Friday, 12 January 2018

8 things parents need to tell their teens about alcohol and vomiting

The response to last week's blog that asked parents 'Would your teen know what to do if something went wrong at a party?' was amazing! Well over 20,000 people read the piece over a 2-day period and the content seemed to really resonate with parents. The incredibly sad story of the 15-year-old girl who choked to death on a bed while being watched by four of her friends is particularly powerful and, as a result, many readers forwarded the link to their teens. Amongst all the comments was one that I found particularly interesting:

" … Death by vomiting is a real danger. I must have been lucky as a young bloke to not have died. My life was saved several times whilst vomiting unconscious. I had good mates who looked after me. A wife who saved my life three times. I no longer drink at all. The fun aspect disappeared long before I got the help I needed. I don't think all that much has changed over the past 50 odd years ... I quite like young folk. Times change. Kids don't. I believe a lot of oldies forget their youthful years."

What a great comment – "Times change. Kids don't." … Of course, he's absolutely right – nothing really changes - it's just that we now know far more about the potential risks. As a result, we can try to ensure our kids are far more informed than we were and hopefully, if they do get into trouble, at least they'll have a better idea what to do!

Getting drunk and subsequently vomiting is not something new. When I talk about the potential risks around alcohol in schools, teachers often come up afterwards and say something like, "I was so lucky" or "How did we ever make it through? We did all those things and were never aware of what could have gone wrong". Unfortunately, getting drunk and dying as a result is not new either. Deaths caused by choking on vomit after a heavy drinking session have been happening since man first started using alcohol. A number of famous people have died this way, including Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham, who reportedly drank 40 shots of vodka and subsequently choked to death in his sleep and of course, AC/DC lead singer, Bon Scott who passed out in a friend's car and inhaled his own vomit.

Most people have vomited at least once in their lives and many have a great 'vomit story' – particularly relating to alcohol! Even though it is incredibly unpleasant, it is important to remember that there is a reason for this bodily function. So, what is that reason? Why do we vomit when we drink too much?

Most alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), breaks it down into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can make a person feel sick. This is then broken down by another enzyme into acetate, which is excreted. Although acetaldehyde is usually broken down quite rapidly, when you drink alcohol it builds up in the body, causing nausea. When you drink too quickly, these toxins accumulate, and your body gets the message that it needs to get rid of them. You then vomit – expelling the contents of the stomach, including the toxins!

If a young person is going to look after someone who is vomiting, they've got to have an understanding of why it is happening … Now trying to explain all about ADH and acetaldehyde is going to bore them to death and many won't understand it. So, although this is an oversimplification, a good way of explaining what is going on is as follows ... When you drink too much, alcohol 'turns off' the brain areas that control consciousness and breathing, resulting in unconsciousness, coma and, in extreme cases, death. You've been poisoned! Our bodies try to protect us from getting that far by making us vomit and getting rid of unabsorbed alcohol before it reaches the brain. It prevents further poisoning and in the process, save your life.

When it comes to educating teens about anything I'm of the view that we should 'start from where they're at', i.e., begin by talking about something they've experienced themselves and when it comes to alcohol, that's vomiting! Even if they've never drank alcohol, most young people who have attended a party or met a group of friends in a park on a Saturday night have seen someone else drink too much and end up being sick. If it's not their friends, it'll be a family member. That's why a conversation about alcohol and vomiting is far less likely to be 'shut down' by your teen. They're going to know what you're talking about and there's a better chance they're going to listen.

So, what should you be telling them? Here are 8 key points about alcohol and vomiting that every young person should know:
  • vomiting can be life-threatening. Although many look back at a night of vomiting and laugh about their experience, it is vital that teens understand that it can be extremely dangerous. Apart from choking to death, dehydration and salt imbalances are the biggest concerns in most vomiting episodes
  • if someone is vomiting, or it looks as though they may start, stay with them – never leave them, not even for a few seconds. It can take just seconds for someone to choke on their own vomit, so it is vital you stay with them and monitor them closely at all times
  • don't force them to drink lots of water. For some reason, young people (and adults too) believe that water is going to fix everything. Of course, if they are not vomiting and just feel unwell or nauseous, ensure they replace lost fluids. It is also important to ensure they rehydrate once they have finished vomiting, but if they're forced to drink water while they are being sick, it is highly likely that they will simply vomit it back up relatively quickly. Soak a t-shirt or cloth in cold water and have them suck on that in between vomits. That way, they are still rehydrating, as well as getting rid of the horrible taste in their mouths
  • vomiting won't sober someone up. Getting rid of unabsorbed alcohol from your stomach is not going to sober you up. Certainly, some people report that immediately after vomiting they can feel clear-headed and some even believe they are now sober enough to drive! This effect is believed to be due to the flood of endorphins that are released when vomiting but usually disappears quite quickly
  • never prop a drunk friend onto a toilet bowl to vomit. Too often, people end up with a range of facial injuries (losing teeth, breaking their noses, etc) when left lying over a toilet and either pass out or fall to sleep, smashing their faces onto the porcelain. Drunk friends should be taken to a safe and well-lit place and given a plastic bucket or bowl
  • try to keep them comfortable - if they are feeling sick they are likely to be feverish. Putting a cold compress (or even a cold-water bottle) on the back of the person's neck can reduce their temperature and make them feel a little better. On the other hand, if they start to feel cold, make sure there is something warm to wrap around
  • if you see blood in the vomit, call 000 immediately. Although, this can be caused by something as simple as the person biting the inside of their mouth or tongue, it could also be something far more serious, such as retching tearing the small blood vessels of the throat or the oesophagus. This usually looks like small red streaks in the vomit, like nose bleed blood. Although this may not be life threatening there is no way of knowing for sure without seeking medical attention
  • if in any doubt, call 000. It's hard to be too specific here as everyone is different when it comes to what constitutes a 'medical emergency' but 'if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'. As a parent, make it clear to your child that you support them in their decision to call 000, then they need to call you. Even if the ambulance arrives and the situation has resolved itself – it's better to be safe than sorry.

How do you know if a person is just drunk or actually suffering from something much more serious - like alcohol poisoning? It's difficult, but if you see one of the following, call 000 immediately – this is not something an adult can deal with, let alone a teenager:
  • the person is unconscious and can’t be awakened by pinching, prodding or shouting
  • the skin is cold, clammy, pale or bluish or purplish in colour, indicating they are not getting enough oxygen
  • the person is breathing very slowly, if there are more than 10 seconds between breaths – this is an emergency
  • vomiting without waking up
Many parents reading this will remember a drunken night out when they were in their teens (or early 20s) when everything went wrong. We usually learn by our mistakes and a night of vomiting after a big drinking session can often lead to long-term changes being made when it comes to alcohol. Sadly, that one drunken night can sometimes result in a death. We need to make sure our kids know more than we did. This is not necessarily going to be an easy conversation but it's an important one ... Remember, if you want to have a better chance of success, frame the conversation around looking after a friend and avoid talking about their own drinking behaviour (that's another conversation altogether!) ...

If parents are interested in learning more, there are two fact sheets specifically developed for young people on the DARTA website that may help. One is called 'How do you look after a drunk friend?' and the other is 'How do you look after a drunk vomiting friend?' 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Would your teen know what to do if something went wrong at a party? Even with the information do they have the 'brain wiring' to respond appropriately?

In her book, The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen talks about adolescence as being a particularly risky time of life due to their brains still "being wired", resulting in them often finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations and simply not knowing what to do next. She quotes a 2010 study conducted by the British Red Cross that examined how teens react to emergencies involving a friend drinking too much alcohol.

"More than 10 percent of all children and young teens between the ages of eleven and sixteen have had to cope at one time with a friend who was sick, injured, or unconscious owing to excessive alcohol consumption. Half of those had to deal with a friend who passed out. More broadly, the survey found that nine out of ten adolescents have had to deal with some kind of crisis involving another person during their teenage years - a head injury, choking, an asthma attack, an epileptic seizure, etc. Forty-four percent of the teens surveyed admitted to panicking in that emergency situation, and nearly half (46 percent) acknowledged they didn't know how to respond at all."

I don't think the results of the study would shock many, in fact I was surprised that it was only 10% who reported looking after someone who was drunk (although the age range could have something to do with it - you would hope very few 11 or 12-year-olds would be dealing with this issue). Years ago I used to ask Year 10 students to indicate whether they had ever had to look after a drunk friend - it was usually about one third of the group who said that they had. That's frightening when you think that these are 15-year-olds who have little, if any, life experience and brains that are not 'wired' to respond well to danger ... A significant number of these young people are trying to deal with potentially life-threatening situations and don't have the information or the capacity to respond appropriately.

Over the years I have been involved with so many tragic cases of young people dying simply because those around them did not know what to do when something went wrong. When it comes to this area, there are two issues that continue to frustrate me with parents:
  • some believe that if alcohol is provided to young people or they are given a 'safe space' to drink then if something does go wrong they will be more likely to seek help from adults without fear of getting into trouble, and
  • those parents who choose to provide alcohol to their child to drink at parties rarely, if ever, ensure that their teen is also provided with accurate information and advice on what to do if something goes amiss
If so-called 'safe spaces' ensured that teens would seek help when something went amiss I would be much more likely to support them. The fact of the matter is that, in my experience, they don't! When looking at the alcohol-related deaths I have been involved with over the years, almost everyone of them occurred at a party or gathering where alcohol was either provided or, at the very least, tolerated by the host parents. One of the most tragic deaths I was involved with happened at a 16th birthday party held in Melbourne almost 15 years ago.

Cassie had recently separated from her husband and wanted to make her daughter's birthday special. Even though she didn't feel comfortable with the decision, she was eventually bullied into providing alcohol at the party by her daughter, Jo, who convinced her that everybody else's parents were doing the same thing (something she later found out simply wasn't true). At some point during the evening one of Jo's friends, aged just 15, became so drunk that she lapsed into unconsciousness. Instead of seeking help from Cassie, or one of the other adults at the party, Jo and three other girls carried the drunk young woman into a bedroom and lay her on the bed. The four girls, who had also all been drinking, sat on the bed and did their best to look after their friend. It was not until some time later that they realized their friend was dead. At some point she had vomited and choked to death and not one of the four young women had noticed!

I kept in touch with Cassie for many years. She was understandably devastated by what had happened and for a long time believed that she had 'killed' the young woman. There were a whole pile of issues that she struggled with but she could simply never understand why four smart young women did not come to her or find another sober adult to help look after their drunk friend. Why didn't they call an ambulance? They were not going to get into trouble and no judgement would be made about their behaviour. It just didn't make sense ... In her book, Jensen gives a similar example of teens not responding appropriately to an alcohol-related incident. Something went wrong and they took action but they didn't call an ambulance. She describes this behaviour as follows - "... the teenagers' amygdalae (the emotional part of the brain) had signalled danger, but their frontal lobes (reasoned thinking and judgement) didn't respond. Instead, the teens acted in the moment." Put simply, during the teen years they simply don't have the 'brain wiring' to always respond appropriately ...

I wrote about my second concern only recently but it's worth saying one more time! If you are going to make the decision to provide alcohol to your teen to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night (and that is only your decision to make - no-one can tell you what to do with your child) then the least you can do is to ensure they are armed with some basic safety information at the same time! Simply handing over the bottles, then dropping them off at someone's house without one skerrick of advice or information should something go wrong is plain wrong and totally irresponsible ...

Now you may be thinking 'but what's the point of providing them information if their brain is not wired to use it appropriately?' Well, this is where it comes down to understanding what the teen brain is capable of doing, or at least what type of information has the best chance of being effective. If you want a teen to respond to safety advice, it really boils down to three key points:
  • keep it simple
  • keep it practical
  • repeat and repeat and then repeat again
A great message could be "If something goes wrong, call 000 and then call me" and you say it every time they walk out the door. There's no judgement, it's simple and practical and it could save a life! I can guarantee that there will be some young people who will roll their eyes, tell you that "we don't do that kind of stuff" or the like but keep saying it - repetition of messages is important during the teen years ...

We're never going to be able to prevent young people from finding themselves in risky situations. As much as all parents want to protect their kids from danger, at some point you have to let them take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. But this does not mean that at 14 or 15-years-old you should abandon all rules and boundaries and simply accept that 'they're all going to drink anyway' and place them in situations of unnecessary risk ... As they enter middle adolescence, many of them may start to look like they have the bodies of young adults but parents should never forget that their brains have a lot of catching up to do ...

Friday, 15 December 2017

Parenting, parties and the Christmas holidays: If you have a 14 or 15-year-old, hold on tight - it could be a bumpy ride!

If you speak to teachers, particularly Year Co-ordinators who follow a cohort of students through high school, they will often tell you that they see the biggest change occur in the young people when they return to school after the Christmas holiday period between Years 9 and 10. Sometimes it can be a year earlier or even a year later, but it nearly always seems to occur when the students have returned from that extended summer break. Now you could argue that this is simply due to the length of time the students are away from school but in my experience this behavioural change often appears to be due to a change in parenting that occurs over those summer months, particularly in regards to those young people aged around 14 and 15.

The summer break (both before and after the Christmas and New Year holidays) is a time when there are usually lots of parties or gatherings and parents are bombarded by requests to attend this or that event. It's the most social time of the year, for both teens and their parents, and everyone wants to let their hair down just a little. The holidays are also long - very long! Many teens have almost 8 weeks away from school, that's a time where you have to maintain your daily schedule (particularly difficult if both parents are working), keep your family running as usual and also ensure your kids are occupied and safe. They're going to want to catch up with friends, go to the movies, travel to the beach or whatever and, at the same time, you have to keep doing what you would usually do if they weren't on a break and maintain a healthy level of parental monitoring and control ... It's not surprising that at this time of the year some parents find this all just a little bit too difficult and let their guard down, letting some things 'slip through to the keeper'. Things that you wouldn't normally allow to happen are permitted and then you've set a precedent and it all goes downhill from there!

I've written about the unique issues that I believe parents of Year 9s face many times. Those aged 14-15 years are going through that really interesting time called 'middle adolescence' and they are going to push as many boundaries and rules as they can to try to get want they want. They're also going to be relentless in their efforts - begging and pleading, threatening, slamming doors, telling you that you're a bad parent, "you're the only one that does that!" and that they hate you - and in normal circumstances you're often able to stand your ground, but it would appear that the summer break is where this age group can often find the crack in their parents' resolve!

A great example of this is how many 14-15 year-olds manage to get permission from their parents to travel into the city they live and watch the NYE fireworks! Groups of unbelievably young people making their way into the city, usually by public transport, and then wandering the streets (often drinking alcohol) - truly bizarre! What is a parent thinking? I don't know if any of these people have actually been into a city on NYE but it's certainly not the place for a group of 14 and 15-year-olds to travel unsupervised. Last year I had a mother contact me to ask me what I thought about her 15-year-old daughter's request to travel into Perth to watch the fireworks there - she didn't want her to go but she seemed to be the only parent who had a problem with it and was she simply being overprotective, as one of the other mothers had suggested? All I did when she called me was to ask her whether she felt comfortable with her daughter taking part in such an activity and if she didn't, why not? She was adamant that she didn't and essentially her reason was 'safety' - she didn't feel that it was a 'safe' thing for someone of her daughter's age to do. I then asked her why then was she was even considering it? The answer was simple - her daughter would not let up - the begging and pleading and the constant barrage of "you're the only one" was just too much. As she said to me - "At least when she's at school I have some relief during the day, when she's on holidays I can't get away from it!"

As I've said many times before the key to good parenting is not all about saying 'no', it's more about looking for those opportunities where you can say 'yes' and allow them to do something. 'No' remains one of the most important words you will ever say to your teen (most probably the fourth most important, just behind the three little words "I love you") but if you overuse it or don't use it properly, you're going to have great conflict and your relationship with your child will suffer. Of course you have to have rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences if your child breaks those rules but you can't simply lock them up in their room and wrap them up in cotton wool in an effort to keep them as safe as possible. They're going to have to do things you don't want them to do and then make mistakes and do the wrong thing, that's how they learn, that's how we learnt. You just don't want those mistakes to be potentially life threatening ... Am I for one second suggesting that you should even consider allowing a 14 or 15-year-old wander into the city to watch the NYE fireworks? Of course not, this is incredibly dangerous and to my mind this has the word 'no' all over it!

Without any doubt your teen is going to 'try it on' over the summer break, particularly that group who are going through that wonderful stage of 'middle adolescence' (parents of Year 9s, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean!). They're getting older and they're going to want more independence and if there's ever a time you're going to let them get away with just a little more than in the past it's during the school holidays - the long school holidays! You'll be tired and they'll be relentless in their efforts to get what they want. It's a very strong parent who is able to maintain their resolve throughout this time - most give in, at least a little! Remember, look for opportunities over the summer break to say 'yes' - identify activities or events that you may now feel a little more comfortable with, particularly things that they may have previously requested that you said 'no' to in the past, e.g., going to the movies with friends by themselves, catching a train to the beach, etc. Make sure you still have your rules and boundaries around these and maintain your standards but 'allowing' them to do new, more adult things will help keep your relationship just a little more healthy when you have to say 'no' to the big ones which are bound to raise their ugly head!

Most importantly, remember that once you have let your guard down and allowed them to do something, it is extremely hard to go back. At 14 or 15 they may think they're now adults but they have very little, if any, life experience and when put into adult situations and things go wrong they simply have no idea what to do. The vast majority of the deaths I have been involved with in schools over the years have involved this age group - young people who did not have any clue how to respond when things didn't go as planned. Of course you've got to let them grow up and have experiences that are potentially risky, but at 14 and 15 (and even 16 in most cases), these should be controlled as much as possible. If you're going to 'give in' a little over the break (and no-one can blame you - it's a long time to maintain your resolve), choose carefully - you don't want to paint yourself into a corner for the year and years ahead ...

Friday, 8 December 2017

"But that's what happens when you get drunk": Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about 'consent'

This year I have met, or heard from, more young women who have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk than ever before. I have written about this topic many times, often highlighting stories that young women have sent me via email or have bravely chosen to divulge after hearing me speak. Sexual assault is a crime and, as I say to all students, if I am told about a crime I cannot keep it a secret - but to be quite honest, if they're going to approach me and tell me their story, they're usually ready to go the next step. Sadly, however, we know most never report what has happened to them. When I have asked girls why they choose not to say anything, it's always the same story - "But that's what happens when you get drunk, it's just part of the alcohol experience!"

Earlier this year I had a girl approach me and tell me that she had been assaulted when drunk. The school was well aware of what had happened and the crime had been reported, mainly due to the incident being photographed and the images subsequently circulated via social media. She was 15-years-old. I asked how she was feeling and if things were getting better and she told me that she had no memory of the night at all. It was then that I saw this beautiful young woman literally 'melt' in front of me - her face dropped and her whole body started shaking. She started to cry and said that she had only just found out that someone had 'tagged' her name on one of the photos. "My children will be able to see those photos and maybe even my grandchildren - they will never go away ..." she said. Absolutely heartbreaking ...

Many of the sexual assault cases I have been told about recently often also involve the sharing of videos or images of the actual assault via social media. Frighteningly, in most of these cases, it is young women who appear to be more likely to share these ... When I first heard this I found it extremely hard to believe, why in heavens would girls want to do this? But at one school I visited this year it was what the principal told me about the parents response to this issue that really floored me ... When the parents of the girls who had been caught sharing videos of a sexual assault were told what their children had done, instead of being shocked and expressing concern about the young woman who had been assaulted, they apparently defended their daughters' actions, telling the principal "She was a slut, she went to the room with the boys!" and "What did she expect, she's always getting drunk!"

It is extremely difficult to determine rates of sexual assault and most of the data we have are estimates based on police reports, national survey samples and hospital admissions. In the US, it has been estimated that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life and 18% have been raped. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 18% of women and around 5% of men have ever experienced sexual violence. So where does alcohol fit into the picture? Well, as with other violent crimes, around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drunk alcohol. Similarly, half of all sexual assault victims reported drinking alcohol at the time of the assault ... Research shows that alcohol consumption by both the perpetrator and victim tends to co-occur (i.e., it is rarely only the victim drinking). This is not a surprise, as drinking tends to occur in social situations (e.g., parties or bars) but trying to disentangle so-called 'drunken sex' from sexual assault has proven to be difficult and could be another reason why many young women do not come forward and report this crime.

With the #metoo campaign continuing to encourage more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, it is a perfect time for parents to take this opportunity to discuss this issue with their children. Most importantly, our young people need to have a greater understanding of what 'consent' means (and that they can't legally give it until they are a certain age) and the difficulties around negotiating consent when they or their partner has been drinking ... If you haven't already had this discussion and you know (or even think) your child could be drinking on a Saturday night, it's a talk you have to have! I'm sure even thinking that your teen could be having sex must be pretty confronting, let alone having to talk about it with them but sticking your head in the sand about this isn't going to help anyone ...

In recent years there have been an increasing number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of what consent means. An often used definition is as follows: "Consent is informed, and is freely and actively given. Consent is communicated through mutually understood words which indicate willingness by all of the involved parties to engage in sexual activity." One American college campaign uses four distinct headings to describe the term:
  • clear - consent is active - silence is not consent
  • coherent - people impaired by drugs or alcohol or are asleep or unconscious cannot consent
  • consistent - consent is never given under pressure
  • ongoing - consent must be granted every time
On top of all of this, of course, is the legal age of consent. Depending on where you live in Australia, you must be either 16 or 17 years of age (SA and Queensland being the two states where you must be a year older) before you can legally give permission to have sex. Until they reach that age, even though they may agree to have sex with someone, that person can still be charged with sexual assault.

Negotiating consensual sexual activity can be difficult for sober adults in long-term relationships! It's a potential minefield for drunk teens at a party - when you mix 'raging hormones', alcohol and an adolescent brain, it's a recipe for disaster so it's important to arm our teens with as much information as possible ... This is not going to be an easy conversation to have but it boils down to three simple points that all young people need to understand:
  • 'no means no'
  • if  someone is drunk they are unable to give consent, and
  • sex or sexual contact without consent is a crime and needs to be reported 
In recent years, we have seen a real shift in the messages that are disseminated around alcohol-related sexual assault. Where once the message targeted potential victims, i.e., 'Don't get drunk', 'Don't lose control' – we are now far more likely to target the potential perpetrator, shifting the onus away from the person avoiding assault or turning down an advance, to promoting the idea of 'enthusiastic consent'. As one female academic wrote in an article I recently read - "When kids are little, we don't teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to hit." When it comes to sexual assault, we shouldn't have to teach young women how to avoid being assaulted, instead, let's make sure we have a society where it is not acceptable for men to commit that crime ...

With that in mind, in addition to beginning a positive dialogue about consent with their teen, I believe parents should also consider the following to help ensure their child has positive and healthy attitudes and values in this area:
Parents of young men
  • as well as being taught that it is not acceptable to have sex or sexual contact with someone who is too drunk to consent, they also need to be empowered to not sit back and ignore other young men who commit the crime or even joke about such behaviour. That could be their sister, their girlfriend or someone else they care about that is being assaulted or spoken about
  • ensure they have positive male role models, particularly around drinking and attitudes towards women. Research shows that young men who are brought up in homes where traditional gender beliefs are present and hostility towards women is regarded as acceptable are more likely to commit this crime
  • watch what you say – off-the-cuff comments (e.g., "Look what she's wearing?", "What does she expect when she's drunk") reinforce negative attitudes towards women and a victim blaming culture
  • provide advice on how to protect themselves – as already discussed, talk through how consent can be negotiated, but very importantly, alert them to the risks of being alone with a drunk girl and the possibility of them being accused of inappropriate behaviour
Parents of young women
  • it is vital that young women look after and support each other. 'Victim blaming' and so-called 'slut-shaming' is not acceptable and is a form of bullying that is extremely damaging
  • as with the young men, watch what you say – be wary of reinforcing shaming culture
  • make others aware when they say 'the wrong thing'. Don't just let this behaviour slip by unaddressed – make it clear that it's not okay to say those things
  • discuss simple safety strategies for young women when they are socializing, these could include the following: looking after your mates – stick together and don't let friends go off on their own or leave them behind; adapt the 'designated driver' model driver for situations when no-one is driving, simply making sure there is at least one sober person in the group at all times, just in case'; and encourage young women to discuss expectations of friends - i.e., when should a friend step in and help and when is it inappropriate
This is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. We are currently in the midst of a cultural change in regards to what is regarded as acceptable behaviour and what is not - but we have an awfully long way to go yet ... We must make sure that we are raising young men who know that it is unacceptable (and illegal) to have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent and empower them to stand up to those who think that behaviour is okay. At the same time, however, it is vital that we ensure our young women look after and support each other. Victim blaming is one of the most destructive forms of bullying and, in my experience, is rife in our schools. Sadly, this is often supported by parents and the only way we're going to ever really achieve change is if we take a long hard look at our own behaviour and what we say and do ...

Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P., Clinton, M., & McAuslan, P. (2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. Alcohol Research and Health 25, 43-51
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017). 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS): Key findings accessed 11 November, 2017.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

It's important to say 'no' to your teen, but at the same time, always look for opportunities to say 'yes'!

'No' is one of the most important words you can say to your child. It's a tiny word, but for many people, particularly parents, it can prove incredibly difficult to say. There are books dedicated to the word and its importance, written from a business perspective, in regards to relationships and personal development, as well as the role it plays in parenting. Many of us avoid using the word because we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else, or believing that saying it will somehow change how others view us. Research has found that many parents avoid battles with their children, because they feel that if they say 'no' to them, they will stop loving them. Interestingly, little children seem to have no issues with the word, in fact, toddlers (i.e., the 'terrible twos') tend to scream it constantly! It seems, however, that as we grow up many of us learn to become 'people pleasers' and, as a result, 'no' seems to drop out of our vocabulary.

Without a doubt, parents of today who try to tow the line in this area have it particularly tough. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, those who adopt a more permissive parenting style (i.e., less likely to have rules and boundaries and more likely to 'buckle' and say "yes" to their child) put far more pressure on those parents who appear to be more strict. A couple of years ago I told the story of a mother who came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and burst into tears. When I went to console her she smiled and said "I'm not upset and nothing bad has happened, it's just that after hearing you I finally feel okay about saying 'no' to my daughter! It's just such a huge relief!"

She had been facing great pressure from other parents to 'loosen up' (as so many others I meet say they have) and give her daughter a little more space. There was a party coming up and it was to be hosted by the same parents who had put on an earlier event that had got out of hand and she did not want her daughter to attend. She had been convinced by others that to say 'no' and not let her 15-year-old go was tantamount to child abuse and, although it went against everything she felt was right, she was willing to follow the other parents. My talk had really resonated with this woman and she felt empowered to finally follow her heart and tell her daughter that she would not be attending - she just didn't feel comfortable letting her go!

In addition to this growing 'peer pressure', a new parenting style has been receiving growing attention in recent years - 'yes parenting'. This is aimed far more at parents of young children and is described by one of its key spokespeople, Bea Marshall in the following way:

"Yes Parenting finds positive, playful and gentle ways to respond to children, without the habitual use of the word No. By saying Yes to our children's individual needs, preferences, and interests we reduce conflict and increase closeness. Moving away from saying no builds trust and transforms our relationships with our kids."

A number of years ago there was a belief amongst some parenting experts that saying 'no' could somehow 'damage' a child. I remember going to an information session where the speaker presented some very dodgy research that suggested that using the word could somehow stifle a child's creativity! If you're just going to say 'no' to everything and not explain why you're doing the things you do, of course that isn't going to be helpful, but the word 'no' is one of the most important words that a parent can use if it's used appropriately.

Parents need to remember the following rationale behind saying 'no', as well as be absolutely clear about what may happen next and how best to respond ...
  • adolescence is a time when young people work out where they fit in the world. It is also a time where they are more likely to take risks
  • parents need to set limits for teens to push against, as well as to keep them safe as possible
  • 'no' provides limits and sets boundaries
  • you cannot control how your child feels about these limits or how they react to them so don't even bother to try
  • you are only able to control yourself and your behaviour
  • remember that the only reason you have rules is because you love them - make that clear and then walk away

No child likes being told that they can't do or have something they want. This gets worse when they become adolescents as in their minds they are now far more grown up and should be able to take part in adult activity that they observe all around them. Parties or gatherings are where they learn how to socialize and it is no surprise that some teens want to take part in this activity as most adults do, i.e., with alcohol. As I keep saying, I am a strong believer that if your child wants to attend a social event, whether it be a sleepover, party or gathering, if you can find a way to let them go (i.e., apply caveats to try to ensure they are as safe as possible), then you should let them. However, if you have a 14-year-old daughter who wants to attend a party where there will be 18-year-old young men drinking alcohol, that's a 'no'! Most parents who have a problem with saying 'no' talk of their dread as to how their child may react, i.e., screaming, name-calling, throwing things or the like. Others just give up and end up saying 'yes' because of the constant badgering, with their teen following them around begging and pleading or cleverly setting up one parent against another.

As I have already said, just saying 'no' for the sake of it is just as damaging as letting your teen run off and do whatever they want. As Laurence Steinberg says in his book Age of Opportunity, parents should "gradually relinquish control and try to permit - rather than protect - when you can." Every opportunity you get to allow them to extend themselves a little, which you believe to be as safe as possible, and doesn't compromise your values and beliefs, grab it with both hands! Always remember, for every 'no' you say, you're going to lose a few points as far as your teen is concerned, but if you say 'yes' you can be sure you'll earn yourself at least a few extra credits! Now before anyone says that parenting isn't about 'point-scoring', I couldn't agree more, but I haven't met a Mum or Dad who doesn't say that it sure helps ...

It's worth remembering that as far as alcohol and parties are concerned, there are a few certainties when it comes to saying 'no' to your teen - these are as follows: 
  • they're not going to like it
  • you're in for a fight, or at the very least the 'cold shoulder' for a while
  • you will be accused of being the 'worst parent ever'
  • they're going to go behind your back and try to find someone else to say 'yes'
  • no matter what they say, they still love you!

And of course, there are going to be some teens who will just go off and try to do it anyway - that's where parental monitoring comes in! If they break the rules you have set, there must be consequences. But remember to 'pick your battles' - don't fly off the handle at every little mistake your child makes. Of course, if they do something wrong, they need to know you won't tolerate bad behaviour but make sure the 'time suits the crime' ...

Most teens who hear 'no' from their parents won't like it very much. They're likely to respond in an emotional way and, as a result, it won't be very pleasant around the house for a day or two. There are cases, however, where it gets much worse - adolescents running away to a party on a Saturday night and not returning home, physical violence and a range of other unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviour. It is vital that parents understand that if this sort of behaviour occurs they should seek professional help as soon as they possibly can. Don't try to deal with this by yourself.