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Monday, 29 September 2014

When parents aren't on the same page: 'Mixed messages'

As I've said many times before, being a parent is the most difficult job in the world and there is no rule book. For most mums and dads it is simply a matter of doing the best that they can with the resources they have at the time, a bit of 'trial and error' and hoping that at the very least, their kids come out at the end relatively unscarred.

When I am asked what I believe are the most important elements of good parenting as far as alcohol and other drugs is concerned I would have to say the following:
  • rules, consequences bound in unconditional love
  • developing and keeping lines of communication open as effectively as possible
  • no 'mixed messages'
The 'no mixed messages' can often be the most difficult, particularly in regards to both parents being 'on the same page' as to what those messages are going to be. Even in families where parents have very similar values there can often be disagreement on issues such as teens and parties. For example, Dad may believe his 15 year old little girl is far too young to stay over at a friend's house for a party, while the mother may see it as a great opportunity for her once shy daughter to spread her wings a little and become a little more social. Both of them love their daughter deeply and want her to stay safe but this slight difference in perspective can cause a tiny crack in their (up to that point) united parenting messaging and it won't take long for the teen to take advantage of the situation!

A couple of weeks ago I met a couple who were really struggling with their 17 year-old daughter. Essentially they were at the point where if they were not careful they were going to lose contact with the girl altogether. She was attending school and was fully functioning in that environment but would leave the house in the evenings and over the weekend without informing her parents where she was going, who she was with and when she would be home. She refused to answer her mobile when they called to find out if she was okay and would arrive at home at all hours (if she came home at all). They had no idea who her friends were and they had been informed by her that they were 'psycho parents'. You could actually see the terror on the mother's face - she was so frightened for her daughter and what could happen to her ... every little thing that was happening in the home was adding to her distress and causing greater conflict.

Unfortunately it took me a very short time to realize that the greatest problem that this couple was facing was that they simply weren't on the same page on how to deal with this issue. The mother was wanting to try to fix each individual problem - nothing could be allowed to get away from her, while the father was much more of the thinking that she was 17, four weeks away from her Year 12 exams and they should let the small things go and just try to stay connected. There was a massive divide between the two and if I saw it in the first five minutes of our conversation their daughter was certainly aware of it and almost certainly using it to her advantage (and most probably had been for some time).

'Mixed messages' is usually one of the most significant problem that you find in split families - with one parent often made out to be the 'rule maker' by the other who then attempts to be more popular by being more lenient in terms of rules and boundaries. In my experience you usually find that the more lenient parent tends to be the one who has the least contact with the child (although that certainly isn't always the case), believing that they have so little time with their child that they want to avoid as much conflict as possible. Young people take advantage of the situation and set one up against the other in an attempt to make sure they get want they want ...

That said, 'manipulation' (and that's what it is and aren't adolescents so good at it?) is certainly not unique to split families. It's only natural that parents are going to have different views on how to handle particular parenting decisions on a day-to-day basis, whether they are living together or apart. No matter how good your relationship is with your partner and how similar your views are on the basics, there are always going to be differences of opinion on how to deal with the questions your son or daughter throws you ... no matter what you do, however, it is important that you do not undermine your partner's authority by a throwaway line that you didn't think through properly.

It is incredibly important that parents make decisions on where they stand on such 'big ticket items' such as whether or not you permit them to drink alcohol or what your rules on sleepovers are going to be and once the decision has been made a unified front needs to be established. No matter how your son or daughter twists and turns things, whether they come to one or the other of you and tells you that the other has given permission, you must stand firm - the decision has been made and things won't change until another discussion has been had between you and your partner. As already said, teens are masters of manipulation and unfortunately once they've had any success in this department it can become a habit and get completely out of control.

But it's the little things that can be really problematic - the casual request that gets thrown at you from the back of the car when you're driving them to school (e.g., "Everyone's going to Jane's house on Friday after school and then they're catching the train into the city to see a movie. Can I go?") that you're simply not prepared for. There's no mention of a party or a gathering per se, alcohol doesn't seem to be involved and there's no request to stay at someone's house overnight and so it doesn't fit into any of the categories that you have made decisions on - what do you say? Let's make it clear, it's highly likely that the activity and the question have been carefully planned to avoid any of the rules that have been set and that's just the point (I know I make adolescents sound incredibly calculating here but if you could hear some of the things students tell me they have done to get what they want your toes would curl!). They may also try to throw these questions at you when others are around or you are in the middle of doing something hoping that you'll answer quickly and without really thinking it through in an effort to get rid of them!

My advice to parents in this type of situation is simple - never give an 'off-the-cuff' answer to what may appear to be an 'off-the-cuff' question! The best way to answer this type of question is to inform your teen that you are going to have to discuss this with your partner and a decision will be made by the two of you - that's how things are done in your family. I can pretty well guarantee they are not going to like the answer but it's the best one you can give ... Teens will test boundaries (that's their job!) and they will try to get a win with one (no matter how small) and set one up against the other. If they can even sniff an inconsistent or mixed message they will use it to their advantage!

This quote from a US website illustrates the importance of parents being on the same page and having consistent messaging:

"Raising a child is like building a house - when the foundation has cracks, you will face one problem after another until the whole thing comes crashing down. Part of the foundation of child rearing is parental authority. If someone is undermining a parent's authority - whether it is the other parent or a grandparent, friend or other relative, this undermining can unleash a domino effect-like chain of problems, which can plague a child into adulthood." 

Friday, 19 September 2014

E-cigarettes: What are they and should we be worried?

In the last few weeks I have been contacted by a number of schools asking for my advice on how to deal with students who have been caught with electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes as they are better known). I have to say that I really didn't know what to tell them. Although these devices have been around for a few years I really didn't think that they would make it into Australian schools to any great extent and as regular readers of my blog would know, I have been much more concerned about the growing interest in sheesha or hookah smoking. It appears that I was wrong, I am now asking schools that I visit whether they're seeing these devices and almost everyone of them has ...

So what exactly are e-cigarettes and how are they different from traditional cigarettes? More importantly, what are the harms associated with these devices, particularly when it comes to young people?

Put simply an e-cigarette is a nicotine delivery device that simulates tobacco smoking by producing a vapor. Operated by a battery, it vaporizes a liquid solution (called 'e-liquid' or 'e-juice) containing nicotine (amongst other things, including a range of flavours from fruit through to chocolate and bubble-gum) ) and is promoted by manufacturers as being 'safer' than traditional smoking because it is a tobacco-free product that eliminates the burning process. When the liquid is turned into a vapor, this is inhaled or 'vaped'. Confusing the issue is that there are also some of these e-liquids that are nicotine free, with these devices simply releasing a flavoured vapor such as Red Bull!

A WHO Report released earlier this year found that since 2005, the e-cigarette industry has grown from one manufacturer in China to an estimated US$3 billion global business with 466 brands. Worryingly, it is a market in which the tobacco industry is taking a greater stake, with many of the smaller manufacturers being bought out by the tobacco giants - it is obviously regarded as the future of 'smoking'. What is quite amazing is how quickly the technology is changing - I was at a presentation on the weekend and we were shown one product called the 'Supersmoker', an e-cigarettes that connects to a smartphone by Bluetooth and plays music and receives phone calls! Others provide feedback on smoking statistics, while one particular brand offers a feature that alerts the user when anyone else using that brand is nearby.

The 'positive' aspect of these devices (i.e., vapor versus smoke) is being pushed heavily with recent research suggesting that they can be used effectively as a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). They certainly appear to be used by some to help quit or reduce smoking, as well as to prevent relapse and there is no doubt that they reduce secondhand smoke. Smokers also sing their praises because they allow them to 'vape' in places they haven't been allowed to smoke. The tobacco prevention lobby however is split down the middle on whether these 'positives' outweigh the potential public health damage e-cigarettes could cause. So why is there debate amongst anti-smoking groups and what are my views on these devices?

Anything that assists smokers to quit the habit is a good thing but I must confess I am very concerned about the impact that these products may have on young people. We have done such a great job in this country where smoking is concerned (we officially have the lowest daily smoking rate in the world) and that is essentially due to us successfully making smoking be seen as anti-social ... Even though e-cigarettes don't involve 'smoking' per se, they still simulate the practice and together with other novel methods of smoking becoming increasingly popular (i.e., sheesha) there is a very real danger that the 'anti-social' message could be eroded over time, i.e.,if public vaping becomes more widespread, it will certainly increase the visibility (and possibly perceived acceptability) of a behaviour that resembles smoking. If we follow the US (and we usually do!) advertising and marketing of these products will become more and more aggressive, particularly via the Internet and social media. Add celebrity endorsements (and there have been many in the States - take a look at this American advert featuring ex-Playboy centrefold Jenny McCartney) there is a real danger of a shift in attitude towards smoking in general ...

My greatest concern however is the involvement of the tobacco industry. They have a history of targeting vulnerable groups, including young people, and when you look at some of the standard features of these products (e.g., child-friendly flavours) and other innovations that are being introduced such as devices being able to play music and receive phone calls, it's not surprising that many in the wider public health area are worried.

This really is a 'watch this space' area. E-cigarettes are not approved as therapeutic products but they can be purchased legally without nicotine across Australia.  E-liquid bottles or cartridges containing nicotine can be bought online, even though in some jurisdictions, obtaining, purchasing, possession and/or using nicotine without a permit is an offence. In addition, some states have also introduced legislation banning e-cigarettes being used in public areas and in the workplace. Most schools I have had discussions with have decided to see them as tobacco products, whether or not they contain nicotine, and deal with them accordingly.

But it is these nicotine-free disposable devices that are the real issue as far as most young Australians are concerned at the moment. A range of these products are now available at the local corner store ('Shisha-sticks' are most probably the most well-known) and come in a wide variety of flavours. It is these that I am being asked about by more and more students when I visit schools,  usually wanting to know what is in them and what are the potential harms ... That's hard for me to answer, I don't know how parents or teachers would know what to say. Summing it up nicely for me is a comment made by a Year 10 girl at the end of a discussion about a friend of her's who was regularly vaping berry-flavoured Shisha sticks ...

"If all she gets from it is a vapor that tastes of berries, why doesn't she just suck on a lolly? Seems like a lot of money to spend on a flavour that you could get much cheaper somewhere else!"

Out of the mouth of babes ... but it does highlight that it is most probably the simulation of smoking that is actually the real attraction of these products for the young and that, as I've already said, is the real problem - all of a sudden, smoking becomes 'cool' again.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

'Schoolies (or Leavers) Week': How should parents prepare?

It's that time again and with Year 12 exams only weeks away and the end of the year approaching, I'm starting to get asked more questions about Schoolies Week (or Leavers Week as it is known in WA). This week I'm off to Perth where I will be presenting at a forum being run by SDERA for parents on how to prepare for Leavers Week. They, like Queensland, are in a very different situation to other jurisdictions in that their Year 12s are a year younger than those in other states resulting in the majority of the young people travelling to celebrations being underage! When I visited a Queensland school earlier this year and asked how many of them would be 18, only one put their hand up, another 60 would be 17, but the remaining 25 were only 16 years old - a frighteningly young class of Year 12s - you can only imagine what their parents think about the whole experience!

So what are my views on the whole phenomenon? Firstly, I need to say that I have attended Gold Coast Schoolies' events a couple of times over the years, I usually spend at least one day in Byron over the period (as I'm usually working on the far north coast during that time) and, of course, regular readers of my blog know that I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the incredible 'Schoolies Festival' in Victor Harbour, SA last year and had one of the most wonderful nights of my professional life (I've said it before and I'll say it again, you have to love that wonderful organisation Encounter Youth - they work so hard to make sure those kids have a great time and are safe as possible!).

Schoolies Week has been around in one form or another for a long time. When I finished high school I can remember a range of things that some of my classmates did in the weeks following the last day of exams, the majority of them were pretty harmless, while some were illegal, others extremely dangerous and the rest just plain stupid, Being involved in some sort of 'letting off steam' activity once school has finished is not a new phenomenon.

Since that time, and particularly over the past decade, Schoolies Week, as it has become known as, has become bigger and far more commercialised (there are an awful lot of businesses that have been created and continue to survive solely around Schoolies). As a result there is increasing social pressure on young people leaving school to attend Schoolies Week celebrations in one form or another. Community interest has risen also and you can pretty well guarantee that every year crews of TV reporters will venture up to the Gold Coast to try to capture the most sensational footage they possibly can. Without fail they usually manage to find some young people who agree to be interviewed on national television and talk about their alcohol- (or even better, drug) fuelled week at Schoolies, thus reinforcing many parent’s belief that it is an event that is out of control and one without any merit.

One of the best things about all the attention is that the promoters of Schoolies' events have been forced to ‘up the ante’ in terms of organisation and must now do their very best to provide a safe environment as possible for the young people attending their event. As already said, I have attended a number of Schoolies Week celebrations over the years and although there have always been incidents, usually linked to excessive alcohol consumption, on the most part I have found the young people to be well behaved and reasonably sensible. Saying that, it is important to remember why they are there – their intent is to let their hair down and that is exactly what they do!

So how is the best way for parents to deal with the whole Schoolies experience? If you feel uncomfortable with letting them go, should you try to stop them?
It is important to remember that trying to prevent your son or daughter from attending this type of event could damage the relationship you have with them. Young people attending Schoolies are not in their early teens, they are usually very close to the legal drinking age or in some cases, just turned 18 years of age (as I said though, this can be very different in both WA and Queensland). That is where many of the problems lie. If they have already turned 18 that can often mean that they want to celebrate in a big way and as a result their younger friends get carried along in the undertow. Young people wanting to attend these events are at the age where they are going to have make decisions on their own and trying to prevent them from doing so is most probably going to cause more harm than good.

Regardless of that, you are still the parent and you are still allowed to voice your concerns about what they are doing and the potential risks they may encounter. That part of being a parent is never going to stop and you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t do it. I also am of the belief that if you don't feel comfortable with the whole Schoolies concept you certainly shouldn't be financing it! This is not an event that comes up suddenly, if they want to go, then really they should have to save up and pay for it - not only does this involve them 'planning ahead' but it also means that it is their money they are playing with. Be an idiot and damage property and you will lose your bond - I can't tell you how many parents I've met who have lost thousands (and I mean thousands) of dollars in bond money when they stupidly agreed to fund the holiday ...

My most important advice, however, is to take a moment and sit down with your child and talk through the concerns you have, whatever they may be. Then after you have finished, give them the opportunity to let you know how they intend to deal with the potential problems you have raised. Remember that this is most likely to be one of the very last opportunities you will ever have to have a conversation like this - use the Schoolies experience as a valuable tool to find out how your child plans to look after themselves and those around them - you may never get the chance again! What many parents discover during conversations like this is that we have a generation of young people to be proud of, with many of them doing their very best to look after themselves and their friends. Young people of today definitely don’t know it all, but I really do believe that the majority of them do try to reduce the risk of something going wrong the best way they can.

Always remember to end any conversation like this by letting your child know that they can call you at anytime and you will be there for them. One of the saddest things I have ever heard come from a young person’s mouth was at the very first Schoolies Week I ever attended.

A young girl, heavily intoxicated and having difficulty breathing, had been brought to the medical tent. She was only just conscious and had been found alone in the street. When she was asked if there was someone we could call to be with her, her response was a very timid "Not my mum!" 

We didn’t get a name of a friend or a relative, we were simply told not to call her mother. That sentence would break almost every mother's heart. I know that my mum would be devastated if she thought that I would ever say it.

Every time you have a conversation with your child involving risky behaviour it needs to end with a reinforcement of the message that you can be called at anytime and you will be there (even Schoolies!). It doesn't matter what they have done, you love them unconditionally and you will be there for them. There may be consequences, but that's down the track, all that’s important is that they are safe and you love them.

For additional information on 'all things Schoolies' I have developed a Student and Parent Checklist for Schoolies and they are available on the DARTA website. Finally, as many of you are aware, I also write a blog for young people where I answer their questions - you may want to look at one particular entry (most probably the most popular) that answers the question 'How can I convince my parents to let me go to Schoolies?' - it just shows you how I deal with this issue when working with adolescents.

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.