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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Plus-one parties: What's that all about?

I'd love to know who first came up with the 'plus one' party idea! I can pretty well guarantee that it wasn't a young person - it was much more likely to be some parent trying to be cool deciding to treat their teen's 16th birthday party like it was a wedding or a 21st! Without a doubt it is one of the most ridiculous and potentially dangerous new trends in teen parties and gatherings and the most amazing thing about it is, ask young people about the greatest risk associated with these events and they will almost unanimously state that it is 'plus ones'.

Once again, I know I was a teen a very long time ago, but when I was young (don't you hate saying that, it so makes you sound like your parents?) the largest party I ever went to when I was at school would have had at the most about 20 people attend. Say that to a young person today and they look at you in total disbelief - how could that have ever be seen as a party? The more you talk to teens, you begin to realize that for many of them a successful party has nothing to do with the quality of the event, it's got to do with how many people turn up.

It's important to look at definitions here ... I had a Year 10 girl challenge me recently after a presentation because she felt I hadn't quite grasped what the difference between a 'party' and a 'gathering'. She also had another new term I had never heard of - a 'getz'! After she gave me quite a stern 'talking to' I asked her to put it all into an email and this is what I received last night - it's fascinating!

"A 'gathering' is a small group of people (no more than 20) when there are no outside people that turn up. It hasn't got onto social media and you pretty well know everyone. A 'getz' is an intimate gathering of no more than 10 people. There are absolutely no outsiders and only your very best friends are there. A 'party' can be planned and whole year groups and their 'plus ones' are invited. A 'party' can also be a 'gathering' that has got out of control. It has leaked onto social media or the 'plus ones' have also invited their 'plus ones'. A party can be anywhere from 100 to 500 people, but usually around 200." 

200 people - you've got to be kidding!

Admittedly, you can bet if I showed this email to other teens around the country they would have different ideas of what parties and gatherings (and 'getzes') actually meant but you can see what I mean by the whole 'plus one' problem ... One of the major issues I see for parents is how inviting 'plus ones' can completely change the whole dynamic of a teenage party. Say you are holding a party for your 15 year old daughter and she invites her friends as well as their 'plus ones'. There would be a very good chance that at least one or two of her friends may go out with older boys, some of whom may even by 18 years or older. If these young men turn up, all of a sudden you're not dealing with just teens who are underage, you've got people in your house who are able to drink legally and are highly likely to either bring their own alcohol or expect it be provided. How do you deal with that?

As I said, in my sessions with Year 10 students when I work with them for a full day, we go through a series of activities that get them to highlight the risks associated with teen parties and gatherings and without fail the number one issue they identify is 'unwanted guests' or 'gatecrashers'. When they are then asked to come up with ways to reduce the risk of this happening they always say 'don't allow 'plus ones''! Out of the mouths of babes ...

There are some schools that I go to (I have to admit it is usually the elite schools where parents have the money) where teenage parties have got completely out of control. They have become huge events (whole year groups plus ones) that are almost impossible to control and it is not unusual for an ambulance to be called to take a partygoer to hospital due to alcohol poisoning. I keep saying to parents, keep parties small and then the possibility of problems will be reduced ... The problem is parents are starting 'big' in primary school, inviting the whole year group in Year 1 and then finding it extremely difficult to cut it back in later years. I get that you don't want to leave anyone out, but really not being invited is something they're going to have to get used to eventually - keep primary school parties small (no more than 10) and you'll make your life a whole pile easier in the future!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Grandparents: What role can they play in preventing alcohol and other drug use?

Increasingly I am seeing more grandparents attend my Parent Information Evenings. Some are now their grandchild's primary caregiver and are really struggling to deal with adolescent behaviour, coming to the talk looking for any tips that may assist them to navigate through this difficult time. Many others come with their sons and daughters who now are parents of teens themselves and are there simply to support their own child as well as to find out a little more about this complex issue.

Last week I received the following email from one of those grandparents and I thought I would share it with you ...

I am just writing to thank you for your presentation last night. I am a 70 year old grandmother of three teenagers and attended your session last night with their mother (my daughter). We both learnt so much. Sometimes I am just terrified about the behaviour of adolescents that I read about in the paper and see on the TV news, so it was refreshing to hear that so many of our young people are not engaged in this activity. You talked about the role parents play in influencing their children's behaviour, I was wondering whether there is any information available about what role grandparents can play? There are so many people of my age that I know who are either bringing up their grandchildren or playing a much greater role than I think grandparents did in the past, it would be great to know if there was any research on just what we can do ...

So what positive influence can grandparents have on their grandchildren in terms of alcohol and other drugs (or as one resource I found calls it - what is 'The Power of Grandma and Grandpa'!)?

Firstly, it is important to remember that many older Australians feel completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs. Ecstasy and many of the other newer substances simply weren't around when they were young and so asking them to sit down and have a conversation with a grandchild about this topic may be a really difficult ask for some. So if it's not necessarily direct discussions about 'all things drugs' that makes a difference (although that would be great if Grandad feels confident having those chats!), what is that grandparents can do? Well, it's all about the quality of the unique relationship that can exist between a grandparent and the child ... put simply, having a strong, positive relationship with a child can give them a feeling of 'connectedness' and this in turn builds 'resilience'. Resilience assists them to cope with adverse situations they may encounter as they go through life and helps to ensure that if they come into contact with alcohol or other drugs, they are, at the very least, able to 'bounce back' and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

No-one can deny that children often have a very special relationship with their grandparents. Unlike their parents, they're not around all the time, they don't make the family rules and, despite their age, are often regarded as much more laidback. They can also 'play dumb' on controversial topics really well and, as a result, often get away with asking those direct, embarrassing questions that parents could never ask! It is also important to acknowledge that the role a grandparent may play in a young person's life changes over time, and like parents, adolescence is a time when the relationship can change quite dramatically, with many teens drifting away from Grandma and Grandpa to some extent. But if grandparents can stay connected to their grandchild during the early years of adolescence and continue to have a healthy, positive relationship with them for the next few years (particularly if not all is great between the teen and their parent), the evidence suggests that this can be extremely helpful.

One US resource, 'The Power of Grandparents', has a couple of great suggestions of how to stay connected:

"Try doing what your grandchildren likes doing ... Go to the movies, the mall, go shopping for clothes or take them to a show or museum. Watch TV or do some cooking together - maybe it;s the things that their parents don't have time to do with them."

"Teenagers enjoy trying new things and it's a great way to bond - they're very receptive. And they often open up and talk during these activities -and that's how you'll find out what's going on with them. "I know a 14-year-old who loves to go to her grandparents' house to work in the garden, play cards and watch old movies together .. She loves it - it's a relaxing escape from her hectic life."" 

Another area where grandparents can be extremely useful is in discussion around family history of alcohol or other drug problems. A grandparent can often be viewed as the 'gatekeeper' to family history and if there are issues such as dependence or mental health issues in their background it is vital that children are told that they may be at greater risk of developing such problems. Of course, these conversations need to be handled carefully and conducted at the appropriate time and are usually led by parents, but in their 'gatekeeper' role, grandparents may provide great support to parents in getting this important information across to young people.

Even though parents are generally recognized as the most important and long-lasting influence on children, there can be no doubt that grandparents can also play a critical role due to the special bond many of them have with their grandchildren. The evidence is clear that strong family bonds, clear boundaries and a supportive relationship with at least one adult can reduce the likelihood of a young person getting into trouble with alcohol and other drugs. As The Power of Grandparents says:

"This unique relationship between grandparent and grandchild provides an ideal opportunity for sharing, connecting and discussing many important topics - including the dangers of drugs and alcohol."

For those of you who are interested I have listed a number of Australian organisations and resources that provide support for those amazing grandparents who are acting as the sole carers for their grandchildren. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, information on these sites specifically to do with alcohol and other drugs but they are well worth a look anyway:

Grandparents As Parents (GAP)
Grandparents As Parents Again (GAPA)
Kinship Care (Grandparents As Parents)
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (NSW)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Cannabis in schools: Why are things changing and what can we do about it?

I can count on one hand the number of schools I have visited recently that haven't been having issues with cannabis. These include students coming to school stoned, small groups of young people starting to demonstrate some clear issues with their cannabis use, particularly around mental health, and unfortunately, others bringing it to school and/or selling the drug to others.
Realistically many schools often don't have the resources to deal with cannabis-related issues. Counselling staff are already pushed to breaking point and few have a great deal of experience when it comes to drug-related issues, so when it comes to cannabis-related problems, many don't have the time or the experience to deal with them effectively. Add to that the illegality of the drug, it is not surprising that schools' first (and in some cases, only) response is to suspend or expel the student. Over the past three weeks I have received three emails from students, all of whom were caught with cannabis at school, asking me for my help. Here is one of them (please note I have edited any personal information that was provided):
I attend High School in Year 12. I have been found with 1 ounce of cannabis in my possession at school and look like getting expelled tomorrow.
Can you please give me some assistance in handling this issue. Is it reasonable to be expelled?

As I said to the young man in my email response, one ounce of cannabis is a fair amount and when you have that much in your possession at school, it is fair to assume that you were either selling or giving it other people! Why else would you have it there with you? I never heard back from him so I don't know what happened to him and whether he was expelled or not but this is a story I keep hearing around the country, although those that are being caught are usually much younger (typically around Year 9) ...
Over the past 10 years I have reduced the amount of time I spend on discussing cannabis in my talks to schools. Research indicated that use amongst secondary students had decreased dramatically since the 90s and that was certainly my experience in the classroom. Fewer young people were using, in fact, it was really seen by many as a bit of a 'loser's drug'. The comical 'stoner' persona did not appeal to many teens and the link to mental health issues really seemed to resonate with many young people. Don't get me wrong - it hadn't disappeared completely! It was just that it wasn't as popular as it once was and getting 'stoned' had almost become an anti-social thing to do ... The last ASSAD Survey saw a reversal of that trend, however, with 'past year' cannabis use increasing amongst young people for the first time since 1996. Without doubt, I think we will continue to see that rise in the next survey data.
So why have things changed? When it comes to looking for reasons why this is happening I think you most probably have to say it is because we are now talking about cannabis in a much more positive way, what with discussion about the medical use of the drug, as well as the legalisation debate that is currently happening in many parts of the world. Without fail, the first question I get after my presentation where I discuss cannabis is either "Why is it illegal if it can be used as a medicine in some countries?" or "Why has Washington made it legal if it is so bad for you?" Talking about a drug more positively certainly leads to an increase in use ... no surprises there!
I'm not going to get into the whole 'should it be legalised' or 'should medicinal cannabis be made available in this country' debate, but whatever your stand on it and whatever happens in the future, we've got to work out what we do with young people who get into trouble (whatever that trouble may be) with this drug. I very much doubt whether it will ever be legalised in this country but it looks like increasingly likely that medicinal cannabis will be available (in some form or another) at some point - if that happens, how are we going to deal with the issue as far as school-based young people are concerned?
There are a few simple facts we need to remember about cannabis that really no-one can dispute (although I'm sure there will be someone out there who will!):
  • most people who use cannabis don't experience major problems with the drug
  • those who do have problems, usually have major problems that not only adversely affect them but everyone around them
  • the younger you start using the drug, the greater the risk of a range of problems
  • no matter what legislative changes are made in the future, there is no government that will ever make cannabis legally available to those under 18 years of age, i.e., there will always be a 'black market' for this age group

Most of the pro-cannabis lobby people I know agree with me that school-based young people should not be using the drug and it is important to try and prevent uptake for as long as possible. Most acknowledge that the risks are much greater, particularly around mental health, the younger you start to use cannabis.

I had a Year 11 young man approach me this week after my talk because he had just started using cannabis after he had read on the internet that it would help him with his Asperger's! He was finding that it was making him very depressed and he was losing his motivation and feeling tired all the time. Of course we immediately went to the school counsellor and discussed what was happening but this example illustrates what we're starting to see ...

As a result of the changes to cannabis laws in the US, we are seeing cannabis discussed in a very different way, particularly in the mainstream media. You can't watch an American comedy show today without at least one or two jokes about someone getting access to cannabis and it all being totally hysterical that one of the characters was able to get stoned for 'medical reasons'. Don't get me wrong - I laugh as well -  some of the jokes are really funny! But it means that young people are getting a very different message about cannabis than in the past. Sure watching someone doing something really stupid whilst stoned can be funny (and bongs are hysterical, at least as far as teens are concerned) but there is another side to cannabis for some people and that is not being discussed. Add to that the growing number of celebrities who talk about their personal use of the drug and the benefits they derive from cannabis (thank you Miley Cyrus!), young people are far less likely to be hearing balanced messages that include the potential harms ... Once again, we don't want to go down the 'Reefer Madness' road and use scare tactics to terrify students by saying their brains are going to 'fry' if they have one puff, but there must be a middle ground somewhere.

Schools battle with so many issues and thankfully, cannabis has not been a major one for many of them over the past decade. That certainly appears to be changing. We need to respond and quickly!
  • the education we provide in schools is going to have to change to some degree. Young people believe so little of what we tell them about illicit drugs anyway, now we also have to battle American culture that often makes cannabis look like a big joke with few, if any, negative consequences. Providing balanced and accurate information, including issues around medicinal use and legalisation/decriminalisation, is imperative. Sure, not everyone is going to experience problems with cannabis, but there are negative consequences and they need to be aware of them!
  • schools are also going to need to find a way of dealing with those young people who end up experiencing problems with the drug. Many of these students have existing mental health problems and appear to be attracted to the drug due to its effects. Young people who have issues with drugs and have a mental health problem are difficult to deal with and services are scarce
  • uniform policies across all systems need to be adopted on how to deal with students who bring cannabis to school and these need to be communicated effectively across the whole community. Kids make mistakes and branding them a 'cannabis dealer' at the age of 15 and expelling them can be incredibly damaging but what can you do? I've got to be honest and say I don't know what the answer is, but there has to be one ...

Of course, it's not just the school's problem - let's not forget, when it comes to young people, it's a partnership between the parents and the school. But I'll talk about parents and cannabis in my next blog ...

Friday, 6 June 2014

Pre- and post-formal events: What role, if any, should alcohol play?

You really have to ask yourself sometimes where this whole idea of pre- and post-formal events (often referred to as 'pres' and 'afters') came from. I know when I went to school (and yes, I know that was a long time ago!) these simply didn't exist. In fact, I've really only seen them really take off in a big way in the last ten years - that's not to say they weren't around before then, but really they weren't seen by young people (and some of their parents!) as an essential part of their high school experience until quite recently. They certainly have become the bane of many school principals' lives, with many trying to make it clear that they are not endorsed by the school, in fact, they strongly suggest that these events do not take place at all, if not for legal reasons (i.e., secondary supply of alcohol laws that exist in most jurisdictions), then for the very clear dangers that exist when you put a very excited group of young people together with alcohol.

I have been sent many of the notes that parents (and even organising committees of parents) have put together re: the provision of alcohol at some of these pre- and post-formal events. Some of them are truly frightening, clearly demonstrating that these people have no idea of how much alcohol they are suggesting these young people consume, or the inherent dangers in holding such events.  These notes usually provide some basic information about the proposed evening and have a permission slip attached that parents are required to sign to ensure that their child is able to drink legally, i.e., the parents putting on the event are legally covered. The last one that I was sent stated that the Year 11s and 12s attending the 'after'(some of whom would be just 16 years of age) would be supplied a maximum of 3 UDL cans each! There was no information on exactly how many standard drinks were contained in each of these cans but at the very least we're talking about almost 4 standard drinks, with the possibility of maybe much, much more! How can anyone in their right mind think that this is an appropriate amount of alcohol for young people of that age?

The interesting thing is that I was recently speaking to some girls who attended that particular event and when I asked them about how the night went a number of them said that they had found it 'really difficult' to drink that much! When I said to them that they really didn't need to drink all that was offered, they said there was no way they could have refused as that would have been 'social suicide'! The parents who had organised the night were the parents of the girls who did drink and there was great pressure to accept, without question, what was provided. They also made it clear that the parents who had not given permission for their daughters to drink had doomed their children to ridicule from this powerful group.

Add to this the ridiculous practice of having pre-formal drinks (I've heard of these even being held for Year 10s, i.e., 15 years olds) and we now have a  situation where the school formal has developed into an event that is often sandwiched between two social gatherings where alcohol is available usually provided by parents. And please don't give me that ridiculous argument that it is "only a glass of champagne" at the 'pre' ... no matter how much alcohol you are providing, you are then sending an adolescent off to a school event, supervised by teachers, and asking them to now look after your alcohol-affected child! It's insane and totally irresponsible ... I'm certainly not a supporter of drug testing young people, but I certainly support any school that breathalyses students as they arrive at a school formal. Why should a school be expected to supervise young people who have been drinking any amount of alcohol? There are just too many risks involved ...

Last year I visited a school where parents were putting on the usual range of 'pres', but also a number of post-formal parties, one after another. Buses had been organised to transport these young people from one to the other, each party lasting about four hours - the last one beginning at 6am! You really have to ask yourself what parents are thinking here ... why would anyone think it is appropriate, or even necessary, for Year 11s and 12s to still be partying six hours after the formal had ended?

I totally get that some Year 12s are 18 years old and legally allowed to drink alcohol, but why is it necessary for parents to feel the need to hold events around a school formal that are based around drinking? There are so many other opportunities for these young people to drink - their final year of school is usually the year of the 18th and 'Schoolies' is just around the corner for many of them - couldn't the formal be an event where young people are provided the message that you don't need to drink to have a good time?

Sadly, I don't think things are going to get any better ... even though we are seeing more young people who are choosing not to drink, we continue to see parents who regard drinking as a 'rite of passage' for teens and their influence is mighty powerful. To illustrate just how scary things have got I'll leave you with a story that a mother from Adelaide (what are the parents in that city thinking?) told me earlier this year ...

Jane was a parent of a Year 5 student but her school was K-12 and so when there was a call for volunteers to help out at the Year 12 formal, she thought it would be the right thing to do and also give her some idea of what was to come in the years ahead. She was given a time and a place to meet on the night of the event and when she got there she was extremely impressed with the organisation. She went to the volunteer desk and gave her name and was instructed to go to the 'first aid centre'. Not surprisingly she thought this meant that she would be working in something like a school nurse's area, providing things like Panadols for headaches or a band-aid or two if someone fell over.  

When she got to the medical centre, however, she found at least 6 camp beds and some pretty serious first aid equipment. She had no idea what the beds could have possibly been for and why there were so many of them. When she asked the question she was told that this area was provided to look after drunk teenagers and the reason there were six beds this time was that they hadn't had enough the previous year! This was not the night that Jane had thought she had signed up for, and so she apologised to the organisers and left immediately!

I'm all for harm reduction and making parties safer - but providing pseudo-hospital wards for potential drunk adolescents at a post-formal event is just ridiculous and sends dangerous messages to our young people about our expectations around their alcohol use!

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.