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Saturday, 17 December 2016

Holidays, teenage parties and music festivals: Simple things parents can do to keep their child as safe as possible

None of what I'm going to talk about today is new - I've raised almost all of these issues many times before - but leading into the holidays it is important for parents to remember that this is a dangerous time. Every year we lose a number of our young people around the Christmas/New Year break due to alcohol and other drugs and almost all of them are completely preventable. We see a spike in alcohol-related drownings and alcohol poisonings, young people dying in car crashes where alcohol is involved increases and, of course, there is the inevitable rise in drug overdoses and, in some cases, deaths, increasingly linked to the use of ecstasy and other illicits at music festivals. It's hard to forget that we had six ecstasy-related deaths at music festivals over last year's holiday period ...

Our teens have just finished the school year and are keen to party, the weather is perfect and there is an expectation in this country that whatever we do, we need to do it in a big way! In addition, parents are tired ... they want a break as well, a break from constantly battling with their teen around maintaining rules and boundaries and a break from having to say 'no' all the time. I get it - it's exhausting and we certainly want our kids to have a good time but it is important that parents stay vigilant over this period and keep 'parenting'. No-one is saying that you should lock your child in their room over the Christmas break but it is a risky time and we all want to keep our kids as safe as possible.

There are three issues to consider here and no matter what age your child is, you're going to be facing at least one of these. If they're in their mid to late teens, you've got real problems, because you're likely to have to worry about all three of them and if you have a Year 9 child that is about to move into Year 10 - well, I can almost guarantee you're going to have to do an awful lot of work on the first two!
  • knowing where they are during the day
  • teenage parties and gatherings
  • music festivals

During the year I highlighted three simple rules for parents around teenage parties and I have adjusted them slightly here to fit all the issues I have mentioned above. These are as follows:
  • if your child you 'can't' do something, that means you 'must'!
  • you make the decision how they get to where they want to go and how they get home and taking them and picking them up yourself is always the safest option
  • find out as much as you can about where they want to go and don't just rely on your child for the info!

Knowing where they are during the day
In reality this is going to be almost impossible to do at all times but it is vital that you and your partner put effort into finding out as much as you can about what they're planning to do each day, where they're going and who they will be with, particularly if you're not going to be around for whatever reason. Most importantly, you need to know when they'll be home. The reason I mentioned the Year 9 group as particularly problematic is that for some reason this is the age group that parents start to believe they should be giving their teen greater independence, particularly over the holidays, and the 'where', 'who' and 'when' questions stop being asked.

During the day it is entirely appropriate to allow your teen to use public transport to get to and from where they want to go - but remember, you make that decision, not them. When you can, offer to drop them off to where they're going and, as stated above, picking them up yourself is always the safest option. The holidays can also provide a great opportunity for you to meet their friends and their friends' families. Offering to drive a group of young people to the beach or to the movies allows you to find out more about what is going on in your child's life and strengthens your relationship.

Teenage parties and gatherings
Many teens will be invited to a number of parties and gatherings over the next couple of months and, due to them not being held during the school year, parents often let their guard down and some of the rules and boundaries in this area get forgotten. Once again, it's those pesky parents of Year 9s that tend to be the culprits in this area ... 
If you do decide to let your child attend a gathering that they have been invited to, there is no way that you can be prepared for all of the possible scenarios that may occur. It is vital however, that you realize that things can go wrong and do your best to outline some possible strategies that could keep your child and their friends safe should they find themselves in potentially dangerous situations, e.g., if something goes wrong, call 000. It is extremely important to have this discussion with your child and, most importantly, let them know that no matter what happens they can contact you and you will be there for them, no matter what.
Here are 5 simple tips for parents around parties and gatherings - they're certainly not always going to be easy to do, but when it comes to a teen's safety they are vital:
  • Know where your child is and who they're with – to make absolutely sure, do your very best to take them to where they're going and pick them up. It's not going to be possible every time, I get that, but don't always leave it up to someone else to do!
  • Always call the parents who are hosting the party or gathering. Your teen is not going to like this but this is most probably the most important thing you can do to ensure safety. Speak to the parents and find out some basic information about supervision and whether alcohol will be provided or tolerated. You can then make an informed decision about whether to let your child attend or not.
  • Review your rules around parties and gatherings. The holidays and particularly the new year is a great time to sit down with your teen and go through the rules that exist around parties and, if appropriate, reward good behaviour. If they've been following the rules and you're happy with the way things are going, adjust them, i.e., change the curfew, adjust the method of picking them up. Rules must be age-appropriate and fair - review them regularly.
  • Make the consequences of breaking the rules clear and stick to them - you can almost guarantee they will push the boundaries at this time of year but just because it's the holidays doesn't mean they can't be punished if the break the rules. Ensure they understand all rules are made because you love them and want them to be safe.
  • If kids don't like the rules, then they're most probably perfect.  Remember teens need something to 'push' against. It's not about making them too restrictive and stopping them doing fun things - every rules should be about keeping them safer - if that's not what they're about, change them!

Music festivals
These events have become far more mainstream over the past decade and we are seeing increasing numbers of much younger people attending (I go to some schools where up to a third of the Year 10s are going to festivals - amazing!). The majority of these are held over the summer break and due to the disturbing number of deaths that occurred last year you can guarantee that there will unprecedented media attention focussed on any event held in the coming months. Adding to that there have been growing calls for the introduction of 'pill testing' or 'drug checking' at music festivals and advocates have been working through the year trying to get government support for such an initiative. This will only add to the media interest.

I have said many times that I do not believe that music festivals are appropriate for the vast majority of 15-and 16-year-olds to attend. Of course, every teen is different and I have received some amazing emails from young people challenging me (usually extremely respectfully) on my comments in this area. These young people are passionate about the music and the culture around it and are obviously very mature and most probably completely able to cope (and likely to thrive) in the festival environment. Many others are not. There is a drug culture associated with music festivals and for some 15-and 16-year-olds that can be difficult to deal with and can be extremely confronting.

If parents do choose to allow their teen to attend music festivals (and at a certain age it's going to be difficult to stop them) here are just a few things that they should consider discussing with them:
  • Ensure you voice your concerns and set rules and boundaries around behaviour. If you are concerned about drug use, let them know and tell them why you are worried. Keep the lines of communication open and let them know at every opportunity that they can come to you and talk about anything at anytime. Even though you may not know much about these drugs, take the opportunity to learn about them with your child. Be as honest as you can when you talk about drugs and don't exaggerate the facts to scare them - warning them that if they try 'this or that' they could die is most probably not going to ring true to most young people. Certainly there are risks and there have been deaths linked to the use of ecstasy and related drugs, but they are not the norm and parents have to be careful in focusing on only the more extreme potential harms.
  • Discuss and formulate an emergency plan. For example, if they are out and have no way of getting home let them know that they can catch a taxi and you will pay. If they call you in the middle of the night that you won't lose it, but will help. This does not mean that you are supporting bad behaviour or condoning drug use but it does demonstrate that you will be there if thing go wrong in their lives.
  • Ensure they know what to do in an emergency. Basic first aid skills, as well as simple information such as how to call 000, may help save a life.  Reinforce to your child that in a drug-related emergency that the ambulance officers do not have to call the police, unless the person is refusing to seek treatment or there is the risk of injury to them. Make sure they have the 'Emergency+' app on their phone.
  • More than ever this year, young people going to festivals need to know the legal consequences of taking drugs such as ecstasy. There will be a huge police presence at these events over summer and policing strategies such as drug detection dogs and roadside drug testing have resulted in more people from the dance culture being prosecuted for drug offences. Let your child know how being caught for using drugs will affect the rest of their lives.
  • Make it very clear where you stand about the use of illegal drugs. As much as you may believe your views do not matter to your child, research shows that parental influence is still a major factor in the decisions many young people make.

So there we are, a whole pile of suggestions for parents around parenting over the summer break. I say it all the time, but it's so important to keep saying it, you guys have the most difficult job in the world! There is no rule book and you can only do the best you can do at the time ... when you make a mistake in the parenting area (and you most probably have and will continue to for the rest of your life) and something goes wrong, don't beat yourself up about it! Pick yourself up, learn from your mistake and move on and hopefully don't do it again!

This is a wonderful time of the year and, not surprisingly, many young people (and their parents) want to let their hair down and have a good time. Inevitably, in some cases, things do go wrong and the best way that parents can ensure that their child is as safe as possible is to actively 'parent' and remember the three 'golden rules' when it comes to parenting and alcohol and other drugs:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home

Have a great and very safe Christmas and New Year and thank you to everyone who has read my blog entries through 2016 - it really is appreciated!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Ensuring your child knows how to call an ambulance and that they have your support should they need to call: Not just a school's responsibility

If you've ever had to call 000, for whatever reason, I'm sure, like me, you found it quite a traumatic experience. You're not only trying to deal with an emergency situation, you also find yourself talking to an insanely calm voice on the other end of the line that keeps asking you questions when all you really want is the police, an ambulance or the fire brigade to show up as fast as humanly possible ... Don't get me wrong - emergency operators are amazing people who have to deal with life threatening situations every minute of every day, talking people through incredibly tough times, but boy it's not easy being the one who makes the call!

That is why I am constantly amazed at how many young people (and sometimes very young children) manage to do it so effectively. I believe one of the most important conversations any parent can have with their child (from a very early age and then regularly when they are in their teens) is ensuring that they know how to call an ambulance, what will happen when they do (i.e., what will they be asked and what information do they need?) and that they have your 100 per cent support should they ever need to make that lifesaving call.

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog entry after I received an email from a young woman who found herself in a situation where she had to make a 000 call, albeit after much resistance - some of you may remember the piece (which I have edited down below):

Last weekend one of my good friends ... decided to drink around 3 quarters of a bottle of vodka, eventually around the end of the night I was called over to come and look after him as he had thrown up ... he was foaming at the mouth and not responding to our attempts to keep him conscious. We had tried to reach his mother on his phone, however, his phone was locked and we could not get in, I told my friend that if his mother did not show up soon to call the ambulance. We had to call the ambulance eventually and I was very proud of my friend to have the courage to do it as many people, including parents at the party, were saying that he would be fine and that we didn’t need to be so dramatic. When we were on the phone to 000 we turned my friend (the boy who had been foaming at the mouth) onto his side into the recovery position and waited for the ambulance to arrive. The doctors and nurses eventually told us that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.25 and that he was lucky to have friends like us that were brave enough to call because if he had gone home by himself he would have either, choked on his own vomit, or gotten alcohol poisoning.
As I said at the time - isn't it wonderful that the young woman had the 'guts and gumption' to make that judgement call and ring for an ambulance ... but really, how appalling is it that "many people, including the parents at the party, were saying that he would be fine and that ... (she) ... didn't need to be so dramatic"? The young man was foaming at the mouth, barely conscious and the parents at the party said to this young woman that she was being dramatic because she wanted to call an ambulance - what were they thinking?

As I always say to students during my presentations, 'follow your heart, if the situation doesn't feel right, it probably isn't! If you want to call for help, call!' It may sound corny and, yes, sometimes the 'follow your heart' line gets a laugh from some in the audience, but it's a powerful message and one I hope gets through to young people.

But it's all well and good me providing these messages and I hope that they do make a difference, and of course, if they're reinforced by the school and classroom teacher that's even better - but nothing (and I repeat, nothing!) is more effective than having a parent let their child know their own views about calling 000 and that they have their total support should they ever need to make that all important call that could save someone's life ... One simple conversation at the appropriate time could make all the difference.
Now I know some parents will say that this is the school's responsibility and that doesn't this get taught in health education classes? I'm pretty sure that this comes from the belief that they feel they don't know enough about it and teachers are better equipped to provide information about 000 and how to call an ambulance. Well, to be quite honest, if you don't know anything about this area it's most probably time to find out (I have written a DARTA fact sheet called 'Calling 000 for a medical emergency' - take a quick look at it if you feel you should know more) - you never know when you may need to call for help yourself!
Here's some simple advice on how to best deal with the topic and some of the key points to cover:
  • Download the 'Emergency +' app from the App Store and acquaint yourself with its key features. This is a fantastic tool that everyone who owns a smartphone should have - when opened it provides all the key emergency numbers (you don't even have to dial them - just push them on the screen) and most importantly, it activates your GPS and provides not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address (so useful for young people who find themselves in an emergency situation and have to provide an address - I can assure you that almost all teens never know where they are on a Saturday night!)
  • If your child has a smartphone, sit down as a family and ensure that everyone (and I mean everyone - all adults included) puts the app onto their phone - this provides a great opportunity to talk about 000 and its services and when everyone does it, it helps to emphasise the importance of the service. If they don't own a smartphone, make sure they see all family members are loading it onto their phone.
  • If they have a mobile - make sure 000 is listed in their address book under 'Emergency'. Once again, talk about 000 and its services.
  • Ensure that they know that 000 can be accessed even if the phone does not have any credit or the phone is locked, i.e., you can pick up anyone's mobile and call 000 even if it locked. Show them that when the keypad is locked the option for 'emergency call' is always there.
  • Talk through what will happen when they call regarding a medical emergency (read through the DARTA fact sheet for full details) but the most important points include who they will be talking to (an emergency operator and then the ambulance operator - many teens are completely unaware that they will be talking to two people) and what information they will be asked for (location, mobile number and what is the problem).
  • Make sure they know that it is not them (or you) that pays for an ambulance if they make the call - it is the person being transported! A real barrier to teens calling for help for a friend is that they are frightened there will received a bill for the ambulance.
  • If you have ambulance cover, make sure they know that - I am absolutely gobsmacked that parents don't tell their kids this. They need to know that if they have to be transported, for whatever reason, you have medical insurance. If you live in Queensland or Tasmania they should be told that their ambulance costs are covered - once again, I am so surprised that more teens don't know this in those states.
  • Most importantly, ensure that they know that they have your complete support should they ever have to call an ambulance. I would suggest the following - "If you need an ambulance, you call one straight away. I totally support you. Then you call me - straight afterwards". Making that call can be traumatic - many young people will need their parents' support after they have done it, particularly if they went out on their own and had to fight others to do so ...
Our kids are truly incredible - they constantly amaze me with the things they are able to do and the decisions they make. Of course, some are going to do stupid things and make mistakes, but on the whole I believe the vast majority really want and try to do the right thing for the most part. Calling an ambulance due to a medical emergency, particularly if it relates to someone they care about, is one of the most traumatic things an adult can do, let alone a teenager. It is vital that parents have a conversation with their child about this topic as early as they can and then keep reinforcing the message of support as often as possible - believe me, it never gets old!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Who do teens believe is the 'weakest link'? Which of their parents is more likely to say 'yes'?

At my parent sessions, when I talk about how easily teens are able to identify the 'weakest link', as far parenting is concerned, there are usually one of two responses from the couples in the room. Either one of them turns and stares accusingly, whilst the other tries as hard as they can to keep looking forward hoping it will all end quickly, or you simply see a room full of grown men and women swinging around to each other pointing fingers furiously! Not surprisingly, most parents are well aware who the 'weakest link' is in their family, i.e., the one that their child is more likely to go to in an attempt to get what they want, particularly in relation to alcohol and parties ... but what do young people think about this phenomenon and how are they most likely to use it to their advantage?

Once again, I'm going to be using the results of the questionnaire that I conducted through the year to look at this fascinating area. Of the more than 500 Year 10s and 11s who completed the brief survey, did they think it was their Mum or their Dad who was more likely to 'cave-in' and was their a gender preference, i.e., were daughters more likely to go to their Dads to get what they wanted? Once again, I don't think there are any real surprises when you look at the findings but it really is interesting to read some of the comments from these young people around this issue and, once again, see how cleverly they can manipulate their parents when it comes to getting what they want ...

The questions that were asked were as follows:

"Who is more likely to say "yes" if you asked them if you could go to a party - Mum or Dad?"
"Who is more likely to say "yes" if you ask for permission to drink alcohol at a party or gathering - Mum or Dad?"

Of the more than 300 responses (the questionnaire changed over time and so this question was not always included), it's official - sorry Mums, you are the weakest link! It must be said though that that it was pretty close and there were some interesting age and gender differences! Mums came out on top for both questions, although it was much closer as far as the provision of alcohol was concerned, with Dads increasingly being seen as the 'easy touch' as far as the Year 11 young men were concerned. So here is a brief summary of what the young people reported:
  • The majority (68%) of Year 10 and 11 students (male and female) believed that their Mum was more likely to say "yes" when asked if they could go to a party. There was no difference across the year groups but slightly higher numbers of young females were more likely to report that their mother would say "yes" than their male counterparts
  • Just over half (55%) of Year 10 and 11 students reported that Mum was more likely to say "yes" if they asked if they could drink alcohol at a party. There was a big gender difference as they got older, however, with 68% of Year 11 boys and only 48% of Year 11 girls more likely to ask Dad, with the numbers being much closer for the Year 10s
Few students provided a written comment for this question but here are a selection of some of their responses that provide some insight on why they chose the parent they did:
  • "Mum trusts me more than my Dad and she also knows more of my friends so I know she'll say yes when I ask about a party" (Year 10 female)
  • "Mum can't say no to me about anything" (Year 10 female)
  • "Dad always lets me do what I want in the end" (Year 11 female)
  • "I know that my Dad was drinking and going to parties at my age and so I always ask him. Mum will say no but my Dad can always make her change her mind" (Year 11 male)
  • "I don't ask either of them. I know both will say no" (Year 11 female)
When you looked at just those teens who reported that they did not drink alcohol, however, something really interesting popped up. I only provided two responses for the student to choose from for each of the question - Mum or Dad. For the question about parties some of those who completed the survey decided to tick both boxes (even though that wasn't an option), indicating that they felt that either of their parents could be approached in this area. Only a couple responded in a similar way for the question around alcohol (i.e., marking both boxes), however, of those young people who reported that they did not drink, almost one quarter of them indicated that neither of them would give permission. Does this mean that if your child knows that you won't give permission for them to drink alcohol then they are more inclined to make a healthier choice? That's certainly what the literature says and it seems to be the case here but this survey is certainly not scientific and you can't draw too many conclusions from it - but I think it's really interesting ...

I also think it's fascinating that as they get older young men are more likely to ask their fathers for alcohol. Could it be, as the young man commented above, that their sons are more likely to approach them from the 'hypocrisy' angle (an old favourite with teens) and try the line "I'm just doing what you did" and hope for a positive response? Or is it that they're simply trying it from a 'mateship' perspective, i.e., "Come on Dad, that's just what we young Aussie guys do!"

So how do you solve the 'weakest link' issue? Teens are experts at identifying which parent is more likely to give them what they want, isolate or 'silo' them, set one up against the other (e.g., "But Dad said I could if you said it was alright") and then bombard them until they get the answer they were after. It's never going to be easy but I suggest the following strategy to parents to prevent being set-up in this way around alcohol and parties:
  • Most importantly, there must be a 'united front' - you and your partner must be on the same page on this issue. This can be particularly difficult for split families but if you agree on nothing else, try to come to a compromise on this ... and decide on where you stand before you have any discussion with your teen. No matter what the family situation you're never going to get both parents completely on the same page in this area but do your best to meet each other halfway and always remember, it's about keeping your child safe, not being their best friend!
  • Sit down with your teen and tell them that you don't make any decision in this area and your partner doesn't make any decision - any decision made around alcohol and parties will be made by both of you. It must be made clear that coming to one of you and asking for something is not going to work - both of you, in consultation with your child, have to be involved in the decision-making process, no matter how urgent the request is ...
  • This is not going to work unless a specific time is designated each week or couple of days to allow your teen to ask both of you for permission and discuss their requests. If you tell them they have to ask both of you, it is imperative that you give them a time when they are able to do this - if you can't find this time don't even attempt this as you're simply not being fair and you'll just get a lot of resentment and anger
Whoever the weakest link in your family is (and if it's you, you know who you are!), they need support from their partner. I've looked everywhere for scientific research in this area and have been unsuccessful (if you know of any, please let me know). As already said, a united front in the area of alcohol and parties is crucial during the teen years and having one parent who simply can't say 'no', for whatever reason, is going to be problematic. Clearly stating that any decision in this area is never going to be made by one of you, no matter what the circumstances may be and then following through with this to the best of your ability will ensure that you and your partner make good, well thought through decisions about your teen's safety.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Can I? Can I? Can I? When do teens believe the best time is to try to wear you down and get the answer they want?

As I wrote about in a recent post, I have been collecting information throughout the year on a range of issues around parties and gatherings and alcohol from young people via a short questionnaire I ask them to fill out after the talks I present at schools. I now have over 500 completed surveys from Year 10 and 11 students across all three systems - public, Independent and Catholic - and over the next couple of months leading up to the Christmas holidays I thought I would share some of the results with readers of my blog - some of them are really fascinating ...

It needs to be made clear that this is not a rigorous piece of scientific research and I can't submit any of my 'findings' to a journal for publication, but the results provide a rough snapshot of what is happening across the country in this area. As much as I wanted to know about their drinking behaviour, that can be a dangerous area to get into (particularly around 'duty of care') so I tried to focus more on how the students are being parented in this area (or at least how they perceive they are being parented). The questionnaire has changed over the year - I've removed some questions and added others as issues have popped up - but no question has less than a sample size of 200 students having answered it, so that's pretty reasonable and gives me something to work with. It's important to remember that all the information provided is 'self-report' and there is no way of knowing what they are telling me about what is happening in their lives in this area is the truth, but in my experience I believe most teens are fairly honest when completing this type of survey.

There's an episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa want to go to the amusement park, Krustyworld and when Marge says 'no', you then see the two children beating their mother down in the next 4 or 5 scenes in a range of situations by asking "Can we go?", "Can we go?" "Can we go?", until finally she just gives up and says 'yes'! Many of you would have found yourself in a similar situation over the years and it's with that in mind that I included the following question in the survey:

"When do you think is the best time to ask your parents for permission to go to a party or gathering that you think they may not want you to go to?"

This followed another that asked whether or not they had actually ever been refused permission to attend a party they had been invited to and if they had, why were they told permission was not given? I'll report on the findings of that question later ... but for now, when do teens believe the best time is to ask their parents for something and get their desired outcome? I don't think the answers were particularly surprising but they certainly show you how smart our teens can be and how well they know their parents! Here is an example of one Year 11 female's response that pretty well summarises what the survey found ...

"The only time I ever ask my Mum whether I can go out on the weekend is when she is on the phone, particularly if she is talking to one of her best friends. I wait until she has been speaking for a while and then tell her that I need an urgent answer and then she usually says 'yes' to whatever I ask her. It's really easy ..."

Yes, the number one response to when do teens believe the best time to ask for something and get the response they wanted was when their parents were on the phone! As I said, no real surprises there. Most didn't give more detail than simply - 'on the phone' - but those that did seemed to know their parents incredibly well, identifying particular people that their parents spoke to as being important, and, of course, work-related phone calls being particularly useful when wanting to get the desired outcome, particularly where their fathers were concerned.

  • "When Dad is on a business call I can usually get what I want pretty quickly. He just says 'yes' and sends me away" (Year 10 male)
  • "If I know Mum is on a call to her sister I will always ask because I know the call goes forever and she'll say 'yes' to anything" (Year 10 female)

The two other times that appeared to be popular were while the parent was shopping (variations on the theme like bringing the shopping in from the car or unpacking the groceries were also reported) or when they were watching a television program they regularly watched (this seemed to be a particular favourite with the young men who completed the survey and was almost always used with their mothers - I'm not quite sure what that was about!). Here are some of the responses provided by students in these areas - I think the final one is priceless:

  • "When Mum is food shopping is the best. She doesn't always let me go but this is the best time as she seems to be distracted and doesn't always hear everything I say" (Year 10 female)
  • "When I help Mum with bringing in the shopping from the car I can ask her almost anything and she will let me do it. Sometimes she asks me about the party but other times I just get what I want" (Year 10 male)
  • "When one of Mum's TV shows is on and she doesn't want to be disturbed is the best time. She will tell me to be quiet when I ask her, I tell her it's urgent and then she usually says 'yes'" (Year 11 female)
  • "When Mum is watching 'Bold and the Beautiful' I can ask her for anything" (Year 10 male)

Teens certainly work out very quickly the best time to approach their parents to ensure they get the things they want. As you can see by their responses - they choose a time when you're distracted and more likely to say 'yes' just to get rid of them!

No parent should be making decisions about what their child is or isn't allowed to do on Saturday night 'on the run'. Saying 'yes' to something when you're distracted and being 'bullied' into something because it's supposedly urgent and they need an immediate response is not the best way to go and if something was to go wrong I can guarantee you would never forgive yourself.

This is why it is so important that you try to allocate a set period every week for your teen to sit down with you and your partner, together, so that they can discuss with you what they are doing in their life, what they may want to do on the weekend and anything else that is important. In a 'time-poor' world this can be extremely difficult for families to do but it is vital that you provide an opportunity for your teen to ask you for permission to attend parties, go places over the weekend, invite friends over and the like. Many parents I speak to say that the best time for them is the dinner table - to try to ensure that at least once a week the whole family sits down, no TV and no other electronic devices, and actually talks about the week that has been and the week and weekend to come. This way if they ask you for something and you don't feel comfortable about saying 'yes', you have the opportunity to talk it through, let them tell you why you shouldn't be worried and then a thoughtful, considered response can be given. Of course, it's never that easy and some teens do little more than grunt when you ask them anything about their life ... but being cornered by a teen while you're on the phone and then simply saying 'yes' to them just to get them off your back is not the way to go!

Saturday, 22 October 2016

One of those teen parties where everything goes right: One Mum's story she was desperate to share

I'm getting a little tired of talking about teenage parties and gatherings where things go wrong and I end up criticising parental behaviour that not only adversely affects their own child but other peoples' children as well. There are so many parties put on every weekend that go well - no dramas, no problems - just a bunch of wonderful young people getting together and having a great time and it's about time that I did my bit to acknowledge and celebrate these events.

I received an email from a Mum named Carol a few weeks ago who desperately wanted to share her experience with organising and hosting a teen party for her daughter's 15th birthday, not because it all went horribly wrong but because it went so well! It's taken a couple of weeks to get this written as we've spoken on the phone a couple of times since I received her message in an effort to try to pin down a couple of key things that she thinks led to the success. Here is Carol's original email ...

I have been reading your blog for the past couple of years and have read with great interest all the advice you have provided for parents around teenage parties and alcohol. My daughter, Hannah, was only 13 when I started to read your articles and I was amazed to read about some of the parenting behaviour that you described, particularly around not meeting the parents when they dropped the sons or daughters off at sleepovers or parties. When you came to my daughter's school my husband and I attended the parent session that you ran and it was after listening to you then that we sat down and had a big talk about how we were going to deal with this issue.

Fast forward two years and we made the decision to hold a 15th birthday party at our home for Hannah. She is a very social young lady and was desperate for us to let her have her friends over and show them a good time. She has been to many parties this year but she knows our rules and we always call the host parents, take her there and pick her up (often ending up picking up a number of her friends at the same time). She doesn't like the rules but we have promised her that they will be adjusted over time and we will reward good behaviour (just like you keep saying) so the moment there are no real dramas. It was also made clear to Hannah that if we were to have a party at our home then it would be held under our rules. She would be involved in the making of the rules and if she felt that the rules would ruin the party or embarrass her in any way then she could pull the plug at any time.

I cannot even begin to tell you how proud I was of Hannah and her 30 wonderful friends that came to our house last Saturday night! There were absolutely no issues whatsoever. We had no young people turn up to our home intoxicated, in fact, over 20 of the teens were walked to the door by at least one of their parents. To the best of our knowledge there was no alcohol consumed during the whole event and the kids looked like they had a great time. There were no gatecrashers, no noise complaints from neighbours and there was absolutely no damage (there wasn't even a broken glass!). The party started at 7.30pm and finished at 11.00pm , with most of the kids being picked up by a parent, with many of them once again actually coming to the door, and those that weren't we knew exactly who did pick them up and where they were going.  

I need to make it clear that these aren't a bunch of 'goody two shoes' who never do anything wrong. One of the girls who attended had recently found herself in trouble at a party and ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning. Alcohol is already a part of some of these teens' lives but last Saturday they had a great time without it. My husband and I are so proud of them we could just bust! If you would like to share this on your blog I would be so very happy. We were really worried about putting on the party because we had heard all the horror stories but I think our story shows that if you put the effort in (and we did work very hard to get this right) you certainly reap the rewards!

Our kids are great and it is incredibly important to remember that there are hundreds of teenage parties and gatherings held every weekend that go off without a hitch - no problems at all! But as Carol said, you have to work hard to get it right - a successful and safe teenage party doesn't just happen. With that in mind I made contact with her to find out from her what she thought were the most important things she did that led to the party being safe, alcohol-free and still be seen as a great night by her daughter and her friends ... We've gone backwards and forwards on this over the past fortnight but here are the 5 tips she believes were the key to her success (there are a couple here that I think are great original ideas and good on her and Dale, her husband, for being so innovative):

  • Make sure your child is involved in the making of the rules and the organisation of the party. This doesn't mean that they make the rules but Hannah had been to some parties and she had a good idea of what worked and what didn't. There were some things that were totally non-negotiable and she was told that at the beginning, but in every other area we were willing to listen. Having her help organise the party was great too as she could see how much work it took and, once again, she knew what worked and what didn't. She certainly felt an ownership of the party and a great deal of pride at the end of the night about how well it went and that was extremely valuable.
  • Have a strict limit on number invited, RSVP only and no 'plus-ones'. Our greatest battle with Hannah was on how many could be invited - she originally wanted 100! I didn't think she even knew that many people but it was all about 'plus ones', with her girlfriends wanting to bring another person, usually an older boy. This was a non-negotiable rule - 30 invitees was our limit and to be quite honest I don't know how any parent could deal with anymore than that. Formal invitations were handed to people - no information was to be delivered via social media - and I had to receive a formal RSVP back before putting them on the guest list.
  • RSVPs have to include a contact number for one or both of the parents on the night of the party. This proved to be difficult to get for a couple of the young people attending and we did have two boys who tried to provide fake numbers (we rang every contact number when we got the RSVP to check that we had what we wanted but did it under the guise of thanking the Mum or Dad who answered for letting their child come and to briefly introduce ourselves). In the end we got a genuine number for all 30 of them and that made us feel so much more secure should something have gone wrong and we needed to make contact quickly with a parent.
  • Invite parents to a 'drop in and say hello' event at the house when they drop their child off at the party. We had no idea how this would go and whether anyone would take us up on this but we had an amazing response, both on the night and in the week after. We've never seen anyone else do it but had often thought when we dropped Hannah off at a party that it would be nice to meet some of the other parents and maybe even offer to assist the hosts if they looked like they needed it. We included a brief invitation to 'Drop in and say hello to Dale and Carol' on the actual hard-copy formal invitation to the party and mentioned it again when we called to check the mobile number that had been provided. We set a room aside (away from where the kids were) and allocated 30 minutes at the beginning of the party where we would 'meet and greet' any parent who wanted to come in and say hello ... We were really surprised how many took us up on the offer, most of them thanking us for giving them the opportunity to meet other parents. No-one stayed for longer than about 15 mins, although a couple of Mums did ask if we needed help with anything, offering to hang around if we did, but all were gone at the end of the 30 mins. 
  • Make it clear that no-one will be leaving the party without an adult picking them up. We were very conscious of the issue of unaccompanied teens leaving parties as we have picked up Hannah and watched many 14 and 15 year-olds wandering the streets at the end of the night, not a parent in sight. After the fights around how many were allowed to be invited, making it clear that no-one would be able to leave without an adult picking them up was our next greatest battle with our daughter. This was also the most difficult thing to organise - I don't think we got it perfectly right but we were pretty damn close! In the end, we left this with Hannah to organise, asking her to collect the names, together with a contact number, of the adults who would be collecting each of the 30 invitees. We went through this with her in the days before the party and if there were any names that didn't look right we checked on them with a phone call. That list was used at the end of the night to ensure that each of them was picked up by the adult who's name they provided. We did have a few parents who texted their child to pick them up and didn't come to the door, but in those cases we just rang the number we had to make sure it was really them and then sent them on their way. We also had two parents who used an Uber to pick up their child which really surprised us. In both cases, however, the parent rang us up as the car approached to let us know what was happening.    

Carol and Dale are amazing people! They went to great lengths to hold a wonderful party for their daughter but also make sure she and her friends were as safe as possible. I hope the parents of Hannah's friends appreciate their efforts.

It is important to acknowledge that Carol doesn't believe that she is going to be able to use all of these tips for future parties - as her daughter and her peers get older, she's going to have to relax some of the rules, trust them to do the right thing and allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. She certainly doesn't expect that many parents are going to be walking their 16 or 17 year-old down to her front door when she holds a party in a couple of years time, but for a 15th birthday party, this couple have done an incredible job and have every right to be proud of themselves, as well as their daughter and her friends. I really love a couple of the tips that Carol put together - i.e., ensuring the RSVP includes a contact number for one or both of the parents on the night of the party really provides the host parents with much greater peace of mind should anything go wrong and I think the 'drop in and say hello' event for parents is an inspired idea! If you've had similar successful events and want to share your experiences with others, please send your thoughts and ideas through to me - I'd love to hear them and pass them onto others ...

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Mixed sleepovers: What are parents thinking?

I'm not sure whether it's just the end of the year and I'm starting to get tired but I seem to be doing a fair bit of 'parent-bashing' at the moment ... I hope that regular readers of my blogs know that I think most of you guys are amazing! It's not easy being a parent - there are lots of challenges and, as I always say, there is no 'rule book' and so there's lots of 'trial and error' involved with the whole process. That said, over the past couple of months I have heard about some examples of parental behaviour, particularly around parties and gatherings, that just makes things so much more difficult for all you guys who are trying to do the right thing  ... case in point - mixed sleepovers!

In the past month I have been approached by parents at two different schools who have recently struggled with their teens over this issue and have no idea how to progress with the problem. Interestingly, both parents asked me to be extremely careful how I raised the topic as they were fearful that if I provided too much detail about their particular incident then they would be able to be identified and their children could suffer as a result. So with that in mind, I'm going to be fairly vague about details. In both cases, however, their teen was 15 years-old - one male and the other a Year 10 girl. The situations were very similar, both parents have fairly strict rules and boundaries around alcohol and almost always make sure they call the house where the party, gathering or whatever is being held and find out a little bit more about what will be happening. Recently their child had been asked to a 'gathering', with their teens making it very clear it was not a party - just a small group of close friends getting together on a Saturday night. They assured their parents there was to be no alcohol and, by the way, they also wanted to sleepover ... Although none of them felt really comfortable about the whole 'sleepover' thing, they agreed to it as long as they got some answers from the parents hosting the event to make sure that alcohol wasn't going to be part of the night. They called the hosts and asked the usual questions around supervision, alcohol, drop-off and pick-up time the next day and the like - received satisfactory answers and, as a result, agreed to let their children go ...

Both found out later (and in very different ways) that, in fact, this wasn't your typical 15 year-old sleepover. Yes, it was only a (comparatively) small group of teens attending but it was a mixed group - around 10-15 young men and young women in each of the cases - and in both there was little to no adult supervision, even though the parents had been assured that there would be when they had called and asked a specific question. Alcohol was snuck into one of the parties by some of those attending and the other had a range of alcoholic drinks provided by the hosts, completely contradicting what they had told parents over the phone when they had made enquiries. Boys and girls shared beds in some cases and were completely left to their own devices. What in heavens were the host parents thinking?

With hormones racing during this stage of adolescence, combined with alcohol and no supervision, it is a miracle that something terrible didn't happen (and most frighteningly it could have and we simply don't know about it) ... and all while their parents were at home believing that they were in a safe and secure environment!

With so many of these kind of issues, I always come back to what would have happened if schools and teachers acted in the same way? Can you imagine the outcry if a group of Year 10s went off to a school camp and the teachers just let a co-ed group of students go and sleep wherever they wanted? The number of hoops that teachers have to go through to organise a school camp or retreat is ridiculous, but rightly so - you want your kids to be safe. Ensuring the right numbers of male and female staff are present, that there is adequate supervision provided at all times and the facilities are safe and secure - the list goes on and on - and there's no alcohol added to the mix there! How a parent in their right mind could possibly think that holding a mixed sleepover for a group of 15 year-olds in their home is appropriate is beyond me! How do you control it and most importantly, why would you ever do it?

The thing that has made this so much more difficult for both of the families that I met is that they simply have no idea how to respond as far raising their concerns with the host parents. Both found out well after the sleepover was held (as I said in very different circumstances) and feel as though they would have had no problems confronting them immediately after the event but now too much time has gone past, i.e., "Nothing happened - what's your problem?" They're also extremely worried how their response will impact upon how their teen is viewed in their friendship group. If it all comes out and gets nasty, will their child be isolated or bullied for 'telling all'? One of the Mums also admitted that she was concerned about the effect this could have on her place in the parent group at the school. Apparently, the host mother of her daughter's party is extremely influential and powerful - although she wanted to be the 'whistle-blower', would it really be worth it in the long-term? Would it actually change anything?

What is the most frightening about this is that it now adds another layer to parental concern around teenage parties and gatherings. If a parent wants to make sure they do their 'due diligence' when it comes to checking up about what will be happening at the parties their child hopes to attend on a Saturday night, there are already so many questions that need to be asked. I think it's truly bizarre that if your 14-15 year-old child wants to stay over at a friend's house you now need to ask whether the host parents are planning a mixed sleepover or not! Unbelievable!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Picking your teen up from a party by text: What position does that put the parents hosting the event in?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a very dear friend of mine who had contacted me about a party she had hosted for her 15 year-old daughter and her absolute shock that not one parent had contacted her beforehand to find out anything about the event. Adding insult to injury, she couldn't believe that the girls attending were simply dropped off at the end of the driveway (no-one bothered to walk their daughter to the house and introduce themselves to her and her partner) and then picked up by text when the party finished. That blog entry got a huge reaction, with many readers writing to me that they had had a similar experience, totally gobsmacked that so many parents appeared to have absolutely no interest in who would be looking after their child on a Saturday night, where they would be going and what they were actually planning to do with them when they got there!

One part of the story really resonated with another friend of mine and he got in contact with me and asked me to share his experience around a party he held for his 15 year-old daughter, Bella.

I have known Travis (not his real name) and his wife (Michelle) for a long time - we used to party together many years ago and, after having a couple of beautiful daughters, he has been regularly attended my parent sessions for the past 10 years. Over that time we've often talked about the upcoming challenges that he may face bring up adolescent daughters but he was truly shocked after hosting his first teenage party. He's an avid reader of my blogs and has collected a range of adolescent parenting books and so when it came to organising the event he did everything right. He certainly wasn't surprised (although a little disappointed) that he had very few parents contact him or his wife directly to find out about the party, but as he said, he knew many of the Mums and Dads of his daughter's friends and they knew him so he attributed this to the fact that there was an element of trust there, i.e., they knew that their child would be well looked after by Travis and his wife. But it was the end of the night that just blew him away and I'll let you read what happened in his own words ...

"All had gone so well. We had made it very clear to Bella that there would be no alcohol allowed, anyone who tried to smuggle alcohol in or appeared to be even slightly intoxicated would have their parents contacted and we would ask them to be picked up immediately (a condition of attending was providing us with a parent's mobile number so that would be easy to enforce), and we had no problems at all. The girls seemed to have a great time. Then at 10.45pm, 15 minutes before the party was ending, everyone's phone started to go off and the girls started to make a move for the front door. When we asked them where they were going, every girl, without exception, told us that their parent was outside to pick them up. We looked outside and there was indeed a fleet of cars outside, interestingly, none in the actual driveway (which was empty - what was that about?). When we asked the girls to tell their parents to come in and say hello you would have almost thought we had asked them to kill their grandmother ... 

We live on a fairly dark street - there are street lamps but it's not well-lit. We couldn't see in the cars and we honestly had no idea who was in them. We could have possibly identified a couple of cars with parents we knew reasonably well but we couldn't have been sure. Michelle and I had a quick chat and just felt like we couldn't in all good conscience let this group of 35 girls spill out onto our street and get into cars with people we had no way of identifying. 

Michelle blocked the door and I then proceeded to walk each girl, or group of girls if they said they were to be picked up by one parent together, to the cars. I was extremely polite to the first couple of parents I met, introducing myself and saying to them that they should have come in and said hello and that we would have liked to meet out daughter's friend's parents, but some of them were so rude, almost grunting at me, that that stopped pretty quickly. Some of the parents I knew well were totally surprised when they saw me at their car window and when I asked them whether they really expected me to just send their daughter out onto the street without really knowing who was picking them up, you could see that this was something they simply had never thought about ...

What was really scary though was that when I took 5 of the girls to the car picking them up, there were no parents there. One group of 3 girls wanted to get into a car with two young men in their early 20s (there were no P-plates so that's how old I assumed they were). They told me that one of them was one of the girl's brothers but when I called their parents (thank god I had collected mobiles), I found out that they were planning to go to another party and their families knew nothing about it. Absolutely terrifying! The other two girls admitted to me that were being picked up by older boyfriends as I was walking them out, both telling me that they had their parents' permission. When I checked, once again, totally untrue!"

Travis is a great Dad and I can tell you he has been really traumatised by this event. As he said to me, he doesn't want to even think about what could have happened if he had let those 5 girls go off to god knows where ... If one of those girls had been sexually assaulted later that night or the car crammed with two young men and three 15 year-olds from the party had crashed and someone had been killed he would never have been able to live with himself. Since the party Travis has received quite a deal of flak from some of the parents of the girls who attended his daughter's birthday claiming that 'shaming' them they way he did was inappropriate. His daughter has also been bullied as a result of his actions but, as he says, he couldn't care less what they think about him and she's a strong and resilient young woman and they've talked it through and she seems to totally get why he did what he did ...

I get that it's often late on a Saturday night when you have to pick your son or daughter up from a party or gathering. You could be in your pyjamas, you don't look your best and you're certainly in no mood to socialise, but picking up your teen from a party by text puts the hosting parents into a terribly difficult situation. They do have a 'duty of care' and looking out their window or front door and seeing a fleet of cars parked on the street and asking them to blindly accept that the people inside those vehicles are the people the teens about to leave the party say they are is simply not fair. It doesn't take much to walk to a door or even to the front garden if you don't want to get close (or you're frightened you will 'shame' your teen), just so the hosting parents can see that it is an adult picking them up and that they will be safe. But just as importantly, wouldn't it just be manners to say a face-to-face 'thank you' to the family for looking after your child for the night?

Am I for one minute suggesting that you walk to the door for every party that your teen attends during their teen years? Absolutely not! Of course it's going to change when they get older but when they're 14 or 15, if you're sitting in your car and texting them to come outside - shame on you!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Want to have a good conversation with your teen? Talk to them at night, very late!

"Every conversation I have with my 15 year-old at the moment ends in a fight! Apparently I don't understand anything about the world, my rules are completely different to every other parent's and, as I'm usually told as the door slams, I just want to ruin her life!"

As tempting as it must be sometimes to just turn and walk away and think this is just all too hard when this kind of thing happens, it is incredibly important that parents continue to try and work hard to maintain a dialogue with their son or daughter during the teen years. I've just pulled this quote out of one of many emails I've had over the years  - I can't tell you how many times I've been told by mums and dads that their wonderful, communicative and co-operative teen went up to bed one night and was somehow replaced by aliens with a 'pod person' - an adolescent that they now simply don't recognize! If their child did actually decide to converse it was usually to argue with them about absolutely everything but it was more often the case that words were replaced with mono-syllabic grunts, particularly where young men are concerned, and any attempts to find out what was going on in their lives were often met with great resistance.

Without doubt the most important thing that parents need to do during the teen years (and particularly middle adolescence - around that 14-15 year-old period) is to try to keep 'connected' to them. This can be extremely difficult for many parents due to the changes that an adolescent is going through during this time in their lives. This is the time when young people are trying to find their place in the world - to develop their own identity and, in doing so, often pull away from their parents. When reviewing the available evidence, a recent study (Onrust et al, 2016) listed some of the changes often seen in middle adolescence as follows:
  • start of separation and individuation from the family and striving for autonomy and independence
  • relationships with parents change and increasing peer influence leads to rejection of parental values
  • peers become most consistent source of reinforcement as well as source of information on values and beliefs
  • capable of abstract thinking and organize complex thoughts about others – leads to greater understanding of other's feelings and perspectives
  • changes in brain lead to rapid changes in emotional states and increasing sensitivity to rewarding outcomes
  • presence of peers results in greater risk-taking as peer approval is a reward in itself
This is a tough time for parents (and according to the study, really difficult in terms of providing prevention messages around alcohol and other drugs as this age group is not open to adults' views) and they are going to need as many strategies in their 'tool box' to help them maintain a positive and open relationship with their child.

At all my parent sessions this year I have discussed the book Staying Connected To Your Teenager (subtitled How To Keep Them Talking To You and How To Hear What They're Really Saying) written by US parenting expert, Michael Riera . There are a whole pile of strategies that he suggests in this wonderful book, including some that I've been talking about for years (e.g., never underestimate the quality of conversation you can have in the car when you are driving them somewhere - they're sitting right next to you, they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!) but I want to highlight one idea that I speak about at every presentation that I have had some amazing feedback about ... I did discuss this in a blog entry last year but I think it's well worth repeating.

In the opening chapter of the book Riera talks about the different sleep rhythms that adolescents have and how parents can use these to enhance their relationship with their child. He talks about research that has shown that teens have a different circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) than adults. Where the fully developed brain releases sleep-inducing chemicals in the early evening (around 7.00pm) causing adults to start to get sleepy after dinner, teens don't experience the same effect until much later, with many of them not getting sleepy until around 11.00pm. Because they get sleepy earlier, adults are able to wake up in the morning feeling well-rested and able to function  (I'm sure many people reading this are saying that isn't necessarily their reality but there it is!), while teens on the other hand find the mornings very difficult and trying to have a quality conversation with them over breakfast or anytime before lunch is likely to fail.

Adolescents are most likely to open up and talk late at night and Riera suggests using this unique wake-sleep cycle to connect with your teen. In addition to their brain chemistry, it is at this time that they've had time to reflect on the events of the day, their defences are down to some extent and there are far less distractions. The problem for parents is that this is their natural time to sleep and it actually takes a little bit of forward planning to get these late night conversations happening. Riera gives a couple of great examples of parents who have used this strategy successfully, including one mother who actually set her alarm to wake up at 1.00am and 'accidentally on purpose' bumped into her daughter and started a conversation by simply asking her 'How are things with you?'. In the words of this mum, "I've learned more about her life during these talks than I have in all the family dinners we've shared during the last three years."

He also talks about the importance of using the same 'late night' strategy when having phone conversations with your child if they are away from home - he uses the American examples of camp and college, but the same 'rule' applies if your teen has taken a 'gap year' and is travelling overseas or the like - you are much more likely to find out what is really happening if you speak to them later in their evening.

Of course, once you've got them talking you've got to know how to respond appropriately and there's always that risk that they're going to tell you something you really don't want to know (I can remember a conversation with my mother in my late 20s when I was telling her about something that was happening in my life at the time - possibly sharing a little too much - and she turned around and said "I think we've reached the point where I don't need to know anymore"!) and you need to be prepared for that and make sure that you don't react in a way that is going to shut down future conversations. It's important to remember that sometimes just listening is enough ...

I've been saying it all year but I'd strongly recommend that parents take a look at this book, whether you're struggling to keep connected with your teen or not. Here is a quote from the end of the chapter on the late night strategy that will give you some idea of the positive messages contained in the book - I think you'll agree, it's well worth a read.

"Remember, your teenager has a different rhythm to his day than you. Therefore, even though it isn't convenient, it is well worth the effort that it takes to adapt your rhythms to match his, if even only for an evening every now and again ... Those are ... the nights that will help you get through all the other nights when it's an hour past curfew and you haven't heard a peep from your wayward teenager. It's all about balance. Just never let yourself forget that it is your connection with your teenager that will always lead him back home."

Onrust, S. et al (2016). School-based programmes to reduce and prevent substance use in different age groups: What works for whom? Systematic review and meta-regression analysis, Clinical Psychology Review 44, 45-59.

Riera, M. (2003). Staying Connected To Your Teenager, Da Capo Press Lifelong Books.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A mother's concern about alcohol, football and 'Mad Monday'

Alcohol and sport are bound together tightly in this country and, to be honest, it doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. I remember going to a conference many years ago and hearing from an expert in the area that it took 25 years from the day Bob Hawke announced that tobacco sponsorship of sport would end to the day it finally did, but if a Prime Minister did the same thing around alcohol today, it could take close to 40 years to disentangle the two! Pretty amazing stuff but not really surprising ...

Participation in sport is regarded as a protective factor for young people when it comes to alcohol and other drugs. It's a healthy activity, keeps them busy and 'off the streets', as well as offering them a sense of 'connectedness', particularly when it comes to team sports. It is also a way of parents maintaining a positive relationship with their child - e.g., driving them to training and to the actual sporting events, showing an interest in what they do and who they're associating with, supporting them in their efforts and just basically being a part of their lives. Why then would some parents go and stuff this all up by adding alcohol to the mix? Over the years I have heard from many parents who have written to me concerned about the group of mothers who insist on bringing a couple of bottles of wine to watch their primary school children play netball, or the Dad with a carton of beers cheering his son on from the sideline (who will often congratulate his efforts at the end of the game with a swig from a bottle and a slap on the back!) ... Alcohol and school sport should simply just not go together!

I'm certainly not trying to be a wowser here, but really, can't you get together with other adults for a couple of hours watching your child play sport without having a drink? Is it really that much of a hardship to socialise without alcohol? There's a time and place for everything and your child's sporting event is not the place for drinking ...

A mother recently emailed me regarding her concerns about football and the alcohol culture, particularly in relation to the behaviour of fathers, and the impact this could potentially have on her relationship with her son. When a parent tries their best to keep their teen safe and promote positive attitudes towards alcohol and others display such disregard for their beliefs and wishes it makes it extremely difficult. Here is her email ...  

"I should preface this by saying that my husband and I have a united front on this issue and I attribute his convictions, even more than my own, to the fact that our children have not been drinking yet. They know how we feel about the issue and we talk very openly about it.  As a consequence they actually share a lot of stories with us about what is happening and the nature of the 'gatherings' being held.  We do not live in a dream land and know the boundaries can change quickly (and should change), but for now our children accept the rules (even if the oldest one isn't always thrilled about it).  Our eldest has recently attended his first 'gatherings' and they have tested our resolve (and his). At each of these events I was horrified that most of the boys arrived with alcohol supplied by their parents who were clearly authorising their drinking.  While I have heard from many of my own girlfriends that they are allowing their sons to take 'just two beers' (don't get me started!), I know several families where the fathers have recently supported their son's 'need' to take a six pack of beer which has now become the norm. At one of these gatherings the fathers of several of the boys, already intoxicated themselves after a long Friday lunch, actually joined the 16 year-olds in their Friday night drinking!  When my husband said to one of these fathers the next day that our 16 year-old son was not allowed to drink, he had the audacity to tell my husband "your son NEEDS a drink"!   

While the drinking culture around Year 10 and Year 11 youths is an ongoing battle, the catalyst for my email is the conclusion of the football season and the drinking culture that is perpetuated by fathers who are re-living their own football careers through their teenage boys.  Many junior football associations recently had their football grand finals on Sunday.  Several of my son's friends played in grand finals, and a few won them.  Many of these Year 10 and Year 11 boys (and their parents) re-convened at the home of one of the players for a prolonged drinking session on the Sunday evening following the match during which many parents consumed excessive amounts of alcohol (including skolling beer) WITH their 16 and 17 year-old sons! Further, these same parents (and there is a large cohort of them) then gave their sons the following day off school to enjoy a 'Mad Monday' recovery day.  What has the world come to? Is there any wonder that we see the appalling behaviour online towards women when many of their parents are complicit in creating this very atmosphere of entitlement in their sons from such a young age?

I have shared these stories with you because my husband and I feel helpless. As parents we are committed to delaying our teens' drinking for as long as we can but we are realistic that for the oldest boy, that is not far away.  The great advantage of delaying it so far is that he has seen first-hand, the consequences of drinking too much (boys unconscious or vomiting violently… and parents embarrassing their kids with their own drunken attempts to be their best friend!). I wonder if you can use your own profile to raise the profile of the particular drinking culture associated with football celebrations (not football clubs, who generally have strict rules in place, but parents who host post-match 'gatherings' and supply the alcohol for them), the sheer lunacy of a 'Mad Monday' for 16 and 17 year-olds and the significant role that fathers need to play if there is going to be a change in the cycle?"  

As far as this 'Mad Monday' thing is concerned - I contacted a couple of schools that I visit who I know are 'football mad' and asked them if they had experienced any issues with absenteeism after finals week. They asked me to be very careful about what I wrote here but one school admitted to a 10% absentee rate in some classes on the Monday! They have cracked down on parents in this area in recent years (apparently it used to be even worse!) and to their knowledge no parent admitted that that was the reason their son was absent - but it was clear that those who were away were all from the winning football team!

Some, I'm sure, will say that the young men the mother referred to were 16 and 17 years-old - they're almost 18 (I don't quite know how you say that 16 is almost 18, but believe me, I get that all the time - I'm not too sure what mathematics these people work on!). They're very close to being the legal age and I'm sure if you met some of these young men that's exactly what they would look like, young men. That's absolutely true and I have no problems with any parent providing their son, no matter what age (within reason), with alcohol in their own home. If they want to 'do shots', play skolling games or the like, that is also their business. It is when they involve other parents' teens in this type of activity and then ridicule them for not allowing their child to take part that I think it becomes a huge problem. When it comes to young men, it is also the reinforcement of the 'boozy, bloke culture' that is of great concern.

This mother is right - we do need to do something about the culture around alcohol and sport, particularly the football codes. This notion that the two go together and that it is a 'natural fit' simply doesn't make sense and is something that the alcohol industry has worked hard to establish and keep reinforcing through aggressive advertising and sponsorship. Parent who reinforce this link, whether it be by drinking alcohol on the sidelines while watching their child play sport, or worse still by celebrating or commiserating with them after a game, really need to take a close look at their behaviour and work out whether it supports the ideal of why they wanted their teen to participate in the activity in the first place. And, if there are truly fathers out there "who are re-living their own football careers through their teenage boys", well, let's be blunt here - you're tragic!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Identifying appropriate consequences when your teen breaks rules: 3 simple rules to remember

One of my major messages to parents this year has been the importance of understanding why young people do the things they do during adolescence. You can sit with your teen, carefully explaining your rules and boundaries and tell them what will happen should those rules be broken and they may still walk away and, within minutes, do the 'wrong thing'. It is at this point that you may start to question your parenting and also the intelligence of your teen ...

Put simply, teens make 'dumb choices' because of their developing brain. The adolescent brain is far less developed than we once thought, with male brains developing much later than females (no surprise there!). When we make decisions as an adult, we rely on parts of the brain that are amongst the last to fully develop, i.e., the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and promotor cortex. These sections deal with reasoned thinking and judgment, as well as learning and memory (remembering past experiences) and a range of other functions that help us with effective decision-making. As an adult, we're terrified of everything - before we do anything we quickly weigh up the 'pros' and 'cons', considering the potential risks and then make a decision that is most likely to benefit us, as well as keeping us as safe as possible. As a result we usually err on the side of caution ...

These important areas of the brain aren't fully developed in teens, so they tend to rely on the amygdala (i.e., emotions) to process information. This causes them to respond with 'gut reactions' rather than think through possible consequences - as a result there is a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. They 'jump into things' during this stage of their life and the basic mantra for an adolescent as far as decision making is concerned is - 'If it feels good, I'll do it!' I need to emphasise, it's not that they don't necessarily understand the risk involved (I've never met a Year 10 that doesn't know that drinking alcohol at their age is bad for them!), it's just at the point where they have to make a decision about doing something or not, the perceived 'reward' is so much more important for them than the potential risk ...

Getting 'hung up' and worrying that you didn't make the potential consequences clear enough when your child makes a bad decision and breaks your rules, or marching down to a school and telling them that they need to do more to educate teens on these issues is a huge waste of time and energy. Of course, young people need to be told about the risks involved with certain activities and education is vital, but always remember that just because teens make dumb choices that doesn't mean they're stupid - they usually know what they're doing (or at the very least have a general awareness - as far as alcohol and other drug education is concerned, we have some of the very best in the world), they are aware of the risks and they know there will be consequences but they'll worry about those later!

So you now know why they do the things they do, so what do you do if they break your rules? How do you decide what an appropriate consequence should be? A couple of years ago I met a young man and wrote a blog entry about the consequences his parents had given him that were fairly extreme and, as far as he was concerned, seemed overly harsh.

Without going into too much detail and slightly changing some of the aspects of the situation to protect his privacy, a Year 10 boy approached me after a student session, concerned about the punishment he had been given by his mother. He had gone out with friends a couple of weeks before, got terribly drunk and became separated from his friends. He had little memory of what happened leading up to being picked up by police but was later told that he was quite abusive and aggressive. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"

He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime. I need to say that at all times he was incredibly respectful to his mother - he didn't criticise her but wanted some advice on how to possibly 'move her' a little.

If you've ever heard me speak to parents, one of my key messages is that the 'authoritative' style of parenting (i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love) has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken! Unfortunately, too many parents create the consequence 'on the run' - something happens and the punishment is created in anger and not well thought through. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by a young person that they have been 'grounded for life!' Really, you've got to look at that and think who are you really punishing there?

Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. It is incredibly important to remember that when they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise!  I believe there are three simple rules to remember when deciding on 'appropriate' consequences for your child breaking rules you have set:

  • they must be fair and age appropriate (i.e., they should 'fit the crime'). As I've said time and time again, young people have an innate sense of fairness and if they believe that the punishment you have doled out is unfair, there's a really good chance that it is. As already said, you responded when you were angry, hurt and let-down by your teen's behaviour and didn't think it through - if the consequences for breaking a specific rule were clearly outlined when the rule was made, this should never be an issue
  • they must be 'balanced' (i.e.,they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt'). No-one wants their child to suffer and having the person you love the most in the world sitting in their bedroom screaming that they hate you must be the worst thing in the world but it is important to remember that they'll get over it. There is no point having a consequence if it doesn't have an effect but don't be cruel ... As much as parents don't like removing electronic devices from their child, it really is one of the most powerful punishments you can administer, but use it appropriately. There is no reason to take a phone off a 15 or 16 year-old for a week or even a number of days - take it off them for an hour or two and you'll see their fingers twitching! Short, sharp and balanced consequences are usually the best - they certainly have the greatest impact and don't harm the parent-child relationship  
  • they must be able to be enforced. Kids pick up on everything and the first time a parent doles out a punishment and doesn't carry it through, it will never be forgotten. Never create a consequence that you can't enforce ... this is why grounding is one of the most problematic punishments for many parents, particularly when you start talking about grounding for extended periods of time. Do you really want a screaming match every Saturday night for a period of weeks or months? Once again, trying to take a phone or other electronic device off your teen for an extended period of time is just going to make your life a living hell and, as most parents tell me, they usually end up giving in fairly soon and hand it back - what's the point? Give your child a punishment that can't realistically be carried out and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place - they're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time

Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness as the mother of this Year 10 boy had to do?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. The key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger - you may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Also, always remember that you are the adult here and if you believe the consequence you did dole out in anger was inappropriate, be 'big enough' to sit down with your teen and look at the punishment again, still making it clear that what they had done was wrong but also acknowledge that there is always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"We trusted our teen and we were terribly let down": One Mum's story ...

The evidence is pretty clear that if you want to do your very best to keep your child safe through the teen years there is a simple parenting formula to follow:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home
This involves a lot of work. It takes time and energy to check up on what your teen has told you, calling other parents to find out whether they're going where they say they're going and making sure they do what they say they're going to ... but if that's what it takes to ensure your child comes home in one piece, I'm pretty sure most would agree it's worth the effort! As I say in my parent sessions, sometimes when I end my talks with these three simple tips I can see some people in the audience who look like I have just stabbed them in the heart. When I have approached them afterwards and asked them what the problem was (because there was so a problem!), they turn around and say "But if I did those things and checked up on my child they would think that I didn't trust them!"

Let's put it really simply, if you think you can trust your 15 or 16 year old you're being quite foolish! Do you need to trust your adolescent? Absolutely! But can you trust an adolescent? Of course not! If there is one of you reading this who can honestly say that you didn't lie or cheat at some time or another to get what you wanted during your teens then please take 30 seconds to forward a photograph of yourself to my email address and I'll include you in all my future talks as the only adolescent in history who didn't! Blindly trusting your teen will at some stage lead to them taking advantage of the situation and you being terribly disappointed.

I met a Mum this week who told me a story that perfectly illustrated this point and I asked her to put it into an email so I could share it with others ... here is an extract of what she sent me:

"My daughter threw all the usual guilt onto me when I asked her anything about the parties she was going to and what she was doing when she went there with her friends. Every time I questioned her I was thrown the "But don't you trust me?" line and to be quite honest, I had no reason not to trust her. She has always done exceptionally well at school, I knew all of her friends (and some of their parents) very well (or so I thought) and I was convinced my 15 year-old daughter was the one who never lied. As a result, I didn't do the checking, I allowed her to go to sleepovers and didn't make the calls and I was one of those Mums who picked her teen up by text (when I even bothered to pick her up, convinced by her that other parents were doing that perfectly well). This went on for two years until I had a phone call on a Saturday night six months ago from one of her friends to tell me that she had been taken to hospital by ambulance in a critical condition. 

In the following weeks I found out things that have made me question everything I believed about my daughter and her friends and, most importantly, my parenting. From the age of 14 she and her friends had been drinking regularly, she had started smoking cannabis at 15 and had been going to nightclubs most weekends from the age of 16. Don't get me wrong, my daughter is a good girl. Smart (her grades have never dropped once and she is highly likely to get into medicine next year), beautiful and loved by all who know her - she just lied to us continually about her social life for over two years. It wasn't even that we are strict, controlling parents - we never stopped her attending parties and the like, we never even put a lot of rules around her going out when she was 14 because we trusted her and we believed her. I'm not sure what we would have done about alcohol but, to be honest, she didn't even give us a chance! We trusted our teen and we were terribly let down."   

This is a fairly extreme example - this young lady had lying down to an art! It must have also taken an awful lot of work to co-ordinate everything she did on the weekends so that her parents never realized what was going on. This is not the norm and teens taking advantage of 'blind parental trust' doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to go and experiment with illegal drugs or get drunk, or rack up debt on your credit card or steal from you in other ways, but make no mistake they will certainly use that trust to get what they want. Never forget that teens are master manipulators (I think we all too often forget what we were like at that time) - they know who to talk to (i.e., who is the 'weakest link'?), when best to ask the question and they also know exactly what you want to hear? I guarantee they'll give you the perfect answer to almost every question and if they can make you feel guilty for asking it, well they'll throw that in every time!

Of course you 'need' to trust your teen - every parenting book ever written will tell you that trust is vital in a parent-child relationship. By all means, make an effort to show you trust them and you do that by allowing them to take part in activities that may be risky (e.g., going to a teenage party, surfing the internet), but at the same time you actively parent and try to ensure their safety by checking up on them and imposing rules and boundaries. Should you be checking up on them every couple of minutes or even every time they go out? Of course not! But asking questions and conducting age-appropriate checking is a must.

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

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

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.