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Sunday, 24 August 2014

I've found out my son has used cannabis. Does he need treatment?

I was recently contacted by a mother who had discovered her son was using cannabis. I met her at a Parent Information Evening and from the brief conversation we had I could tell that this had come completely out of the blue and both her and her husband were now struggling with what to do next. I asked her to email me with some background on the situation and I would respond as soon as I could. To ensure her privacy I have changed some of the information she provided me, but essentially her story was as follows:

My son left school a couple of years ago and did quite well in his final exams. He got into the university course he wanted but was unhappy there and has since begun another course in an area dramatically different from his original career choice. He has found it difficult to 'fit' and find a new set of friends, after moving away from his school friends since leaving Year 12. He certainly went through a period of drinking but it certainly never caused us any great concern. I found out that he had been using cannabis a while ago and at that time he told me that he only used to relax and that it wasn't a problem. My husband and I caught him smoking at home recently and once again he said he was using for relaxation and that it was no more dangerous than drinking. We talked to him about the legal implications of smoking cannabis in our home and the major problem we have with him using due to his younger sibling who also lives in the house. He has agreed not to use anymore but he certainly appears to be struggling at the moment, particularly with fitting in with his current friendship group who apparently use as well. Any advice will be appreciated ...

This mum was smart and said all the 'right things' in her email - "we're trying to keep the lines of communication open", "when we found out he was using, we waited for a few days to have a discussion with him about how to move forward" and "we're offering him alternative ways of relaxing". She really is doing all the right things ... I also need to make it clear that she wasn't asking me for treatment options - she just wanted some advice. I meet so many people, however, who find themselves in this situation who immediately want to book their child into seeing a psychologist or find some sort of treatment option - they're smoking cannabis, there must be something wrong with them! Of course, there could be some 'dark' reason why the teen is smoking cannabis and that needs to be dealt with quickly, but for many it may simply be experimentation and thrusting your son or daughter into a counselling session may actually cause more harm than good.

So what did I recommend? My response to the mother is below:

"Now that I see the whole story I think you can take a pile of positives from the situation as it stands at the moment … the most important thing is to maintain lines of communication with your son is most probably the most important thing at the moment. He sounds like a great young man who is experiencing a few issues at the moment (trying to find his place in a peer group, changing possible career direction, etc) and how you deal with the ‘problem’ is going to be incredibly important – you certainly don’t want to push him away but you also need to make it extremely clear what behaviour you are, and are not, willing to accept in your home.

I always say to parents who discover that their child is using a drug that the most important thing is to find out why they are using. When they say they’re using to cope or it ‘makes them ‘feel normal’, that’s the greatest worry … your son said he is using to ‘relax’ – that most probably needs to be teased out a bit … Using a drug to relax is most probably not healthy, if he’s going to throw alcohol in your face, then I would ask him if he thinks it would be a healthy choice to drink to relax … it isn’t and I think it would most probably be valuable to find out why he has all of a sudden needed to find a drug to help him to relax. Is something happening in his life that he’s not telling you about?

The main issue is that he is using an illegal drug in your house and there are younger children there - that really is unacceptable on a number of levels … getting him to understand that is most probably the most important thing to do at this point! The most a parent can really do once they’ve turned 18 years old is maintain a positive relationship with their child and keep the lines of communication open (which it sounds like you’ve totally got – you may feel like it’s not working well at the moment but you’re miles ahead of so many parents I meet). Unconditional love is the key – no matter what he does, you still love him. You are not going to support any illegal drug use however, and if he decides to get involved in that activity, you would be extremely disappointed, but he is now an adult and has to make his own decisions. The only thing you are able to control is drug use in your home – that is totally unacceptable on a number of levels and that needs to be made clear!

I am more than happy to try to find some literature or resources for you around seeking help for cannabis use, but to be honest I don’t think your son has a 'cannabis problem' at the moment. It certainly sounds like he is having some issues adjusting to post-secondary school life and maybe you could suggest he have a chat to someone about that ... using cannabis to 'cope' with problems like this is not a good idea and can develop into a 'problem' itself. Let me know if you need anything else from me or would like me to speak to you on the phone at some point!"

Unfortunately we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and increasingly we're seeing many of these so-called 'famous people' end up in 'rehab' or treatment of some description. This usually occurs after they are caught with an illegal substance or doing something particularly bizarre and it seems to me that, in many cases, it is more of a PR stunt to show the public that they're doing something rather than a real effort to change behaviour. Some of these people are in and out of rehab with astonishing regularity and I think this blase (and quite disturbing) attitude to treatment is causing confusion in the community.

Do some young people (and their families) need help (e.g., treatment or counselling) with their drug use? Absolutely! It is important, however, to understand that others may not. Am I saying that you should ignore the issue? No, of course not - illicit drug use is something that needs to be dealt with quickly, but for many families it may be as simple as discovery (finding out about their use), discussion (sitting down with your child and talking about what they have done, the illegal nature of their actions and your feelings on the matter) and consequences (reiterating your rules and handing down a punishment). Of course, speak to a health professional (your school may be able to help you with a referral) and get advice on how to proceed in a positive way, particularly in regards to strategies on how to speak to young people effectively in this area, but rushing your child into treatment may be a big mistake ...

If you need specific assistance with issues around cannabis don't forget that you can always call the Cannabis Information Helpline - 1800 30 40 50.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Can you, or should you 'trust' an adolescent?

I recently posted a link to an article on my Facebook page that had been written by a teenager offering a number of parenting tips. It begins with the lines "I have not birthed a child, held one in my arms, and felt what it is like to see my own creation. I have not become a parent.
But I do know what it is like to be held and raised by two really wonderful parents — to be parented." It made for an interesting read, and even though it would have been really useful to know more about the young woman that wrote it (we really don't even know if it was an Australian piece or not), I found it thought-provoking and thought some of the suggestions were really great ...
  • Remember who you once were
  • Challenge your child daily with household responsibilities
  • You're the parent, not the best friend
There were, however, a couple that I didn't necessarily agree with. The section titled 'Accept experimentation; it's inevitable' actually gave some pretty good advice but the use of the word 'experimentation' was problematic - perhaps it should have been called something like 'Accept that they'll make mistakes'. As regular readers of my blogs would know I don't believe that parents should "Expect him or her to come home drunk at least once, to try smoking weed and to cut school" as the piece suggested. Not everyone will necessarily do those things but they will almost certainly 'stuff up' and make mistakes at some point during their teen years - that's how they learn.

The piece of advice that really made me sit up was titled 'Don't make your child earn your trust' and this is what it said ...

"There is nothing more frustrating than having to update your mum or dad every two minutes on your location and status. If you make an effort to show your child trust from the start, he or she won't lie about whereabouts, friends, grades, etc. and in turn, you will have nothing to worry about. It will actually be a win-win situation for both of you because your child won’t have to make up lies and you won't have to waste time investigating for the truth.

Needless to say, some kids will end up losing parents' trust by taking advantage of it. If that turns out to be the case with your child, make him or her earn it back."

"If you make an effort to show your child trust from the start, he or she won't lie about whereabouts, friends, grades, etc. and in turn, you will have nothing to worry about" ... what absolute rubbish! This could possibly hold out (although I very much doubt it) until the first time the parent does not like where the teen wants to go, or has problems with the friends they are hanging out with, but I don't care how 'good' the child is, the very first time they don't get want they want they're going to lie through their teeth to try to get it! Can you trust an adolescent? The simple answer is 'no'. Just think back to your teenage years - were you able to be trusted? Even if you were the best kid in the world, you still told some untruths to get what you wanted or to avoid things you didn't want to do - that's a teen's job!

When a parent utters those five little words "But I trust my child ..." it takes all my strength not to say something quite rude, particularly if they're talking about a 15 or 16 year old. Admittedly, sometimes it is said with the best intentions but all too often it is simply stated to try to explain poor parenting:
  • "I do give her a couple of drinks to take to a party but I trust my daughter."
  • "Why would I call the parents who are holding the party, I trust my son?"
Let's put it really simply, if you think you can trust your 15 or 16 year old you're being quite foolish! If you do, without any doubt at some stage they'll take advantage of the situation. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to go and experiment with illegal drugs or get drunk, or go to real extremes and rack up debt on your credit card or steal from you in other ways, but they will certainly use that trust to get what they want - never forget that teens are master manipulators (I think we all too often forget what we were like at that time).

So if you can't trust an adolescent, but what about the 'should you' part? The author of this piece is right - you do need to make an effort to show your child you trust them and you do that by allowing them to take part in activities that may be risky (e.g., going to a teenage party, surfing the internet), but at the same time you actively parent and try to ensure their safety by checking up on them and imposing rules and boundaries. Should you be checking up on their "location and status" every couple of minutes? Of course not! But asking questions and conducting age-appropriate checking is a must. I totally get that it can be difficult and takes a lot of energy but if you try to live by the following simple parenting formula it is sure to go a long way to ensuring your child's safety:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home
Another simple rule that all parents of teens should live by is if they tell you that you shouldn't do something, you almost certainly should! If they say that you can't ring the parents to find out what supervision there will be at the sleepover, there's usually a reason why they don't want you to make the call ...

Of course, at some point you've got to start letting go and give them opportunities to make mistakes - but should that be at the age of 15? I think 17 year-olds should certainly be given more trust, it's the year of the 18th and they're not far off being legally adults - you want to strengthen the relationship and keep lines of communication open - not giving in a little at this age is highly likely to do more harm than good. But that doesn't mean you stop asking the questions though, it just may mean you don't work as hard on checking the answers they give you!

When I visit schools I love asking young people whether they believe their parents should trust them or not ... the usual answer is 'absolutely not'! I don't think it would be the answer they'd give Mum or Dad but it's certainly what I hear from them. It needs to be said that the response is often tempered with comments like "it depends what they're trusting me with" and "I would never do anything too bad!" but most teens are well aware that when put in a situation where they have the opportunity to do something they really want to do or get something they really want it won't take much for them to break their parent's trust. Remember, they're brains are not fully developed and the reward is just too great (they weigh risk versus reward in a completely different way to adults). It doesn't mean they're bad kids, or that you are a bad parent - they're just being a teenager!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ice, crystal, crystal meth or meth: Why is this drug so problematic?

A week doesn't go by without some sort of media story about 'ice' hitting the headlines. They usually involve stories of users committing violent crimes or law enforcement agencies announcing another huge seizure of the substance. However, the story of of the 26 year-old daughter of the late NSW Premier Neville Wran, Harriet being charged with the murder of a drug dealer and her alleged 'ice' addiction has once again brought the issue of methamphetamine and its associated problems to the front pages of newspapers across the country.

The question I have been asked since the story broke is why would a young woman who apparently had 'everything' end up using a drug like ice? I don't think many would have been surprised if her drug of choice had been cocaine, a drug usually associated with 'high-flyers' and the rich and famous, but why ice? What is the attraction of this drug and why is it so problematic?  

To understand the whole 'ice' issue, it is important to understand some terminology around amphetamines. Amphetamines are a group of stimulant drugs that increase central nervous system activity and can come in many different forms - powder, crystals, tablets or even as a liquid. One form of amphetamines is methamphetamine. Although this can come in the 'salt' form and be called 'speed', it is now much more likely to be sold in the crystalline form known as 'ice'. It may also be called other names such as 'crystal meth', 'crystal' and 'meth'. Even though speed and ice are similar drugs, ice has two important qualities that make it far more problematic than speed - it can be extremely pure and because it is in a crystalline form it is able to be smoked.

Speed (the powder form) is usually a very low quality drug, with purity levels usually well under 10% (sometimes less than 1% with seizures over 20% being extremely rare). Ice on the other hand is much more pure, with police reporting that some seizures can be up to 80% pure (although purity levels are highly variable). At the same time, because ice can be smoked due to its crystalline form (unlike speed that simply burns away if users try to smoke it) the drug reaches the brain extremely quickly (smoking is the fastest route of administration, even faster than injecting). Put these two things together and you have a real problem ... a very pure drug hitting the brain fast results in a very intense high, continue to smoke and over time you create a powerful 'reward pathway' that over time can result in dependence or addiction! This is an over-simplification of the process but hopefully you get the picture!

This sort of reward pathway is usually found in those who inject drugs and although speed users can of course have problems with their drug of choice, it was usually those who injected it that had the most serious dependence issues. That all changed when ice came onto the scene ... people who would never consider injecting a drug would smoke the drug having no idea how quickly they could find themselves with serious dependence issues! It is important to be aware that ice can also be injected and we have certainly seen those who inject other drugs, particularly heroin, moving to this high quality drug simply because it gives them better 'bang for their buck'. As a result, growing numbers of users have become dependent on methamphetamine and there has been an increase in related problems (e.g. psychosis and other mental health problems).

As already said, methamphetamine has been an extremely hot topic in the Australian media for some time and has become a significant drug issue within our community, particularly for frontline workers such as hospital emergency department staff and law enforcement. However, the impression that this drug has permeated mainstream society and is reaching epidemic proportions in the general community is not supported by any real evidence, in fact all the evidence we have would suggest that use is fairly steady and has actually gone down since the 1990s. The recently released 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 7% of Australians aged 14 years and over have ever used methamphetamine (the same rate as for 2010). What had changed though was the form of the drug that was being used by users - since 2010 ice use had doubled and the use of powder had dropped dramatically. Without any doubt ice is much more available than it was in the past but this does not necessarily mean we have a larger pool of amphetamine users. What we have seen are changing patterns of use amongst this group and these are certainly resulting in greater harm to the users themselves, as well as the wider community.

Methamphetamine is a significant issue in the Australian community that needs to be addressed. We need to ensure that we put it into context though and do not focus on it to a point that we lose sight of other potentially more serious problems in our society. Let's make it very clear, for the majority of parents the 'ice epidemic' is a non-issue - most young people see ice as a 'gutter drug' and would not consider trying it. However, as the Harriet Wran story illustrates, no family is immune from these type of problems. Ice is a drug with unique qualities that do make it attractive to users, unfortunately it is these qualities that also make it so problematic!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

I'm keeping her back so she will be 18 for Schoolies!!

This will be one of the shortest blog entries ever - simply because I have no idea what to say about it! As regular readers of my blog will know, parental behaviour continues to baffle me but this just blows my mind!

I was at a K-12 school a couple of weeks ago and was told by a couple of primary teachers that they were recently seeing a new phenomenon where parents were holding their child back from entering Year 1 so that they would be 18 in Year 12 when they went to Schoolies! Just having a parent think that seems pretty weird to me but to vocalize it and say it to others, including the classroom teacher is truly bizarre! Then, to actually do it ... I have no words!

I held back from putting 'pen to paper' about this because I thought it must be an isolated incident and that it was just that particular school and a group of very strange parents but this week I was speaking to some mums after a Parent Information Evening and sharing a few stories and they also discussed parents who they knew who had made similar decisions. I pushed these mums on whether it was holding them back so that they would be of legal age in Year 12 in general (which is still concerning but at least isn't based on one event they may or may not attend in 13 years time!), but no, the decision was apparently made so that when they went to Schoolies they would be able to drink legally ...

These are 4 and 5 year olds and parents are making decisions about their education based on their possible drinking behaviour when they are 18! For years I've been saying that it is the parents of pre-primary children that we should be speaking to about parenting and alcohol (as well as a range of other social issues, e.g., bullying, cyber safety, etc) - getting to them early and giving them strategies about how best to be prepared for the bumpy road ahead would be so useful. But I certainly didn't expect parents of such young children to be thinking in this way. It truly is terrifying that instead of putting things in place to prevent alcohol use, they've already given in to the 'inevitability' of their son's or daughter's drinking, when in actual fact we know there are growing numbers of Australian young people who are choosing not to drink.

Of course it's a parent's right to hold their child back from going to school if they believe they are not emotionally or developmentally prepared for that environment and teachers are there to assist them with that decision (apparently it's a growing trend across Australia, particularly in more affluent areas and is often referred to as the 'greying of kindergarten' - there's a real interesting news article on it in the SMH from 2013). There are a range of things to consider when making that decision but worrying about Year 12 and the legal drinking age should not be one of them in my opinion.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A couple of drinks to take to a party + teenagers: How can parents not see that this can lead to sexual activity?

When I meet a parent who tells me that they have made the decision to give their teen a couple of drinks to take to a party and what are my thoughts, I have to be careful as to what I say. Every parent has to make their own decisions around whether or not to provide alcohol to their child or not - who am I to tell you what to do with your son or daughter? But when a mum or dad comes out with the ridiculous line of "At least I know what they're drinking - if they don't get it from me, they'll get it from somewhere else ..." it makes my blood boil! How you providing alcohol makes it any less dangerous is beyond me and when I hear this kind of statement from a parent of a 15 or 16 year old young woman I find it very hard to not want to shake them ...

How a parent cannot see that alcohol and sexual activity (whether it be consensual or not) are linked is beyond me! The evidence is quite clear that teens who drink alcohol are more likely to be sexually active at an earlier age, to have sexual intercourse more often and to have unprotected sex. Alcohol is a powerful disinhibitor - a couple of drinks, a teenage party or gathering and a whole pile of raging hormones - is it any real surprise?

The most disturbing part of what I do in schools is meeting young women who divulge to me that they have either been sexually assaulted or have had sex whilst intoxicated and have deeply regretted it afterwards and have no idea who to talk to about the experience. Sometimes I receive emails that not only tell a story (some of them truly horrific!) but also provide advice that they believe would be useful for me to deliver to students that may help prevent what happened to them from happening to others ... What I love about these emails is how practical and useful some of the strategies are that these young people come up with. Here is one such email that I received earlier this year from a Year 12 student - I have altered some of the details to protect her identity and also received her permission to use it here ...

"At the end of last year, three of my guy friends invited me to come out with them and celebrate their finishing of year 12 ... other girls were invited but none of them could make it. I'd known two of these three guys for about 4 years so I trusted them and agreed to it, not really thinking much of it. I  told them I wasn't going to drink and I had school the next day so I could not have a late night.

We walked to some park and they had some drinks I'd never tried before so they poured me a shot and I had some, it was nice so I had another, then the drinks started getting passed in 'rounds' and every time I'd say I didn't want anymore they'd say that if I stopped drinking they'd all have to stop because of me. So I ended up getting pretty drunk I don't remember a lot of the night. But I do remember bits and I know that the boy I didn't know that well left early and I remember that the two boys who I had been friends with for so long completely took advantage of me. 

I will just give a bit of context here, these boys were nice, I'd been friends with them for years, not particularly big or violent, smart boys from private schools. Nothing seemed like it was pointing to what happened, nothing at all. I should have easily been able to get myself out of that situation, but I didn't. And the main reason that I didn't was because I had absolutely no idea where I was and I could not get home unless these boys took me. They knew this and they used it against me, I remember crying and telling them I just wanted to go home and they would tell me things that I had to do before they would take me home.

People told me that I was stupid and what did I expect sneaking out with three boys and yes I admit it probably wasn't my smartest move, however I don't really think having another girl there would have made that much of a difference (if she was drinking too).

So yes sorry for the long email, but what I learnt, is no-matter how safe you think you should be with certain people, if you are drinking, none of you will be thinking straight so either
  • Be somewhere very close to home that you know how to get back from
  • If you are drunk try have a sober friend who will be able to use rational thinking to get out of bad situation
  • Have someone you can call that can come pick you up
And note that all of these require you to know where you are, as in street names so you can at least call someone and ask them to come and get you."
This story is horrific and the fact that this girl is using what happened to her to try to help others is incredible. The strategies she suggests are so useful, yet simple and practical, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we didn't need to provide information like this to our young women?
I could almost guarantee that the young men involved here wouldn't even believe that they did anything wrong - that "they were helping her get drunk" (you wouldn't believe how often I hear that from male students attempting to justify bad behaviour) - let's not forget that this is a crime! Having sex with a girl who is too drunk to consent is sexual assault - it's important to educate our daughters about to protect themselves but we've also get a message to our sons about what is appropriate and what is not. Sadly, too many young women I meet would never dream of reporting an alcohol-related sexual assault because they believe that it is just simply a part of the 'alcohol experience', i.e., that's what happens when you get drunk! This has to change ...
Does this story have anything to do with parental provision of alcohol? Of course not, but what it clearly shows is that alcohol was used by those so-called 'nice' boys to take advantage of this young woman and because she was intoxicated she was unable to protect herself appropriately. Put simply, the more available alcohol is, the greater the risk. A parent providing alcohol does not reduce this risk in any way. As she says in her email - "no matter how safe you should be with certain people, if you are drinking, none of you will be thinking straight" - I really couldn't say it any better myself!

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.