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Saturday, 12 December 2015

What if nothing's working and your family is suffering? Three 'must-do's' for parents who are struggling

Hardly a week goes by without me receiving an email or a phone call from a parent who is having a problem dealing with their son or daughter and their alcohol or other drug use. Some of these mums and dads put on as brave a face as possible when they speak to me, while others are terribly distraught, some even breaking down in tears, desperate to find a solution to the problems they are facing with their child. This week I had four parents call me in just one day, all of whom were struggling with very different issues, but all telling me that they felt they really had no idea where to go to get help or advice.

Now I need to emphasise that I am not a trained counsellor or health professional, and I make sure I make that clear to anyone who calls me for advice in this area. I'm also not a parent so it is impossible for me to imagine what these people are going through. I am an educator and I do know a reasonable amount about the research in the area of parenting and alcohol and other drugs. When I am approached by these people I see my role more as one of referral, trying to direct them to the correct services, agencies, as well as health professionals who may be able to assist them with their problem. There are usually three pieces of advice, however, that I do give them, three simple 'must-do's' that any parent struggling with a teen and their alcohol and other drug use can and should do to help them get through this extremely difficult time. They are as follows:
  • Make sure you and your partner are okay before you do anything else - by the time these parents speak to me the vast majority of them are a complete mess! They have been struggling to deal with what has been going on in their home for some time and the whole family is suffering. Marriages are sometimes at breaking point and if there are other children (particularly younger siblings) they too can be affected terribly. Let's be clear here, if you're a mess then there is no way that you're going to be able to help your teen. Don't be afraid to get professional help - so many are afraid to do this, believing that it somehow means they have 'failed' as parents - nothing could be further from the truth. You can go to your GP and ask for a referral to a health professional who specialises in this area (yes, they do exist!) or if you feel comfortable speaking to counsellor at the school your child attends, they may also be able to assist. Whoever you speak to, you need to use the opportunity to talk through what you are going through and possibly even get some strategies on how to communicate with your son or daughter more effectively. It is vital however that this is all about you - it is not about fixing your child's problem - this is all about making sure you are ok! You can worry about your child's issue once this is done ...
  • Before you react to anything, walk away and count to 10 - without doubt, every parent I speak to talks about the clashes they have with their teen and often the reason they took the step to contact me is that these are escalating. These clashes are usually due to the child not doing something that was expected of them or flagrantly breaking a rule and then the parent reacting. If you want one simple thing that will almost automatically reduce the suffering in the home it is never, ever react immediately. You're angry, they've been found out and their back is against the wall - it's not going to end well. I'm well aware that this simple strategy does not go towards solving the alcohol and other drug issue you have with your teen but it does make life more bearable! When something happens, walk away - count to 10, make a quick call to a friend and vent, scrawl out swear words on a piece of paper for a couple of minutes - and then come back to them and express your concerns. Once the old pattern of reacting straight away is broken, you have a better chance of dealing with the issue in a more positive way (and you'll feel less stressed!)
  • Remember that you're the adult and they're the child - one of the lines I hear constantly from parents is "But they won't even meet me halfway ...". A key to good parenting in this area is the setting of clear boundaries and rules and making sure consequences are in place should they break those rules. That said, young people are still going to push against those boundaries and you will need to punish them accordingly - that's a normal parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, there are teens who are going to ignore rules altogether and no matter what you do, they're simply not going to tow the line. Now this is not the norm and if your child is acting out in a major way you may need to change the way you approach your relationship. Instead of keeping insisting that they at least meet you halfway, you may have to go 'over halfway', reach over and grab them and then pull them back! So much of this has to do with parents realizing that you're not going to have total control over their teen's behaviour, no matter what you do ... Now I'm not saying you do this the first time they do the wrong thing, but if you obviously have a problem and you fear losing them - you have to change tack! What I'm talking about here is essentially a change in attitude - no matter how mature they may think they are, you are dealing with an adolescent who doesn't have a fully developed brain. They aren't able to think through things rationally and everything is based on a 'gut reaction'. Remembering this when you are trying to talk to a difficult teen is not going to solve the problem but it may at least lower your frustration level.
If you do have a child who you believe is having issues with alcohol and other drugs you need to remember that you are not alone. You also need someone to talk to about it. If you have a family member or friend that you believe is appropriate - go for it - but in my experience, so often parents who go down this route end up feeling even more frustrated when the person they trusted ends up telling them not to worry and that 'it's just a stage they're going through'!

If you do need to talk through what is going on in your family and you want a non-judgemental ear to listen I advise parents to contact a wonderful organisation called Family Drug Support (FDS). FDS was formed in 1997 by Tony Trimingham who lost his son to a heroin overdose. It is a caring, non-religious and non-judgemental organisation primarily made up of volunteers who have experienced first-hand the trauma and chaos of having family members with drug issues. They have a Support Line for parents that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - 1300 368 186.

As already said, the most important thing parents need to do is to make sure they're ok before they do anything else. This can involve getting professional help or simply having a great family or friend support network around them when things get tough. Remember, you're no good to your child if you're not coping well - when you feel good (or at least better) you're going to be able to deal with this type of issue much more positively and effectively ...

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Pill testing isn't a silver bullet to prevent drug deaths, but it could be part of the solution

Over the past fortnight we have seen two deaths at dance festivals, apparently both due to ecstasy. Both of these are tragic wastes of young lives and, not surprisingly, the public wants answers as to what happened. It is important, however, that we wait for toxicology and the coroner's report before we jump to conclusions. But as always, the media approaches the usual suspects to make comment and, although we really have little or no information, wild statements are made about possible 'bad batches' or that aggressive policing contributed to the death. Let's be honest here, over the years I've been guilty of finding myself doing a media interview and being pushed into a corner and making a comment that in retrospect was not appropriate. I can also tell you that the last question you are usually asked is "What would you say to anyone who is considering taking ecstasy?" Trying to give a balanced response to that question in the context of of a young person recently dying is not easy - even the most experienced commentator is not going to get it right everytime!

For that reason I have avoided doing any media interviews around the two deaths. Put simply, at this stage we don't know what caused their death. We do know, according to their friends, that they both took ecstasy (and possibly other drugs) and that they subsequently died, so it is fair to refer to them as ecstasy-related deaths but that is about it. We don't know what substance they actually took (ecstasy could contain anything), we don't know how much of that drug was in their system and we don't know how they died (i.e., overheating, heart failure, etc) so it is difficult for anyone to really make comment on either case. When you say that you don't want to make a comment on the actual deaths, journalists move to questions about how to prevent this from happening in the future. I've avoided the media in this area as well but when I was asked to write an Opinion Piece for the Sydney Morning Herald on possible solutions I grabbed the opportunity to highlight a concern I have about the debate that occurs after almost every ecstasy-related death ...

Here is a slightly edited version of the piece (the words in bold are an extremely important addition to the piece and I thank Dr David Caldicott for alerting me to the issue - I hope it clarifies my views. It was never my intention to imply that people who conduct pill testing would ever suggest that if you know what you're taking, it is safe. That is certainly not the case - I was referring to users believing this to be true) ...

Two apparent ecstasy-related deaths in as many weeks is unprecedented as far as I am aware. Ecstasy deaths are rare, but when they do occur they receive a great deal of media attention. They are usually linked to nightclubs, dance events and festivals, a part of youth culture that many older Australians do not understand well, and involve drugs that weren't necessarily around when they were younger and as a result, they can cause great community concern. 

Two 'camps' quickly emerge in the days following a death – the prohibition lobby who demand that governments and police get tougher and those who hold more of a 'harm reduction' view who usually suggest that 'pill testing' is the way forward. The two sides bang heads for a couple of days, maybe a week, and then we just keep on as before until the next tragic death. That is until last year …

When a 19-year-old young woman died at a Sydney dance festival from an apparent drug overdose the call to get tougher was louder than ever. Since that time we have seen a greater police presence at dance festivals than ever before, particularly in NSW. The number of people charged with possession of illicit substances at these events has never been as high and yet, here we are, only a couple of month into the dance festival season and we already have two deaths. Yes, we can get tougher but from what we've seen over the past fortnight it doesn't seem to have made any difference as to whether people take illicit substances, or reduce the harm associated with that use. 

So what about the other side of the argument - would pill testing help? Let me start by saying I am totally supportive of this strategy but am worried that when promoting this potentially useful strategy we're promising something it can't necessarily deliver. Put simply, it's being made out to be some silver bullet to an extremely complex issue. 

Pill testing (or 'drug checking' as it is called in some parts of the world) would provide some limited information to users, usually about potentially dangerous adulterants that can be found in pills, tablets and powders. Different parts of the world conduct this strategy in different ways, sometimes a simple reagent test, whereas others offer a much more thorough testing regime. The whole concept is based on one of the key prevention messages we have around ecstasy (and other illicits) – 'you don't know what you’re taking'. Pill testing, therefore, allows the user to have a little more information about what it is that they're planning to use. Unfortunately, as far as many users are concerned, the whole concept is based on the false assumption that if you do know what you're taking, it is safe – something that is absolutely untrue. As far as ecstasy is concerned, the substance users are looking for is MDMA. Test a pill and find out that it contains MDMA and many users believe that this means that the pill is 'safe'. MDMA is not a safe drug and many of the deaths that have occurred across Europe this year have actually been due to MDMA overdose. Pill testing for adulterants would not necessarily have assisted in preventing those deaths. 

It was pleasing to see the Federal Government acknowledge that we can’t arrest our way out of the ice problem - the same thing goes for ecstasy and related drug culture. Tougher policing has certainly not resulted in less harm – the last fortnight has made that abundantly clear. Age-appropriate education, based on evidence and not simply scare tactics, a development of an early warning system about particularly dangerous substances disseminated by agencies that users are more likely to believe (police warnings are often ignored) and an agreed 'code of conduct' for party promoters (including appropriate policing) are just some of the areas that could be investigated. The tragedy is that we only talk about this issue when we have a death, when in fact we need to have an ongoing dialogue between all parties (the dance festival and nightclub industry, government, police and clubbers themselves) about how to move forward in a positive way in this area. Hopefully pill testing is a part of that dialogue but let's not kid ourselves that just one strategy is going to mean we won't see these kind of deaths in the future.

I'll say it again, I am totally supportive of pill testing but I am extremely worried that it is being put forward as a simple 'solution' to a very complex problem (not necessarily by the promoters of the initiative who are well aware of its limitations and that for it to be effective it must be a part of a range of strategies, but rather by the media who love 'black and white' solutions, the more controversial the better!). Let's be clear, even in countries where they have pill testing in place, we still see ecstasy-related deaths. As the title of the piece says - pill testing isn't a silver bullet to prevent deaths, but it could be part of the solution.

This is an updated version of an Opinion Piece written for the Sydney Morning Herald published on December 7, 2016. The original online version is also available.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Parenting a teenager:"It's all about sacrifice!"

I'm constantly writing about the bizarre parenting, particularly around alcohol and partying, I see or hear about as I'm travelling across the country and I have been criticised for what some see as 'parent bashing'. I'm not a parent (as my wonderful sister-in-law has told me after hearing me present at an Information Evening a few years ago) and it's extremely easy for me to criticise what parents do or don't do in this area when I don't have to deal with the issue myself. That said, I always try to make it clear in anything I write (or say for that matter) that I believe parenting is the toughest job in the world - there is no 'rule book'.

Every family is different and within each family, every child is going to have their own personality and potentially their own issues. You'll be different as well. Raising a child, with all the fears and anxiety that comes with first-time parenthood (combined with all the reading you have likely done about how to do it properly), is likely to be very different the second time around. You know more and you have actual life experience. You are going to be a different parent, no matter what you try to do, and you are dealing with a completely different human being - what may have worked extremely well with your first may go down like a lead balloon with the next! So, as I said - there is no 'rule book' - you can only do the best you can at the time!

So instead of 'parent bashing' I thought I'd do the complete opposite in this post and talk about a wonderful father who shared with me what he believed was the key to parenting a teenager. He was a teacher who had agreed to drive me home after a Parent Night held at his school - it was quite a long trip and my visit to the school had obviously struck a nerve. He had a 15 year-old daughter who was just starting the whole teen party roller coaster and he just wanted to talk. When he dropped me off at my hotel I asked him if he'd mind sending me an email with his thoughts as I was in the process of writing a book and was looking for personal anecdotes that I could use. I received the email the next day but for some reason the piece never ended up in the final edit. Here is a slightly edited version that was included in an early draft of my book ...

"Thanks for yesterday and for the chat last night. When I got home after dropping you off I had a long talk with my wife and talked through all the issues you raised in your talk to parents, as well as the discussion we had in the car. As you asked, here are our thoughts on parenting a teenager (and I have to say that this is definitely a work in progress!)

My wife and I believe that when it comes to parenting a teenager, it's all about sacrifice. Our daughter is the most important thing in the world to us and we would give our lives to keep her safe. Although there were some challenges when she was younger, nothing compares to the issues we are facing now. She's a smart young woman but, as you said in your talk, she's certainly missing a piece of her brain at the moment! She's a typical 15 year-old who wants to fit in with her friends and go to parties and we seem to be constantly fighting with her about almost everything.

We believe that to get through this time we have to sacrifice two things, one of which is proving to be far more difficult than the other. The first (and without doubt the easiest) is sacrificing our social life to some extent and particularly drinking alcohol on the weekends. We have always made ourselves available for sporting commitments, music practice and other activities, but when our daughter first started getting asked to parties we quickly realized that we were going to have to be 'on-call' 24 hours a day, particularly over the weekends. We have always made it clear to her that if something went wrong and she ever needed us, we would be there ASAP, no questions asked. Hopefully the need will never arise but if she calls us, we need to be able to hop into the car and get to her. We couldn't do that if we had been drinking. We did think about the whole designated driver thing, one of us being able to have one or two glasses of wine one week and then the other the next but in the end, we're in this together and alcohol isn't that important in our lives anyway. We also plan to be the parents who take her to parties and also pick her up (at least for the next couple of years) - we don't want to rely on others to do our parenting.

That's the easy one, the second sacrifice is much more difficult - i.e., sacrificing our daughter liking us. I know you said that your kids aren't meant to like you, but let me assure you, it's the hardest thing in the world to have your daughter tell you that she hates you and you're ruining her life! But the reality is that although this is so hard, we know it is the most important thing we can do to keep her safe. Making those tough calls and saying "No" when we have to is never going to be easy but sometimes it has to be done and she's not going to like it. Yes, it's true that she forgets she hates us pretty quickly but for that time when she says she does, it eats your heart away and that's the ultimate sacrifice!"

I wish I still had the original email as I would love to make contact and see how things went - his daughter would now be in her mid 20s! I have never forgotten the conversation I had in the car with this amazing Dad and in my view I think he and his wife got it right - to some degree, effective parenting, particularly where teenagers are concerned, is all about sacrifice ... Some sacrifices shouldn't be too hard to make, while others will be so difficult but worth it when you consider the end result!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Should we be surprised that teen parties get out of control when we give them so much when they are so young?

I've been putting this blog article together for some time now ... Each time I receive another email from a concerned parent who is struggling on how to deal with their teen being invited to a party or gathering that they just don't feel is going to be safe, I have a little more ammunition and some more evidence that I believe justifies me asking "What in heavens are some people thinking?". But last night when I read an article in the 'Essential Kids' section of the SMH (you can find some really interesting pieces there!) called 'Are primary school graduation formals getting out of hand?', I thought, I can't hold back any longer ...

I recommend you read the whole piece (the author, Kylie Orr, makes some great points throughout) but essentially it was written because of the following 'incident':

"It's now my 12-year-old's turn to "graduate" from primary school. We didn't use the word "graduate" when I finished grade six. We were simply closing one chapter and opening the next. In the excitement around this year's graduation ceremony, talk has turned to limos. Yes, limousines: the extravagant purchase many adults may have invested in for a Year 12 formal, or even a wedding. Now, grade six children are discussing that mode of transport to their primary school graduations."

Later in the article she asks the question, if we're talking about limousines in primary school, should we be expecting them to ask for helicopters when they graduate from high school? That of course sounds totally ridiculous until you read a Canberra Times article from September of last year titled 'School leavers chopper in for formals - limos on the outer' where the reporter claims that there are actually parents in some parts of the country who charter a helicopter for their teen's school formal!

"Red carpet looks have become the new standard for many Canberra school girls, while interstate students are increasingly eschewing limousine hire in favour of helicopter charters to take them to the formal venue in style. The practice has become big business in Queensland and parts of NSW and one helicopter operating service in the Hunter Valley said there was no reason it wouldn't fly to Canberra to do school formal trips if demand was strong enough and the money was right."

I can't imagine that there are too many parents who are that stupid, but if there's even one who has ever done it - absolutely unbelievable! But let's get back to the primary school issue ... over the past year here are just a couple of examples of parties for primary school aged (or younger) children that I have been told about:
  • parents hiring an entire I-Max theatre for a group of 15 pre-primary aged girls to watch 'Frozen'!
  • a party for a class of Year 3 students (they're around 8 years old!) who were driven to Gold Class to watch a movie in 2 hummers and provided mocktails on the way there! 
  • parents paying for a well-known Australian amusement park to be closed for the afternoon so that their Year 6 daughter could celebrate her 12th birthday with 30 of her closest friends and have the attraction all to themselves 

And then of course, last September the SMH ran a piece called 'Kids parties go all out' that highlighted one particular party for a one year-old that offered the following experience for those lucky enough to attend:

"Pocahontas was there, and plenty of teepees too, and a balloon artist and a face painter and a petting zoo with 35 animals. There was a cowboy and Indian photo booth, and craft stands, and Wild West-themed snacks, plus oodles of "gorgeous champagne and incredible food" for the adults."

Now if you have that much money and you want to do these things for your children, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to say that you shouldn't? Kylie Orr says the same thing in her article but she also asks parents to consider what are the possible implications in the long-term of giving so much to those so young?

"If other families want to fork out money then that is their prerogative, I get it. My concern lies in the short-sightedness of such decisions. Have we completely ignored the joy of working hard, achieving and being rewarded, in an age-appropriate way? Have we considered the consequences of allowing our children to be privy to such extravagance, so young?"

I've said this before but when I speak to young people and ask them what makes a safe party, most respond by saying that it is vital that there is a guest list and that the number invited is capped. That sounds great until you hear how many they think it should be capped at ... the average response is usually 200! I believe the reason this is happening is because of the expectations we are setting up early - in primary school and now, even earlier. Today's parents are the first to ever invite a whole year group to a birthday party - think about it, did you ever get asked to a party where there were anymore than 10 other invitees? It would have been unthinkable to ask 30 children to a birthday party 20 years ago - it just wasn't done! Set up the expectation of the whole year group being invited to a party in primary school and that's what they want when they turn 15! And remember, when they're 15, there's a whole lot more of them in a year group and they're going through adolescence it's a recipe for disaster and pretty scary ...

No-one can tell any parent what to do when it comes to putting on parties for their children (certainly not me - I don't even have kids of my own!). But be warned, give them too much when they're young and you're undoubtedly going to be setting yourself up for some pretty extreme requests when they're older ... Well-known parenting expert, Michael Grose is quoted in Orr's article as saying the following:

"As parents, we don't say to our children anymore, 'you are a child and these are adult concepts.' They need to learn to bide their time, wait their turn ... We need to ask, is this appropriate for their age and stage of development? The easiest way to parent is to go with the crowd. The hardest is to swim against the tide."

Never a truer word spoken!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Is cannabis really being laced with 'ice'?

For some time now I have been asked by a range of people (parents, teachers and health professionals) whether I believe it is true that cannabis is being 'laced' with 'ice'. My response has always been that I have seen no evidence to support the claim and realistically if such evidence actually existed then I am sure the police and other agencies would be getting that information out to cannabis users and the wider community as soon as they were able to - not only is it an important public health message, it's also a great story and would generate some pretty major headlines across the country! I haven't written anything about it because I hate giving stories like this any oxygen ... they feed into the mythology and hysteria around drugs and drug use and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the tabloids grabbed a line from something I wrote that said I didn't believe it was the case and twisted it around to say that drug educators were concerned about the possibility that cannabis was in fact being laced with methamphetamine!

Unfortunately I have recently visited schools where statements have been made to students by visiting speakers about this practice, with figures being quoted about the actual percentage of cannabis seizures found to be containing ice. Now I am not here to knock anybody who makes a living from giving talks in schools about any topic - none of us are perfect and we all get things wrong once in a while (as I often say to students, if you leave my presentation saying "Paul Dillon said it, it must be true!" then you're an idiot! Be a critical thinker, talk about it with others, go and find out more), but making claims like this is dangerous and irresponsible without damn good evidence to support what you are saying (and having a police officer or an alcohol and other drug worker tell you that it's true is not good evidence!). In addition, a story ran about a woman in the Hunter region of NSW who was found to have cannabis and methamphetamine in her system when she underwent a roadside drug test who claimed she had never used the drug. The conclusion was that the cannabis was laced with ice, with the magistrate quoted as saying "When you buy off the street, you don't what you are getting."

I have spoken to a number of police officers that I know in reasonably senior positions, as well as some people in toxicology, and they have all said the same thing - yes, they've heard of this, but none of them have actually seen any toxicological evidence to support that it is actually happening.

It's important to know that stories about one drug (usually cannabis, but also ecstasy and LSD) being laced or intentionally adulterated with another potentially more dangerous substance have been going around for a long time. Back in the 90s there were many stories in the US about cannabis being laced with PCP, in Australia there was lots of talk about the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine (or 'Special K') being used. The first reliable reference I can find about meth-laced cannabis comes from the US in 2008 (although I was also able to find a 2006 online news article from Canada which also makes huge claims without any actual evidence) and I have included a copy of a news release about a warning apparently issued by police at that time below:

If you look carefully at this story, once again, it states that "the police have not actually seized any tainted marijuana", they've just heard about it ... Interestingly, it's not only the authorities who promote these stories, tales of adulterated cannabis are often spoken about amongst those who smoke the drug themselves. If you take a look at drug user chat rooms there are many references to this issue. Here is one that I have edited down a little ...

"I feel like everyone I meet has some story about smoking weed that had been laced with something by the dealer. They always go something like, "Oh yeah dude I smoked some weed one time a few years ago that was secretly laced with meth" and then they go on to perfectly describe all the symptoms of a weed-induced anxiety attack. It's annoying as hell that people actually believe this old wive's tale invented by mothers to scare kids. Has this ever actually happened to someone in a provable way? Or am I right in thinking it's just an urban legend?"

So why don't I think it's happening? It's simple, it just doesn't make sense, particularly economically. Why would anyone put the most expensive drug currently available (i.e., ice, currently more expensive than cocaine or heroin) onto cannabis? The usual reason given is that it is done in an effort to try to introduce users to other more expensive drugs and hopefully get them addicted ... I love this response to that argument that I found in a drug user chat room - it really says it all!

"Ok, I will buy that there is benefit in getting your customer hooked to a harder drug (if you are certain he will be a faithful customer) but wouldn't the customer have to know it to buy more? I mean, if they bought weed, thought it was weed, they would just go back to get the weed, not the more expensive drugs. I know that cutting drugs occurs, and that they are not scrupulous about what they cut with, but is there really a documented case of a drug dealer trying to hook people by adding a more expensive drug to a cheap drug?"

So say, for argument's sake, you've been smoking 'ice-laced cannabis' for a while and now dependent on methamphetamine (not quite sure how that works and how you would know but let's go with it for now!), does your dealer then start giving you 'normal' cannabis and wait for you to notice the difference? Once you have, do you then go back and say that you want what you were being sold before? If at that point the dealer then said that they had actually been giving you 'ice-laced cannabis', I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be too happy ... Seems like a whole pile of extra work and grief for a dealer - as I said, it just doesn't make sense!

Also, how in heavens do you get ice to stick onto cannabis? Most readers would not have ever seen the drug but let me assure you, it's not sticky! Some people have suggested that it could be sprayed on in a liquid form and would then crystalize onto the plant matter over a period of time. If it was to be heated and applied onto cannabis it certainly wouldn't end up being translucent and clear - no matter what process was used (take a look at this discussion from an online drug user forum where the moderator finally shuts it down with the statement - "you simply cannot lace cannabis with meth'). And once again it boils down to the most important point of why would anyone bother with such a labour intensive process when there is a market for ice anyway? A market that is willing to pay a whole lot more for their drug of choice than they are for cannabis ...

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here but my guess is that it is most probably a combination of things ... certainly it's a fear-based thing and feeds into the whole 'evil drug dealer' stereotype and the idea that taking one drug inevitably leads to the use of other drugs. But I think there's another issue and that's got to do with what cannabis can look like when it is being harvested and at a time when the community is so conscious of the whole ice phenomenon and much more aware of what that drug looks like, it's not too difficult to see how people could mistake what they see as the presence of crystalline methamphetamine or ice.

If you look at the three photographs at the top of the post you'll see firstly in the top left a typical cannabis 'bud', below that some ice and then the larger image on the right shows a bud that looks like it is covered with some sort of crystalline product. What that picture actually shows is 'trichomes'. According to the website Marijuana Growers Headquarter, trichomes look like little white crystals (you can see them quite clearly on the image) covering the plants buds, leaves, and sometimes even stalks. When you look at them closely they are not actually pieces of crystal but translucent resin glands that come out of the plant. These are present throughout all stages of plant growth but they rapidly increase as the plant flowers and is one of the main ways that growers know when to harvest their crop. At full maturity these trichomes increase in size and instead of appearing clear, they start to change to a light amber or a cloudy white colour, looking very much like ice crystals. This is not a new phenomenon, trichomes have always existed (which could explain why authorities in the past have believed that products like PCP or ketamine - both available in crystalline forms - could have been added to cannabis) but at a time when we've become so 'ice aware', if you were to see buds like the one shown above it might leave you wondering ...

As far as I am aware there are no documented cases of this practice (if anyone knows of any and can provide me the data, please do - I will be happy to let others know about it). As already said, stories of cannabis laced with other substances, whether it be PCP, ketamine or ice, have been around for a long time and I doubt whether they'll go away anytime soon. Considering the community interest around ice at the moment it's not surprising that people believe this to be true but we have to be extremely careful about passing these stories onto others without having really good evidence to support what we're saying ...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

What makes a good school great? How do you choose a school that's right for your child?

As most of you know I do not have children (as I always say in my talks, if I did, they'd live in a cellar, be chained to a wall and never be let out - I say that in jest but to be honest I'm not really sure what I would do!), but I am frequently asked by parents (and particularly friends who are parents), if I did have children, what schools would I send them to and why?

I come into contact with almost 200 schools each year, across all sectors - public, Catholic and Independent - and I continue to be impressed by the amazing things I see across the country. I don't want to get into the whole 'public or private' debate - parents make a choice about whether they're going to put extra money into their child's education based on a whole pile of things. Certainly faith can play a role for some people (although it would appear this group of parents is getting much smaller) but for many, it's simply they want to ensure that their child has the 'best education' that they can afford. Whether a private school education provides that depends very much on what you mean by 'best education'.

At this point I need to say that when I taught (many years ago now!), I chose to teach in the public system. I try to think back now to whether I considered entering the private system and I honestly don't think it even crossed my mind! I can't tell you why I made that choice and I don't know whether I would make the same choice today but there it is ...

So back to 'where would I send my children and why?'

Over the past 20 or so years that I have been visiting schools across the country I have seen a tremendous change in how schools 'sell' themselves. Years ago it was all about results (e.g., how many Year 12 students got into university?) and I'm certainly not saying that has completely gone, of course ATARs are important. For some, particularly some of the elite boys' schools, it was about sporting achievements or what famous people had been students in the past. Increasingly, however, I'm seeing schools that are promoting their pastoral care (as they are referred to in the Catholic and Independent systems) or well-being (public schools) programs as a 'selling point' to parents trying to work out where they should send their kids and, for me, these programs and how they are rolled-out are really what makes a good school great!

Pastoral care means different things to different people, but my definition is simple - it is 'the way in which a school demonstrates it cares for the student as an individual'. It is the procedures and practices that schools put into place to ensure that no child 'falls through the cracks'. Primary schools do this incredibly well due to the nature and style of teaching at that age (one teacher across one year, interactive learning and relatively small class sizes) but at high school it is so much more difficult. Teachers don't just teach one class of 25-30 students across a year, they may teach hundreds across many classes and it is a struggle for some to even get to learn all their students first names, let alone anything about what is going on in their lives - in that sort of environment it is incredibly easy for a student to just get lost in the crowd ...

Quality pastoral care builds 'resilience'. Those with greater resilience are less fazed by setbacks than others and clearly show a greater ability to 'bounce back', no matter what life throws at them. It is important, therefore, to try to make our young people as resilient as possible, hopefully protecting them against the stresses and adverse situations that they will encounter as they go through life. One of the best ways for schools to build resilience is to ensure that young people develop 'connectedness' or a 'sense of belonging'. Teens are at a stage of their life when they are pulling away from their parents and trying to establish their own identity. Their once strong connectedness to the family can often be tested. A positive relationship with the school and a 'sense of belonging' to something they view as important at this time can play a powerful role in keeping a teen as safe as possible.

When I visit a school these are the kind of things I look for from a pastoral care perspective:
  • what does the front office look like and who is behind the desk? Some of the ladies I have met across the country who have these front office roles are incredible human beings! They have been at the school forever and when I hear them talking to students, often knowing each of them by name, it just blows me away ... you can tell so much about a school from the front office staff ...
  • do students freely approach teachers to talk to them as they're walking through the school? What are the interactions like? I often sit outside during lunchtime and simply count the number of interactions I see, how long they last and how the student looks as they leave the conversation - this tells you so much about the quality of the teacher-student relationships at the school
  • how often do teachers address students using their first name? Most probably the most important thing that I look for when I visit a school and such a simple test ... Whenever possible I note down the names of students who come up and talk to me after a presentation and when I visit the following year I do my best to approach them and talk to them using their name. You have no idea how special that makes that young person feel! Sometimes they are literally left speechless that I remembered them and it takes such a small amount of effort and has such a huge impact ...
  • what does the staff room look like and how do staff interact? When I taught the staff room was abuzz at recess and lunchtime, that is not always the case today. So often teachers are so busy that they never ever get to the staff room, instead staying in their faculty areas. Smart principals are now realizing that it is so important that staff across faculties interact and talk - when you go to a school where staff rooms are busy and social, teachers are happier, they're communicating across faculties and this positive energy flows onto the students
I'd like to make it very clear that if I do not feel that the school is not doing a good job in this area and that doesn't look like changing anytime soon, I usually don't go back! The work I do in a school hangs very much on what is done pastorally, if it isn't followed-up by teachers and if there aren't quality conversations about what I raised during my presentations, there really isn't much point in me going back. In those situations the school is simply 'ticking a box' and we know that doesn't work - it's a waste of the school's money and my time!

Of course, some of the things I discussed above are not easily assessed by parents when visiting a school to work out whether it is appropriate for their child. That said, I believe there are some simple questions a parent should ask a school that are able to give you a good idea about their pastoral care programs and whether what is happening at school will help ensure that your child does not fall through the cracks and at the same time, help build their resilience ...
  • what pastoral care (or well-being) programs are run across the school?
  • are there specific pastoral care sessions allocated across the years or is it integrated across the curriculum? What you want to hear here is that there are a mixture of both - a school that knows what they're doing will tell you that pastoral care is embedded across all that they do ... if they do, ask them for an example 
  • who is responsible for pastoral care? (if you don't get the answer - "All teachers are pastoral care teachers at this school?" there's an issue!)
  • will there be a specific teacher responsible for my child's pastoral care? This will either be a Year Co-ordinator or a homeroom teacher or the like and a good follow-up question would be "How many students is that teacher responsible for?" As much as smaller numbers are better in many ways (the larger the group, the greater the risk of them slipping under the radar), the quality of the teacher and their commitment to the concept of pastoral care is so much more important
If you've elected to put your child through the state system you do not usually have the choice of what school you child attends. This does not mean, however, that you don't have the right to ask the same questions. In fact, I think it is vital that you do ... this year I have attended amazing state schools that have incredible well-being programs but that is not always the case (just as it is across the other sectors), asking the right questions (in an appropriate and respectful way) may make those schools more likely to assess their programs and try to improve what they are doing.

As already said, parents choose the school (and/or the system) they want their child to attend based on a whole range of things. For me, the most important thing a school should provide is a place where the students feel valued and important - once they have that, they have the best chance of learning and reaching their full potential. Secondary school can be a tough place (I know it was for me!) and when you add all the trials and tribulations of adolescence to the mix, it is important that we try to ensure that the experience, although not always pleasant for many, is as safe as possible.

Sure, look at their results. If your son or daughter is sporty, take a look at the sports programs the school offers and of course the same goes for music and drama and the like. But isn't the most important thing that your child feels safe and valued? Without that, it doesn't matter what their ATAR score is or whether or not they make the school football or rowing team - it's all becomes a little bit pointless!

I can think of two schools that I visited this year (one in the state system and the other an elite Independent school) that simply 'oozed' quality pastoral care. From the moment you stepped onto the school grounds you could almost feel positive energy ... the front office staff were amazing (one of the women walked around her desk and warmly shook my hand when she greeted me - unbelievable!), the teachers were buzzing and the quality of their interactions with students were a joy to see, both staff rooms were packed (both had functions on the day I visited and there was such a positive atmosphere) and the kids were amazing. But in both schools it was the principal that made the greatest impact ... When you get dropped off at a school in the morning and the principal is standing at the front gate greeting students (often by name!), and they then take time out of their extremely busy days to make an appearance at least one of my sessions and say hello, you certainly know that that school is being led by someone who genuinely cares about the students and what is going on in the school and in their lives. Good pastoral care often seeps down from the top ... when you have a principal who's committed to it, you can pretty well guarantee you're going to see it throughout the whole school. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

When should you start the conversation about alcohol with your child?

A US report published earlier this year aimed at preventing binge drinking in young people recommended that parents should start talking to their children about alcohol at age 9. Co-author of the report, Dr Lorena Siqueira was reported as saying that the reason to start the conversation this early was that "kids are starting to develop impressions (about alcohol) as early as 9 years." She went on to say that for prevention to actually work, or at least have some effect, it's better for parents to influence ideas about alcohol early, rather than trying to change their impressions later, from positive to negative.

I've written many times that I believe that you should start talking to your child about drugs the minute you start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we have, there is a drug that can fix it. Think about it for a moment – if you are depressed, you take a pill, if you can't get an erection, you take a pill – we start medicating our children from a very early age and begin to train them to be very effective drug users not long after they are born. One of my earlier blog entries discusses how parents can use pharmaceutical drugs and over-the-counter medications to have those initial conversations about drugs and how they are used. But what about alcohol? In reality this is the drug you are most likely going to have issues with your teen about - if you're meant to start the conversation at age 9, what in heavens are you meant to say? 

Most importantly parents should use every available opportunity to talk about the issue. Alcohol is everywhere. If kids are not seeing the adults around them drinking it, they are seeing it on TV, on billboards and on the side of buses and, of course, if they watch televised sport or attend a football game with you, it is likely to be saturated with alcohol advertising. The alcohol industry has done an incredible job of ensuring that you really can't get away from their product and although the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code outlines regulations around alcohol advertising (e.g., ads should not show alcohol as the cause of or contributing to the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success), they are still able to make drinking look pretty damn good! Parents need to ensure that, when and where appropriate, they challenge these messages by discussing the potential dangers associated with alcohol.

It's also important to remember that children at this age are asking lots of questions about things around them, including alcohol. It is highly likely that, if you drink, your drinking behaviour (or the behaviour of other family members or friends) will be questioned in some way. This can be incredibly confronting for parents but it provides a great opportunity for you to let your child know your views around alcohol and drinking, as well as reinforce your family values. This list of questions a child may ask, as well as some potential answers has been adapted from a Canadian resource developed by Parent Action on Drugs (PAD) called An Early Start: Drug Education Begins at Home and provides some suggestions for parents who may get asked those curly ones that they don't quite know how to deal with appropriately:
  • "Can I have a sip of your beer?"
    "No. This is a drink for adults and it's not good for children. There are other drinks that are more suitable for young people of your age."
  • "Why do you drink it?"
    "I enjoy the taste, but if I drink too much it will change the way I feel, so I have to be careful."
  • "What’s in this drink that makes it taste so funny?"
    "This drink has alcohol in it. It's a drink for adults. Young people prefer the taste of other drinks and as they become adults their tastes may change. Some people never end up liking the taste though and so they choose never to drink alcohol."
  • "Why did Uncle Jim start walking and talking funny at the party last night?"
    "Uncle Jim had too much alcohol to drink. Too much alcohol can make you feel and act differently. It can even make you very sick. What do you think about the way he acted?"
  • "Why do you have a glass of wine with dinner?"
    "When people eat, most usually drink something at the same time. You have your water or juice, I have a glass of wine. Some adults choose to drink wine with a meal because it goes with what we are eating - because we are older we taste things in a different way. It can make the food taste different for an adult. Alcohol can also make you sick if you have too much, but drinking it with a meal is the safest way to drink."
It is very clear that parents' attitudes and use influence a child's view and subsequent use of alcohol. According to the US report mentioned above, 80% of teenagers say that their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink. The PAD resource asks parents the following:

"Try to imagine your children watching you and others drink. Do they see you unwind with a drink? Do all of your social events and celebrations include alcohol? Do you ever ask your children to bring a drink to you?"

As I've said many times before, this doesn't mean you shouldn't drink alcohol in front of your child - you're an adult, you're allowed to do whatever you want as far as alcohol is concerned. It's just important to remember that everything you do is being watched and is having an impact. If every time you walk out the door to attend a social function or go out for dinner you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it, you are sending a very strong message to your child about the role alcohol plays in your socialising. There's nothing wrong with that and I'm certainly not saying that you should start sneaking alcohol out of the house under your jumper, you just need to talk about it! Talk about your alcohol use and how you ensure that you don't drink in a risky way. Make sure they know that you never drink drive and that a decision is always made about who will be the designated driver for the night well before you leave the house. Most importantly, make sure you hammer the simple message that drinking alcohol is 'adult behaviour', it's what adults do, not children or teens. Discuss it in the same way as driving. Driving is adult behaviour, teenagers never question that there is a 'line in the sand' as far as that behaviour is concerned. No matter how mature you are, you can't drive until you reach a certain age - drinking alcohol is exactly the same, you really shouldn't drink until you're an adult!

As I have said many times, it is impossible for a parent-child relationship to exist without positive communication. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes alcohol, is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. Starting nice and early builds a great foundation and as stated above, hopefully influences positive values about alcohol early, rather than trying to change more negative views they are likely to establish later from watching the world around them.

Reference: Siqueira, L. & Smith, V.C. (2015). Binge drinking. Pediatrics 136, e718-726.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Three simple tips: How to host a 'safe as possible' teenage party

I've had a couple of emails from parents recently that have asked for my advice on how to host a safe teenage party. What are some simple things that they can do to make sure the kids are as safe as possible, their house doesn't get wrecked and the police don't get called and the party gets shut down? I've written about this many times before and I get it - holding a party for teenagers, whether it be at your home or somewhere you have hired for the evening, is a huge responsibility and must be terrifying for those parents who want to try to do 'the right thing' but it is important to remember that parties and gatherings are held every weekend, right across the country, many of which run without major problems.

Things can go wrong though and, as such, you need to think about all the possible risks and put things into place to make sure that the party is as safe as possible – for the invitees, your neighbours and of course, you and your family. Of course there are no guarantees, however, the greater the planning, the more likely it is that things will run smoothly. As I see it, there are two distinct sections to this planning and they are as follows:
  • carry out some simple 'must-do' tasks that will help ensure safety for all concerned, and
  • in consultation with your child, make a number of key decisions about the 'party process'
Parents need to remember that they have a duty of care to the teens under their supervision at their home whether they're there for a party or for any other reason. Even when you put the alcohol issue to one side, if you fail to provide adequate supervision and injuries result you are at risk of litigation - so there's not only a moral obligation to try to do the best job possible, there are also legal (and potentially financial) issues to consider. With that in mind here are my suggested 'must-do' tasks:
  • make decisions on the 'non-negotiables' - these are made before discussions with your child and should cover issues such as number of invitees, start and finish times and whether you will allow (or tolerate) alcohol. These are the key decisions that will determine the safety of the event and no matter what your teen says, whether they kick and scream and tell you that you're the worst parent in the world, these are the things you won't move on ... If they don't like these decisions then the event cannot happen, it's as simple as that!
  • enlist the help of other parents that you trust - do not try to do this by yourself! Hopefully you've spoken to others before you made the decision to host an event, but once you've said 'yes' to your teen, talk to others who have hosted parties or helped out at them and keep talking to them throughout the whole process. Find out what they believe worked and what didn't. In addition, find parents who you believe have similar views to you on party issues (whatever they may be) and don't be afraid to ask for their help on the night
  • notify the local police about your event - all it takes is a quick phone call to register your party at least two weeks beforehand. Do this and if things start to go wrong on the night they'll have you on their radar and be aware that you have tried to do your best 
The second part of the process involves working through a series of decisions about how the party will actually run. One of the best things about hosting an event like this is that when done correctly it can provide a great opportunity for you to strengthen your relationship with your child, get to know their friends and become more involved in their life. Once you've told them what your 'non-negotiables' are (and that could take a while, depending on their reaction!) and a final agreement is reached (the best way to do this is to think of this discussion as an auction - come in with a low bid (say they can have 30 invitees), wait for a counter offer (they say 60) and let them think that you're giving in when you meet them halfway (okay, how about 45?), which hopefully was your original number!), sit down with them and discuss how the party will actually roll-out, from the invitations through to how the invitees will get home at the end of the night. There are the more simple decisions that could include the following:
  • How are invitations and RSVPs going to be handled? Who is going to look after these and what are they going to look like an actually say?
  • What food will be available? Your child is more likely to know what food is 'socially acceptable' to the current generation of young people and will be of great assistance here
  • What type of entertainment is going to take place? Once again, they are going to know what is going to work and what isn't and this is one of those issues that you can negotiate with them, usually dependent on your budget
Then you get to the curly ones, particularly around the issue of alcohol: 
  • Will alcohol be allowed (if there are over 18s attending) or 'tolerated' (if not) and who will serve it if it is? If you do make the decision to serve alcohol, how are you going to deal with the issue of your underage guests, remembering the legal issues around providing alcohol to minors? If a parent contacts you to ask you about alcohol are you prepared to defend your decision? Does your child understand the risks involved? Is there going to be a 'free-for-all', i.e., are people going to be able to bring their own and then get their own alcohol whenever they want or will there be someone serving alcohol, monitoring how much people are drinking?
  • If you decide on an alcohol-free party, how will you handle guests who turn up with alcohol or intoxicated? Simply turning a guest away from the party is not an option. You do not know whether he or she has been dropped off at your home by their parent and how they're getting home – maybe they're returning in a few hours. Sending them off into the night with a bottle in hand or alcohol-affected is irresponsible and dangerous. Discuss this with your child and see if you can come up with some ideas for dealing with this problem together.
  • How will you handle gatecrashers? Gatecrashers are now a fact of life at teenage parties, particularly if you are providing (or be seen to be tolerating) alcohol. In the age of social media and mobile phones it doesn't take long for the word to get out that there is a party happening. Will you be hiring security or do you have a couple of burly relatives that can handle a difficult situation? What responsibility will your teenager have in looking after the door, particularly considering that they are more likely to know who was invited and who wasn't? 
  • What will you do in an emergency? The best planned parties could end up finding themselves trying to handle an emergency of some description. This does not have to be related to alcohol – when a group of people get together, no matter what their age, things can go wrong. Who will be the contact person whose responsibility it will be should something go wrong? Who will make the list of emergency numbers and where will it be kept?
  • How will the guests be getting home when the party ends? Unbelievably, this is one aspect of a hosting a teenage party that many parents forget about. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to police but it needs to be discussed with your child so that they understand the huge responsibility you have taken on. There is no way that you are able to know how each and every guest attending the party is getting home but if something happens to any of those young people when they leave your home, particularly if they have been drinking, it would be difficult to live with yourself.
Over the years I have had many parents eager to tell me their success stories when it comes to holding teenage parties. Most of these have involved the decision not to serve alcohol to those underage and not to tolerate any alcohol being brought into the event. Once that decision has been made and the young person has understood and accepted it, the night is usually successful and runs without incident (also, those whose only intent is to get as drunk as possible don't want to attend gatherings where they know alcohol rules will be policed).

There is no handbook on how to be the perfect parent, you can only do the best you can do at the time. This is true when it comes to holding an incident-free teenage party. There are definitely some guidelines that you can follow, however, and if I was asked to boil it down to three simple tips, I would have to say the following:
  • decide on your non-negotiables and stick to them
  • don't do this by yourself - enlist the help of other parents
  • involve your teen in the planning and rolling-out of the entire party process
Without doubt the best thing you can do to reduce risk is to make the event alcohol-free. If you believe, however, that this is not an option for your child and their stage of development, make sure you take every precaution to make the party as safe as possible for all concerned. Ensure that you let the parents of all those invited about your rules around alcohol so they are able to decide whether or not their child should attend or not, and make sure you are able to defend your decision should anything go wrong.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Parental peer pressure and alcohol: What if your child says "You're the only one who does that"?

'Peer pressure' is an interesting concept and a term that gets bandied around regularly when it comes to young people and alcohol and other drugs. My thoughts on whether or not this is the major influence on whether or not a teen chooses to drink alcohol or experiment with other drugs are contained in another blog entry ... What truly fascinates me about this area is the inability of some parents to see that it is often they and not their child who are likely to buckle to peer pressure. Time and time again I meet parents who are heavily influenced (or pressured) in this area by what they believe other parents are (or may be) doing (usually because of what their child is telling them). Without a doubt, 'parental peer pressure' is mighty powerful and many people have no idea how to deal with it effectively!

I've been through some emails from parents I've received over the last 12 months and here are just a few quotes that clearly show that some families are experiencing great pressure in this area:
  • "It seems like I'm the only parent in my child's year group that doesn't allow my child to drink. It's getting more difficult to say 'no' with each weekend that goes by."
  • "I certainly don't want her to drink but everyone else in her year appears to be able to ... I'm now feeling like I'm going to start affecting her social life. I don't want her to not be invited to things because of my rules." 
  • "When I called the house to find out more about the party I was told by the mother that I was the only one who had called and that I should loosen up a little and not to worry! She said that the kids were 16 or 17 and that drinking at teen parties was normal and there was nothing she or I could do about it."
  • "I'm constantly being told by my son that I'm the only one who calls other parents to find out what's going on at parties and even my best friend (who I've known since I was in Year 1 and always said to me that she would stick with me around the whole alcohol and parties thing when it came to our children who are the same age) said that I'm out on my own when it comes to saying 'no' to my 16 year-old around alcohol."
I get it - 'sticking to your guns' around alcohol and teenage parties is going to be tough! This is a difficult issue for many parents of teenagers, with some people believing that alcohol consumption is simply a 'rite of passage' into adulthood and that 'everyone will go through that stage' at some time or other. Your child is bound to tell you that you are 'the only parent who won't let them take alcohol' - let's make it clear that that is the norm - that's what kids do, tell untruths to get what they want! Whatever your decision (and let's make it perfectly clear - it is your decision, no-one can tell you what to do with your child), you need to make sure you make it based on good quality information and not pressure from your child and their friends, and certainly not other parents trying to make you feel bad about your efforts to keep your child as safe as possible.

Every parent wants their child to 'fit in'. The teen years are tough and adolescents can be extremely cruel - no-one wants their child to be socially excluded and I understand parents who do everything they can to ensure that their loved ones get invited to social gatherings and that those difficult years are made as easy to navigate through as possible. This is the 'good place' that I think most 'parental peer pressure' comes from - it's not that most parents want to do what they believe other parents are doing so that they fit in (although I certainly go to some schools where that happens - I'm sure some people actually choose the school their kids go to for future networking potential!), it's just that they don't want their child to be socially excluded. Sure, for some, it even goes a bit further than that and becomes about trying to ensure popularity (these are usually the parents who were in the 'popular group' themselves and are desperate to ensure that their children have the same experience - very scary people!) but for most it's just about attempting to make sure that the teen years aren't lonely ones ...

The most important thing to remember about this pressure is that it is all built upon the belief that 'everyone else does it', something I believe just isn't true. Sure, there are parents who put on parties and provide alcohol to teens, but they are in the minority. Others 'turn a blind-eye' to teen drinking in their house or their child having a couple of cans at a party on a Saturday night but I really do believe that if you sat down with a group of parents and asked them whether they felt comfortable with their 15 or 16 year-old drinking at a teenage party or gathering the response would be an overwhelming 'no'. The key to success in this area is to get parents to sit down together and tell each other about how they feel in this area but that's difficult and becoming more and more difficult as time goes on ...

Teens are great at 'siloing' their parents - manoeuvring them into a place where they will not talk to others to check up on whether what they are telling you is true or not. They do it by saying that 'no-one else does that' or 'you're the only one who does' depending on the situation. They tell you things and ensure that their friends are there to back them up with their wild claims about what everyone else is doing and of course, they always have the ultimate strategy which is to tell you that if you don't let them do something they really want to do then 'you will shame them forever' and 'that you will ruin their life'! I can't imagine what it must be like for a parent to have the person they love the most in world look them in the eye and tell them that they hate them and that they're destroying their life - it must be heartbreaking!

There are no easy answers but here some simple tips to help parents with this complex issue:
  • Challenge ridiculous statements: If your child tells you that you are the 'only Mum who won't provide alcohol' - make sure you do not let this statement go unchallenged. Most parents do not support providing alcohol to take to underage parties. If your teenager insists that this is the truth, let them provide some proof. Give them a piece of paper and a pen and ask them to supply names and phone numbers of five parents who do provide alcohol and tell them that you're going to call them up and check if what they've said is actually true! 
  • Talk to other parents: Make sure other parents know your views on the subject of supplying alcohol to teenagers who are underage. If you do not believe that it is appropriate to provide your child with alcohol for a
     party, you will be most probably be pleasantly surprised as to how many parents agree with your stance. If parents have differing viewpoints that is their right, but let them know your reasons and make it clear that you do not want your child to drink at this stage in their life.
  • Link up with other like-minded parents: As much as it may seem as though you are all alone on a little island somewhere when it comes to this area, there will be others who do not feel comfortable allowing their child to drink alcohol at a teenage party (you only have to come to one of my Parent Information Evenings to see that large numbers of these people really do exist!). When you meet a like-minded parent, grab them, hold onto them and keep them close and the next time your child says - "You're the only one", you can turn around and say, "Well, Mrs Jones doesn't either - do you want to talk to her?"
As I said earlier, I get it - this is tough! I totally understand why some parents buckle to peer pressure and allow their teen to do something they don't feel entirely comfortable about ... we don't only see it in the alcohol and other drug area, it happens with clothing (e.g., permitting adult-style, highly sexualised clothing to be worn by the very young), access to movies and video games (e.g., primary school-aged children watching M-rated movies containing violence and sex) and of course social media and cybersafety (e.g., allowing their child to have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts way before they're legally meant to, having computers, smartphones and the like in their bedrooms). Parents are constantly being told by their children that everyone else is allowed to take part in particular behaviours and they're the only ones that aren't - that's hard! Some are even ridiculed by other parents for having old-fashioned ideas and warned that if they don't keep up with the times they will lose their relationship with their child. That is simply shameful!

But is 'sticking to your guns' really worth all the time, energy and heartache? Damn right it is! If holding true to what you believe is right increases the chance of keeping your child just that little bit safer through adolescence and beyond, it's worth all that and much, much more!

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Alcohol permission slips and teenage parties: What are some parents thinking?

'Secondary supply' legislation now exists in almost every state and territory across the country, with SA now the only jurisdiction not to have laws that protect a parent's right to say whether or not another adult provides alcohol to their child. As the ADF states in their factsheet on the subject - "There have been a number of cases in Australia where a person has suffered injuries or died as a result of drinking too much alcohol after being supplied with it by an adult who was not their parent. Regulating private supply of alcohol aims to stop that happening by deterring adults from supplying alcohol to young people without the approval from their parent."

Across Australia a person who is under the age of 18 is not breaking the law if they drink alcohol on private property. However, now, in almost all states and territories, the person who supplied them with the alcohol could be breaking the law—unless they are the child’s parent or guardian and act in a responsible manner. It has taken a lot of work to get this legislation up and running in some states, with the ACT and WA only recently introducing laws in this area. One of the reasons that governments (particularly WA's) have hesitated in introducing such legislation is that they say these laws are difficult to police and there is no evidence to support that such laws actually reduce underage drinking. As I've always said, that is not necessarily the point here - what these laws do is to support parents and allow them to say to their teen that they can't put on a party and allow alcohol because it is against the law - it's as simple as that! Whether the laws have teeth or not is irrelevant!

In 2011 the Victorian Government introduced secondary supply legislation after years of lobbying and I, along with many others, anxiously looked forward to seeing how this would change the partying landscape in that state. From November of that year it became illegal for anyone to serve alcohol to anyone under 18 years old unless their parent or guardian had given permission. Unfortunately, in response, within weeks we started to see parents writing up letters with tear-off slips at the bottom that were handed out to prospective partygoers that asked their parents to sign their name and give permission for their teen to drink at the party they were hosting. Basically parents were covering their backs - instead of attempting to monitor teenage parties and gatherings and try to prevent underage drinking, it was much easier just to roll over and accept that drinking was inevitable and to cover themselves legally (whether a permission slip actually does that or not is another matter altogether)!

What I find most distressing about this is that it is such a huge slap in the face for those parents who lobbied so hard to get these laws into place. In Victoria one of the main groups to push this legislation was the Leigh Clark Foundation. For those of you who don't know, 15 year-old Leigh Clark died in August 1999 as the result of massive alcohol overdose. He and a group of friends drank a large amount of 'Imitation Vodka Essence' which had been purchased by a parent and given to two other boys in the group. When the new laws were passed the Foundation published the following statement on their website:

"Previously, any person, in the secrecy of their own home, could legally give your child an unlimited quantity of alcohol without your knowledge. This law takes away that legal 'right'. Now such uncaring, irresponsible or downright unscrupulous behaviour can be challenged. Anyone who supplies alcohol to your child without your permission simply does not have your child's interests at heart. Now that person, whatever their motivation, can now be charged with supplying alcohol to your child without your permission. That is what this law is about."

I don't think the Clarks would ever have imagined that once the laws were introduced that, instead of embracing them and using them to prevent underage drinking, some parents would actually try to find ways of bypassing them! It really is such an insult ...

I totally get that permission slips may be the best way to go for 18th birthday parties - so many parents I've spoken to around the country struggle with how to deal with these events. It's that year where you have that split, some who can legally drink and others who can't - trying to navigate through that minefield and following the law is difficult - getting permission from parents of 17 year-olds (or at least letting them know that alcohol will be available and allowing them to make the decision around whether their child will drink or not) may be the best way forward. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in Victoria however (and I must say that that state is the absolute worst offender in this area as far as I can tell), with permission slips even being handed out for 15th birthday parties!

There are a number of issues with these permission slips and I could go on for hours about this but essentially here are just a couple of my major concerns:
  • they put great pressure on those parents who don't want to let their 15 or 16 year-old to drink alcohol at a teenage party. Many parents that use these slips will not allow partygoers to attend unless a signed slip is presented either prior to the event or at the door on the night. It's really difficult for any parent to say "No, I'm not signing" and know that that will mean their child is now excluded from a social event
  • many teens are simply forging their parent's signature, with many parents I speak to totally unaware that these forms even exist. Although it would be difficult to prosecute in this area, if a parent is going to ask for other parents to sign a permission slip, they really do have a legal obligation to ensure that the signature is real
  • basically a parent who collects 100 permission slips from teenagers attending a party they are hosting is accepting some degree of legal responsibility for those young people and their drinking behaviour - how insane is that? Essentially the Victorian legislation treats the party hosts as a 'licensee' for the evening, so all the 'duty of care' issues come into play - that little bit of paper with a parent's signature on it has potential litigation written all over it!
The ACT and WA have only just introduced secondary supply legislation and both have the caveat that parents can give their permission for their child to drink, handing responsibility over to another adult if they wish. I'm certainly not saying that that shouldn't be the case but handing over responsibility of a teen's drinking to another parent (who you usually don't know) hosting a party for 40, 80, 100 or 200 teenagers is fraught with problems.

I hope we don't see parents in those jurisdictions go down the same path as Victorians but unfortunately I'm sure we will ... sadly we keep seeing parents of 15 and 16 year-olds who are reluctant to actually parent, particularly in this area, it's just too hard and full of conflict. Instead they want to be their child's best friend, something that most teens have an abundance of ... Your child only has one set of parents and it's vital that you try to be the best parent you can be - unfortunately your teen is not necessarily going to like you for your efforts in this area at the time, but I can pretty well guarantee you that they'll thank you later!

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Endone, Stillnox and other medications: Are Australian teens likely to be using prescription drugs in an attempt to get 'high'?

Two NRL players were recently rushed to hospital after being found unconscious at home after reportedly taking oxycodone, a painkiller prescribed following post-season surgeries. Four days later they left hospital and faced the media, with one of them quoted as saying - "We would like to say we've learnt from our mistakes and we hope everyone can learn from our lessons ... take prescription medication as it is (prescribed) on the prescription box."

As always with sportspeople who get caught out, what was said was well-scripted. We really didn't find out too much more about what had actually happened and there were lots of apologies and regrets. Since then a number of other footballers have talked about their issues with prescription drugs (particularly painkillers, but also antidepressants and antipsychotics) and the NRL have been at great pains to stress that this is not a rugby league problem only - the misuse of prescription drugs was a wider issue.

Most will remember the controversy around the use of Stillnox by six Australian male swimmers at the London Olympic Games in 2012 as part of a 'bonding session' and in 2009 members of the Queensland State of Origin team came under fire for using the same sleeping pill together with the energy drink Red Bull, reportedly creating a 'home-made party drug'. As with the story last week, these all involved elite sportspeople who are regularly drug-tested and that is why they're messing around with this type of drug use - they can have a 'good time' and yet, still avoid getting a positive drug test.

So what 'benefit' do they hope to get from using painkillers and sleeping medications? Read the stories carefully and you will see that whatever is being used is usually taken in conjunction with other products, usually alcohol, but sometimes energy drinks. I don't want this to be used as a 'how to' piece for young people but essentially mixing alcohol with painkillers can intensify the depressant effect, with users often talking about a 'pleasant floating effect', whilst those who take products like Stillnox try to 'fight the sleep', becoming lightheaded and disorientated. Essentially they're seeking a similar effect to that of being pleasantly drunk.    

But what about Australian school-based young people? Do we know if they are messing around with  prescription drugs in an attempt to get 'high'? According to the latest secondary school data, around 17% of students had used 'tranquilisers' (a range of drugs like Valium, Diazepam and Temazepam were listed in the related question) other than for medical reasons at some point in their life. The question used in the survey is always problematic and the report on the findings states that it is possible that students may not necessarily understand what 'non medical use' actually means. That said, I certainly do believe that there are young people who are playing around with medications, particularly in conjunction with alcohol, and stories of sportspeople messing around in this area do not help!

I've had a number of questions on my 'Real Deal on Drugs' blog for young people about mixing specific prescription drugs with alcohol (as well as other substances and products) and have chosen to answer those directly rather than post the answers on the site to avoid giving any others ideas about potential cocktails. They were looking for ways to either intensify the alcohol effect, maximize the alcohol effect but not drink as much or in the case of sleeping medications or anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, try to experience the 'fight the sleep' effect that they have read about online or heard about from friends. In addition you also have the issue of some teens using particular medications such as ADHD drugs for either study purposes or their stimulant effect.

In the US prescription medications are now the most commonly abused substances by young people behind alcohol and cannabis. It certainly is an issue in this country but due to tighter restrictions around pharmaceuticals here I don't believe our problem is as great ... That said, with stories of high-profile sportspeople playing around with painkillers and the like in this way it is something we shouldn't ignore.

One of our greatest problems is that people (young and old) continue to believe that because these drugs are prescribed (i.e., you get them from a doctor), they're not dangerous. Let's make it very clear, many of the medications we get prescribed to us by doctors are far more toxic than those bought on the street. That is why, as the ads say, only take as directed (and even then, things can still go wrong!). We also tend to believe that because they are made in pharmaceutical laboratories and we know what is in each pill or capsule that somehow that makes them safe. Even when we know exactly what we're taking, there is absolutely no way that we can be sure of how we're going to react when we take it. Sure, knowing what is in it is much better than having no idea at all, but it does not mean it is completely safe. I know it sounds scary but every time we decide to pop any pill, capsule or tablet (legal, illegal or pharmaceutical) into our mouth there is an element of risk ...

So how can parents best protect their children in this area? Here are three simple and practical things that you can do to make sure that your teens have a healthy attitude towards prescription medications:
  • Take an honest look at how you and your family use prescription medications. This can be a bit confronting but sit down with your partner and think about how many medications are currently being used by your family. Where are they kept and who dispenses them? If your child is using any medications have you sat down with them and talked through how they are to be used and the possible risks. Are you monitoring their use? Also be sure to be really honest about your own prescription drug use. Remember your child will learn more in this area (like almost every other) from watching you, i.e., if you're popping a whole pile of pills down every morning at breakfast without talking about how and why you're doing this, you're sending a very strong message about this type of drug use - one that isn't particularly healthy!
  • Talk about medications and how your family uses them. The earlier you have this conversation the better - when they hit their mid to late teens this gets much more difficult to be a 'natural conversation' and can sound more like a lecture but do your best, whatever their age. This is best done the next time you take your child to see a doctor and they get a prescription. With your child present, take the time to ask the doctor what the medication is, the risks and how it should be used. When you pick it up from the chemist, make sure your child is with you at the counter to hear the conversation you have with the pharmacist about appropriate use and when you get the medication home, sit down and read the box and instructions together.
  • Keep all family medications in one central location and monitor them. Although there are some young people who access pharmaceuticals through friends and growing numbers purchasing them on-line, most still get them from the family medicine cabinet (i.e., selling their own or sibling's ADHD medication to others, stealing a parent's pain medication or sleeping pill). Keeping all medication, including your own, in one place makes it easier to monitor and also to talk about. As they get older and want to have greater independence in this area allow them to collect their medication for the week (those plastic pill dispensers with compartments for each day of the week are really useful) but it is vital that you keep track of how many pills and tablets are being used each week and whether medications starts to occasionally get 'lost'.
As I said, the media conference given by the two NRL players was well-scripted and as such it did contain one very powerful message that parents across the country should have jumped on - "... take prescription medication as it is (prescribed) on the prescription box."  These high-profile alcohol and other drug-related incidents, usually involving young male sportspeople are not helpful, but it is important that parents try to use them to their best advantage and have a healthy, positive discussion around some of the very real issues that young people may face in their future.

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.