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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Never underestimate the impact your words can have on a teen

A couple of weeks ago I had something wonderful happen to me in a school. I've been talking about the incident at my Parent Information Evenings over the last fortnight and I now feel ready to put 'pen to paper'. What it clearly shows to me is that we should never underestimate how much impact our words can have on a young person ...

I had just finished my presentation to a group of Year 12s, the talk covering a range of issues including drink driving, 'Schoolies' and ecstasy. This was the final time I would speak to them, meeting them for the first time in Year 10 and then delivering a different session when they were in Year 11. This is my usual program of work in schools that I visit regularly and the talk had gone down extremely well - this was a great group of students. After answering a few individual questions from a number of them a young man walked up to me, hand outstretched.

"Mr Dillon, can I shake your hand?" he said.

"Of course," I replied, a little bit surprised by his request. I always shake young people's hands but I've never been asked specifically to do it. "How can I help you?"

"I just want to say thank-you ... When you came to our school and talked to us in Year 10 you told us that you were a non-drinker and really always had been. Before you told us that, I didn't even know that was an option for a man, I'd never heard a guy say that, and it really got me thinking ... That night, after your talk I made a decision not to drink and I haven't up to now. At this stage in my life I don't think I ever will! As I said I just want to say thank-you!"

As you can imagine, I was incredibly moved and quite choked up. We shook hands and I thanked him for taking the time to come up and tell me ... it was quite an unbelievable experience!

I'm not going to go on about this, and this is most probably going to be the shortest blog entry I've ever written, but really when you think that a few little words that I said to this young man ("I'm a non-drinker and I really always have been") had such an impact, it gets me so angry when I meet parents who throw their hands in the air and just give up, believing that they can't do anything in this area and it's all too difficult!

Do I believe that this young man is never going to drink alcohol for the rest of his life? Of course not and to be quite truthful is that in anyway important? He may or may not choose to start drinking in the future but to think that one sentence actually delayed his alcohol use for almost three years at the very least - that is pretty incredible! Most importantly, remember that it was a complete stranger that had the effect (completely by accident), imagine what a parent (the most important person in any child's world) can do if they really put their mind to it ...

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Is cannabis a 'gateway drug'? If my child starts smoking weed, will they go onto using 'harder drugs'?

Carol was a mother of three girls, the eldest of which, Kath, attended university. Kath had always tried to 'push boundaries'. Carol approached me to ask for my advice after she had recently found a bag of what she believed to be cannabis in her eldest daughter's drawer. She was terribly distressed. She had a range of concerns, including the effect this could possibly have on her two younger daughters and of course the illegality of the drug, but her greatest worry was about what was next ...

"Where does she go from here?" Carol asked me. "If she's using this now, what will she be experimenting with in the future?"

Over the years I have spoken to many parents who have found themselves in exactly the same situation as Carol. No matter how much you may prepare yourself for the day that you discover your child has used an illegal drug, it would appear that the impact is still devastating. So many thoughts are likely to go through a parent's head but inevitably the fear of progression to other drugs is one of their greatest fears.

One of the most popular myths about drugs is the belief that if you start using cannabis it will inevitably end up with you moving onto so called 'harder drugs', with you finally becoming a heroin user.  This is known as the 'gateway theory', and is frequently used in an attempt to scare young people from experimenting with a range of drugs, but most particularly cannabis.

This theory comes from studies of heroin users which show that they have almost all used cannabis at some time or another. However, it definitely doesn't mean that all cannabis users will eventually use heroin (they all most probably have used an over-the-counter painkiller at some point - could that have been the culprit?). It is important to remember that over a third of the Australian population have ever tried cannabis, whereas only a very small percentage (2%) have ever tried heroin. If the 'gateway' theory was true there should be far more heroin users in this country.

Undoubtedly experimenting with cannabis puts you at risk of coming into contact with a range of other drugs. A person who supplies cannabis may have other drugs on offer, or be able to get them without too much trouble, and this easy access to other illegal substances could result in a young person being more likely to experiment. There is also the possibility that after breaking one taboo, i.e., smoking cannabis, it is much easier to break another. In my experience though, most teenagers have 'drawn their own line in the sand' (as most adults do) and have established what drugs they're going to try and those they're not. For many it would appear that these choices are made early in their adolescence, usually based on a range of factors including parental influence. Once they've made that decision you could throw drugs at them and they still wouldn't try them.

That said, however, there is evidence that cannabis could act as an important 'stepping stone' to other drug use for some people and trying to prevent experimentation with the drug by young people for as long as possible is advised. There really are no 'definites' when it comes to drug use, but without a doubt we certainly know that the earlier a young person starts using cannabis, the greater the risk of problems in the future ...

So is there a gateway drug?

It is now believed that the environment that the young person is exposed plays a much stronger role on what drug is used, rather than a logical progression from one drug to another, as suggested by the gateway theory. That is, if it's easier for a young person to get his hands on cannabis than alcohol, then it's more likely he or she will smoke pot. This is known as the 'common liability model', that states the likelihood that the movement of use of one drug to another is not necessarily determined by the preceding use of a particular drug, but rather by the young person's individual tendencies and environmental circumstances.

Interestingly, research has shown that regular heavy alcohol use, particularly during the early teens, is possibly the strongest predictor of future illicit drug use.  Of course this does not fit into the messages that most parents want to give their children about drug use – alcohol is a legal drug, one which the vast majority of Australians use on a regular basis.  However, excessive drinking by young people causes many problems and particular patterns of use are regarded as possible indicators of future illicit drug use.

Am I saying that Carol shouldn't be worried about her daughter's cannabis use? Of course not! At the very least she is using an illegal drug and there are very real consequences if she is caught and prosecuted. But does her cannabis use mean that she is now on the road to injecting drug use? Absolutely not! For many, cannabis is the only illicit drug they will ever experiment with - that is their 'line in the sand'. That said, we mustn't forget that there are also many other risks associated with cannabis use, particularly for the young, and when things go wrong this can have a devastating impact not only on the user but also on those around them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that some people will use cannabis for a period of time, stop using for whatever reason and have no significant problems as a result of their use.

As much as people would love to make cannabis a 'black and white' issue - it isn't! It isn't 'God's sweet nectar' and won't solve all the world's problems but it isn't the 'Devil's weed' either, causing all young people to have brain damage and become heroin users. With the amount of propaganda that is put out from both sides of this long-standing argument it really is no surprise that parents are confused around cannabis ...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

'Sleepovers': Are they as innocent as they sound?

Last week I met a mother who couldn't wait to tell me her story about a 'sleepover' she held for her 14 year old daughter. Actually, it wasn't really about the event itself, it's what happened before and after that blew her mind and had me gasping!

Jane is the mother of three girls, the oldest of which has just turned 14. To celebrate her daughter's recent birthday she agreed to hold some sort of small gathering with a few of her friends being invited. After some discussion about what she wanted (and what Jane was willing to do!) it was decided that four friends would be invited for a 'sleepover' on a Saturday night. This would involve the invitees staying the night and Jane would provide food, some games and a video or the like through the night. The family had only just moved to a new city and new school and Jane did not really know any of her daughter's friends and saw the event as not only a good way to get to know them but also their parents.

Invitations were written and were hand-delivered to the four girls at school (something Jane didn't feel entirely comfortable about but was told that this was the way it was done) and she was informed by her daughter that all four girls would be attending. Over the next week Jane waited to hear something from any of the parents - her number had been included on the invitation and she had anticipated that there would be some type of questions asked about the night and what was planned - but there was nothing! After discussions with her husband, she agreed that they must just be waiting for the actual evening to check things out and it would all be sorted when the girls were dropped off on the night. That was not the case, however, as each of the girls were dropped off in the driveway (although Jane could not guarantee that as she did not see all of the cars actually arriving) and not one of the parents accompanied their daughter to the door! She did not meet one of the parents, had not been asked anything about the event and what was going to be happening and really didn't even know if they had any idea who their daughters were with and where they actually were!

Jane was flabbergasted! These were 14 year old girls - the potential for tragic consequences were very real and yet their parents couldn't even be bothered to make one simple call, or take a quick walk down a driveway to find out who they were leaving their daughters with for the evening - totally gobsmacking!

In the last few years I have seen the growth of so-called 'sleepovers' (particularly in Year 9) and it is becoming increasingly obvious that these are not always the innocent events that they purport to be ... Of course there are those, like the event that Jane put on for her daughter, that are exactly what you would expect them to be, i.e., nights involving young teens staying over at a friend's house doing fun things. That said, 'sleepovers' can also be 'teenage code' for "I'm going out to a party drinking and I'm not telling my parents!" Telling your parents that you're going to a friend's house for a sleepover and won't be home until mid-morning the next day is a great way of getting around parental rules governing parties and gatherings, as well as ensuring that they won't be able to detect if they've been drinking alcohol. It's the perfect cover and parents are falling for it 'hook, line and sinker'!

So how do you know if the sleepover is real or not? This is where I get totally floored by some parents' behaviour because it's not exactly rocket science - call the house where the supposed event is taking place and ask the parents about what is planned! If your child won't give you a contact number, tries to tell you that you won't be able to reach them, or that they don't have a phone (can you believe that some parents actually fall for that?) or that you would "shame them forever" if you do call - it's a pretty sure bet that something is up ... What is amazing about Jane's story is that she did make herself available for parents, expecting them to call and check and not one of them did!

So is it enough just to call beforehand or have a quick chat when you drop them off? Well, in actual fact research suggests that if they want to do the job properly, parents should also occasionally check-up on the event through the night, i.e., call the house (on a landline) and talk to either the parent, or even better, your child, just to make sure that they are still there and that things are going as planned. Make up an excuse if you don't want to sound like you are checking up on them (e.g., "We can't find the remote for the TV, did you happen to put it somewhere before you left?") and never try call them on their mobile as you never really know where they are when they answer that!

But back to Jane's story ... I have been trying to fathom the reasons why these parents wouldn't have made the call beforehand or walk their daughters to the door and meet the family that they were going to entrust their child to for the evening. I've come up with three possibilities - all of them sad and completely unacceptable:
  • they were bullied by their 14 year old daughter and told that they couldn't make contact with another parent for fear of 'shaming' them in some way
  • they had plans for the evening and if they did too much digging, they may have to actually say 'no' to their daughter and look after her themselves - the 'sleepover' offered a free child-minding service and they didn't want that spoiled
  • they just don't care

Some may say I'm being too harsh here but really if anyone can come up with a better reason, please let me know. As I said, there are 'legitimate' sleepovers held every weekend across the country and there are many parents who are trying to do the right thing and monitor their teens the best they can (and I get that it's not always easy!) but Jane's story highlights a significant issue that is of great concern. How many parents really know where their teens are on a Saturday night and how hard are some of them trying to find out?

Teens are going to try to push the boundaries as much as possible, particularly during those difficult years of 14-16 years when they are first learning how to be young adults. It's a parent's job to try to keep them safe through this time and the best way to do that is to monitor them as best you can - i.e., know where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home - always remembering that sometimes they are going to lie straight to your face when you ask them these questions. It is important therefore that checks are done to verify the information they provide! It takes some work but isn't your child's safety and wellbeing worth it?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Isn’t teen smoking, drinking and drug use just a rite of passage?

I've had a pretty phenomenal week! I have travelled across the country, given 21 talks across five schools and have met some of the most amazing young people. The last two days were particularly special. I was at two very well-known boys' schools in Brisbane and at the end of almost every session I delivered I was approached by students who wanted to thank me for the presentation but also to share that they had made the decision not to drink and that they had appreciated my message that there were a growing number of young people who had made a similar decision.

Earlier in the week I also had a Year 12 young man who came up to me, shook my hand and said the following:

"When you came and spoke to us in Year 10 and told us that you didn’t drink (and never really had through your life), it made me realize that that was an option. I had never thought it was before then. I’m now 18, three years on and I have made the choice not to drink. I just wanted to say thanks!"

As I said, I have had a phenomenal week!

This idea that is pushed by some that all teens are going to go through a stage where they are going to smoke, drink or take other drugs and that it is simply a 'rite of passage' is simply not correct. Now no-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that there isn't a problem. When it comes to alcohol in particular – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their adolescence. However, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs, particularly when we're talking about teenagers. Most young people have never tried illegal drugs, they have no interest in these substances and they never will. Study after study after study confirms this, yet try and get this fact reported in the media and you hit a brick wall.

Interestingly, you often hit that very same brick wall when you speak to the teenagers themselves.

One of the slides in my talk reveals the number of young people who have not used illicit drugs. It always raises eyebrows with many of the teenagers surprised that the number is not significantly higher. Max was a Year 11 student, 16 years of age and an outspoken critical thinker. Instead of just whispering to the person next to him about his doubts regarding the figure he stood up and argued his case.

"I find those figures very hard to believe," he said. "Everybody I know uses drugs. That slide just doesn't ring true – where did you find those people who you surveyed?"

After informing him and the rest of the group how the national survey data was collected I decided to challenge him on the statement he had made.

"So everybody you know uses drugs?" I said. "You're in a room full of over 100 of your peers – are you saying that every one of these young people in this room uses drugs?"

"No, of course not," he replied. "I don't mean people at school, I mean the people I know out of school. They all use drugs."

I then wanted to know what drugs he was talking about and he informed me that cannabis was the drug of choice for 'everybody'.

"Give me a number," I asked him. "I want an actual number of the people that you know for a fact use cannabis. You have seen these people smoke the drug, not simply heard about it, or believe it to be true – you know for a fact. Work it out and give me the number."

It took Max quite a while to respond and for a while I thought my test was going to backfire, but he was an intelligent and thoughtful young man and was taking my challenge seriously. When he finally did give his answer it confirmed my belief that although he believed a considerable proportion (well, actually all of them) smoked cannabis, this was not the case.

"Five," he said!

I love this story! I used to tell it at every school I went to and it always got a great reception. I also included it in my book. Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that, even amongst young people, that most people have used drugs. When you take a few moments to challenge that perception you can get some really interesting results. 

There are two words that I really dislike that we tend to overuse when talking about alcohol and drugs – 'all' and 'everybody'. If you just spend a couple of moments to think about it you know that statements like 'everybody does it' and 'all teenagers go through that stage' just don’t make sense. Even if everyone you knew did 'do it' when you were younger (and I don't believe that that is the case), you were most probably part of a very unusual group. 'Everybody' doesn't do it and not 'all' teenagers go through that stage – these generalizations need to be challenged and unfortunately we don't do that enough.

For some reason young people really feed into this mythology and are their own worst enemy when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes about teenagers and drug use. When I work with large groups of young people I often start off a discussion by asking them what they know about drugs and inevitably the first few statements from the floor are things such as: 
  • Drugs are everywhere
  • Everyone takes drugs
  • Peer pressure makes it really difficult for teenagers
  • Everyone I know gets drunk

It's always interesting that this is the response you get from the large group but when you break them down and start taking to smaller numbers of them, you quickly find that these sweeping generalizations simply do not hold up. Questions like 'do you or your best friend use drugs?' or 'when was the last time you saw someone use an illegal drug?' are often answered with 'no' and 'never'. Yet the people answering this way were the very same people who made these all encompassing statements just moments before.

In my experience young people often provide us with the information they think we want to hear. Now no parent will tell you that they want to hear that young people take drugs, or drink to excess – but it is what many people believe because that is what they have been fed by the media and society in general. Young people pick up on this very quickly and simply rehash these messages, even if it is not their experience. You've also got to remember that teens love drama … to be honest, so do parents! Having your child tell you that there are drugs everywhere and that there are kids at school doing this and that can send shivers down the spines of parents, but once they've been told and totally horrified, they often can't wait to share the stories with other parents who they know will be just as outraged!

Let's never forget that all young people are different. We need to acknowledge that many young people will drink alcohol at some time during their adolescence and some may experiment with one or more illegal drugs. However, that does not mean that we should throw our arms up in the air and give up. This whole – "it’s a rite of passage" thing is often just an excuse for lazy parenting … "Oh it's a stage they all go through - we all did it" is simply not true and it's actually just a huge cop-out!

As a parent you need to let your child know where you stand in regards to alcohol and drinking behaviour and the use of illegal drugs. During adolescence, young people form their opinions and values system around a whole pile of issues, including alcohol and other drugs. Letting your teenager know how you feel about sensitive topics and, most importantly, explaining your viewpoints clearly without judgment is not only going to assist them to develop positive values but also strengthen your relationship with your child.

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.