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Saturday, 28 March 2015

How do you begin the conversation around alcohol and other drugs?

I'm pretty sure that every parent realizes that they're going to have to have a conversation around alcohol and other drugs with their child at some point. The 'where do I come from?' or 'how are babies made?' talks must be confronting for some but at least they're more likely to be based on simply telling some facts around what happens 'when two people love each other ...' or the like! As much as the sex talk involves discussing your values on the issue, the one around alcohol and other drugs, particularly regarding the rules and boundaries you are going to set, is going to be different for every family and sometimes your child is not going to like what you say ...  

This week I was asked by a lovely mum, obviously struggling with this issue, how best to begin the conversation with her 13 year-old son. She had heard me say during my presentation that I believe that parents should start setting rules around parties and alcohol by no later than Year 7, well before most of them have come into contact with alcohol or be invited to gatherings where it may be an issue. She was fine with that but how was she meant to bring the subject up? Was there a good way to do it?

We keep telling parents to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs and to have the conversation early. Its a mantra that keeps getting repeated but parents are rarely told what they should be saying and how to say it. Unfortunately, many parents make the decision to talk to their child about drugs when a crisis situation occurs. This 'crisis' can be as serious as finding out that their child may actually be using drugs or drinking alcohol or when their child is invited to a teenage party for the first time. Trying to have a discussion about drug use at a time like this is unlikely to be a positive experience for either you or your child. Your teenager will feel uncomfortable at best, and threatened at worst, by this issue being raised at this time. As a result, you are likely to feel frustrated and angry at their response, leading to greater friction and a breakdown in the parent-child relationship.

It is important to remember that it is impossible for any relationship to exist without positive communication. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. Of course, there will need to be an opening conversation and that can be difficult but once you've broken the ice it will get easier. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures.

There are lots of opportunities for parents to introduce the issue of alcohol and other drugs to their children. Rather than setting aside a specific time in the day to sit down with your child and raise the topic, thus making the whole experience like a school lesson, parents should look for opportunities in everyday life to talk about the issue. Here are just a couple of tips to consider to help start the conversation or ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible:
  • Start the conversation in the car. There's no better place to discuss a difficult issue than when it's just you and your teen (or pre-teen) in a car - they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!
  • Start by talking about their peers and what they're doing. Young people can get very defensive when you ask them about their behaviour but they're often more than happy to talk about others. It can even be easier if you talk about classmates and not their friendship group - they're much more likely to tell you about those kids that they don't particularly like and what they think about their behaviour
  • Use what you see in the media to start the conversation. Unlike the talk in the car, this is best done in a family context. News stories, movies and TV programs, even popular music can contain alcohol and other drug themes – asking a simple question about something you've just seen or heard while watching TV and getting their views on it can plant a seed that you can use at a later date
  • Use your own alcohol use as a conversation starter. If you drink wine with the family meal or you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm when you go out socialising, take the opportunity at that time to quickly discuss the role alcohol plays in your life and the rules you follow when you drink, e.g., you never drink and drive. Ask them what rules do they think they will have when they get older and they choose to drink. What rules do they think would be important?
  • Don't try to cover everything in one talk. The first couple of chats (possibly even grunts from their end!) may just be about trying to find out what they're thinking about the issue and their level of exposure. Setting rules and boundaries at this time could be problematic. You should certainly clarify your expectations around their behaviour in this area if it is appropriate to do so, but try to discuss your values in a more general sense rather than explicitly laying down rules at this time

You may not believe you have much of an influence over your teenager but your children are going to learn an awful lot about your attitudes and beliefs towards alcohol and drug use from these type of conversations. They may not always be easy but they'll be well worth the effort! One more thing to remember is that all the starter conversations (those mentioned above) should be relatively low-key and informal if they are to be successful, however, when it comes down to the 'let's talk about rules' discussion, both parents should be there, if at all possible, and it should be conducted in a reasonably formal manner (we're not talking 'judge and jury' here but sitting down together, no distractions or other children present). Of course this isn't always easy, particularly in a split family, but if it can be done it illustrates a united front and if there are any negotiations that are to be made, everybody is on the same page.

One word of warning though …. if your child does not wish to enter the conversation for whatever reason, do not push. Talking about difficult subjects like this can be embarrassing for an adolescent and any effort to make them can be counterproductive. Make sure you leave the door open for them to come to you should they ever wish to discuss the issue and move on. At some point another opportunity will arise (even if unfortunately it ends up being due to a crisis of some kind), take a step back and wait for another opportunity to arise when you are able to start a positive dialogue. It will happen!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Giving a UDL can to a 15 year-old during the week to make sure they can 'handle it' at a party on the weekend ...

Nobody can tell a parent of an adolescent what to do with their child. Every mum and every dad is going to have to make their own decisions about how to raise their teen. Parenting is the world's most difficult job (and I'm told by so many, also the most rewarding!) and it certainly doesn't come with a rule book. That said, when I'm asked about my views on best-practice parenting around alcohol, I always say that the most important thing parents should do is follow their heart (sounds corny I know, but are you basing your decision on your own values and not simply doing what your best friend or sister-in-law is doing?) and, at the same time, look at what the most up-to-date evidence says is most appropriate and will assist in ensuring your child is happy and healthy. Each and every family is going to come up with different rules and boundaries in this area, but as long as you can be sure that you are able to live with the consequences of whatever you decide, then that is the best you can do ... 

As much as I try not to pass judgment on parents and the incredibly difficult job they have, hardly a week goes by when I don't hear a story about a parent's decision in this area where I'm not left completely floored, really struggling to work out the process behind what I have heard. These stories certainly give me lots to write about and I'm certainly never without content for my blog entries as some of you would have noticed! This week I received a message from Samantha Menezes (who many people would recognize as the mother from Perth who has worked tirelessly over the past two years to get 'secondary supply' laws introduced in Western Australia) who had recently heard a story that had shocked her and she wanted to hear other peoples' views on the topic. Here is her message:

What would you say to your good friend if they told you this about their daughter who is just 15 years of age. The girl is going to her first gathering on Saturday night. The mother (your friend) has agreed she can take 1 UDL. However, to make sure her daughter handles it okay she gave her one to drink last night - a school night!
A UDL is between 1.2 and 2.1 standard drinks. The Australian Guidelines say no more than 2 drinks a day for healthy adults and that no alcohol is the safest option for under 18.
So is it okay to consent (and supply alcohol) to your daughter who is 15, considering all the evidence about brain damage and alcohol-related harms? And what about giving her a drink to try out beforehand? What happened to no alcohol at all? Why can't we be brave as parents and stand our ground?

What I usually do with these stories is to first try to work out why the decision could possibly have been made ... with this one the whole thing is beyond me! Here are just some of the questions I would ask that mother in an attempt to gain some understanding of her thought processes ...
  • why would you make a decision to let your 15 year-old drink alcohol at her first gathering?
  • did you feel pressured or bullied into making this decision?
  • do you feel completely comfortable with your 15 year-old daughter drinking alcohol in any environment? Why, why not?
  • do you believe that agreeing to let her take and drink a UDL can to a party will somehow protect her? If so, how will it protect her and what do you base that assumption on?
  • do you believe that everyone else is doing it (parents are giving their children alcohol and teens are drinking it)? If so, once again, what do you base that belief on?
  • what do you know about the party your daughter is going to? Where did you get your information from and is it completely reliable?
I could go on and on and up to now I've only been asking questions about the initial decision to allow her daughter to drink at the upcoming party - I haven't even started about why anyone in their right mind would think it would be helpful to give her a can during the week to make sure she could handle it!

As I have already said, no-one can tell a parent what to do with their own child (least of all me - I don't have kids!). This mum hopefully has her reasons for what she is doing and unless she simply doesn't care (which I'm sure isn't the case) I'm sure she has made the decisions she's made believing that she's doing what is best for her daughter. But is she in fact being pressured or bullied by her 15 year-old and being told that she's "the only one that isn't providing alcohol"? Has she taken the time to speak to other parents and ask their views and actually checked whether that is the case? Has she called the parents putting on the gathering and found out what their plans are for the night? Has she truly followed her heart - does it feel right? Finally, has this mother considered the evidence that the best thing a parent can do in this area is to delay, delay, delay, i.e., try to prevent a teen from drinking alcohol for as long as possible?

If she has then she's done the best she can do - but I have to say in this instance, I just don't think that is the case. I just hope and pray that nothing goes wrong and she lives to regret the decision!

Saturday, 14 March 2015

When should parents start making rules around alcohol and parties?

One of the more positive things I'm seeing at my Parent Information Evenings this year is how many parents of much younger children are now attending. Traditionally schools have pitched my talks to the parents of the students I speak to (i.e., Years 10, 11 and 12), but realistically by that time, bad habits have already been established and, as a result, it is going to be extremely difficult for changes to be made in the key areas of parental monitoring and parenting style. Of course, for those in the audience who have been doing the 'hard yards', being told by their teen that they're 'the worst parent in the world' and simply want someone to say that they're doing the right thing, a talk like mine is just what they're after! But when it comes to actually making a difference it is the parents of Years 7, 8 and 9 that I believe are the ones who should be there (and if I get primary school parents, well hallelujah!) ...

One of my key messages to parents this year is around the timing of setting rules around alcohol and parties. Too often, parents wait too long to outline their views on the issue of alcohol with their child, many of them believing that if they do it too early they could spark interest and lead them down the road to alcoholism! Other parents believe that the conversation is not relevant for their child at this time in their life - they don't believe they are drinking alcohol, why should they outline rules on the topic? If you just sit back and think for a second how much information (including marketing and advertising, heavily promoting the product) your son or daughter is bombarded with regarding alcohol from the time they are born, you quickly realize that a conversation in this area is vitally important well before they hit their teens.

Around the same time it is also wise to have a discussion about rules and boundaries to do with parties and gatherings. This is an opportunity to talk about your own experiences with parties - what was good about them and what could go wrong, no matter what age your child is. Of course, the content of that conversation would vary greatly, depending on their age, e.g., one with a 16 year-old could involve talking about a party you went to where someone got drunk and you had to look after them, whereas a discussion with your 11 year-old would more likely be about feeling left-out or uncomfortable in a social setting and making it clear to them that should never be worried about calling you should they feel the need to be taken out of that situation. By discussing your experiences and your concerns, rules and boundaries should be established - what do they want from the party experience, what do you want and then the trick is to somehow try to meet in the middle. Do this early (I recommend no later than Year 7) and it's going to be so much easier. As I said in a previous blog entry - try to make a rule around a teenage party the first time they get invited to one and you are highly likely to find yourself in all sorts of trouble! On the other hand, if you sit with your 12 year-old and talk about rules around alcohol (i.e., "alcohol is adult activity, you're not to drink!"), well before they've even thought about drinking, you're not going to meet nearly as much resistance. In fact, most 12 year-olds are going to be quite surprised that the discussion even came up and will most probably accept the rules without question, agreeing wholeheartedly with you that alcohol should not be a part of their life.

So, in summary, here are my thoughts on how best to handle this issue:
  • Rules around alcohol and parties should be established no later than Year 7, well before they come into contact with alcohol and start being invited to parties where it may be an issue
  • Your first rules around alcohol will always be 'you're not having any' - evidence shows clearly that the key message should be 'delay, delay, delay' for as long as possible
  • Use your own experiences with parties to establish age appropriate rules
  • Create rules for parties around calling the hosts to find out more about the event, as well as insisting on dropping and picking them up in primary school - start this behaviour now and you won't have so many problems later
  • Make it clear that rules around alcohol for adults are very different to those for young people and that is entirely appropriate
  • Rules change as they get older and good behaviour will be rewarded - make this clear when rules are first established. Bring your child back to the table once a year and maybe even every six months as they get older to discuss how the rules can be made more age-appropriate but still address your concerns
Every family is going to have different rules around alcohol, just as they are when it comes to parties and gatherings. No-one can tell you as a parent what to do in these areas, you're going to have to make those decisions yourself - but whatever you come up with, you've got to make absolutely certain that the rules you establish match your values and you can live with them should something go wrong.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Is midnight really an appropriate curfew for a 15 year-old?

Last year while presenting at a girl's school in Melbourne I thought it could be interesting to find out what kind of curfew they had on the weekends. The Year 10s were a particularly interesting group, obviously very much into parties with the social life of many of them appearing to be centred around a vodka bottle. A core group of girls were particularly worrying - as I have described them before, the 'evil princess' group - they seemed to rule the roost and obviously controlled what was regarded as 'in' or 'out'! To avoid embarrassing the girls, instead of asking for a show of hands, I gave them a piece of paper and got them to write down what their curfew was on weekends ... the responses were staggering!

Around one third of them indicated that their curfew was 2am! 2am - that's right 2 o'clock in the morning! Well over half of them reported that they were allowed out until midnight, while a very small number of them said 10pm or earlier. One or two wrote that their parents didn't believe in curfews, or something to that effect. Now these were Year 10s, 15 year-old girls, most of whom were given curfews of midnight or later (when I sometimes raise this in parent seminars some audience members have said that the girls must have been having making this up, but sadly, I actually have met one or two parents who have admitted to allowing their 15 year-old to have such a curfew!) - what were their parents thinking?

My major issue with this is - where do you go from here? When parents establish rules around parties and gatherings there aren't many things that they have to bargain with ... as I've said many times, one of the most important things around rules is that a teen has to know that good behaviour will be rewarded. If they follow the rules you set, those rules will change as they get older (my suggestion is that you sit with them at least once every six months, discuss how the rules are going and then, if you're happy with their behaviour, renegotiate accordingly). In reality there aren't many bargaining chips available to a parent and without a doubt, one of the best is a curfew. Adding 30 mins to the curfew time each time you meet up is a huge reward to a 15 year-old but you've got to begin at a baseline that is workable. If you're going to have a curfew of midnight when they are 15 years-old, where do you go from there?

The other issue is around 'sustainability'. Just how sustainable is a pick-up time of midnight for a parent who is attempting to monitor their teen effectively? How many parents are still up at midnight on a Saturday night, ready, willing and able to pick up their child from a party or gathering each and every weekend? I can tell you that it won't take too long before this ritual just gets too darn tiring and only the most vigilant of parents will be able to resist finally turning around and agreeing to allow their son or daughter to stay at a friend's house rather than pulling themselves off the lounge and driving to yet another party to pick them up and bring them home safely!

Look, young people are going to absolutely hate me for this but realistically I believe if you have a curfew of any later than 10pm for a 15 year-old, you have written your own death warrant for the years ahead! You have no bargaining power for the future and you make your ability to monitor your child effectively much more difficult (you will simply be too tired!) ....

If you've already established a curfew of midnight there is very little you can do - you've made your bed, you will now have to lie in it! Changing it for no apparent reason (saying that you've changed your mind is simply not going to cut it!) is going to be seen as terribly unfair and you are going to have major problems. Of course, if they've broken your rules in some ways and you need to make it clear that they have disappointed you and let you down, adjusting their curfew time accordingly and telling them that they are going to have earn back your trust is entirely appropriate. They're not going to like it but it is entirely fair, particularly if it has been made clear that a curfew time has been established because of the trust you have in them - they've broken that trust and there are consequences for that ...

Of course this issue around curfews starts early - I don't think there are many parents who start off with a curfew of midnight straight off the bat! I'm increasingly hearing of parties that parents are holding for Year 8s and 9s that end at 10pm! Really? Where have afternoon parties gone? Why oh why do we need Saturday night parties for 13 and 14 year-olds? Having a couple of friends over on the weekend makes perfect sense but setting realistic curfews (and of course, when they're that age I don't think we even really need to call them curfews - they're simply the time that you expect your child to be home with you) when they're younger is going to make your life much easier in the years ahead!

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.