Friday, 17 November 2017

"You're grounded for life!": Why 'grounding' doesn't usually work and the importance of making sure the 'time fits the crime'!

A few years ago I wrote a blog entry about a young man who approached me after my talk with his first words being "Mr Dillon, I made a big mistake ..." This young man had gone out with friends a few weeks before and had got terribly drunk. He had not intended to get that intoxicated and he claimed that he had never been in such a state before. He was eventually found and taken to the local police station. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"
As I said at the time, if you could have seen this young man's face it would have broken your heart! He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - I haven't gone into any great detail about what he did that night but it didn't sound good and the phone call from the police must have been terrifying for the mother - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime.
One of my key messages is that the 'tough love' (or 'authoritative') style of parenting has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children, i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken!
Unfortunately, grounding continues to be one of the most often-used consequences by parents even though evidence would suggest that it is one of the least effective. One of the main reasons it doesn't work particularly well is that grounding is usually blurted out 'on the run' - something happens, tempers flare and the response is created in anger and not well thought through. If you want consequences to work, they must be able to be enforced. Grounding your child for long (or even short) periods of time is just going to make your life tougher and, in my experience, most parents 'give in' pretty quickly and as a result, lose all their credibility as far as rules and boundaries are concerned. It's also important to acknowledge that when parents respond in this way (i.e., telling them they're grounded), they are usually focused on 'winning' the fight (i.e., making it clear to their child that they are the boss) rather than actually teaching their child to do the right thing. Although it can seem like a perfectly appropriate response at the time (particularly when you are angry or hurt), trying to show your child that you are in control and that you are the 'winner' sets up a power struggle that is not healthy.
Every parent has to make their own decisions around how they choose to discipline their children. Working out what you want to achieve from the 'discipline techniques' you use is important. Do you want to 'punish' your child or do you want them to learn something as a result of the consequences you impose?  In an online article, Sarah Holbome writes how consequences should be used as 'teachable moments' whenever possible ... 
"The word "discipline" comes from the word "disciple", which means, "to teach". Therefore, discipline should not be seen as "punishment", but rather as a teachable moment. Essentially, when you discipline your child you are teaching him or her; you are teaching right from wrong, what is acceptable behaviour, and what is unacceptable behaviour. Punishment treats the person as wrong and focuses on what has happened in the past, but discipline treats the act as wrong and focuses on the future and what can be done differently. The goal is for your child to eventually become self-disciplined (demonstrating acceptable behaviour without needing your help and reminders)."
I recently spoke to a Mum and Dad who are currently struggling with their Year 10 son who has been 'pushing all their buttons'. These were great parents who obviously love their son. He sounds like a great kid but he's been sneaking out of the house without their knowledge on a Saturday night and was recently found almost unconscious in a shopping centre car park after drinking too much. When I asked the mother how she responded to leaving the house without permission, you could hear the frustration in her voice when she said the following:
"Nothing seems to have an effect. The only thing that worked, when we could actually see that it made a difference, was when we took him to the barber and we cut off his long hair!"
Punishment and consequences are very different things and if you want to ensure your teen learns a lesson after doing the 'wrong thing' it is important to ensure that you know the difference. Cutting her son's precious locks off was a punishment and I can almost guarantee that the 'difference' she saw in her son's face as they were being lopped off was in no way related to a positive 'teachable moment'. The mother did it to show she was in control and that she was boss. She was hurt - that is absolutely understandable. He was angry and resentful. The punishment may result in him never sneaking out of the house again, it may not, but if this 'power-based' response is regularly used it has the potential to cause great damage to the parent-child relationship.
So am I suggesting that grounding never be used? Of course not, if used appropriately, grounding can be a very effective consequence. It just needs to be thought-through and planned. 
Consequences need to be fair (they 'fit the crime'), balanced (they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt') and, as already stated, able to be enforced. The key to finding 'appropriate' consequences for breaking rules is ensuring that they are developed at the same time as those rules. Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. When they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise! So the best way to use grounding is to introduce it as a potential consequence when rules around parties and alcohol are discussed. This could be done in the following way:
"You know our rules around alcohol at parties. We trust you to follow them. If we discover, however, that you have broken these rules then you will not be attending the next party you are invited to."
Here's the rule and here is the consequence if you break that rule. They can't say they didn't know what was going to happen! It's fair, balanced and enforceable ...
Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. If you want to do this in the most effective way, trying to ensure they actually 'learn' something from what you choose to impose, rather then simply punish them and potentially build resentment and damage your relationship, consider the following four simple steps:
  • Wait: Never decide and administer consequences in anger. You or your child are likely to say something you will regret and nothing positive will come of it. Wait until things have calmed down and you and your teen have a clear head.
  • Talk and then listen: When the time comes to talk to your child, start by telling them that whatever they do, you will always love them. You may not like their behaviour but nothing they do will change the fact you love them. Then tell them why you are upset or angry and then give them the opportunity to explain their behaviour. It is important to acknowledge that in many cases teens will not provide any justification for what they have done. At other times, they may try to shift the blame onto others or simply not accept that what they did was wrong. Just listen ...
  • Discuss how that behaviour can improve: Once they have had their say, give them the opportunity to come up with ways that things could be done differently in the future. How are they going to change this behaviour so that they don't find themselves in this position again? This may even involve you agreeing to consider renegotiating rules and boundaries in the future if they can prove that they can be trusted and their behaviour improves.
  • Let them know the consequences: It is important to ensure that whatever consequence is used it should be connected to the misbehaviour in some way. If they get an allowance and they have spent money on alcohol, it is entirely appropriate for you to reduce the amount you give them for a period of time. When they don't come home at the agreed time, reduce their curfew by half an hour. If you decide to remove a privilege that they have earned in the past, it is also important that they are aware that this can be earned back if behaviour changes.
The key is to never develop and discuss consequences in anger - that's why grounding is so often ineffective - it's nearly always doled out when tempers are flared. You may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Give your child a consequence that can't realistically be carried out and followed-through by you and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place. They're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time. Most importantly, even though most would not like admitting to it, grounding is used by parents to show their child who is boss. Something's happened, they feel like they're not in control and they lash out with something like "You're grounded for ... a month!" The time period means nothing, it wasn't thought through and it's usually completely ineffective ...

Holbome, S. (2016). Why does "You're grounded!" never seem to work? April 5, Youth Service Bureau, article accessed 16 November, 2017,

Saturday, 11 November 2017

'Old-fashioned parenting': What does that really mean and why is the term now increasingly being used as an insult?

This week a dear friend of mine attended one of my parent sessions. Jo has heard me speak many times over the past 18 years but her reaction to this talk was very different than it had been in the past. She and her husband are currently raising their 15-year-old grandson (having had him since he was a baby) and although they've been through the adolescent years before with their children (many years ago), they're now going through it all again – this time feeling far more pressure than before. When I finished my presentation she turned to others in the audience, took a great big sigh and said "I'm so pleased I came tonight, I am constantly being told that I am being 'old-fashioned' when it comes to my parenting – I now feel like I actually may be doing the right thing!"

We had a bit of a chat about what she thought 'old-fashioned parenting' actually meant and in what context the term was being used. Jo's response reflected what I am hearing across the country from parents who attend my talks. Not surprisingly, teens are likely to use the phrase, particularly when their parents are restricting them in some way (I'm sure we can all remember a time that we threw a line at our parents like "You don't know what it’s like nowadays … "). But when the term is used by adults to criticise or judge someone else's parenting choices, often around alcohol and partying, that's when I find it quite offensive. As some Mums and Dads have said to me recently, try to enforce some boundaries or rules around parties and alcohol and, heaven forbid, roll out some consequences if those rules aren't actually followed and you can find yourself being criticised by all and sundry. "Loosen up a little", "Don’t be an old fuddy-duddy", "We live in a different time now" or even "Do you really want to be the same as your parents?" are just some of the statements people have shared with me that have been thrown at them when they have tried to put their preferred parenting strategies into place …

It is important to make it clear at this point that there is a big difference between the 'family' and 'parenting'. Our understanding of what makes up a family today is very different to what it was even 20 years ago. Where once the 'average family' was portrayed as Mum, Dad, two kids (usually white and middle class) and a dog, all wrapped up nicely in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, it is now accepted (by most but certainly not all) that families can come in many forms. But regardless of whether a child is brought up in what was regarded as the 'traditional family', or a blended family with step-parents and siblings, a single Mum, a single Dad, two Mums or two Dads, or a mixture of all of the above, what we know about parenting and what is most likely to work remains the same ...

Earlier this year I received an email from Rochelle, a mother who had attended one of my Parent Information Evenings that touches on a similar issue (she even used the term ‘old-fashioned’ at one point), this time regarding how she saw her own parenting style. Here is an edited version of her message:

"My parents (and most particularly my father) were very old-fashioned when it came to parenting and there was little love in our home. The rules we lived under were extremely restrictive and my sisters and I weren't allowed to do anything. I would never have been able to go to parties when I was in my teens and I dread to think what would have happened if they had ever caught me drinking. From a positive perspective, I didn't start drinking alcohol until my 19th birthday, unfortunately when I started, I didn't stop and ended up having a significant alcohol problem all the way through my 20s, culminating in a stint in rehab in my early 30s. I always promised myself that I would be different than my parents – I wouldn't wish that 'type of parenting on anyone.  But after coming to your talk and hearing that rules and boundaries being so important I am totally confused ... If I do have rules, how do I make sure that my children don't grow up with the same terrible attitude towards drinking that I developed …"

I think Rochelle's story highlights the conflict that many people face around parenting, particularly if they have strong and painful memories of their own adolescence. In a recent blog I talked about how we have recently seen a move away from more 'adult-centred' parenting, that was more the norm in previous generations, to a style that is more 'child-centred'. So does old-fashioned parenting have to mean that it was 'adult-centred'? I don't think it does and after talking to many parents right across the country, it would appear that so many of our parents actually 'got it right'!

Four types of parenting styles have been identified, each defined along two axes – strictness ('parental control') and warmth ('parental support'):
  • authoritarian (strictness but not warmth)
  • authoritative (strictness and warmth)
  • indulgent (warmth but not strictness)
  • neglectful (neither warmth nor strictness)
Parental control reflects how children's behaviours are managed, e.g., how family rules are developed and enforced, parental knowledge and monitoring of their child's activities, etc. Parental support refers to parental affectionate qualities and is associated with characteristics like warmth, acceptance, and involvement. I've talked a lot recently about indulgent parents and those that come under the neglectful banner are in essence almost abusive, so let's put those to one side for the purposes of this piece. What I'd like to do is take a bit of time to tease out the first two and try to establish the key difference between them because that's where I think some parents of today are getting confused.

Authoritarian parenting is often referred to as 'top-down' parenting. These parents make rules and expect that their children will follow them without exception. Children are not usually given the reasons for the rules and there is little room for any negotiation. Authoritarian parents are far more likely to use punishments instead of consequences. To clarify, consequences are the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads to positive choices. On the other hand, punishments are about causing pain and suffering and usually aren't logical or natural (i.e., they don't 'fit the crime').
Authoritative parents also have rules that children are expected to follow, and the consequences of breaking those rules are made clear, however, all rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love. Rules and boundaries are set because you love them and want to protect them. This is sometimes referred to as 'tough love' parenting. These parents are more likely to tell children the reasons for the rules and involve them in the rule-making process to some extent. Changes to the rules are made over time, usually as a reward for good behaviour and an acknowledgement that they are growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.  Authoritative parents tend to use consequences instead of punishments and use positive consequences to reinforce good behaviours.

What I say in my talks (and what Rochelle would have heard) is that research has shown that the most protective parenting style, particularly in terms of future drinking behaviour, is authoritative parenting, i.e., rules and consequences bound in unconditional love. Unfortunately, as soon as I mention rules and boundaries I think many people (including Rochelle) confuse this style with the more 'top-down' approach, i.e., authoritarian parenting. The most important part of her email is when she says "there was little love in our home". One of the most important keys to good parenting is unconditional love. Put the rules in place, make sure there are fair and age-appropriate consequences but make sure this is all wrapped up in a great big package of love ... Yes, there were lots of 'restrictive' rules in Rochelle's home as she was growing up and she rebelled as soon as she was able to and developed a range of problems as a result. But was it the rules that caused the issues or was it how they were implemented? When there is no warmth or love in a home and no understanding of why rules exist (i.e., because you love them and you want them to be safe), it is no real surprise that problems arise in the future.

No matter how you handle the issue of alcohol and partying, your teen will continue to do things to test and push you to your very limits (that's their job!) and you will need to hold fast and try to maintain your boundaries and adjust them when needed (that's your job!). But remember when they do something terrible and let you down (and almost everyone of them will at some time or another) and you're tempted to explode and say something you may later regret, always remember that it's their behaviour at that time that you don't like but you will always love them - no matter what they do!

Certainly, the adult-centred parenting of the past is not effective, particularly in regards to promoting healthy attitudes around alcohol and partying, with many young people rebelling against it at the time or developing problems in the future as a result of their experience as a teen, as Rochelle's story clearly illustrates. As much as some people would love to categorise anyone who has rules and boundaries in this area and enforces them as 'old-fashioned', often using the term in a derogatory way, I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of parenting if it is (or was) based on love. For many of us who were very clearly told in our teens that alcohol was a 'no-go', that we would be dropped off and picked up from the parties we went to on a Saturday night and that if we broke the rules there would be consequences, we were also told (or shown) that this was all being done because our parents loved us ... If that's old-fashioned parenting, bring it on! We didn't necessarily like the rules and many of us regularly broke them but deep down we knew they were there to keep us safe and if we didn't know it then, we certainly gained a appreciation of it later in life.

When I told Jo that I was going to use her comment as a subject for a blog entry, she told me about a recent discussion she had had with her daughter where she had voiced her concerns about once again taking on the parenting role of a teen so much later in life. In response her daughter had told her mother that she wanted her "to raise him (her son, Jo's grandson) just like you raised us" ... as Jo said, "I couldn't have got it all so terribly wrong, I must have done something right!" I told Jo to wear the term 'old-fashioned parent' as a badge of honour - she and her husband obviously love their grandson very much. They may not get a lot of appreciation for their efforts now but the future will see them hopefully reap the rewards!

Friday, 3 November 2017

'Loving' or 'indulgent'? 'Child-centred' parenting and its implications for a child's future socializing and potential alcohol and other drug use

I've given a lot of talks over the years, to a wide variety of audiences but over the past couple of weeks I've delivered a number of presentations specifically targeting parents of primary school-aged children. I've offered similar talks to schools over the years, but of the handful I've delivered, they've attracted very small audiences. It's always a battle to get parents to attend any presentation around alcohol and other drugs (AOD), but if they do come, it's usually when they believe their child is starting to be exposed to the issue, i.e., they're starting to be invited to parties and gatherings or they have actually discovered that their teen is drinking. I think most parents of primary school-aged children who see an AOD talk advertised believe that this is something they're going to have to worry about in the future and brush it off, saying that they'll attend something like that when it becomes an issue. Of course, prevention is better than cure, so it makes perfect sense to get to parents nice and early and to provide them with some simple strategies that could help either prevent, or at least delay, potential problems in the future. Lay the right foundations when they're young and parenting during adolescence will be so much easier.  Unfortunately, if you 'get it wrong' during the pre-primary and primary years, the implications for the future can be frightening, particularly when it comes to socializing and, of course, that's where alcohol and other drug use comes in ...

I say this in almost every blog entry but it's important to note it one more time ... no-one can tell you how to parent your child, not your sister-in-law, a so-called 'parenting expert' or your best friend. Unfortunately, your child does not come with a rule-book - you and your partner are the only ones that can or should make those decisions! That said, there is a wealth of research that you can use to inform your decisions, so with that in mind, here are some things to consider if you are a parent of a pre-primary or primary school-aged child ...

We know that one of the keys to getting your child safely through adolescence, particularly in relation to alcohol and partying, is 'monitoring' them effectively, i.e., know where they are, know who they're with and know when they'll be home. It's a message we hammer home to parents of teens - keep up the monitoring! Of course, this needs to be age-appropriate and needs to adjust as they get older but keep on doing it ... When it comes to parents of young children, however, we know that the vast majority monitor their sons and daughters extremely well. So if they're getting the monitoring so right, where is it potentially going wrong? There are a number of concerns but essentially it all boils down to a move towards more 'child-centred' or 'indulgent' parenting.

Child-centred parenting arose in response to 'adult-centred' parenting, which was regarded as the norm for previous generations, i.e., where parents set the rules and children were expected to follow them. There was no explanation given as to why the rules existed and this was often regarded as quite 'brutal' or 'top-down' parenting. In contrast, child-centred parenting is organized around the needs of the child, rather than those of the parent. In a 2015 online article, Michael Mascolo identified three reasons why this type of parenting has become so popular with parents in recent years:
  • child-centred parents want to foster children's autonomy, initiative and creativity, believing that "too much parental direction can undercut a child's autonomy", therefore adopting a less directive role
  • parents love their children and want the best for them and want to protect them from bad feelings.  They believe children need to have positive self-esteem – praising them whenever possible, often withholding critical feedback fearing that it might in fact damage a child's self-esteem
  • some see their children as 'little adults' who have rights that are more-or-less the same as adults.  As such, they are hesitant to 'infringe' on their child's right to make their own choices
Mascolo goes onto say - "Research shows that there is a rather large paradox in child-centred parenting.  Parents who emphasize loving care over high expectations tend to have more conflict in their homes than not." As much as this may seem a really positive way of parenting, we know that in many cases (but certainly not in all) it often leads to a range of problems.
When it comes to socializing and alcohol and other drug use, what are the potential issues? Most parents who support this type of parenting believe that allowing children to make their own decisions from an early age ensures that they are better equipped to make healthier choices when they are older. The problem that parents are increasingly facing is that after allowing their children to make their own choices when they are in primary school (that usually do not involve a great deal of risk), they find that their teens also want (and expect) to make their own decisions about going to parties and drinking. Quite quickly these parents find that if they want to keep their son or daughter as safe as possible, they're going to have to have an input about what does and doesn't happen and, of course, this inevitably leads to conflict!
Put simply, if you have a home that revolves around your pre-primary or primary school-aged child and they are having too much of a say in the decision making that takes place, you should prepare yourself for a rocky road ahead, particularly in the teen years. The good news is that if you act now, you can make a difference. Sure, you should love your kids but there's a difference between being 'loving' and being 'indulgent' ... 
So how do you know if you've crossed that line and you now have a 'child-centric' home? If you find yourself answering 'Yes' to 4 or more of these questions, my suggestion is that it's time to 'apply the brakes':
  • Are you constantly negotiating rules with your child?
  • Do you need to 'bribe' them to do tasks?
  • Are their demands being met simply to 'keep the peace'?
  • Are you not following-through with consequences because you do not want to deal with their response?
  • Are you asking the school to 'parent' for you?
  • Do you use their teacher as the reason limits have been set instead of 'owning' the rules yourself?
  • Are you allowing them to do things you do not feel comfortable with because they say 'everybody else does'?
  • Are they never satisfied with what they have and always wants what others have, and then you give it to them?
  • Are you constantly shielding them from potentially difficult situations and emotions?
  • Do they have too much say in what your family does in daily life?
Applying the brakes, particularly as they get older, is not going to be easy but nothing about parenting ever is - but trying to get that balance of love and strictness right in the early years is so important and worth the effort. And to those parents who still believe that child-centred parenting (instead of a more balanced approach of rules, consequences bound in unconditional love) is the way to go and strongly relate to the reasons that Mascolo put forward as to why many gravitate towards that style of parenting, I'll leave you with a quote from his article that highlights the inherent flaws in that argument:

"It is true that children are act out of curiosity, but without parental guidance, children cannot learn to go beyond their comfort zones and learn about things that do not interest them.  It is true that children need loving parents who are sensitive to their emotions, but they also need adults who teach them how to cope with hardship, struggle and failure.  And it is true that children have rights, but these rights do not make them equal to adults."

Mascolo, M. (2015). The Failure of Child-Centred Parenting. May 15, Psychology Today, article accessed 2 November, 2017,

Friday, 20 October 2017

Is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old? Do parents use the 'extra half' to justify behaviour they don't feel comfortable with?

I am considering writing another book at the moment (it's been almost 8 years since the last one was published!) and so have been taking special note of the questions I am being asked by those attending my seminars. As regular readers would know, sometimes a particular question just comes right out and hits me between the eyes, screaming to be written up as a blog entry. Over the last couple of weeks, however, I have been noticing a particular way that questions have been asked by some of the parents after my talks that I find fascinating and I thought was worth discussing ...

Recently a mother came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and asked me the following question:

"My 15⅟₂-year-old daughter is going to parties and I know she is drinking. She knows our rules around this issue and we have never caught her with alcohol but we know it is happening. My husband and I don't like her going behind our backs and we're frightened other things are going to start being done and pushed underground if we don't do something quickly. She's 15⅟₂ and we're wondering whether it's time to relax the rules before she goes ahead and breaks them anyway ..."

That same night a couple asked me how to deal with their 16⅟₂-year-old son who was asking if he could start taking a couple of drinks to take to a party because 'everybody else does'. Last week a similar thing happened, again with two separate queries from parents both beginning their questions by referring to their teen not as 15 but as 15⅟₂! After the second mother asked her question I asked her why she had referred to her daughter as 15⅟₂ and not as a 15-year-old or a Year 10. She was a little taken aback at first and then replied by saying that 'she was almost 16' ... I then said that I didn't mean to be rude but when was her actual birthday? It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that her daughter wasn't even close to 15⅟₂, in fact, she had only recently had her 15th birthday! I then told her why I had asked the question and my recent observations in this area. We then had quite a lengthy talk about why she (and other parents) were using this 'extra half' when they talked about their teens. After the discussion we came to the conclusion that it often appears to be used by parents to justify one or both of the following:
  • changes to their parenting that they didn't necessarily feel comfortable with but felt they had been 'forced' or coerced into doing because of their child's behaviour
  • changes in their teen's behaviour that was beginning to cause concern but they felt powerless to control
I'm not a psychologist but I'm sure there's some other stuff going on there as well but for the purposes of this piece, let's stick to these. What is particularly interesting is that in my dealings with adolescents I can't recall any young person refer to themselves as 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂. I'm sure it's happened (and I am sure many parents reading this will say that their teens throw the extra six months at them all the time, particularly when they want to push set boundaries or rules) but in my experience, it's certainly not the norm. Lots of them may say "I'm almost 16" but adding the 'extra half' appears to be much more a parent thing ...

So is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old (or a 16 and a 16⅟₂-year-old for that matter) and does that six months difference justify sacrificing your values around potentially dangerous teen behaviour?

Of course there can be a chasm of difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old. During adolescence dramatic changes can occur overnight, let alone over a six-month period. This is why it is so important that as far as rules and boundaries are concerned they keep changing and are re-negotiated where appropriate. I believe, a good rule of thumb around parties and gatherings is to reassess the limits that have been set in this area at least once every six months, ensuring that you reward good behaviour. Remember, if you want your household to survive adolescence, rules for teenagers need to be fair and age-appropriate ... That said, there need to be rules! No 15 or 16-year-old is going to like having any restrictions put on them when it comes to their socialising but it is a parent's job to keep their teen safe, so there have to be boundaries put into place to help ensure things don't go wrong ...

Taking a closer look at the questions the parents were asking where they referred to their teens as either 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂, it's clear that none of them felt at all comfortable with what was happening but they all felt totally powerless when it came to trying to stop what was going on. One of the couples had recently found alcohol in their Year 10 daughter's room and she had now admitted to regularly drinking at parties. Her response to them had been that now she had been caught she was going to continue to drink and there was nothing they could do about it. I asked them what they had done about the situation and they looked blankly at me and said 'nothing'! She was 15 (or 15⅟₂ as they said!), of course there are consequences a parent can impose for breaking rules at that age. It's not going to be easy, there could be some shouting and screaming and slamming of doors, but if nothing is done, you lose all your credibility and your teen is then going to walk all over you. More importantly, you'll be leaving them open to risks and dangers they simply don't have the capacity to comprehend or deal with at their age.

All the parents that I have mentioned above were feeling forced in some way to accept behaviour around alcohol from their teens that they did not feel comfortable with (i.e., they were threatened with "I'll go behind your back if you don't let me", "There is nothing you can do about it" and "Everybody else does"). I don't think one of them wanted me to turn around and say "Yes, let them do what they want" - all of them were desperate for someone to tell them to stand resolute and be a parent! Of course, rules need to change over time but when it comes to keeping your teen safe, these need to negotiated carefully and, as a parent, you should never feel forced into making changes you don't feel comfortable with ... If your teen's behaviour starts to become really challenging and you feel as if they are at real risk, get professional help, don't try to justify it by saying "Oh, they're getting older, they're 16⅟₂!" 

The most important thing you can do as a parent when it comes to alcohol, parties and gatherings and the like is stay true to yourself and your values. I have met too many parents over the years who have lost their children due to alcohol or other drug use - the vast majority being terrible accidents that should never have happened. When a parent loses a child after being forced or coerced into doing something they didn't feel comfortable with, however, it is particularly devastating. If you feel like it's time to relax your rules in this area, for whatever reason, go ahead and change them accordingly and own your decision. But never feel forced into making changes that don't feel right for you or your family - for as I always say to young people - 'If it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Parental monitoring: Getting it right for your family - your kids, your decisions!

I was speaking to a teacher recently who had just returned from maternity leave. I have known Cherie for years and it was wonderful to see her so happy (although still a little tired), with motherhood being everything she had expected and so much more ... When I saw her last year she was elbow-deep in baby books, trying to absorb everything she could about how to get the whole 'parenting thing' right and while we were talking I asked her if there was one book or other resource that she had found most useful when it came to what went down in real-life. Cherie's answer didn't really surprise me but it was so succinct and 'real', I asked if I could use it to highlight a key issue I think all parents need to remember regardless of their child's age ...

"My head was practically exploding with all the advice that I was given or read about being a good parent. In the end, my husband and I took it all, tried to absorb what we thought was useful and would work for us and then did the best that we could at the time. I would love to say that we followed all the 'rules' but some of them simply wouldn't have worked for us. We wouldn't have survived!"

Trying to sort through all the different parenting theories and 'what works?' and 'what doesn't?', particularly when it comes to keeping your kids safe is incredibly difficult. Over time, views have changed and we must never forget that what seemed to work well for one child may not necessarily work for another. As I always say, there is no rule book here and you can only do the best you can do at any particular point in time ... Cherie's response was perfect - she and her partner tried to access as much good quality information as possible, identified what they thought would work for them and then applied it to their family the best they could. You can't get much better than that ... In a perfect world where they had access to an endless supply of family support, nannies, time and energy, perhaps they would have done things differently but few parents have those luxuries so they did the best with what they had!

With that in mind, what's the best advice I can come up with in terms of keeping your teen as safe as possible when it comes to alcohol and other drugs?

We certainly know that there are a number of things that parents can do that are supported by research evidence that, at the very least will delay, but may also even prevent early alcohol and other drug use. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to drink to excess and/or use other drugs.

Without doubt, however, 'parental monitoring' is vital. So what exactly do we mean by 'parental monitoring' and how does this work when we don't live in a perfect world? Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what is going on in their child's life —what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are, we say they are monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:
  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen's behaviour - what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there 'follow-through'?
Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, parental monitoring not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies.  Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent's alcohol and other drug use.

It is important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child's life to match their stage of development, but that doesn't mean they hit 15 or 16 years of age and you throw your hands in the air and say "now it's up to you!" Appropriate levels of monitoring still needs to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information. A crucial element of monitoring is 'parental knowledge'. Parental knowledge refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not.

But how you do this with your child is your decision - every parent will monitor their teen in a different way, with most parents ending up monitoring each of their children slightly differently. Simply asking a child where they are going and who they will be with may not actually result in a truthful response and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. But only you can work out how you do this within your family and you have to 'own' whatever decision you make. Don't try to 'blame' others for your parenting decisions. No one should be making you do something you don't want to do as far as parenting is concerned. If you believe you have to 'up' the monitoring of your teen (for whatever reason), then own that and let them know that it's what you want to do - don't blame me, the school or anybody else! Your kids, your decisions! You have to work out what works for you and for your child - no-one else can do that for you ... no 'parenting expert', not your sister-in-law or best friend, not even your own parents - your kids, your decisions!

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It is a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they are often told that their adolescent children do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their teen's behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence. What 'ongoing parenting' means for your family, however, is for you to decide.

As Cherie and her partner discovered, there is so much information out there around effective parenting and what to do and not to do ... If you tried to follow every bit of advice you were given or read about you'd be driven insane - you can only do the best you can do at any point in time! Sadly, regardless of your best efforts, I can almost guarantee that if you do attempt to monitor your teen effectively they're going to 'hate' you, at least for a little while, but doing your best to know where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years ... Sometimes this will work out wonderfully, while at other times you'll feel like a terrible failure - that's parenting for you ... I guarantee, however, that if you do the best you can do in this area, based on good quality information, but at the same time, be true to yourself and your values, they'll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it!