pulled out of the driveway to go to work, I noticed a piece of litter on the driveway. It was an empty cigarette package. I’m very concerned about this, especially the fact that he is sneaking around and lying about it. I have thought about having a talk with him about it, but I chicken out every time the opportunity comes up. What would be the best way to approach him, if at all? What if I ask him about it and he denies it? Is it even any of my business? His Dad and I divorced 15 years ago and our main problem was this exact thing and my son knows that, so this is a particularly sensitive issue for me. Is there a way I can support and encourage my very adult son and help him stop using such very self-defeating behaviors to cope with whatever is bothering him?

Thank you for your question.

First of all, it sounds like your son is doing extremely well – from an educational, financial, social and even spiritual perspective.  Lots to be proud of and lots to focus praise on.  At the same time, I can understand being concerned about his health, and as a member of the church also being concerned as to how “breaking the word of wisdom” might be affecting him in other areas of his life (i.e. spiritually).  So here are some thoughts:

  1.  Yes, he is an adult and whether or not he chooses to smoke is his business.  However, his being an adult doesn’t stop you from being his mother and doesn’t stop you from sharing your concerns.  Also, if he is living in your home, you have the right to set up boundaries/rules (i.e. no smoking inside the home, no cigarette butts left in the driveway, etc.).
  2. If I were his parent the two main themes I would be concerned with would be a) his health, and b) how his behavioral choice was possibly coming into conflict with his spiritual beliefs, possibly leading to ongoing shame, negative self-talk and a low level of self-authenticity.  These would be the topics I would want to open up for discussion if at all possible.
  3. Just because we talk to our adult children, doesn’t mean they’ll talk back.  And that is their prerogative.  But you can still lay the foundation for the conversation to happen at some point: “I understand you may not want to speak with me about this.  I love you and am here to support you.  If this is something you’d like to discuss with me, I just want you to know I’m available.”
  4. Communication is largely non-verbal.  So not talking about something doesn’t mean everyone isn’t already aware something is going on.  Especially if it’s something that causes tension.
  5. Learning how to tolerate anxiety around our children’s birthright of “agency” is, in my opinion, one of the most challenging endeavors of parenthood.  Learning how to stay differentiated, instead of aloof or enmeshed – that’s the stuff that leads to true personal progress in my book.
  6. Your comment about this same “word of wisdom” issue having been a main factor in the deterioration of your spousal relationship raises some red flags.  It lets me know the dynamics between your ex-husband and yourself affected the system of your family.  I do not say this to place blame – it is just an unintended effect of the overall problems you had together.  Your son’s male role model probably coped with stress through smoking.  And since I’m guessing it went against your ex-husband’s values and caused relational stress with you, I’m assuming the behavior became secretive then as well.  It will be important for you to validate this family experience for your son: recognizing he was affected by it and taking accountability for your own role in the dynamic as well as recognizing current triggers and projections due to your discomfort, history and pain with this subject.  You may want to consider some family therapy sessions if he’s willing to join you, or even individual sessions to process your own experience.
  7. Addictive behavior has genetic and biological components.  This is important to remember since it isn’t as easy as some of us might think to give up an addictive behavior – even one we may want to desperately be rid of.  I know we hear of many stories in Mormon folklore of people giving up smoking “cold turkey” as they enter the waters of baptism.  Although I’m sure this happens at times, more often than not, changing behavior is a long process with lots of small relapses and victories which eventually lead to long-term progress.
  8. A huge part of stopping the cycle of addiction, is stopping the cycle of dishonesty – both to ourselves and to others.  A big reason why people become dishonest, is because they are ashamed and scared as to how they will be perceived or consequences they may face.  As part of a supportive network, it is important for friends and family members to be aware of this dynamic.  We can show love, empathy and humility as we approach those who deal with different struggles than we do – struggles at times which can be difficult to understand from our perspective.  This can be done even when boundaries need to be set.
  9. It’s also important to put this problem in perspective.  Smoking is not the worst possible thing a person can be involved in.  We all cope with stress in different ways – and most of us have vices; some of which can affect our health or lifestyle balance.  Whether we overeat, play video games, chew tobacco, veg out in front of the TV, etc., etc. – it’s easy to turn to a behavior as a coping mechanism, especially in times of stress.  As Latter-day Saints in fellowship with one another, we should be careful not to put too much emphasis on behavioral compliance when deeming the overall worthiness of an individual.  We are a sum of many, many parts.
  10. One of the best ways to start addressing a cigarette habit is to talk to your primary care physician.

In closing, I am reminded of Uchtdorf’s recent citing of a bumper sticker he had seen: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”  Some sins are more visible than others.  It is easier to pick out the smoker than it is the emotional abuser.  Easier to see the prostitute on the corner than to see the one who looks down on others with contempt.  We all sin.  We all fall short.  And usually at the same time, we manage to get some things right too.  It sounds like your son is doing great – and struggling.  He can join the rest of us.  🙂

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