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Saturday, 14 December 2013

5 simple tips around parties and 'gatherings', rule setting and parenting

This week a story broke in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding an incident at a prestigious eastern suburb's school involving a teenage party and some extremely disturbing behaviour. I was quoted in the original article, not about the actual incident but the more general issue of parties and parenting. The media hasn't stopped since with stories running on the topic in the SMH for the last three days, as well as a great deal of radio and TV interest. With the understanding that there is no way you can ensure that absolutely nothing will go wrong, my general line has been that to keep your kids as safe as possible, 'parents need to start parenting' and setting rules and boundaries around alcohol and parties and discussions on the topic need to start early, well before children start to be invited to parties where potentially dangerous behaviour may take place.

The response to my comments has been quite overwhelming ... with most parents who have contacted me saying that they were so glad to see that someone was actually saying that rules were important and saying 'no' to your child was a critical part of good parenting. I have also been asked to provide some simple tips on the issue ... so here I go!

The first time your child is invited to their first teenage party or 'gathering' (don't be fooled - a 'gathering' is a party - it's just this generation decided to change the name!) is going to be scary! Most importantly, remember that parties are extremely important for young people as they provide them with valuable opportunities to develop a range of social skills that they need to relate effectively with their peers. Unfortunately, they are also, by their very nature, places where people are going to let their hair down and things can and do go wrong, particularly when alcohol is added to the mix.

Most importantly, parents need to do their homework - unfortunately, some of the information you will need to make a decision can be extremely difficult to collect! It is imperative that you know what type of event your child is going to attend. Ask your child questions about the party and where it is being held. Get as much as information as you can, and don't just rely on what your child is willing and able to tell you. Even though you may have the most trusting relationship with your child I would suggest that you are not going to get the whole story from them – not that they would necessarily lie to you. It's just that they really wouldn’t know themselves – as a parent you need to go to the source, i.e., the parents holding the gathering.

You are going to have to decide what questions they will want to ask the host parents, depending on the age of the child and your own personal values, but essentially they should cover issues such as start and finish times, supervision details and whether alcohol will be permitted or tolerated. Notice that I said 'permitted' or 'tolerated' and not 'provided' - this unfortunately is a trap that many parents find themselves in when they believe they have done their homework and asked all the right questions and are sending their child to an alcohol-free party, when in actual fact, although the host parents don't necessarily provide alcohol they may allow teens to bring their own (or at the very least turn a blind eye to young people bringing it in).
So here are my 5 simple tips around parties and gatherings, rule setting and parenting - they're certainly not always going to be easy to do, but that's parenting for you:
  • Know where your child is and who they’re with – to make absolutely sure, always take them to where they’re going and pick them up. Don’t leave it up to someone else to do!
  • Always call the parents who are hosting the party or gathering. Speak to them and find out some basic information about supervision and whether alcohol will be provided or tolerated.
  • Create rules around parties and gatherings early, preferably before they start to be invited to these events. 
  • Make the consequences of breaking the rules clear and stick to them, but ensure they understand all rules are made because you love them and want them to be safe.
  • If kids don’t like the rules, then they’re most probably perfect. But remember, reward good behaviour and modify the rules as they get older to make sure they’re age appropriate.
Your biggest fight will be around calling the host parents or dropping and picking them up from the event. Teenagers are not going to like you doing either - in fact, they'll most probably call you a whole pile of names and tell you that you're ruining their life and 'shaming them forever'. It's difficult being a parent of an adolescent but that's part of the whole experience! Unfortunately, I have met parents who gave in and did not make the call or weren't there to pick them up at the end of the night and tragedies occurred - let me tell you, when you meet a Mum or Dad who has lost a child in this way it breaks your heart ...
If you do decide to let your child attend a party or gathering, be aware that there is no way that you can be prepared for all of the possible scenarios that may occur. It is vital however, that you realize that things can go wrong and do your best to outline some possible strategies that could keep your teenager safe in potentially dangerous situations. It is extremely important to discuss these with your child and, most importantly, let them know that no matter what happens they can contact you and you will be there for them, no matter what.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Alcohol and young women: "But I just want my daughter to be popular"

I had just finished my Parent Information Evening at an elite girls' school and was speaking to a few parents afterwards. Time was getting on and the teacher who was looking after me for the night was shepherding those remaining parents out of the hall and when nothing else worked, she turned the lights out ... As I was following them out of the room this teary eyed mother approached me from the corner of the room where she had been waiting until everyone else had left and said, "You're going to think I'm the worst mum in the world ..."

Now parents have started their conversations off with me in many ways, but I've never heard that one before and thoughts instantly went through my head about what this woman could have possibly done that was so bad. Maybe I needed the teacher, or even the school counsellor with me for this one. She went onto say something like this:

"I just want my daughter to be popular. I totally get what you're saying about delaying her alcohol use for as long as possible and I appreciate all the research around brain development that you showed us tonight, but if I try to stop my 15 year old daughter drinking and going to parties, she is going to lose her place in her social group. I wasn't popular at school and certainly wasn't in with the 'in-crowd'. I was on the outer my entire school life and I wouldn't wish that on my daughter for the world. She is in the popular group at the moment and I don't want to take that away from her by limiting her social life. I just don't know what to do ..."

By this time we were sitting outside the school grounds on a bench and she was really upset. She had found herself in a situation that she had no idea how to deal with and felt totally lost and had nowhere to go for answers. As she said to me, she felt she couldn't talk to her friends about it because she knew how she sounded - i.e., being popular was more important than being safe, and from her perspective, there was really so much more to it than that. She believed that school counsellors and the like would see her as a bad mother and there simply wasn't anywhere else for her to go ... The one person she had discussed it with was her own mother and that had been a disaster as she just dismissed her completely and told her to "grow a backbone and be a parent"!

Let me start by saying that I totally get where this mum was coming from - every parent wants the best for their child and that includes being popular (or at the very least not to be unpopular). We all want kids to have a positive friendship group that supports them, a group of peers that is there for them to play with when they are younger and to socialise with as they reach adolescence. No-one (and I mean no-one) wants their child to feel socially excluded and on the outer - children and adolescents can be cruel and we all want to protect our kids from being bullied and tormented by their peers. We all remember the 'popular group' - that group at school that just appeared to have everything going for them - they were usually the best looking, did reasonably well (but not too well) as far as results were concerned, usually played sport and represented the school in at least a couple of things and were at the centre of any social activity that took place on the weekend! Who wouldn't want their son or daughter to be a part of that group? It sure beats being a part of the group that sat on their own, not being invited anywhere and were only spoken to when someone wanted to insult them for how they looked or for the clothes they wore ...

I certainly was never in the 'popular group' - I had a great group of friends in my final two years of high school who were wonderful - but we were hardly in the group that everyone wanted to join! Do I wish I had been more popular? Absolutely! I'm sure it would have made those difficult years so much easier and I hope my nephews and niece (whom I love dearly) are unbelievably popular, well-liked and have great friendship groups that are supportive and positive. But would I condone or tolerate them drinking alcohol at 15 years old to ensure that popularity? Most probably not ....

As my sister-in-law regularly tells me - "you're not a parent, so it's easy for you to say this" - so let me start by saying I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for a parent to deal with this sort of issue, but this is the advice I gave to the mother that evening ...

Firstly, I asked her if she wanted her daughter to drink alcohol at 15 years - did she feel comfortable with it? She replied that she didn't, in fact, quite the reverse. When she had provided her daughter with a couple of drinks to take to a party (something her daughter told her that all her friends' parents did) she was terrified the whole night. I then asked her what she thought about the girls her daughter was hanging out with? Had she met any of their parents and, if so, what did she think of them? This took her quite a time to answer and when she finally did it was obvious that she was not overly impressed with her daughter's friends. She was extremely careful with what she said but it was clear that she thought that they weren't particularly nice girls (to be honest, I don't think they were most probably the 'popular group', they were more likely the group I often refer to as the 'evil princess group' - they certainly think they're popular, but they're usually just feared!). She knew absolutely nothing about their parents as her daughter had made it abundantly clear that she must make no contact with them whatsoever - that would be social suicide!

Now I don't want to sound like I am psychoanalysing anyone here, but this seems to me as though this is more the mother's issue and her trying to deal with the pain she had experienced when she was an adolescent than anything else. She had obviously been bullied by the very same type of group of girls that her daughter was now a part of and now found herself in exactly the same situation again, this time being bullied by her own daughter. When I raised this is a possibility the floodgates opened and she sobbed - I had certainly struck a chord.

As much as popularity is a wonderful thing, it's most probably better to aim for not being unpopular!

During adolescence, peer groups have a growing influence on behaviour and having a group of friends who are supportive, accepting of others and have a positive and caring attitude is incredibly important - whether they're popular or not. Let's make something very clear here - some of the 'popular' students I have had contact with have all of these attributes and so much more - but so to do some of the young people who survive on the fringes of all that is cool! Do we want our kids to have wonderful and thriving social lives? Of course we do, but we also want them to survive this difficult period called adolescence and supplying or tolerating alcohol use at a young age in order to maintain their popularity or social standing within often highly dubious peer groups is just too risky.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Schoolies Festival 2013: My experience at Victor Harbor, South Australia

If you read my Facebook or Twitter posts over the weekend you would have seen that I attended the Schoolies Festival 2013 at Victor Harbor, SA as a VIP Guest and had been invited by Encounter Youth, the organisation that puts on the event in that state. When they first offered me the opportunity there was a part of me that hesitated - was this really a place for a man of my age to attend (apparently we're called 'droolies' - over 25s who attend Schoolies!) and would I be intruding on what really is a young person's event? When I was told that they run a VIP Tour for sponsors and other interested parties prior to the evening starting to show how the weekend festival is organised and rolled out, I knew I had to be a part of it!

Before I go on it is important to let you know who Encounter Youth actually is ... this is how they describe themselves on their website:

"Encounter Youth is a faith based, non-profit charity, who respond to community needs because of the challenges and teachings of Jesus Christ. We serve people from all walks of life, no matter their spiritual, political or ethnic background. We want to see a positive development of social and community welfare! Encounter Youth is committed to the health and well-being of South Australian communities and it's young people."

There are a number of activities that they are involved in, including providing alcohol and other drug education sessions in SA schools, but the Schoolies Festival is by far their largest and most visible activity.
Let's make it clear - I am not a particularly religious person and usually the easiest way to put me off anything is to say that it has some connection to a religious group. That said, I have had regular contact with Encounter Youth for quite a while now and I have been nothing but impressed by their commitment to young people and their passion for making sure adolescents are supported and kept as safe as possible, without ever pushing their own beliefs on anyone. They truly are an amazing group of people who I admire greatly!
For those of you who don't live in SA, Year 12s in that state have been travelling to Victor Harbor for their 'Schoolies' celebrations for many years. Fifteen years ago Encounter Youth became involved in the event. At that time the town was experiencing great problems with visiting schoolies - antisocial behaviour and violence were commonplace and young visitors to this quiet beachside town were wandering the streets with nothing much to do. Since that time Encounter Youth have built up an event that is truly world-class, enabling those attending to have a safe and positive experience, and at the same time, protecting residents of the town from being adversely affected by the influx of young partygoers.
So what was my experience like?
When I arrived in Victor Harbor I was taken to where the VIP Tour would begin. There were a range of adults on the tour - sponsors, Victor Harbor Council members (including the Mayor), some fairly high ranking police officers and others. We were put onto a large bus and taken to a number of different sites. Our first stop was a caravan park (unlike other Schoolies destinations, Victor Harbor does not have a great deal of large hotels and most young visitors stay in camping grounds - when I tell Year 12s in other states that, they almost pass out!) where the owner/manager described his 9 years of working with schoolies and how they operate and work with Encounter Youth to keep the young people as safe as possible.
It was here that we first met Green Team members - a group of Christian volunteers from across SA that are there to help, support and just 'be there' for the thousands of Year 12s attending Schoolies. As it says on their website:
"We’re there early setting up tents and stages... We are in your caravan parks taking care of you... We ride the buses with you... We entertain you while you're waiting in line...  We roam around making sure you’re safe… We call ‘000’ when you need us to… We walk you home or to your car… We prepare all year round, and come from all over the state just so we can hang out with you, and keep you safe while you have a good time. And we do it for free."
Actually these guys pay to be a member of the Green Team! That's right they pay to volunteer to look after schoolies ... they are truly unbelievable! This team of young people is what really makes this Schoolies Festival so unique - I don't know of anywhere else (and I have worked the Gold Coast Schoolies and visited Byron during the same period) where this type of team exists. There are so many of them (all dressed in the brightest green you have ever seen) and they just set 'a tone' - I don't really know how else to say it - you just feel as though you are in a supported environment. As someone said the next morning - someone really should drug-test the Green Team - they truly are the happiest group of people I've ever seen! 
After meeting and talking to some Green Team members - teams are based at most of the caravan parks and hotels where schoolies are staying - we moved to where the Festival actually takes place. We were taken through the whole process - from being told we were on one of the many buses that ferry partygoers from their accommodation to the site from the beginning of the night to the early hours of the morning through to being shown how they monitor how many volunteers they have on site at any time. We were taken through the range of dance tents, recovery and rest areas available and informed about the 'Battle of the Bands' event that they run across the three nights of the Festival.
Over the past 25 years I have worked at a range of dance events and I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with what I saw. My specialty area is 'alcohol and other drug safety' and police liaison and what has always worried me about Schoolies' events is that because you are dealing with such young, and often na├»ve, people the risks are so much greater. Encounter Youth had done a great job!
As far as I am aware I was the only tour member who actually attended the actual Schoolies event later that evening and I am so glad I did! I was with one of the organisers when they received a text message to say that almost 5000 young people had been through the door and it certainly looked like there were that many there - the place was pumping! The kids were going off! Different areas offered different styles of music (to a point) and what made it so special for me was the number of Year 12s from different schools I visit across SA who ran up to me, called out my name and the like, just to tell me that they were being safe and looking after each other ... it was incredible!
It is a dry event and so no alcohol is available (even though the majority of SA Year 12s would actually be 18) and it would be safe to assume that many of attending would have preloaded (drank alcohol beforehand) to some extent. Did I see drunk young people? Absolutely! Was it even close to what I see when I walk down George St in the centre of Sydney on a Saturday night to see a movie? Absolutely not! Did I see young people that I thought were drug-affected? Yes, without a doubt ... but once again, nowhere near the extent to what I would see on a weekend at any nightclub or dance event anywhere across the country ...
There are only three 'formal' Schoolies Week events put on across the country - two of those are fully or partly-funded by governments due to the fact that their Year 12s are a year younger than those in other states (WA and Queensland). SA is the only state where Schoolies is run by a private organisation and Encounter Youth should be commended for their efforts. Very few SA students opt to travel overseas (a potentially dangerous trend that we see in other states, particularly in NSW and Victoria where nothing is provided), instead choosing to travel to a venue in their own state (usually for a weekend instead of a full week) which is controlled and organised by wonderful people who are committed to keep our kids as safe as possible. SA parents should thank their lucky stars that Encounter Youth and their volunteers continue to do what they do ...
When I left Victor Harbor yesterday I told the organisers that I would love to be asked back - perhaps this time as a full-on volunteer - it really was that great an experience!  

Saturday, 9 November 2013

They're just doing what we did: Are young risky drinkers really drinking like their parents did?

One of my favourite lines from a parent usually comes up when they approach me after a Parent Information Evening. They start by thanking me for the talk and then the conversation wanders a bit and you can tell there is something they want to get off their chest ... there was something about what I said that they didn't agree with. You can almost see it bubbling up inside them ... the desperate need to say, "but they're only doing what we did!"

Now I have always made it very clear that I didn't drink alcohol as a teenager, it simply wasn't a part of what my social group at school did. Adding to that was the fact that neither of parents ever really drank and I honestly can't remember ever seeing a bottle or can of any alcohol in our family home at anytime, apart from when they held a party or barbeque at home for their group of friends (and even then I don't think I ever saw any real excessive drinking). It simply wasn't a part of my life! Now I know that this isn't the norm - all the evidence shows that alcohol is clearly a part of most young people's lives, as it was for their parents and even for many of their grandparents to some extent - that said, this belief that today's young people are simply doing what they did needs to be challenged.

Firstly, let's make sure we clear up who I'm going to be talking about in this piece ... Let's not forget that not all young people are the same. Even when it comes to alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not one homogenous group. Basically you can break teenagers into three key categories, firstly we have the abstainers. When you look at the most recent Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) Survey, one third of 17 year olds classify themselves as 'non-drinkers', with just over 40% of 16 year olds reporting that they don't drink. We rarely speak about these young people and their decision; in fact we completely ignore them, making them feel even more alienated than they already feel within their peer group.

The next group comprises the ones who drink responsibly. They don't drink regularly and when they do they usually consume a small amount. This does not mean there are no risks involved in their drinking behaviour, but we do need to acknowledge that these young people are trying to do 'the right thing'.

The final group is the one that I want to talk about - those that drink in a 'risky way' - they're the loudest and the most obvious of the three, and they certainly get the most media attention but the evidence suggests that they are a shrinking group, as you can see in the two graphs below that show the number of 12-15 year old 'current drinkers' (those that drank alcohol in the previous week) from 1984-2011 and the same data for 16-17 year olds.

Even though they are not as large a group as they once were (these graphs show that clearly), other data shows that this risky group appear to be drinking at much riskier levels than in the past, are doing so at a younger age and it is what they are drinking that is so concerning - we now have a generation of spirit drinkers.

When I speak to parents who did drink in their teens, their memory of their first alcohol experience is usually in a park, squatting behind a tree with a few friends knocking back a 'box of wine'! It was experimental, they had no idea what they were doing and were usually pretty terrified through the whole experience. They had to get someone to buy the alcohol, they had to find the money to pay for it (or they stole it from their parents) and, as a result, they usually didn't have very much alcohol - even the cheap stuff was relatively expensive if you had to find the money yourself ...

Most of the young people today are not drinking in parks (although that does happen of course) and they are not having to find the money for alcohol themselves - many of them are drinking at teenage parties and are being provided a couple of bottles by their parents. I truly believe that many parents think they are doing the 'right thing' - their memory of drinking in a park is frightening and they worry that if their teen does the same they will be at great risk. But think about it for five seconds and you realize that a teenage party is just as dangerous, maybe even more so, than a park. At least in a park your senses are heightened - it's not a nice place, you certainly don't want to hand around there for very long and there is always the fear that you could be caught. There is no fear at a teenage gathering and as I often say, almost every adolescent alcohol death I have been involved with over the past 20 years occurred at a party where alcohol was either provided or tolerated ...

There is also the belief that they won't drink as much if they're under 'adult supervision'. The ASSAD Survey blows this out of the water when you look at the risky drinkers. The graph below shows the average number of drinks consumed by current drinkers, many of whom reported that they drank under adult supervision. Almost seven standard drinks (5.7) were consumed on average by 15 year old young men, with 9.5 drinks being reported by 17 year old males.

But it is the spirit consumption that concerns me the most - I have raised this issue many times before so I won't harp on about it again - but I don't care who you are (unless you are a parent in their mid to late 20s and you were the first generation to kick this trend off - shame on you!), you would have been an unusual teen if you were drinking spirits (or even spirit-based drinks) weekly or fortnightly in your mid to late teens. Beer and wine-based drinks were the preferred forms of alcohol in the past (although blackberry nip keeps getting brought up by mothers remembering their past indiscretions!) - spirits were simply too expensive and not something that was even attractive to the average adolescent.

So many of our young people are trying to do the right thing and there are some very encouraging signs in terms of the growing number of 'non drinkers' amongst our teens, as well as smaller numbers at the risky end. That said, it isn't helpful when we have parents who dismiss the underage drinking issue by responding to calls for changes to be made around alcohol laws and the availability and sale of alcohol products by making ridiculous statements like "they're just doing what we did!" It's not the truth when it comes to the 'pointy end' of the market and it's simply not helpful.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Would you ever consider hosting a teenage party? If so, is there anything you can do to keep it as safe as possible?

This week a letter was published in the UK's Guardian newspaper by 16 year old Lizzie Deane. The letter was written in response to the national coverage that a daughter of an owner of a centuries-old British stately home recently received after she issued an open apology for throwing an 18th birthday party for a friend, disturbing nearby residents who claim the music went on all night. Lizze's letter is printed under the title - Teenagers will have rowdy, drunken parties. So why not let them? Take a read - it's an interesting perspective and she certainly raises some valid points (although I challenge some of her 'universal statements' - "Teenagers get drunk" - some do, not all!) particularly around parents having more control when they're actually involved in the process ...

Letting a teenager have a party provides parents with leverage, more control over guests, timings and whatever else: it may be a risk but it's either that or waiting until you are "out" or, even better, "away".

My favourite section of the letter though is her observations around 'parental supervision' at parties - it's priceless!

If parents decide they want to "supervise" – and I have to say, it doesn't happen often – they tend to hide. No, cower. They slope off to the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine. As they quiver with fear, they try to let the soothing sounds of David Attenborough drown out the relentless beat below them. The brave among them may chance a scurry to the loo, but only the downright deranged dare to enter the throng – few escape with their lives, let alone their minds.

I get it - holding a party for teenagers, whether it be at your home or somewhere you have hired for the evening, is a huge responsibility. Most parents I meet would not even consider ever hosting a party for their adolescent child - the media coverage of parties and gatherings getting totally out of control and becoming an alcohol-fuelled orgy of violence and mayhem is enough to put any reasonably sane parent off ever staging such an event - but the reality is, someone has to! Most of us went to parties on Saturday nights and our kids need them as well, if for no other reason they provide valuable opportunities for young people to socialize in a different environment to that of school. If you are considering holding a teenage party remember that it can also be a great opportunity for you to strengthen your relationship with your child, get to know their friends and become more involved in their life.

Over the years I have worked with many promoters to help them run dance events at nightclubs or festivals. Although these people often get a lot of bad publicity, in my experience most of them work extremely hard to try to provide a safe environment for their clientele. They have no choice, they operate under a microscope with the media keen to pounce on them if they don’t do the right thing. They simply would not be allowed to run an event unless they followed some basic rules. This usually involves liquor licensing procedures, a whole range of safety rules involving fire and law enforcement requirements, as well as a whole pile of others including security and medical provision. Many of them do much more than the basic standards asked of them because they want to do the right thing and look after the people attending their events. 

Parents holding a party for teenagers need to think in a similar way. You are providing an environment for a group of young people to get together and have a good time. Things can go wrong. You need to think about all the possible risks and put things into place to make sure that the party is as safe as possible – for the people coming to the party, your neighbours and of course, you and your family. Of course there are no guarantees. No matter what safeguards you put into place there is always the possibility that something could go wrong. However, the greater the planning, the more likely it is that things will run smoothly. Like anything, put a little effort into the organization and it is likely to reap rewards in the long-term.

It is also extremely important to involve your child in the planning of the party. You can bet that they will have a long list of requirements for what makes a successful evening and together you will need to make many decisions about a wide range of issues, including the provision of alcohol. As much as it is important to have your child's input so that the party can be successful, it is also helpful for your child to be aware of all the planning and hard work that needs to be done to ensure that the night runs smoothly. They are then much more likely to appreciate the efforts that have been made by all involved and work co-operatively to resolve challenging issues. As much as your child will benefit from the socializing aspect of attending a party with their friends, they will also learn a great deal by helping in putting an event together.

Some of the decisions that should be made with your child include the following:

What food will be available? Food is incredibly important to have at any party, particularly if alcohol is going to be served. It slows down the amount of alcohol people drink but you need to be very careful about having too much salty food which could make people more thirsty and then likely to drink more. Your child is more likely to know what food is 'socially acceptable' to the current generation of young people and will be of great assistance here.

Will alcohol be allowed (if there are over 18s attending) or 'tolerated' (if not) and who will serve it if it is? This one is definitely going to be the tough one for most families. If you do make the decision to serve alcohol, how are you going to deal with the issue of your underage guests, remembering the legal issues around providing alcohol to minors? If a parent contacts you to ask you about alcohol are you prepared to defend your decision? Does your child understand the risks involved? Is there going to be a 'free-for-all', i.e., are people going to be able to bring their own and then get their own alcohol whenever they want or will there be someone serving alcohol, monitoring how much people are drinking?

If you decide on an alcohol-free party, how will you handle guests who turn up with alcohol? Once again, this will be a difficult one for parents and teenage children to negotiate. Your child will undoubtedly not want to be embarrassed by one of their parents taking alcohol off their friends if they arrive with a bottle. If a decision to make a party alcohol-free is made then a solution to this sort of problem needs to be negotiated carefully beforehand. Simply turning a guest away from the party is not a good option. You do not know whether the young person has been dropped off at your home by their parent and how they're getting home – maybe they are returning in a few hours. Sending them off into the night with a bottle of something is irresponsible and dangerous. Discuss this with your teenager and see if you can come up with some ideas for dealing with this problem together (I have to say that I am constantly amazed at some of the really thoughtful and considered ideas young people come up with around this issue). 

How will you handle gatecrashers? Gatecrashers are now a fact of life at teenage parties, particularly if you are providing alcohol. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and SMS messaging it doesn't take long for the word to get out that there is a party happening and that it is the place to be. Will you be handing out invitations to those people who you want to come or will you have a guest list? Will you be hiring security to manage the party or do you have a couple of burly relatives that can handle a difficult situation? What responsibility will your teenager have in looking after the door, particularly considering that they are more likely to know who was invited and who wasn't? 

What will you do in an emergency? The best planned parties could end up finding themselves trying to handle an emergency of some description. This does not have to be related to alcohol – when a group of people get together, no matter what their age, things can go wrong. Who will be the contact person whose responsibility it will be should something go wrong? Who will make the list of emergency numbers and where will it be kept? Discuss with your teenager the necessity to register your party with the local police and why it is so important. When you do register your party, make sure you do it together so that they can see and understand the process.

How will the guests be getting home and what time will the party be finishing? Unbelievably, this is one aspect of a hosting a teenage party that many parents forget about. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to police but it needs to be discussed with your child so that they understand the huge responsibility you have taken on. There is no way that you are able to know how each and every guest attending the party is getting home but if something happens to any of those young people when they leave your home, particularly if they have been drinking, it would be difficult to live with yourself. Stress the importance of having a strict finishing time for the party and advertise that time widely. This will ensure that as many parents as possible know the time and are aware that after that time their children will be asked to leave your home. Hopefully this will reduce the number of teenagers spilling out onto the street and into the parks and other public spaces in your local area after the party has finished.

Over the years I have had many parents eager to tell me their success stories when it comes to holding teenage parties. Most of these have involved the decision not to serve alcohol to those underage and not to tolerate any alcohol being brought into the event. Once that decision has been made and the young person has understood and accepted it, the night is usually successful and runs without incident (also, those whose only intent is to get as drunk as possible don't want to attend gatherings where they know alcohol rules will be policed).

I can definitely understand some of the arguments that some parents use when they agree to provide or tolerate alcohol at teenage parties, particularly if they are hosting events for those young people who are close to the legal drinking age. However, many of the arguments put forward simply don’t hold up under scrutiny. Possibly one of the most ridiculous is the one where parents say that they are simply providing a 'safe environment' in which their teenager can drink and that if they didn't their child would simply go off and drink somewhere else unsupervised. What absolute garbage!

If you want to provide your child alcohol in your home with a family meal or even at a family get together, that is your choice as a parent. But providing (or even tolerating or 'turning a blind eye' to) alcohol at a teenage party is very different.

There is no handbook on how to be the perfect parent, you can only do the best you can do at the time. The same is true when it comes to holding an incident-free teenage party. There are definitely some guidelines that you can follow, some of which have been already outlined. Without doubt the best thing you can do to reduce risk is to make the event alcohol-free. If you believe that this is not an option for your child and their stage of development, make sure you take every precaution to make the party as safe as possible for all concerned and don't be the parent that Lizzie so beautifully described - cowering "in the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine."

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Rights, privileges and responsibilities: Sorting out which is which around teenagers and parties

Parents want nothing more than to give their child the best life they can - the phrase I hear more than any other is "I want them to have so much more than I ever did." I'm sure that this does not necessarily mean that the parent concerned had a 'bad life' or that their parents didn't try to do the best for them, it's just part of the human condition to simply 'want more'. We live in a material world dominated by social media where it's incredibly important to have the most up-to-date smartphone, the biggest plasma television currently available and whatever other electrical appliance is all the range at that time. Where once these sort of things were something an adolescent earned and were viewed as 'privileges', many young people (and surprisingly some of their parents) now regard them as their 'right' and as a result, in my opinion, we are seeing some pretty concerning shifts in parent-child relationships.

The important thing to remember about 'privileges' is that they come with a range of 'responsibilities' - certain things one has to do to earn what you want and also to keep it. Sometimes these can come in the form of  'rules' but they can just as easily be some basic expectations that are attached to the privilege that an adolescent has been given.

Late last year a US mum, Janell Burley Hofmann, made headlines across the world when she gave her 13 year old son Greg an iPhone for Christmas, along with an 18 point contract that he had to sign before he received it! The contract began as follows:

Dear Greg

Merry Christmas! You are now the proud owner of an iPhone. Hot Damn! You are a good & responsible 13 year old boy and you deserve this gift. But with the acceptance of this present comes rules and regulations. Please read through the following contract. I hope that you understand it is my job to raise you into a well rounded, healthy young man that can function in the world and coexist with technology, not be ruled by it. Failure to comply with the following list will result in termination of your iPhone ownership.

You can find the whole list of rules on Janell's website and there is a great YouTube video featuring both mum and son being interviewed on the topic which is great, if for nothing else just watching Greg's response to how he felt when he received the contract! There is an element of tongue-in-cheek in some of the contract items but essentially what the mother is trying to instil in her son is the whole idea of responsibilities accompanying a privilege, or as she so beautifully puts it - "with the acceptance of this present comes rules and regulations."

More and more I am meeting parents who are starting to buckle under pressure to regard items such as smartphones and computers, as well as attendance at teenage parties on a Saturday night, as their teen's right and, unfortunately, no longer see them as a privilege. When this happens a seismic shift in the parent-child relationship occurs, particularly if it happens early in adolescence. It's no surprise that a teen believes it is their right to have the best smartphone available, but it becomes a major problem when their parent starts believing that this is the case. Of course you want the best for your child, but you also want them to have some basic values and appreciate what they have - if they get given everything and they believe that it is their right to have these things they're going to experience some pretty upsetting times in the future (that is, unless you continue to give everything their little heart desires into the future ... what a terrifying thought!).

Giving them everything they want without question also alters the way your child sees you - you may be the parent who put on the big party where alcohol was tolerated and see yourself as your son's or daughter's best friend, but sooner or later that teen is going to want and need a parent. They will need a person who sets boundaries and rules, who provides direction and support - in the short term, being a best friend who gives them what they want may seem like a great way to go, but in the long term, it is the parent who wins out!

When it comes to attending a party (or gathering) on a Saturday night, my views on the topic are simple - I believe that young people should go to teenage parties - that is where they learn to socialise but they should only go when their parent knows as much about the event as possible. When a 15 year old starts talking about their right to attend they need to be reminded that going to a party is a privilege and there will be certain responsibilities that they will need to accept and follow that accompany their attendance.

I am not for one minute suggesting that all parents start developing contracts around all adolescent behaviour, particularly teenage parties (although I have been involved with some families where this has proven to be extremely useful), but it is extremely important that adolescents appreciate that going out on a Saturday night is a privilege, it is certainly not their right. It is also vital that they understand that it is a privilege that can be taken away from them should certain responsibilities not be met. These responsibilities (rules or expectations, whatever you want to call them) should be decided on by parents and teen together (top-down rules dictated by parents never work - this doesn't mean your child makes the rules but meeting in the middle is often the best way to achieve a positive outcome) and of course, good behaviour should always be rewarded.

Some of our young people are so lucky. Don't get me wrong, their life is so much more complex than ours ever were and there are so many new issues to consider now that were not even on the radar when we were young, but basically so many of them have access to things that we could only have ever dreamt about. Teaching them to appreciate all that they have, whether it be a lot or not so much, is a vital part of parenting. Sorting out privileges, rights and responsibilities with your child is incredibly important.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Should I drink with my child?

A recent Deakin University study found rates of teenage binge drinking were reduced by 25% when parents set rules not to supply or allow adolescent alcohol use. The findings by Professor John Toumbourou and his team come from a larger project called Resilient Families - a two year parent education program run through the early secondary school years. Information was provided on the harmful impact of adolescent alcohol use and parents were encouraged not to supply or allow adolescent alcohol use.

I don't think the results are too surprising but they are extremely useful to those parents who struggle every weekend sticking to the rules they have around teenage drinking. The findings support previous research that rules and consequences around alcohol use are vital and that they do make a difference - strict parental rules prevent youth from drinking more alcohol (note I didn't say from drinking at all!).

Unfortunately for some parents saying 'no' to their adolescent when it comes to alcohol can be very difficult. There are a range of reasons for this but one of the ones I see most often is that parents believe they can't say 'no' because they drink themselves and it would be hypocritical! For some of these parents who do have alcohol at home and drink regularly themselves the answer is simple - drink with your teen and hopefully they will pick up your 'positive' drinking habits!

So is drinking with your child encouraging them, controlling them or teaching them responsible drinking? Some people cite the 'Mediterranean Model' as a good example of how you could introduce alcohol to a child in the home, i.e., with a meal with the family like they do in countries like Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, simply 'transplanting' the Mediterranean Model to Australia does not necessarily work as there are so many other social influences at play. In this country, alcohol is associated with success in so many areas of life, whether it be sport or celebration and that is difficult to challenge simply by providing alcohol with a meal. It is also important to acknowledge that even in countries where this model once appeared to have been successful there are now growing problems, e.g., France now has one of the highest rates of liver disease in the world and are now seeing some significant youth drinking issues. Although family influence is incredibly important, there are so many other external influences that bombard our kids from a very early age, most of which are almost impossible to control, the positive messages you are trying to send can become confused, sometimes resulting in a completely different message being conveyed to the one intended.

Kids learn from you and start modelling your behaviour from a very early age, so whether you drink with them or away from them they will copy how you handle your alcohol. But be aware that drinking with them is likely to send them the message that you condone and support their drinking at an early age. It is also important to keep in mind that research suggests that the more alcohol parents consume, the more frequent are drinking problems in the lives of their children in later life. Like it or not (and let me tell you some parents get very angry when you tell them this), the research is clear that parents who are non-drinkers or light drinkers are less likely to have children with alcohol problems in later life. 

Delaying drinking for as long as possible is still the best message for teenagers as the research is clear that the younger the child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a range of problems, including dependence later in life. Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will have future problems, particularly dependence or addiction. A recent study, for example, found that a person who starts drinking alcohol between the age of 11 and 14, for example, has a 16% chance of becoming alcohol dependent (an 'alcoholic') 10 years later, while the odds are just 1% for someone who starts at 19 or older. It has also been estimated that approximately 40% of adult alcoholics were heavy drinkers during their adolescence.

Too many parents make the mistake of thinking that it's inevitable that their teenager will drink alcohol and that drinking is a 'rite of passage' that they all go through. This is not true – not every teenager drinks. Throwing your hands in the air and declaring that you will drink with them in an effort to encourage responsible drinking sends the wrong message and is unlikely to work. You can play a role in cultural change and keep your child safe and healthy by delaying the introduction to alcohol for as long as possible.

I'm certainly not going to pretend that this will be easy and to be honest, if they're going to want to drink, there's very little you can do to stop them (could your parents stop you?) - but you certainly shouldn't be making it easy for them! Here are some practical tips that may help a little ...

  • Communicate: Clearly explain your concerns about underage drinking and why you don't want them to drink alcohol until they are older. Tell them about the range of risks involved and your concerns about their physical, psychological and social health. They may not agree with your views on the matter but they need to understand why you have created the rules that exist in your house.
  • Provide another option: If you have a culture or tradition of adults and children drinking together then offer non-alcoholic options (fruit juice, water, sparkling water or grape juice), maybe in a special cup or glass to make them feel it's special time being shared.
  • Don't make alcohol the focus: Try not to make every family gathering or celebration focus around alcohol. Make a point of having alcohol-free barbeques to demonstrate to your children that you can enjoy yourself without alcohol.
  • Talk to your kids: Ask them what their view is about your drinking habits. What they like and dislike about how alcohol is consumed in the family. It will help you reflect on your own behaviours and open up the lines of communication for setting ground rules in the future.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

What if I find drugs in my child's room? What should I do?

At least once a month I will get a phone call or receive an email from a distressed mother (for some reason it's never a father - not too sure why!) who has recently discovered what they believe to be drugs in their child's room or in their clothes. This substance (whatever it may actually be) was usually found accidentally but in some instances their child's behaviour has aroused their suspicion and they went searching for evidence ...

Earlier this week I had a very long conversation with a mum who had been concerned about her 16 year old daughter for some time. There was the usual adolescent rebellion and pushing of boundaries but the behavioural changes this mother was seeing were of most concern. She wasn't coming home after a Saturday night out, choosing to 'stay at a friend's home', even though that wasn't agreed to, she was extremely moody when she did finally come home and she was becoming more and more secretive about where she was going and who she was seeing. Realistically, all of these 'signs' are things you would typically see in many adolescents, they're certainly no definite indication of drug use, but they were concerning enough to this mother to go the next step and search her daughter's bedroom.

The search resulted in the discovery of a whole pile of things that clearly indicated that her daughter was not simply at a party or gathering on a Saturday night. She found tickets to dance events, flyers from nightclubs and two small sealable plastic bags, one with a tiny amount of white powder in it and the other containing three pills. She was devastated and had no idea what to do next. Firstly, how was she going to deal with what she found and secondly, how was she was going to justify going through her daughter's bedroom and her personal belongings?

Look, there are no easy answers here and every case will be different. Every parent has their own set of values and beliefs and no matter how hard you try it is going to be difficult to push those to one side and respond to a situation like this in a calm and balanced way. At the same time, every teen is very different, some will be embarrassed because they have been caught, others will be outraged that their privacy has been violated and their response will run the spectrum from withdrawing and shutting off from any discussion to yelling and screaming and storming out of the house.

The advice I gave this mother was sending her and extract from my book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs', which gave a real life case I was involved with a few years ago, very similar to what she was going through. The extract (slightly edited) and my advice is included below:

I always promised myself that I wouldn’t become a mother who spied on her child but as my daughter got older, circumstances changed and I became worried about her behaviour. Jessica is 17 years old had a great circle of friends that both my husband and I got on with wonderfully well.

However, over the last couple of months she seemed to lose touch with many of her old group. She became much more secretive about who she was hanging out with and when we asked her anything about what she was doing and where she was going it usually ended in a fight.

One day when she was at school and I was putting some of her clothes away I went through her things. I hadn’t planned to do it but I was worried and I needed to find out what she was up to. I had no idea what I was looking for but searched anyway.

At the bottom of one of her drawers I found a small plastic bag with two small pills in it. Each of the pink pills had a small crescent moon on them. I had no idea what to do and how to ask her about what I had found.

So if you find drugs in your child's room, what should you do?

Ideally, a parent should never be tempted to search through their child's belongings for drugs. This invasion of privacy in the teenage years can lead to a loss of trust and make it more difficult to maintain a positive relationship and actually assist a child should they ever get into trouble with alcohol or other drugs, or whatever. A good effective relationship needs to be built on open communication and trust. However, as a parent if you find drugs there are a number of things that you can do.

The most important thing you have to do in the first place is to try and find out what it is (don't even think about contacting your local police and asking to get it tested - they certainly don't want to know about it and will usually tell you to destroy whatever it is you found!) and the best chance of ever finding that out is when you sit down and talk to your child about your discovery.
If you have planned the discussion well and don't overreact you may find that they are more willing to be honest and open in that area. There are no rule books when it comes to discussions like this but there are four key elements that may assist in making it more successful:
  • Show your concern – make it clear that you love your child unconditionally and that nothing will stop that. However, if they have been using illegal drugs they have broken the law and there will be consequences as a result.
  • Choose your moment – make sure that you are calm and that your teenager is in the right headspace. Trying to have a conversation like this as soon as they walk through the door after school may not be the best time. You’re also going to get a much better outcome if the discussion does not seem like an ambush.
  • Recognise problems – the most important question you can ask your child is "why are you taking the drug?" If they say it gives them a good feeling or to have fun times with their friends, it is much more encouraging than if they start talking about using it to satisfy a need, to feel better or to solve problems.
  • Don't blame yourself – make sure you don’t go down the road of thinking that you have failed as a parent. This is going to help no-one and will only cause problems between you and your child.
When you first tell your child that you have discovered something in their room, one of the first questions you need to ask is "what is it?" I hope that you get an answer, but over the years I have met many parents who have never been able to find out what it actually was that they found on that day. Often the teenager refuses to acknowledge that the drugs were theirs and plead ignorance and I am sure there have been times where young people have found themselves in situations where they truly have no idea where the drugs came from. In these instances you may never get an answer but there still need to be consequences. If your child had been caught with those drugs on their possession by a police officer ignorance is no defense. The same needs to apply in the home.
Bringing illicit drugs into the family home is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do and your child needs to realize what could have happened if the police had discovered the drugs before you had. One of the most important things that you should do after you have confronted your child with what you have found is to destroy the drugs (flushing them down the toilet is possibly the best option), making it very clear to them that even you keeping them on the property since the discovery has put you at great risk of possible prosecution.
Being caught with illicit drugs by your parent is almost as confronting for the adolescent. You may well have felt disappointment and anger, but they are going to experience a great deal of shame. The fear of disappointing and letting down their parents is very real and although you may think that they don't care what you think of them at this stage of development, we know that they still very much value what you think of them.
If there is a silver lining to this type of incident it's going to be that a dialogue has started. Unfortunately, some parents never start talking to their children about drugs until something like this happens. If a parent gets their response right at this point and don't overreact there is the possibility that some good may come out of it. 

Searching your child's room (or even purchasing products that can detect traces of drugs on your child's possessions - I just simply can't believe that any parent would do that!) are extreme responses to the possibility that your child could be using drugs. Unfortunately, there are some parents who find themselves in situations where they don't feel as though there are any other options. As has already been said, the one thing you don’t want to lose with your child is trust. Of course, if you feel that your adolescent is in danger you may have no other option, but make sure that you have tried all other avenues and that you totally understand the implications of such a strategy.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Raising the drinking age to 21 or even 25 ... Will it ever happen?

Every now and again someone will bring up the issue of raising the legal drinking age and there will be a flurry of media interest. Sometimes it will be a politician (Kevin Rudd spoke about it a number of times while he was PM, usually to distract attention from some other issue - raising the drinking age nearly always pushes other things off the front page!) but it is more likely to be a public health advocate as it was today with Ita Buttrose. It would be interesting to know how and why the issue was raised - from reading the news article this morning it sounds as though it was being used to promote a speech she is giving tomorrow night!

It has been interesting to watch the TV breakfast shows this morning and watch the reaction to her comments, particularly her call "to voluntarily restrict the use of alcohol to meal times". When you actually read the story I'm not exactly sure that is what she said but that doesn't seem to matter ... the response from Mr and Mrs Normal from the suburbs is varied - some horrified by the thought and others keen for governments to make the change. These polarised views are what breakfast television and radio love ... but when it really comes down to it, is a change to the legal drinking age ever going to happen?

My answer is always the same - absolutely not! So if it's never going to happen, why do public health advocates waste their time?

Let's make something perfectly clear here, if we actually looked at the evidence there is no way that we would allow anyone to drink until at least 21, and for young men it would most probably be 25 years of age before we considered drinking alcohol to be low risk. This is due to the increasing evidence we now have around alcohol and the developing brain. The interesting thing is that at a time when we know more about the harms and that we should definitely delay drinking for as long as possible, many parents are actually introducing their children to alcohol at a younger and younger age.

This is why the drinking age argument keeps popping up - it is a great way of keeping the issue in the public consciousness and highlighting the risks associated with adolescent drinking

Why then do I think we'll never see the legal drinking age rise? Well, firstly and most importantly, most people simply don't support the idea (it's interesting that in today's article that quotes Ms Buttrose they discuss an Adelaide Advertiser survey conducted last October that found 37.1% of 2085 respondents wanted the drinking age to be raised to 21, while 46.3% preferred the status quo - that's one of the highest positive responses I have ever seen and I would imagine not necessarily representative). I believe that the reason for this is that many Australians had their first drink before they were 'legal' and most do not believe that drinking at that time caused them great harm. Secondly, we have to remember why the drinking age was lowered to 18 in the first place. Although some Australian jurisdictions already had 18 years as the legal drinking age during the Vietnam War, there were other states that had different laws around alcohol. This meant that some young Australians who died for their country during that war were actually unable to drink alcohol, a fact that many found unacceptable (a situation that the US is now attempting to deal with) and the law was subsequently changed.

Certainly we need to keep talking about the risks associated with adolescent drinking but we also need to be careful that we tread carefully ... Claims of 'wowserism' are getting louder and louder - I believe we have the bulk of the community on our side at the moment, push too hard and we'll lose them!   

Sunday, 6 October 2013

How can you help your teen get out of situations and have them still 'save face'?

This morning I received an email from a mum who just wanted to share that her daughter had called her last night from a party and asked to be picked up. What the mother was so excited about was that this was the first time her rebellious daughter had ever done this, and what was particularly pleasing was that she had used the pre-organized word they had decided on to get her to come and pick her up. I call these 'pre-organized words' 'outs', a word, a name or a phrase that a young person can say (or text) to their parent to help them get out of an uncomfortable situation without their friends knowing and as a result they manage to 'save face'. I've been talking about 'outs' for years and encourage parents to have the 'outs' discussion nice and early (around 12 or 13 at the latest). This mother had contacted me earlier this year and at the time wanted some practical advice around how to deal with her troublesome teen - this was one of tips I suggested and according to her email today, she didn't think there was much chance that it would ever be used. Last night she was proven wrong! 

At one time or another we all need assistance dealing with social pressure. Even as adults we occasionally ask people to help us in this area. Have you ever had a friend call you on your mobile to help you out of a social situation that you didn’t know how to get of? Some parents actually use their children as excuses to get out of doing things. Have you ever heard yourself say any of these?

  • "I’d love to but I've got to pick up the kids."
  • "That sounds great but we've got the kids' sport on Saturday morning."
  • "Jane's got music practice on Thursday evening, otherwise I would have loved to."

Rather than simply turning around and saying that we would rather not do something, we often use excuses, developed over time, to use as an 'out'. Teenagers sometimes need these 'outs' as well, particularly when attempting to deal with social pressure.

The adolescent years are all about learning where you fit in the world and young people quickly work out what will get you accepted within a peer group and what will find you out on your ear. Going to parties and drinking alcohol is simply a part of what some teenagers do every weekend and those young people who decide that it is not for them often have to suffer the consequences.

Travelling around the country over the years I have met many young people who have developed strategies to deal with this. Some of these strategies have been extremely sophisticated and show a wisdom way beyond their years. For the most part, however, the majority of the strategies that adolescents develop to help them in this area are fairly simple and straightforward, but nevertheless, are still extremely successful.

Here are just a selection of some of the 'outs' that I have collected from teenagers over the years. Not all of them are great but they cover a range of different ways of saying 'no', including excuses (often using information they have picked up in drug education lessons at school) and delaying or putting off the situation.

  • "I am allergic to alcohol."
  • "The medication I’m on at the moment doesn’t mix well with alcohol."
  • "I'd love to smoke but I have an uncle with a mental health problem." (a very popular one for getting out of smoking cannabis.)
  • "I got really drunk last week and I’m trying to have a few weeks off."
  • "Dad found out I was drinking last weekend and I'll be grounded if I get caught again."
  • "We've got a big game next week and I'm trying to be prepared as possible."
  • "Mum's picking me up this evening and she always checks my breath when I get in the car."

It is important to remember that not all teenagers need an out. Some young people are simply strong and confident enough to simply 'say no', if that is indeed what they want to do. We can provide young people skills in how to 'say no' but for many this can be extremely difficult to put into practice, particularly in regards to alcohol use, and it is important that they have some other sort of strategy in place to assist them when they find themselves in difficult situations.
Of course, many other young people need help in this area. Even though school-based drug education provides young people the opportunity to discuss and develop such skills and strategies, a parent who has a good relationship with his or child may be able to do it far more effectively. Realistically, how can a student discuss 'outs' in the classroom without letting everyone else what their strategy is going to be? It just doesn't work, this is something that has to be done in the home.
You may have noticed that out of the ten statements listed above, five of them involve a relative of some sort. It would appear that many young people are using their parents as an out in some instances, so it makes great sense to sit down and ask them if you can help them with this in some way. Not all teenagers are going to respond positively to this conversation, although many parents are surprised when they offer assistance in this area at the reaction they do receive.
The best way to do this is to find the right time to approach your child. Unfortunately, so many parents make the decision to talk about alcohol or other drug issues at a crisis time (i.e., when something goes wrong) and you couldn't really pick a worse time if you tried. Conversations in the car can be very positive (they can't get away and they don’t have to look at you!) but wherever the discussion takes place, find a time where it is just you and your teenager and there is no likelihood of an interruption.
Ask your child if they have ever been in a situation with their friends which they found difficult or uncomfortable. Offer them an example from your life, making it clear that adults experience this problem as well as teenagers. Talk about peer and social pressure and maybe discuss some of the things that you do to help you through difficult situations. Offer them your help in coming up with practical strategies to assist them in these situations. If now is not the 'right time', let them know that they can come to you at any time and you will try and help them. Working together to come up with an out strategy has worked for many parents and their teenage children.
In my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs I told the story of Anita, a mother of a Year 12 girl named Halle. After one of my presentations she approached me to discuss a strategy that the two of them had devised to help the young woman when she found herself in a situation in which she felt uncomfortable.
The two had a code word that they had developed when Halle was fifteen. This word was to be used by the teenager in either a text message, a phone call or a conversation whenever she wanted to be taken out of a situation. For example, if Halle was at a party and she wanted to come home but didn’t feel confident enough to tell her friends she wanted to leave of her own accord, she would simply text her mother a message which contained the code word. Anita would wait a few minutes and then call her daughter to say there was an emergency and that she would need to pick her up straight away. Anita took the fall and was made out to be the ‘bad guy’ and Halle retained her place in her social group.
The year after my book was published I met Halle at a university presentation. She introduced herself and told me that her mother had bought my book and identified herself and her daughter in the story. The reason she approached me after my talk was to let me know that she was still using the code word with her mother years later at university!
This sort of strategy works extremely well in families with great communication and trust. It has to be used sparingly though, young people are not stupid and if Halle had overused the code word, it wouldn’t have been long before her friends realized what was going on. The mother and daughter obviously had  a wonderful relationship and working together to develop a strategy like this could only have contributed to strengthen that bond. 

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.