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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Why do parents make the decisions they do?

As many of you know I was in Europe for the past few weeks and some of you may have seen my Facebook posting re: the UK mother who had spent a ridiculous amount of money on her 11 year old daughter attending a primary school prom. The story attracted a great deal of attention in the UK with many of the comments focusing on what would motivate a parent (who quite clearly was not able to easily afford such a large amount of money - she had to take an extra cleaning job to pay for it!) to do such a thing. The girl was given a £200 dress, provided with three limos (what were they for?), a beautician and a stylist and of course, the obligatory fake-tan!

I'd love to be able to say that this only happens in the UK or the US but I have certainly been to schools where primary school proms are now held each year. It needs to be made clear that these are never organised by the school, it is the parents that are putting these on, with committees being set-up early each year to ensure that the event is perfect (you have to ask yourself perfect for who - the kids or the parents?). Formals are no longer just held at the end of Year 12, parents are putting them on at the end of Year 10 and I went to one school this year that was having a Year 7 formal to celebrate the end of the first year of high school! Why?

When it comes to this UK case, is it as simple as the mother wanting her daughter to have all the things she never had, or is she desperately trying to be regarded as a 'best friend'? I'm more inclined to think that there is some type of pathology happening there but I'm no psychologist! Whatever it is that is going on, it got me to thinking once again, how do parents make the decisions they do, particularly when it comes to alcohol?

Some of my latest blog entries have looked at current practices such as the 'sleepover' and the 'plus one parties' and the problems associated with them, but for the most part it is some of the decisions around the provision of alcohol by parents I hear about that really blows my mind!

A couple of years ago I met a young man who came up to me after my presentation a little concerned about some of the information I had provided about alcohol's effect on the developing brain. He was 16 years old and his parents had been regularly providing him alcohol to take to parties and to drink at family functions since he was 13 and he wanted to ask me what impact I thought it would have on him in the long-term. I'll repeat part of that last sentence, just in case you thought it was a mis-print! Yes, I did say that his parents had been giving him alcohol to take to parties since he was 13 years old!

At 13 he was regularly given 2 cans of beer to take to parties, that rose to 3 when he turned 14 and now that he was the ripe old age of 16 years he was now being given 6 cans by his parents ... as I always say, I don't have children but really, what are they thinking? Six cans of beer is a lot of alcohol for an adult, it's just ridiculous for a 16 year old, no matter how responsible you think they are!

A paper by Gilligan and Kypri (2012) explored the experiences and attitudes of parents of teens around the provision of alcohol and included a number of really interesting quotes from the interviews that were conducted for the study. Some of these included the following:
  • "I would let them drink with a small group of friends ... in a safe environment. I wouldn't want them to be social outcasts from their peer group" (mother of a 15 year old boy and younger girl)
  • "Over the next two years we will be introducing him to alcohol. We don't want him to be suddenly 18 and go on a rampage" (father of a 15 year old boy)
  • "My friend gave her 13 year old a sip ... and my daughter looked at me and asked the question ... I probably would have told her 'no' if she was on her own but I didn't want her to feel left out" (mother of a 13 year old girl)
  • "I don't want my child to miss out on things. We are teaching our children to be individuals but we, as parents have issues with peer pressure" (mother of a 13 year old boy and a 16 year old girl)

The authors found that parents, even those who reported that they were strict and monitored their children, were more likely to deviate from recommended guidelines around the provision of alcohol (i.e., delay, delay, delay) for a range of reasons. A couple of the more interesting ones were to prevent their children from being socially isolated and a sense of inevitability (i.e, they were powerless to stop them and had no influence so why put up a fight?). I totally get all of that - parenting is not easy, particularly in areas such as alcohol and parties - but if you believe that your son or daughter should not be drinking at 15 or 16, you should try your darndest to prevent it from happening!

Whatever decisions parents make around their children they need to be based on their own personal values as well as good quality information (if available), but most importantly, they have to be able to live with the consequences of those decisions if god forbid something goes wrong. Being pressured into making choices you don't feel comfortable with is a recipe for disaster ... I can tell you from experience, you will never be able to forgive yourself ...

Reference: Gilligan, C. & Kypri, K. (2012). Parent attitudes, family dynamics and adolescent drinking: qualitative study of the Australian parenting guidelines for adolescent alcohol use. BMC Public Health 12: 491.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Can parental monitoring really make a difference?

I was speaking to a school counsellor recently and asked her what was the main issue she dealt with when talking to teens. Her answer was not surprising and very similar to what I hear from young people ... students having issues with their parents - discussions that usually started with - "my parents are trying to control me", "they are constantly interfering and wanting to know what I'm doing and who I'm with" and "my parents want to ruin my life!"

Didn't we all feel like that to some extent? That's just a part of adolescent life. A teen's response to their parent when they do ask the difficult questions, however, can be devastating. I can't even begin to imagine how it must feel for a parent when their child turns around and says "I hate you!" So is it worth it - does putting boundaries around your teen, stopping them from doing things and making sure you know where they are and who they're with really make a difference?

One of parents' greatest fears is that their child may start experimenting with illegal drugs. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to use drugs.

'Parental monitoring' is one of two main protective factors (the other being 'parental style'), that are supported by research evidence. So what exactly do we mean by 'parental monitoring'?

Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what is going on in their child's life —what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are, we say they are monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:
  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen's behaviour - what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there 'follow-through'?

Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, parental monitoring not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies.  Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent's alcohol and other drug use.

A crucial element of monitoring is 'parental knowledge'. Parental knowledge refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not. Always remember that simply asking a child where they are going and who they will be with may not actually result in accurate information and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. Calling the homes (using the landline) of where your child is meant to be, rather than simply relying on what they're telling you is a great way of getting the real facts!

As children grow older, many parents believe that the level of parental monitoring should be reduced, i.e., they are growing up and they need to be given more freedom. This usually takes place in later adolescence (although we are seeing it happen in younger and younger age groups all the time!) and is usually allowed when prior permission is granted. One study that examined this practice found that teens who reported that their parents allowed them to negotiate in such a way were in fact actually more likely to be sexually active and to use alcohol and cannabis than the adolescents who did not. It also showed that these teens were more likely to engage in sex-related protective behaviours, such as condom use, carrying protection or refusing sex when protection was not available, but 'giving them a little more freedom' certainly didn't prevent the behaviour from occurring. Unfortunately, no information was collected on 'safer' drug use behaviour in this study.

It is important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child's life to match their stage of development, but that doesn't mean they hit 15 or 16 years of age and you throw your hands in the air and say "now it's up to you!" Appropriate levels of monitoring still needs to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information.

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It is a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they are often told that their adolescent children do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their teen's behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence.

They may 'hate' you for a while but knowing where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years ... and I guarantee you that if you do it in the right way, they'll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it!

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.