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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.

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.