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.