Saturday, 26 April 2014

"But they're hardly in the majority": Why do we always focus on the negative?

As I said in my last post, I am currently cleaning out over 20 years of resources, media clippings and the like ... I thought that I would share another with you. This one comes from the Daily Telegraph in April 2008 and still goes down as one of the best things I have ever read on the subject of young people - hard to believe that I would ever say that about the 'Tele' but you've got to give credit where credit is due!
The background to this piece was that Corey Worthington (the Victorian young man who had thrown a party that had gotten completely out of control when an invitation was posted on social media) had been making headlines across the country for all the wrong reasons with his party antics and his sullen attitude. He had been thrust in front of TV cameras and not surprisingly had said all of the 'wrong things', confirming what many adult Australians believed - that our young people were out of control and were worse than they'd ever been before. His interview on A Current Affair with Leila McKinnon caused a sensation and went viral when he refused to take responsibility for his actions, as well as ignoring her request to remove his now famous sunglasses while she was talking to him ...
That was in January and Corey had continued to receive media attention, even making an appearance on the reality show, Big Brother. This Opinion Piece appeared in the paper some months after Corey's infamous party and although he features prominently, it really is all about the other young man pictured ...

Brock Curtis-Mathew had found himself in the headlines when he dove into the sea to try to rescue his 16 year old mate, Peter Edmonds off Lighthouse Beach in northern NSW. With the shark circling, Brock helped his seriously injured schoolfriend back to the beach and then ran to raise the alarm. Unfortunately his efforts were in vain as his friend died shortly afterwards.
"I knew he was in a lot of trouble and although I was almost back on the beach I just went back into the water to help him," he was reported as saying at the time. "I could see the dark shape of a shark but I just wanted to get him out."
It was this act of bravery and his humble attitude when interviewed by the media in the days afterward that prompted Fiona Connolly to write the Opinion Piece I have included in this post. It should also be noted that in addition to the attention that Corey and his antics had continued to attract, in the week prior to this piece being published there had also been a number of attacks apparently carried out by teenage gangs. Talkback radio was buzzing with calls for curfews and increased policing. Young people were getting completely out of control and something had to be done about it!

Unfortunately, the link to Fiona's original piece is not operational but I would like to highlight three sections that clearly show what she was trying to get across ...

"For all of us, his story should be a lesson learned - never judge a teenager by his flannie."
"And yes, today's teenagers binge drink, they smoke, they take drugs, they skip school, they shoplift …. But they're hardly in the majority. The rest, between seeing the school counsellor after being bullied, or managing an eating disorder while waiting up late each night to catch five minutes with Mum and her boyfriend, not to mention remembering to take their ADHD drugs, well they aren't doing too badly."
"There are more than a few good eggs among our teenagers out there. Surely we can cop the good ones a break and stop this collective whingeing about today's youth …"

I couldn't say it better myself!

It is all too easy to focus on the negative, particularly when it comes to our young people. There will always be examples of those who do the 'wrong thing' and they get so much attention because they feed into all the stereotypes that exist about 'out-of-control teens', but there are also so many amazing young people that never get any attention.Wouldn't it be great to give them a little bit of media time once in a while?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

What should you tell your kids about drugs? A mother's letter to her son

I've recently been clearing my desk out at UNSW (I'm just about to resign after 21 years!) and it has been an interesting process sorting through the resources, papers and media articles on 'all things drugs' I have collected over that time. Something that grabbed my attention was a letter that received widespread media attention when it was published way back in the late 90s.

Written by Dr Marsha Rosenbaum, a well known US drug researcher, it was addressed to her 14 year old son and outlined her advice on drugs as he was about to enter his college years. First published in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 7, 1998, it wasn't long before it was picked up by other media outlets across the US and then around the world. You can certainly see why it was so controversial in the US, in a country where the term 'just say no' was first coined, Dr Rosenbaum's words of advice challenged almost all of the messages that had previously been recommended by government agencies. Even here, there was some debate around whether her approach was appropriate. Here are some extracts from the letter:

Dear Johnny

This fall you will be entering high school, and like most American teenagers, you'll have to navigate drugs. As most parents, I would prefer that you not use drugs. However, I realize that despite my wishes, you might experiment.

I will not use scare tactics to deter you. Instead, having spent the past 25 years researching drug use, abuse and policy, I will tell you a little about what I have learned, hoping this will let you to make wise choices. My only concern is your health and safety.
...
Some people will tell you that drugs feel good, and that's why they use them. But drugs are not always fun. Cocaine and methamphetamine speed up your heart; LSD can make you feel disoriented; alcohol intoxication impairs driving; cigarette smoking leads to addiction and sometimes lung cancer; and people sometimes die suddenly from taking heroin. Marijuana does not often lead to physical dependence or overdose, but it does alter the way people think, behave and react.
... 
Despite my advice to abstain, you may one day choose to experiment. I will say again that this is not a good idea, but if you do, I urge you to learn as much as you can, and use common sense. There are many excellent books and references, including the Internet, that give you credible information about drugs. You can, of course, always talk to me. If I don't know the answers to your questions, I will try to help you find them.

If you are offered drugs, be cautious. Watch how people behave, but understand that everyone responds differently -- even to the same substance. If you do decide to experiment, be sure you are surrounded by people you can count upon. Plan your transportation and under no circumstances drive or get into a car with anyone else who has been using alcohol or other drugs. Call us or any of our close friends any time, day or night, and we will pick you up -- no questions asked and no consequences.
...
Love, Mom 

When I first read the letter 16 years ago I was impressed with what this mother had written and I believe it still holds up today. It clearly states that she doesn't want her son to use drugs, but at the same time acknowledges that no matter what she does, he may choose to do so. Unfortunately, that is not how some read it, instead seeing her as advocating teaching young people how to use drugs safely (which I certainly don't think she is doing) ... Here is an example of one person's reading of her advice:

Ms. Rosenbaum myopically proposes that we teach children responsible use of drugs; and that we call on parents to have coherent conversations with their children, like her "Dear Johnny" letter, which will convince them to be responsible when they are using drugs or alcohol – evidence enough that she lives on a different planet. Kids experimenting with drugs and alcohol don't tend to be responsible. What do you tell them? Just smoke a little bit of pot and don't get high? Don't drink and use pot at the same time? Don't drink or do drugs and drive? If someone offers you heroin, meth or cocaine, a drug that will give you a new high, just say thanks, "I'll lumber along with pot?"

What I didn't know (and I'm not too sure how I missed it!) was that in 2006 Marsha's son (Johnny, now a college graduate) wrote a letter in response to his mother's advice. Here is a short extract ...
You didn't impose rigid rules that were bound to be broken, and you didn't bombard me with transparent scare tactics. Instead you encouraged me to think critically and carefully about drug use. When I inquired, you armed me with truthful, scientifically based information from which I could make my own decisions. This was excellent practice for adulthood, and we built a loving relationship based on trust and truth. 

You can find the full versions of both letters at the following link.

There will always be great debate about what parents should and shouldn't say to their children about alcohol and other drugs. What is said depends on so many things, but really when it really comes down to it all any parent wants is for their child to stay safe - no matter what your stance, it is imperative that they understand that. After clearly stating that you don't want them to use drugs and how disappointed you would be should they ever decide to go against your wishes, Dr Rosenbaum's final paragraph is one that every parent should also consider using: 

Johnny, as your father and I have always told you about a range of activities (including sex), think about the consequences of your actions before you act. Drugs are no different. Be skeptical and most of all, be safe.  

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"I'm grounded until December!": Finding appropriate conseqeunces when your child breaks the rules

"Mr Dillon, I made a big mistake ..." were the first words that came out of the young man's mouth when he approached me after a Year 11 presentation a couple of weeks ago. He had waited until everyone else had left the room and then came up to me quite sheepishly. There's so many issues around 'duty of care' and the like, that when someone starts a discussion like this I have to very quickly make it clear to the student that if they are going to tell me something that suggests they are at risk in some way, I have no choice, I have to tell someone at the school - I can't keep it secret ... Thank goodness it wasn't that sort of story but certainly this young man had recently found himself in a very confronting situation and was looking for some advice from me about what to do next.

Without going into too much detail and slightly changing some of the aspects of the situation to protect his privacy, this young man had gone out with friends a couple of weeks before and had got terribly drunk. He kept repeating that he had no idea how he got that intoxicated - it certainly wasn't intentional and he claimed (and I totally believed him) that he had never been in such a state before. He was eventually found and taken to the local police station. He had little memory of what happened leading up to being picked up but was later told that he was quite abusive and aggressive. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"

If you could have seen this young man's face it would honestly break your heart! He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - I haven't gone into any great detail about what he did that night but it didn't sound good and the phone call from the police must have been terrifying for the mother - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime. I need to say that at all times he was incredibly respectful to his mother - he didn't criticise her but wanted some advice on how to possibly 'move her' a little.

The following week I did a Parent Information Evening at the school and after acknowledging that the mother could be in the audience and ensuring that the story was altered to protect privacy, I shared the young man's story. I really didn't expect the mum to be there but right at the end of the evening a woman approached me and said she was the mother I had talked about! She was such a delightful woman and we had a long talk about what had happened (interestingly her son had actively encouraged her to attend my talk, even though I had not given any indication to him that I was going to mention the story or was going to cover anything that we had talked about) and she let me know what had happened since I had met her son. She had no idea about the conversation that her son and I had had but she informed me that his punishment had been renegotiated over the weekend ...

If you've ever heard me speak to parents, one of my key messages is that the 'tough love' (or 'authoritative') style of parenting has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children, i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken! Unfortunately, too many parents create the consequence 'on the run' - something happens and the punishment is created in anger and not well thought through. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by a young person that they have been 'grounded for life!' Really, you've got to look at that and think who are you really punishing there?

The key to finding 'appropriate' consequences (i.e., they are fair (they 'fit the crime'), balanced (they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt') and are able to be enforced) for breaking any rules is ensuring that they are developed at the same time as the rules. Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. When they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise! 

Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. The key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger - you may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Give your child a punishment that can't realistically be carried out and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place - they're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time.

The mother I met had been terribly let down by her son's behaviour and she certainly wanted to make sure that he knew that it was totally unacceptable and must never happen again. Was grounding him for 8 months an appropriate punishment? Only she knows that and I have no right to judge what she does with her son. That said, she was 'big enough' to sit down with him and look at his punishment again, still making it clear that what he had done was wrong but also acknowledging that there is always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A 16 year old and a bottle of bourbon


This week I met Neil, a 16 year old young man who had become concerned about his drinking behaviour after listening to my presentation. When he approached me I could tell that he was quite uncomfortable and through the whole conversation that we had he was constantly biting his nails, running his fingers through his hair nervously and obviously very anxious. What had disturbed him were my comments about spirits and the sheer amount of alcohol a young person was consuming when they shared a bottle of vodka between three or four of them (i.e., 21-22 standard drinks - the equivalent of 21 glasses of beer), and the impact that this could have on the developing liver.
 
I'm simplifying the conversation, but essentially this is what Neil said to me:
 
"Do you build a tolerance to alcohol and if you do, what does that actually mean to your health? If you are able to drink a whole lot more than you used to and not get any of the 'drunk' effects, does that mean your liver and the rest of your body are also not getting negative effects? When I drink I usually drink at least a bottle of bourbon to myself and I have no outward negative effects and I have to drink that much to get any effect at all. I was drinking less than that a couple of years ago but now that is the norm. I've never thought it was a problem because I don't get sick and usually I'm the one in my group of friends who is 'sober' enough to look after anyone should they get into trouble. Now I'm beginning to worry that maybe I am doing some damage!"

Let me start by saying that there are so many things wrong with this conversation it is unbelievable! When I asked him how often he was drinking a full bottle of spirits to himself he replied that it was usually fortnightly! Neil had been doing this for the past 12 months at least and had actually started drinking alcohol regularly at around 13 years of age. He was such a nice guy and to see that something in my presentation had triggered something and was causing him such obvious distress was heart-wrenching. He asked me whether I thought he had an 'alcohol problem' and I had to be honest and tell him that I believed he had to take a serious look at his patterns of drinking and make changes quickly. The only good news was that Neil was not drinking during the week, although he had recently started to drink a couple of times over the weekend, rather than just on a Saturday night as he had done in the past.

Is this 'normal' teenage behaviour? Absolutely not! If we look at the data that we have on school-based 'current drinkers' (those that drank in the previous week), the numbers have fallen quite sharply since 1984. However, there are a core group of these who drink more than four drinks when they drink and the number of young people in this group has remained fairly consistent over time. This group is our greatest worry and when I meet a young man like Neil I realize that it is this group that we are failing badly when it comes to providing them appropriate education.

Admittedly some of the young people who have similar drinking patterns to that of Neil have a range of social problems and one of the major reasons they are drinking that much is to 'block out' bad feelings, i.e., they're using to cope. Simply providing them information about the risks associated with heavy drinking is most probably not going to make a great deal of difference. In those cases, often the best we can do is to provide them with ways to look after themselves and their friends should something go wrong. However, there are also many young people who simply have no idea what damage they're causing to themselves and have an extremely skewed view of what is 'normal'.

I truly believe we need to do a dramatic overhaul of what we're doing in alcohol education in schools. Firstly, we need to start earlier, providing lessons in primary schools that challenge the positive messages around alcohol that young people are bombarded with through advertising, product placement and sport sponsorship. In secondary schools we need to look carefully at how many lessons are dedicated to alcohol education (usually very few and to be honest, becoming fewer in recent years as schools get asked to deal with more and more social issues) and then start to use what we do have in a more careful, strategic way. The promotion of positive norms is vital (i.e., letting young people know that it is not the norm to start drinking at Year 8, 9 or 10), we also need to continue to challenge the alcohol messages they receive and encourage critical thinking in this area and most importantly, provide information to them that is useful, credible and age appropriate. I've got to say, some of the material that we provide is just plain useless and of no real relevance to many students.

Spirit education is a must. When I give any information on vodka (as that is the drink of choice for many) you literally can see jaws dropping around the room - many young people simply have no idea what they are doing to themselves when they consume large amounts of these products! Shouldn't we be telling them about the potential dangers before they start drinking them?

Do I believe that this will solve all our problems and simply giving them information will result in them choosing not to drink? Of course not, but young people certainly deserve to have all the information we can give them so that they can at least make an informed choice. Drinking a bottle of bourbon is potentially life threatening, whether you're a teenager or an adult. If it doesn't kill you as a result of alcohol poisoning, the possibility of major damage to the liver and the rest of your body over time is very real!