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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Alcohol: To get it right there must be a partnership between schools and parents - neither can do it alone

When I stand in front of a group of parents and congratulate them for attending the Parent Information Evening they are attending and tell them that I am really impressed with the numbers, some of them look around the room, their faces clearly showing that they are surprised by what I have just said. There are around 40-50 people in the room and obviously they were expecting to see so many more ... As I always say to the teachers organising an evening session, if you can pull in 20 parents for a talk on alcohol and other drugs, you're doing pretty well! That said, the last two years have seen numbers of parents attending my sessions grow considerably, with many of them pulling in well over 100 interested people and quite a few drawing between 200-300 (a result that any school should be incredibly proud of).

The saddest thing is that if I think about the most 'successful' parent sessions (in terms of numbers attending) I have ever held over the years, almost all of them were organised in response to a particular incident that had happened at the school (i.e., a death, a teenage party that made headlines in the local press or a series of drug-related suspensions or expulsions that had hit the media). When a school organises education sessions for parents on any social issue it can be difficult to draw a crowd, but when something goes wrong you can guarantee that parents will be banging the principal's door down demanding that something be done and done fast!

Now before anyone thinks that this is going to be a 'parent-knocking' piece and I'm trying to 'shame' Mums and Dads into attending every information session that the school puts on, let me say that I think any parent who takes an hour or two out of their busy lives to sit and listen to a presenter talking about any topic (let alone alcohol and other drugs) deserves a medal! You all have busy lives and I can't even begin to imagine the organisation it must take to make sure everything is fine at home, get into your car and make your way to a school after a hard day doing whatever it is that you do ... as I always say, if you do this (and so many of the parents I see do it regularly), you must really love your kids!

There are so many social issues that families have to deal with, some have been around for a long time, while others are comparatively new. These include such diverse topics as cyber-safety, sexuality, mental health, sexualisation of women, body image, gambling and bullying. Increasingly, schools are being asked to deal with more and more of these problems, with topics such as domestic violence and even the radicalisation of young people being added to the issues that schools are expected to cover in some way or another. But in an already crowded curriculum, schools and teachers are expected to do more and more in less and less time ...

Schools do not operate in a vacuum – they exist in a much larger world and no matter what effort they put into addressing these issues, unless there is support by the wider community it is almost impossible to make significant change in any of these areas. Most importantly, there must be a partnership with parents, i.e., parents need to know what the school is doing and support the education they are being provided in a practical way.

When it comes to alcohol I do not believe there is one parent of a 14 year-old who would want their teen to be provided education on 'how to drink responsibly'. At that age their brain is not fully developed, they have no life experience and every bit of evidence shows that they simply shouldn't be drinking alcohol - parents expect a prevention message to be delivered to their child at this age, i.e., 'don't drink' and then information provided why this should be the case. The sad part is that evidence shows that there are only about a quarter of this age group that have not already consumed alcohol (usually provided by their parents), so any teacher who is providing a prevention message to these young people is essentially banging their head against a brick wall. The information provided by the school is simply not supported by the family and the rules and consequences they have in place ...

I find it baffling that parents are surprised that their teen gets caught up with illicit drugs at the age of 17, staggered that their 'little darling' could be involved in this illegal activity, when they have been allowing them to break the law around alcohol and giving them two drinks to take to a party since they were 15! If you don't want your child to get into trouble with the law in the future, you have to make sure that you don't pick and choose the laws you have them follow now and that includes laws around the secondary supply of alcohol. 

The vast majority of schools try to do so much in so many of these areas (with teachers often receiving little, if any, professional development - you imagine trying to keep up with everything that is happening around these issues!) but they shouldn't be expected to 'parent' the children under their care and unfortunately that is being asked of them more and more. Does this mean that a parent should not reach out to the school or an individual teacher if they are experiencing problems? Of course not, as I said, this is a partnership - you can't necessarily do it by yourself and neither can the school - you've got to work together ...

This week I gave 15 talks to five schools over three states. All of the young people I presented to were amazing and incredibly receptive to the messages I delivered - but realistically what difference do I really make if those messages are not reinforced by the parents of those teens when they go home? I know that the schools support what I do (I make it very clear that I don't go back unless I know that I'm part of a larger program and that they don't simply 'tick a box' when I leave and say 'now we've done alcohol and other drugs') but what happens when they go home and ask to go to a party or gathering on the weekend? From talking to teachers across the country it is easy to tell that they feel the same frustration - they want to make a difference and keep their students as safe as possible but so many of the parents are not 'stepping up' as far as a partnership with the school is concerned, particularly around alcohol and parties.

I completely get it - parenting is hard, particularly when it comes to that wonderful time called 'adolescence'. It's never going to be easy, no matter how great your teen is, but it's going to be so much easier if you work in partnership with the school. No matter what the issue, try to find out what education is provided at school, the messages teachers (or external speakers) are delivering and then do your best to support what the school is doing whenever the opportunity arises. This may mean attending an occasional parent information session put on by the school - I am well aware how difficult this can be for some people but it can be really worth it. No-one expects you to attend everything but remember that the school does not organise these events for their own enjoyment! They cost money, they take a great deal of time and effort to ensure they run smoothly and teachers (who've had a full day themselves) have to spend time away from their own families to attend (and no, they don't get overtime for staying there after school!!)

The only thing all of us want is to keep our kids safe - the best way to do that is to work together. Schools and parents working together in partnership can be a powerful combination ...

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Where do teens get drugs from and are there really 'evil drug pushers' lurking at the end of the street?

Earlier this week I was speaking to a group of Year 12s and at the end of the session two delightful young women came up to me very sheepishly and asked me if they could ask me about something. They had both recently turned 18 years-old and were both desperate to go to a nightclub but were terrified to do so because they were frightened that dealers would approach them while they were there and try to force them to take drugs! They wanted to know what they could do if this happened and did I have any advice on what they could say to these obviously terrifying people if they did indeed try to make them do something they obviously didn't want to do ...

I worked in nightclubs and at dance festivals, both here and overseas, for the best part of 25 years and I can count on one hand the number of times I ever had anyone offer me drugs. Even when I did, the person usually said something in a whisper as they were brushing past me, so I can't be absolutely sure that's what they were actually doing! I have certainly never known anyone having drugs forced onto them by some stranger in a club - that's the stuff of TV melodrama. It is important to remember that dealers rarely, if ever, actively hunt out clients - they don't have to, people who are looking for drugs try to find them!

One of the classic drug stereotypes is that of the evil drug dealer or 'pusher' in the trench coat lurking at the end of the school yard trying to entice children with his wares. This image plays into all the fears that parents have about drugs and how they are distributed. It reinforces the belief that young people have drugs pushed onto them by unscrupulous people who try to get them 'addicted' to a substance so that they can continue to make money from their client's misery.

In reality most young people usually obtain drugs through friends and friendship networks, i.e., 'they know someone who knows someone who may be able to get them something'. It should be noted that there appears to be growing numbers of young people who are purchasing drugs online and I will discuss that phenomenon in the coming weeks, but even then, many substances bought in that way are then on-sold via friends. Television and movies have cemented the belief in many peoples' minds that drugs are usually purchased 'on the street'. Without question there are some street drug markets that exist in Australia, with Kings Cross in Sydney being the most well known one, but they are few and far between. Those who use these street markets are usually entrenched drug users, most often injectors, who have a range of other social problems. It would be extremely unusual to find young people who are considering experimenting with drugs utilising street dealers.

One of the great myths about young people and drugs is that they have drugs 'pushed' onto them. In actual fact, many adolescents actually hunt them out. Their interest has been sparked by what they have seen in their friendship group or watched on the television or in the movies, and they want to see what all the fuss is about. Friends who can provide access to drugs are regarded by these young people as valuable assets. These young people who supply drugs to their friends would rarely, if ever, regard themselves as 'dealers'. For many, they would say they are simply 'helping out a mate', with the more entrepreneurial believing they provide a 'service'. Their friends want drugs and they are able to provide them for them. Unfortunately, we've seen this time and time again in relation to high profile ecstasy-related deaths, when the media reveals that the person who sold the pills to the deceased is identified and prosecuted. More often than not, these suppliers have been friends (sometimes best friends) of the young person who has died and, in some cases, actually handed themselves in after the death because of their guilt.

Based on the information we have, it would seem that very few of these young suppliers make a great deal of money from selling drugs to friends. There's no denying that illicit drugs are definitely big business and there are a lot of people who make very large amounts of money from dealing and supplying, but contrary to popular belief, selling small quantities to friends is not a big money spinner. When you consider the huge risks that these young people are taking with their future should they get caught, it simply doesn't seem to be worth the risk.

So, if it's not all about money, why do some young people do it? Is it just about helping a mate?

The limited information we have about this type of supplying amongst friendship groups seems to suggest that many of the young people involved in the supply of drugs do so to supplement their own drug use. Although many would think that this is to do with them having a 'drug problem', that is often not the case. A young woman may buy 30 pills from someone she knows and if she sells 26 of them, she may be able to keep the other four for herself. A 17 year-old cannabis user may be able to keep a bag or two from the rest of the 'stash' he sells to his mates. These aren't necessarily teens with dependency issues, they just would prefer not to pay for their drug of choice and can do that if they sell to others.

Of course there are always those young people who sell drugs in an effort to be accepted by their peer group. You can become pretty popular amongst some groups if you can provide good quality drugs at a reasonable price on demand. Unfortunately, I'm certainly seeing examples of this all over the country at the moment related to cannabis. Young men, usually Years 8 or 9, who are desperate to make friends and have access to cannabis make a foolish decision and take it to school to sell. Adolescence is such a difficult time for some young people and they have a great need to be accepted by those around them and unfortunately some of them will resort to really dangerous practices to find that acceptance.

As much as the media promotes this idea that 'evil drug pushers' are lurking at the end of every street, for the most part it's simply not true. This myth ties in very strongly with another classic - 'drugs are everywhere'! Although the media (and many young people) would have you believe that you can buy almost any substance anywhere, anytime, the truth is that for most people illicit drugs are pretty hard to come by. The best way to illustrate this is to just ask you the following question ...

If I was to give you $60 and ask you to go and buy two ecstasy pills, where would you go?

I’m imagining that you'd have the same response as that of the majority of Australians – you wouldn't have a clue! If you believe what you see on the television or in the movies you would just drive down the road to the local street drug market and pick up a couple of pills without even blinking! For the vast majority of the population, however, it would not be as simple as just popping to the local dealer. Most people have no idea who their local dealer is, or if one even exists. The same applies to young people. Of course, if you're entrenched in the drug culture and you're regularly using ecstasy you are most probably going to know where to go (or at least know someone who would) but even for those people, it is not usually as simple as pick up a phone and you're guaranteed getting the drug of your choice in the next hour or so ...

Most young people, like their parents, do not associate with illicit drug users, as a result they would not have the slightest clue where to get drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy. However, they may know someone who knows someone who has a contact somewhere. Because of the illicit nature of drugs, contacts within friendship groups are the usual way that these substances are bought and sold. That is the way it has been for a long time and there is no sign that it is likely to change anytime in the future.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The importance of teens understanding the difference between a 'right' and a 'privilege': It is not their 'right' to go to a party, it is a 'privilege"!

"You need to remove one of his privileges - they need to understand that he has broken your rules and, as a result, he is going to lose something you have given him ..."
"But what could I take away?"
"Maybe you could take his phone or another device off him for an evening."
"Oh no, we couldn't do that - he needs his phone. I need to know he's safe and he needs his computer for homework."
"Well, if he's done something really wrong, maybe you could say he's not going to the next party he's invited to?"
"No, he's a teenager, all his friends would be going - that's really unfair. We wouldn't feel comfortable with that!"

And so the conversation goes on and on ... a mum or a dad speaking to me after a parent talk asking what they should do with their teenager who's acting out. As I always say, I am not a parent and I'm certainly not trying to say this is an easy thing to do but the reluctance of many parents to remove privileges from their teens when they do something wrong and break rules is beyond me. Imposing terrible punishments (e.g., grounding your son or daughter for weeks at a time) on teens who've broken rules is not going to work (and also makes your life miserable!) but taking away something you've given them is going to be much easier, particularly if you make it very clear that they can earn it back again! Unfortunately, a teen's understanding of what a 'privilege' (that thing they've been 'given' by their parent) actually is has become very blurred ...

Parents want nothing more than to give their child the best life they can - the phrase I hear more than any other is "I want them to have so much more than I ever did." I'm sure that this does not necessarily mean that the parent concerned had a 'bad life' or that their parents didn't try to do the best for them, it's just part of the human condition to simply 'want more'. We live in a material world where due to the dominance of social media it's incredibly important to have the most up-to-date smartphone, no matter what your financial situation is you must have the biggest plasma television currently available and whatever other electrical appliance is all the range at that time. Where once these sort of things were something an adolescent earned and were viewed as 'privileges', many young people (and astonishingly some of their parents) now regard them as their 'right' and, as a result, we are seeing some pretty concerning shifts in parent-child relationships.

The important thing to remember about any 'privilege' we are given is that it comes with a range of 'responsibilities' - certain things one has to do to earn what it is that you wanted and keep doing to ensure that privilege is maintained. Sometimes these responsibilities can come in the form of  'rules' but as far as young people are concerned they can just as easily be some basic expectations that are attached to the privilege they have been given. Schools do this brilliantly - a great example is the establishment of a Year 12 common room, a specific area for that group alone. In many schools I visit these are managed by the students themselves, they eat their lunch there, sometimes having cooking facilities available, they study in the area and can also chill out and get away from the rest of the school. This is a privilege that you get when you reach your final year of high school but with it comes certain expectations and if they are not reached (e.g., they don't keep it clean or they use it inappropriately) this area is taken away from them. They can stomp around all they want and say that all past Year 12s have had this area and it's their 'right' but schools are usually able to stand firm and make it clear to them that it is in actual fact a privilege and one that they have now lost and, if they want it back, they are going to have to earn it!

Unfortunately growing numbers of parents do not seem to be able to do the same, with more and more I am meeting buckling under pressure to regard attendance at teenage parties on a Saturday night as their teen's right and, unfortunately, no longer see it as a privilege. You see the same thing with the use of smartphones and other devices. When this happens a seismic shift in the parent-child relationship occurs, particularly if it happens early in adolescence. It's no surprise that a teen believes it is their right to have the best smartphone available, but it becomes a major problem when their parent starts believing that this is the case. Of course you want the best for your child, but you also want them to have some basic values and appreciate what they have - if they get given everything and they believe that it is their right to have these things they're going to experience some pretty upsetting times in the future (that is, unless you continue to give everything their little heart desires into the future ... what a terrifying thought!).

The following story clearly illustrates how so many teens today clearly do not value (through no fault of their own in many cases) the privileges that they have been given ...

I had just finished presenting to a group of Year 10s and the students were moving out of the auditorium and down some stairs towards me. As one of the young men reached the bottom stair his phone fell out of his pocket hitting the ground and made a sharp cracking sound. He reached down, picked it up and looked at it and then swore under his breath. Without a thought he then threw it onto the ground again and started stamping on it ... I moved towards him and as I did he picked it up and the boy with him asked him what he was doing. His response floored me ... "If it only had a crack on it my Mum wouldn't buy me a new one, I had to make sure it was really busted!" 

The scary thing is that you can almost bet that he did take the smashed phone home, showed it to his mother and a new one was bought almost immediately!

In a previous blog entry I wrote about US mother, Janell Burley Hofmann, who made headlines across the world in late 2013 when she gave her 13 year-old son Greg an iPhone for Christmas, along with an 18-point contract that he had to sign before he received it! The contract began as follows:

Dear Greg
Merry Christmas! You are now the proud owner of an iPhone. Hot Damn! You are a good & responsible 13 year old boy and you deserve this gift. But with the acceptance of this present comes rules and regulations. Please read through the following contract. I hope that you understand it is my job to raise you into a well rounded, healthy young man that can function in the world and coexist with technology, not be ruled by it. Failure to comply with the following list will result in termination of your iPhone ownership.

You can find the whole list of rules on Janell's website. There is an element of tongue-in-cheek in some of the contract items but essentially what the mother is trying to instil in her son is the whole idea of responsibilities accompanying a privilege, or as she so beautifully puts it - "with the acceptance of this present comes rules and regulations."

Giving your teen everything they want without question also alters the way your child sees you. You may be the parent who puts on the big party where alcohol is tolerated and see yourself as your son's or daughter's best friend, but sooner or later that teen is going to want and need a parent. They will need a person who sets boundaries and rules, who provides direction and support - in the short-term, being a best friend who gives them what they want may seem like a great way to go, but in the long-term, it is the parent who actually parents who wins out!

When it comes to attending a party (or gathering) on a Saturday night, my views on the topic are simple - I believe that young people should go to teenage parties or gatherings. That is where they learn to socialise but they should only go when their parent knows as much about the event as possible. When a 15 year-old starts talking about their right to attend they need to be reminded that going to a party is a privilege and there will be certain responsibilities (the rules that you and your child agree upon) that they will need to accept and follow that accompany their attendance. It is also vital that they understand that it is a privilege that can be taken away from them should certain responsibilities not be met. These responsibilities (rules or expectations, whatever you want to call them) should be decided on by parents and teen together (top-down rules dictated by parents never work - this doesn't mean your child makes the rules but meeting in the middle is often the best way to achieve a positive outcome) and of course, good behaviour should always be rewarded.

Some of our young people are so lucky. Don't get me wrong, their life is so much more complex than ours ever were and there are so many new issues to consider now that were not even on the radar when we were young, but basically so many of them have access to things that we could only have ever dreamt about. Teaching them to appreciate all that they have, whether it be a lot or not so much, is a vital part of parenting. Sorting out privileges, rights and responsibilities with your child is incredibly important.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

What do you say to a parent who provided alcohol to your teen without your permission? One mother's response ...

This is one of those questions that I absolutely hate being asked because I have no easy answer (not that there are ever easy answers in this area, or any area to do with parenting). It is, however, one that many parents will have to face and work through at some time or another whilst going through the whole teenage party and alcohol years. Every family is different and every situation is going to be handled in a different way, dependent on so many factors, but I thought I'd share with you one parent's story that could have ended in tragedy and how she dealt with the other parents concerned.

Now it is important to note that I have had to change a lot of details about this story for legal reasons (as well as to maintain anonymity) but I have run past what I have written by the family concerned and they agree I have captured the general gist of what happened.

Janice is a mother of two teenage daughters, the eldest, Ashley, being 15 years-old. Ashley was recently invited to a 16th birthday party and when her mother reluctantly agreed to let her go she then handed her a letter from the parents hosting the event. The letter stated that alcohol would be available and that any underage person attending would need to get their parents to sign the attached permission slip allowing their teen to drink whilst on their property. Janice made it clear to her daughter that she would not be signing anything and there was no way she would be attending the party. Although there were the usual tears and tantrums things settled down quickly and she thought no more of it until a Saturday night a few weeks later when she received a phone call from the local hospital letting her know that Ashley had been admitted to the emergency department with alcohol poisoning! Her daughter had told her that she was at a sleepover with friends (Janice had actually dropped her off at the home and was planning to pick her up early the next morning) but instead had gone to the party she had been told she couldn't attend. 

I'll let Janice tell you what happened next ...

"I thought we had done everything right but my daughter and her friends had been extremely clever and had it all planned out. We all made the right phone calls and did the dropping off and the like but the temptation of the first alcohol-fuelled party was too great. Of course I was angry with Ashley - she had lied, gone behind our backs and put her life at great risk as a result - but I was furious with the parents who put on the party and allowed (and most probably provided, although that has become extremely difficult to prove) alcohol. When I first called the house to discuss what had happened (Ashley had been transported by ambulance from the home to the hospital so they were well aware of the situation) the mother hung up on me when I told her who I was. I tried a number of times after and still had no luck, so after discussion with my husband and some friends (all Mums and Dads themselves) I finally resorted to writing a card and putting it into their mailbox. This is what I wrote:

My daughter was the young woman who was transported to hospital for alcohol poisoning after attending your son's 16th birthday party. In the weeks prior I received your letter asking me to give you permission to allow her to drink at the event. I did not sign it and told her that she could not attend. My understanding is that she forged my signature on the permission slip and subsequently gained entry to the party.
The doctors have told me that she almost died on the way to the hospital.
I accept a great deal of the responsibility around what happened that night - I should have known where she was. I also accept that it was my daughter that did the drinking. However, it was you that provided an event enabling 15 and 16 year-olds to drink alcohol and, for that, I will never forgive you. If you're going to seek parental permission to allow a teenager to drink you need to make absolutely sure that you have it before allowing them to drink on your property. Shame on you!     

As I said, some of the details have been changed but the content of the card is almost word for word what this mother wrote. Pretty powerful stuff!

It is important to note that what happened to Janice's daughter is not only confronting but potentially illegal in most states and territories (come on SA, when are you going to get with the program and introduce secondary supply laws?) but I'm not going to touch the legal issues surrounding these type of situations at this time (FYI - I am currently working with police in different jurisdictions asking them to explain the difficulties around policing these laws ... hopefully I'll have a blog looking at that in the next few weeks). That said, it is important for parents to remember that the law is now on your side as a parent in this area (apart from those of you from SA). For information on the laws across the country take a look at this factsheet from the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) - it is up-to-date and also discusses the issue of 'responsible supervision' that is included in the legislation in some jurisdictions.

Janice's story is of course an extreme case. When your child is hospitalised as a result of drinking alcohol that another parent provided then it takes the issue to a whole different level. That said, this is not an isolated case and there have been many young people taken to hospital with alcohol poisoning and some have even died after being provided alcohol by other parents. In fact, secondary supply laws in some states came about (to some extent at least) as a result of such incidents and the subsequent efforts of the parents involved, e.g., the parents of 15 year-old Leigh Clark from Victoria who died after drinking an alcohol product purchased by another parent and then given to their son were at the forefront of ensuring that the legislation was pushed through in that state.

Unlike Janice, most parents I have met who have discovered that others have provided their children with alcohol are usually reluctant to confront or even raise the issue with those responsible. This can be due to many things but most usually because their children beg them not to say anything, making it clear to them that anything they do say could 'shame them forever' and potentially affect their social-standing and their position in their friendship group. As bizarre as this may sound, in my experience, parental fear of their child not being popular and potentially losing their friends often far outweighs possible safety concerns! Parents I have spoken to also acknowledge that, for the most part, they are unlikely to really get any real positive outcomes from a discussion with parents who do this sort of thing anyway and would much rather make a mental note of who they were and ensure that their teen has as little to do with that family as possible in the future.

That said, as a society I think we should be questioning the behaviour of parents who disregard the views of others and provide alcohol to their children without their explicit permission (those permission slips are just ridiculous and almost impossible to police adequately! Is there really any way you can know that the signature on them is real?). If you want to give alcohol to your own teen that is entirely up to you, but putting on parties or other events at your home where alcohol will be provided or tolerated for 15 and 16 year-olds and then inviting others people's children to attend is just shameful and a recipe for disaster ... Don't get me wrong, I totally get that you are never going to be able to stop young people from drinking if that's what they want to do but with all the evidence we now have about the harms associated with underage drinking we should be making it as difficult for them as possible and not be providing so-called 'safe places' for this activity ...

Saturday, 2 April 2016

How do you deal with information told to you in confidence by your teen? Would you be breaking their trust if you shared it?

Any parent who has found themselves in this situation knows how terribly awkward it can be ... your son or daughter has told you something in confidence about one of their friends and their potentially dangerous behaviour and you are now left with this information, not completely sure what to do next. There are usually two questions that go through your head - firstly, would I want to be told if it was my child and secondly, would I be breaking the trust of my own child by sharing information that was told to me in confidence?

Although this is an extremely difficult situation for any parent to find themselves in, realistically the answers to the two questions are simple - yes, you would certainly want to know and even though you may be breaking your child's trust, they're telling you for a reason and in most cases you have no choice but to respond in some way, usually by telling someone else about your concerns.

The most important thing to consider here is why your teen decided to tell you about their friend (and please don't say - "my child shares everything with me" - I guarantee they don't! You may have the most wonderful, positive and connected relationship imaginable but they will still have their secrets and keep certain things back ...). When it really comes down to it, there are three reasons why a child may share information about a friend's dangerous behaviour:
  • they are genuinely concerned about what is happening and are looking to their parent for guidance and advice on what to do next
  • teenagers love drama and sharing stories about a friend's outrageous behaviour is guaranteed to get a great effect, particularly from more conservative parents who did not have those type of experiences during their teens. Stories about friends being hospitalized due to a night of drinking or tales of drug use, often exaggerated, confirm all the media stories doing the rounds and are a great way of teens getting their parents' attention
  • they want to cause trouble (often due to a breakdown of a friendship) and telling tales of drunken behaviour or other drug use may help ensure that their parent will now feel the same way as they do towards the person

Hardly a week goes past for me without a young person sharing their concerns about a friend's alcohol or other drug use. Without a doubt most approach me because they are genuinely worried about their friend and my presentation has simply confirmed what they have been thinking for a while. Unfortunately, most of these students often want simple answers to very complex problems and there is little I can do apart from urge them to talk to someone (e.g., school counsellor, parent or telephone helpline), try to reassure them that in most cases young people do get to the other side and make sure that they are okay. Often these young people are so wound up and so scared for their friends (and have been for a while), that they need more help than the person they are worried about!

I certainly get the 'drama queens' as well - those young people who just want to try to shock me with outrageous stories. As I said, young people love drama and I can usually pick these teens out pretty quickly and am able to sort them out as soon as I start talking about my 'duty of care' - making it clear to them that I may have to share their stories with the school if I believe they, or their friends, could be at risk. Drama queens usually tone down their tales pretty quickly when this is raised.

When I am in a school I have a duty of care - a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that those that attend my presentations aren't at risk of harm. If a young person indicates in some way, or tells me something that suggests they are at risk, I can't ignore it - I must inform the school about my concerns. I make this clear at the beginning of every session I present in a school and if a child approaches me with stories about friends who they are worried about, I inform them that I cannot keep secrets - if someone is at risk, I will have to tell someone. In all my years of presenting in a school I have never had a child walk away at that point - if they are genuinely concerned, at that point, they just want to tell someone.

I believe it's the same with a child and a parent - if your son or daughter has made the decision to tell you about a friend's drinking or drug use and it is based on genuine concern, it is usually a cry for help. One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is when a teen starts a conversation with "You mustn't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you - do you promise?" and they then agree! A parent should never agree to that - a child has to understand that there are some things that simply can never be kept secret. If there is a risk of someone being hurt in some way, you cannot ignore it and any promises made around confidentiality will have to be broken. Break a promise made to your teen and you will never be allowed to forget it. The best way to avoid that happening is to simply not make those kind of promises in the first place - in reality they're impossible to keep and end up getting you into all sorts of trouble.

Telling your child that you can't always keep secrets is also most probably the best way of filtering out drama and 'paybacks'. Here are a few great responses to "You mustn't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you - do you promise?" that you could possibly use:
  • "I can't promise that, but I do promise whatever I do, I will only do after talking it through with you first."
  • "If what you're going to tell me could involve someone getting hurt in some way, I can't promise that. I do promise that I won't tell anyone what you've told me without telling you what I'm going to do first."
  • "I can't make a promise I may not be able to keep. If what you're going to tell me is about a friend in trouble in some way, I may have to tell someone. Do you think someone else should know but are worried about your friendship? If so, we can talk about that."

Of course there are secrets you keep with your son or daughter (that's part of a warm and connected relationship) but information about potentially dangerous behaviour of their friends simply can't be kept private. Imagine if you had been privy to information about a teen, never shared it and then something terrible had happened to that young person. I can guarantee you would never forgive yourself as a result ...

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.