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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Parents who just can't say "no"

My sister-in-law attended one of my presentations a few years ago and when we met up afterwards her first comment to me was "it's so easy for you to say all that, you don't have children!" That is perfectly true (and to be quite honest sometimes I'm extremely glad I don't!) but I think not having children actually enables me to look at the research that exists in this area and provide what we do know about effective parenting reasonably objectively. Regardless of that, it was after that night that I always make sure I tell audiences at my Parent Information Evenings that I do not have teenagers of my own, just to make it absolutely clear!

One of the more disturbing trends I am seeing across the country is the growing number of parents that just don't want, or know how, to say "no" to their child. Really there are four words that a parent should say to their child as often as possible - the first three are "I love you" and the fourth is "no". A child learns so much from hearing 'no' from their parents, they get a sense of boundaries and 'right and wrong'. They also get a better understanding of your values and where you stand on particular issues. I certainly acknowledge that it's not going to be easy - a child has in-built skills to know how to get what they want, whether it's by acting out, manipulation or straight-out negotiation. It takes a strong parent to stand firm on a decision they have made and around the issue of alcohol and parties it can be an absolute nightmare!

I often use an example of an email I received early last year from a parent to illustrate this trend of 'parents not wanting to be parents'. I went and found it last night and have included it below. I have changed the content slightly to disguise any identifying features but I am sure you'll get the general drift of my concern ....

You visited my daughter's school a few weeks ago and I attended your Parent Evening. Thank you for the information you presented - it certainly caused lots of discussion at home. She is in Year 10 and we are having a few problems at the moment, particularly with regard to parties. I was wondering if you could do me a favour as we have a bit of an issue with a party that is coming up in a couple of weeks. I really don't want my daughter to go and I really don't know how to handle it. If you have the time could you possibly call the principal and get him to contact the parents who are hosting the party and try to have it cancelled? I'm pretty sure there will be alcohol provided at the event and I do not feel comfortable with my daughter going ....

Can you believe this? The mother had two options, she could either simply turn to her 15 year old daughter and say "no", or, as she actually chose to do, contact a complete stranger to ask them to call a school principal and get them to cancel a party put on by other parents! Are you kidding? When I first received this email I honestly thought someone was pulling my leg - I really didn't think that anyone would ever believe that contacting me about a party held on a Saturday night could ever be a viable option but I was wrong. My response to the woman was short and sweet and I didn't hold back!

No child likes being told that they can't do or have something they want. This gets worse when they become adolescents as in their minds they are now far more grown up and should be able to take part in adult activity that they observe all around them. Parties (or 'gatherings') are where they learn how to socialize and it is no surprise that some teens want to take part in this activity as most adults do, i.e., with alcohol. Most parents who have a problem with saying "no" talk of their dread as to how their child may react, i.e., screaming, name-calling, throwing things or the like. Others just give up and end up saying "yes" because of the constant badgering, with their teen following them around begging and pleading or cleverly setting up one parent against another.

The ones that really get to me though are those that put simply just don't want to parent and would rather be their child's best friend. This one I don't get. Why would anyone want to be their adolescent child's best friend? I totally get wanting to have a positive and open relationship - but really, a best friend? Your son or daughter has lots of best friends, they only have one set of parents, be the best ones you can damn well be!

The most important thing a parent needs to keep in mind at all times is what is your long-term goal as far as your son or daughter is concerned? Before you answer a request from your child ask yourself, “How do I want my child to be as they grow older? What do I want them to learn here?” Think about this before you respond and it will always make the aftermath a little easier to cope with.

An adolescent needs limits to push against so that they can work out where they fit in the world. Your job as a parent is to set these limits. "No" provides limits and sets boundaries. You cannot control how your child feels about these limits or how they react to them so don't even bother to try. You are only able to control yourself and your behaviour. Remember that the only reason you have rules is because you love them - make that clear and then walk away. Trying to reason with an adolescent who is not getting their own way is not going to work. Their brain responds to everything emotionally, it will be extremely difficult to discuss your reasons for doing anything logically and practically so don't bother. Walk away, give yourself a bit of breathing space and do something nice for yourself or call a friend who has similar values to you and air your frustrations there. No matter how you cope, make sure you stick to your guns and don't turn around five minutes later and 'cave-in' - do that one time and your teen will never forget and future parenting, particularly in this area, will become so much more difficult.

One thing that most adolescents are brilliant at is the art of manipulation. A few weeks ago I met a mother who was being manipulated by her 15 year old daughter to such an extent that it was almost abuse ...

The mother wanted my advice regarding her daughter, parties and the provision of alcohol. Her daughter had told her that all her friends drank alcohol, their parents provided this without question and that all of the parties she attended alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided. She also told her mother that she believed that they had a great relationship - she could tell her everything and she did, nothing was kept hidden, unlike other girls and their mothers she knew. Unfortunately for the girl, her mother did not feel comfortable about giving her alcohol to take to these parties and this was causing heated discussion at home. The daughter then informed the mother that if alcohol was not provided then she would have to resort to finding it elsewhere and going behind her back. This, she threatened, would mean the end of their open relationship.

When questioned the mother had not spoken to any of her daughter's friends' parents. She had not called one parent who had hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15 year old had successfully 'siloed' her mother, ensuring that she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on - she was feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened (there is no other word for it) her mother and told her that their 'wonderful' relationship would be jeopardised if she didn't get want she wanted. As I said to the mother at the time, this is not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it gets completely out of control.

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

The first port of call could be the school counsellor or your GP. If you have the money an adolescent psychologist could be helpful. Be aware that in the first instance it is most probably you and your partner who will need to meet with the health professional to talk through the issue and for you to build up some skills on how to talk with your teen more effectively. Targeting the teen before you are fully prepared is not necessarily the best way to go. It's certainly not going to be easy, but making that call and asking for professional help is certainly the first step.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Lining your stomach before drinking alcohol: Does it work?

As part of my school presentations I provide students with a couple of simple tips that they should always consider should they ever choose to drink alcohol in the future. The first is to ensure that you have a glass of water as your first drink and the second is to eat a fistful of food around an hour or so before you start drinking. These tips do not totally protect young people from the effects of alcohol but they certainly help them to prepare their bodies for the drinking experience ahead! What always surprises me is that when I do a follow-up session with the students the next year and ask them what they remember, they often have problems with the water message (usually quoting the 'have a glass of water in between drinks' message, which is correct, but much more difficult to actually do in practice), however, the 'fistful of food' is never forgotten. There's something about the visual of a clenched fist that the young people really relate to and usually take on board.

So why a 'fistful of food'?  When you're communicating with young people (or anyone for that matter) I believe it is important to keep the messages simple. For that reason, I tell young people that a fist is the size of your stomach (amazingly, it can expand up to 10 times its normal size to accommodate the food we eat!) and that if you're going to drink alcohol it is important not to overfill it. Eating a fistful of food prior to drinking ensures that there is something in your stomach to ensure that the absorption of alcohol into the body doesn't happen too quickly and possibly cause poisoning, i.e., you feel sick. Now this is an oversimplification of a very complex process and in actual fact, there are other reasons why you should eat a small amount prior to drinking. That said, the message is powerful and simple and hopefully provides young people with a simple strategy to keep them a little safer if they choose to drink alcohol.

So what's the more complex reason for ensuring that you have something in your stomach before drinking?

When you were younger you were most probably told many times to make sure you lined your stomach before you went out drinking. There were many suggestions of what to use – but the most popular has always been a glass of milk. The reason for doing this may vary – some people say that it will prevent a hangover, whilst others just believe that it will make the alcohol experience more pleasant. How true is this?

Firstly, it is important to remember that unlike food, alcohol does not have to be digested before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Alcohol molecules are small and pass quickly and easily into the bloodstream. Some alcohol is immediately absorbed through the wall linings of the stomach and into the bloodstream. The rest moves into the small intestine. All in all alcohol makes its way through the digestive system pretty quickly. However, on its way it can cause problems.

One of the major problems is that alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach. When it becomes irritated the stomach secretes a protective mucus and gastric juices. These juices don’t affect the alcohol that much, but they do dilute its concentration in the stomach and can also delay the stomach emptying as it would usually. This can lead to can stomach aches, nausea or vomiting. If your stomach is empty when you drink, the irritation will most probably be worse. Food, particularly those full of protein such as milk, meat or eggs, appear to protect the stomach lining by slowing down the absorption of alcohol because the stomach has to break it down with gastric juice to start the process of digestion.

So it would appear that eating a small meal (or as I like to say - a 'fistful of food'), or at the very least, a glass of milk, before you drink alcohol, could help prevent things from turning nasty.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Why wouldn't a parent hosting a party want to call an ambulance?

As I've said a number of times before I am extremely fortunate to often receive wonderful emails from young people thanking me for the sessions I provide in schools. Sometimes these include stories about experiences they have had where they have had to use the information I give in my talks to help their friends and others, particularly in a party setting.

This week I received one such email:

I just wanted to say thank you for all you have taught me and my class mates over the past three years as recently this information has been useful to me. Last weekend one of my good friends was at a party with me and he decided to drink around 3 quarters of a bottle of vodka, eventually around the end of the night I was called over to come and look after him as he had thrown up, we put him in a chair but after a while my friend and I both started to notice that he was foaming at the mouth and he was not responding to our attempts to keep him conscious. We had tried to reach his mother on his phone, however, his phone was locked and we could not get in, I told my friend that if his mother did not show up soon to call the ambulance. We had to call the ambulance eventually and I was very proud of my friend to have the courage to do it as many people, including parents at the party, were saying that he would be fine and that we didn’t need to be so dramatic. I feel that your talks with us gave her and myself the confidence to take this big step. When we were on the phone to 000 we turned my friend (the boy who had been foaming at the mouth) onto his side into the recovery position and waited for the ambulance to arrive. The doctors and nurses eventually told us that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.25 and that he was lucky to have friends like us that were brave enough to call because if he had gone home by himself he would have either, choked on his own vomit, or gotten alcohol poisoning. So I just wanted to thank you for the helpful information that you had provided us with as it was a very scary ordeal.
How wonderful that the young woman had the 'guts and gumption' to make that judgement call and ring for an ambulance ... but really, how appalling is it that "many people, including the parents at the party, were saying that he would be fine and that ... (she) ... didn't need to be so dramatic"? The young man was foaming at the mouth, barely conscious and the parents at the party said to this young woman that she was being dramatic because she wanted to call an ambulance - what were they thinking?
Over the years I have received a number of emails like this, as well as meeting young people in schools and their parents, who have told similar stories. All had the same common thread that someone (whether it be a young person attending, or a parent who was helping supervise, a party) became concerned that someone needed medical help after drinking too much and when ringing an ambulance was suggested the parents who were hosting the event fought them making the call. As I always say to students during my presentations, 'follow your heart, if the situation doesn't feel right, it probably isn't! If you want to call for help, call!' It may sound corny and, yes, sometimes the 'follow your heart' line gets a laugh from some in the audience, but it's a powerful message and one I hope gets through to young people.
So why in heaven would a parent refuse to call an ambulance to a teen who is obviously extremely unwell? Is it just plain stupidity or is it that they're frightened that all of a sudden the party they're hosting will come under scrutiny? Could it be that it's all about 'saving face' and 'what would the neighbours say'? Or is it that their attitude to alcohol and drunkenness has got in the way - i.e., I've seen lots of drunk people, some in a very bad state, and they've all survived the experience? In truth, I think it's most probably a bit of all of these and a whole lot more.
Certainly some parents don't want ambulances called to their home because they have lied to other parents about whether or not alcohol would be provided, available or tolerated. It still amazes me how many parents do this. How anybody would possibly think it would be appropriate to lie to a parent of a teen when specifically asked if alcohol will be tolerated at a party is beyond me - but it happens all the time. Unfortunately it's not always good enough to just make the phone call to the parent hosting the event to find out what will be going on, you really do need to drop your teen off at the party and have a good look around to check it out (if you're not going to actually go in and meet the parents, which would totally mortify your son or daughter, park outside the house and take a minute or two to see what is going on). Your child is certainly not going to like the idea, but for Year 10s and below (at least) it's a necessity!
That all said, I still believe the biggest problem is ignorance. Much of what many of our beliefs around alcohol are based on 'urban myth' and personal experience. Most of us remember looking after drunk friends when we were younger and even though much of what we did was potentially dangerous and most probably didn't help at all, our friends survived. I remember putting the first drunk person I ever looked after under a cold shower when I was 18. I must have seen it on TV or in the movies and even though this couldn't help in a million years, nothing bad happened and my friend eventually sobered up. I really did believe that it had worked at the time! Of course I now know how dangerous that was - he could have fallen over, hit his head, or smashed through the shower screen - and of course, cold water can't sober someone up, it just doesn't make sense! The only reason something bad didn't happen was 'good luck'!
For a parent to think that because people they know survived a bad experience with alcohol that others will too is just plain stupid! We have young people who care about each other and want to do the right thing. When adults try to stop them due to their fear or ignorance it is highly distressing and extremely dangerous.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Alcohol-related violence and young people

This evening I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with two amazingly brave people. Ralph and Kathy Kelly are a couple who have found themselves in a position that no parent should ever have to experience - they lost their 18 year-old son, Thomas, due a senseless act of alcohol-related violence. Thomas Kelly was walking through Sydney's King Cross on a night out with his girlfriend on July 7 2012 when he was king hit in an unprovoked and cowardly attack.

Since that evening, the couple have displayed great strength and dignity and found themselves trying to grapple with why their first born son, known affectionately as TK, was taken from them in such an horrific way. Hearing Kathy describe the night her son was killed was heartbreaking and she did so in such an honest and frank way it was extremely difficult to imagine there wasn't one person in the audience who didn't want to reach out and let her know how much they felt for her. Once she had finished telling her story, her husband Ralph talked about what had happened since their son had died - how the media camped at the door and his eventual escape from the family home for a period of time to avoid the more than 30 media calls he was receiving daily from journalists across the country. He then discussed the establishment of the Thomas Kelly Foundation, set up to help curb the kind of alcohol-fuelled violence that robbed Thomas of his life. For the past year the Kellys have met Federal and State politicians, researchers, doctors and a range of other 'experts' to try to make sure that Thomas' death was not in vain. They are truly inspiring ...

When I was talking to Ralph I told him a story about a boy I met about a month ago that just added to the concerns that he has about what is happening in this country.

James is 15 years old. He is still a boy and very young for his age. He had never been to a 'gathering' before, in fact he was so young, he still called them parties! He had never drunk alcohol (and had no interest in doing so) and was so excited to be able to go to his first night-time event. As far as he was aware there was no alcohol provided at the party but there were some older boys who seemed to be acting a little bit strange and were possibly intoxicated, although he really wasn't too sure. He assured me that there was no warning to the attack that followed and he didn't even know who the young man was who approached him but all of a sudden he was shoved across a room and felt a stinging pain in his cheek. An intoxicated young man had shoved a broken bottle into his cheek and turned it, grinding it into his face. There appeared to be no reason for the violent act and the assailant quickly left the party. James is now left with a horrible scar on his face and great anxiety about attending any social activity, regardless of whether alcohol is present or not.

I have now had countless young men who have approached me to tell me about their experiences with alcohol-related violence at teenage parties. Teenage boys who have been glassed, slashed and bladed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and a drunken lout wanted to lash out at anyone who just happened to be in the vicinity. Anyone who believes that this won't happen to their son (or daughter) when they go to a teenage party where alcohol is tolerated has their head firmly implanted in the sand!

So how do we make a change in this area?

Sadly, we have weak goverments who have made it very clear that they are not going to challenge the alcohol or the hotel industries in this area. The NSW Government, in particular, should be totally ashamed of itself in the way they have buckled to industry pressure and not implemented some simple strategies to keep our cities (and our children) safer. When we continue to have alcohol that is cheaper than bottled water (thank you Woolworths and Coles) and 24 hour day availability of a product that we know contributes to great harm it is not surprising that tragedies continue to occur. It is obvious that the Kellys have now realized that change is not going to be led by government and our politicians (the lobby groups are just too powerful), it is going to have to come from the community itself.

Please take a minute to look at the Thomas Kelly Foundation website. They are asking for donations and hope that they can make a real difference with the money they raise. I have always said that Thomas would become the 'face' of alcohol-related violence in this country - let's hope that his tragic death will lead to some social change in this area and provide at least a little comfort to this incredibly brave family.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Have you discussed calling 000 with your child?

Ensuring that young people feel comfortable calling for an ambulance should something go wrong when they are partying has always been a crucial part of any presentation I deliver at schools. Unfortunately, this message has never been more important due to a recent number of what are believed to be NBOMe-related deaths. Four young men across three states have died after taking what they believed was LSD. In addition to the deaths, significant numbers of young people have been admitted to emergency departments across the country after using LSD, as well as police reports of parties or gatherings that they have had to attend where adolescents have exhibited bizarre behaviour believed to be linked to the use of NBOMe products.

Calling an ambulance can be confronting for anyone, but when it is a young person calling for a friend who has possibly taken an illegal drug it can be a terrifying experience. It never ceases to amaze me that any teen can make that call. The tragedy is that some don't and as a result things go terribly wrong. 

I've made quite a big deal about the fact that for the first time in my 20 years of giving presentations in schools, I am now giving an explicit drug warning about NBOMe products that could be being sold as LSD. Part of that message is ensuring that young people understand that if they do call for an ambulance, that does not necessarily mean that the police will be involved and they need to call for help as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately I have had to add a caveat to my message due to a number of emails I received from parents last year around calling 000. Each of them were concerned that I had told their teens to call an ambulance (i.e., 000) and not them first should something go wrong - they made it extremely clear that they did not want their child to receive that message. The reasons for this concern were varied. One of them believed that her child was not mature enough to cope with calling 000 and the "experience would be too traumatic", another felt that his son did not have the ability to judge whether an ambulance needed to be called and he would need to discuss with him "whether or not the call was warranted"!

As a result I now have to say to young people that they should go home and discuss with their parents  what process they would like them to follow. Realistically you would have to wonder what a parent could actually do once their child does call them. It's not as if a parent can deal with the emergency more effectively from where they are and if they plan to travel to where their child is calling from to support them in some way, how much time are they wasting? Calling 000 and then calling their parent straight afterwards is most probably the preferred option but it is important for me to respect parental wishes, so encouraging a parent-child discussion on the issue is the best I can do ...   

If you are planning on having a discussion with your teen about calling an ambulance (or any emergency service for that matter), it would be really useful to run through what actually happens when you make a 000 call,  just in case. As you can see from the incident below, if they don't have a full understanding of what will happen when they make the call, things can go wrong ...

Justine lived in country NSW and was out with her best friend Cathy. Both were 15 years old. They were at a party with a group of older boys and felt completely out of their depth. Most of the people were older and for the first time the girls were drinking straight spirits, not pre-mixed drinks. Cathy became unwell quite early and it became quite obvious that the boys they had arrived with had become completely uninterested in them both. When Cathy lost consciousness and began to vomit without waking up, Justine knew it was a medical emergency and tried to get help. The older girls at the party told Justine that Cathy would be okay and to let her ‘sleep it off’. Knowing the danger, Justine called 000. The operator asked her ‘ Which service do you require?’, the standard first question for the 000 line. Justine, who was already scared and confused, had no idea what the operator meant and when the follow-up question asked whether she wanted ‘police, fire or ambulance’, she completely freaked out and hung-up.

Still all alone, Justine finally got the courage to re-dial 000 and requested an ambulance.

It’s all well and good to tell our children to call 000, but they also need to have additional information to assist them with what happens next, and has already been said, they also need to know that you completely support them in their decision to make this type of call.

When you call 000 the operator will ask you whether you need the police, fire or ambulance services. Depending on whether you use a mobile, fixed line, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service or a payphone to call the Emergency Call Service, you may also be asked to provide details of the state and town you are calling from. The operator will then connect you to the emergency service organisation you have requested.

If you are calling from a land line, your location details will automatically appear on the operator’s screen and will be passed on to the emergency service organisation you request.  However, you may still be asked to confirm your location information to the operator (or the emergency service organisation).

However, we know that most young people will be using a mobile phone. Unfortunately, in these cases the operator will not be able to pinpoint their location. Mobile phone users should provide the operator with as much information about the location of the emergency situation, including the State or Territory and the town or suburb. This simple step will ensure that the emergency call is connected to the appropriate state or territory emergency service organisation.

One important message that we do not emphasize enough to our children is for them to know the address of where they are partying. If something goes wrong, the 000 operator will need a location – if you don’t know the street address this will prove difficult. This is a particular problem in country areas where young people often hold parties in difficult to get to areas and almost non-existent addresses.

It is also important to let your teenagers know that 112 is the international standard emergency number which can only be dialled on mobile phones.  112 can be dialled in many parts of the world with mobile coverage and can be automatically translated to that country's emergency number, although there are some exceptions. There was a time when we heavily promoted 112 as another option for young people should they need emergency services, particularly in country areas, however this is now not encouraged as phone coverage in most areas has improved. 

For those people who are deaf, or who have a hearing or speech impairment there is also a text-based Emergency Call Service number – 106. This service operates using a teletypewriter (TTY) but does not accept voice calls or SMS messages.

If you haven't had a discussion with your child on this topic, I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Every child (not only teens) need to feel completely supported should they find themselves in a situation where they need to call an ambulance, with the slightest hesitation possibly leading to tragic consequences.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

'Risk', 'risky drinking' and young people: What does it all mean?

I was recently contacted by a journalist who is writing an article on alcohol and its related harms. I've been assisting her with the piece for a couple of weeks now and the last email contact was regarding terminology, particularly around the word 'risk' - what does that actually mean?

The messages we provide to the community around alcohol are based on guidelines developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) - "an independent statutory authority that has the job of bringing together the best information available from worldwide medical research to advise Australians about their health choices". New guidelines were developed in 2009 and are about "reducing the risks to your health from drinking alcohol".

The previous alcohol guidelines were written in 2001 and classified particular drinking behaviour as either 'risky' or 'high risk'. It needs to be made clear that the new guidelines do not use these terms for, as the report says, "we now know that risk increases progressively - the more you drink, the greater the risk", but regardless these terms are still used regularly. As far as alcohol is concerned, these terms (as well as another - 'low risk') are usually defined in the following way:

  • Low risk: a minimal risk of harm. At this level there may be health benefits for some of the community
  • Risky: risk of harm is increased beyond any possible benefits
  • High risk: substantial risk of serious harm. Drinking further above this level and the risk continues to increase rapidly

The journalist's question was that if these were the definitions, in real terms what did they mean? What exactly were the 'health benefits' and what sort of harms are we talking about at the 'risky' and the 'high risk' levels? She wanted to know whether there was somewhere she could go to find out this information - did 'risky drinking' mean an actual number of drinks and what problems would you actually experience if you were a 'risky drinker'?

As an educator this terminology proves extremely problematic, particularly when working with young people. I have to be completely honest and say that I have never used the NHMRC guidelines in any of my presentations to young people as I believe they would raise more questions than answers and simply confuse the issues I am trying to raise with the audience. Unless terminology has real meaning and helps in the provision of practical information that is credible to young people we need to avoid using it as much as possible.

The science behind the guidelines is wonderful - the people that have put them together have done a great job but how do we use them in a practical way? The authors were certainly smarter this time and went for providing advice that talked about reducing the risk, instead of talking about risky and high risk, with Guideline 2 stating:

On a single occasion of drinking, the risk of alcohol-related injury increases with the amount consumed.
For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

Most people would have no problems with the first part of this message - the more you drink, the greater the possibility of something going wrong - makes perfect sense. It's when you put numbers down that it starts to lose credibility for many. To say to a man in his 20s who likes to go the pub on the weekend with his friends that more than four drinks is a problem simply doesn't match some people's experience, they don't see any major problems and therefore the message is ignored. I completely understand why the numbers are there - certainly governments would insist on them being included to provide a concrete guide to what drinkers should or shouldn't be doing - but honestly, if they're going to be ignored by many drinkers, what's the point?

The message for those under 18 years of age is quite clear - "not drinking is the safest option". Once again, a clear message but not a particularly helpful one when a sizeable proportion of that group, particularly those aged between 15-17 years, do choose to drink at some time or another. It is also important to remember that the vast majority of those young people who do choose to drink don't experience major problems at the time they are drinking. Most of them drink a couple of drinks to socialise and have a wonderful time with their friends who are also drinking - where is this 'risk' that everyone is talking about? Certainly things can and do go wrong (I see that too many times), but for most they see very little major harm. Once again our credibility is shattered and they don't believe anything we say ...

Of course we must continue with the simple message of 'don't drink' as far as under 18s are concerned, emphasising that any drinking at this time in their lives not a good idea, but we also need to be realistic - some are going to drink alcohol so we also need to provide, in practical terms, where the greater danger is ...

To me, it's all about intent. If a young person is going out to 'get wasted' and write themselves off, that is certainly 'risky drinking'. It's not about a number - for a girl of 14, one drink gulped down before leaving for a party is certainly 'high risk'. I'm certainly not advocating that anyone underage should drink, but if you have a 17 year old young man who drinks three drinks over an evening at a gathering, there is definitely a different mindset there. Are there risks? Certainly there are, but we need to acknowledge that it's a different type of drinking and entails different potential problems.

As much as the media loves to go on about how bad our kids are when it comes to alcohol, I still maintain that the so-called 'risky drinkers' are a comparatively small group. They're loud, obvious and Today Tonight loves them, but they're not in the majority. It would be wonderful if we were able to sell the message of "not drinking is the safest option" to all of those under 18 years (remembering that we are actually seeing growing numbers of teens who classify themselves as 'non-drinkers') but that's not going to happen anytime soon!

If 'risky drinking' is all about intent (and I truly believe it is), we have to start working out why this small group of young people (and becoming younger) want to get 'wasted' on a regular basis. I'm not talking about the one-off experimentation where you find yourself throwing up after drinking too much. This is weekend after weekend, writing yourself off and damn the consequences! If we are able to find out what drives this behaviour, we may be able to start tailoring messages and interventions that can change their motivation to take part in such dangerous activity, or at the very least, keep them as safe as possible during this period of their lives.

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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.