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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.