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Saturday, 30 July 2016

Is it ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs?

I totally get why many parents of primary school aged children choose not to attend my parent sessions. When you look at your 10 year-old son or daughter the last thing you are thinking about at that stage of their life is the possibility of them going to teenage parties and gatherings and being exposed to underage drinking or, heaven forbid, at risk of dabbling with other drugs. It's clear that most parents of younger children simply don't believe that this is an important issue at this stage of their parenting experience and they'll wait until their child gets closer to the age of attending teenage parties and possibly starting to drink before trying to access information on the topic of alcohol and other drugs.

So is this a good way of dealing with the issue and when do I recommend that you should start talking to your kids about drugs? Now I've dealt with this issue a number of times over the years but over the past couple of weeks I've had a number of parents who have asked me for my thoughts on whether it is ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs. In my opinion, the answer is simple - no, it is never too early - although it is important that what you say and how you say it is age-appropriate.

As I've said many times before, I believe that you should start talking to your child about drugs the minute you start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we have, there is a drug that can fix it. Think about it for a moment – if you are depressed, you take a pill, want to lose weight or can't get an erection, you take a pill – we live in a 'pill-popping' world, where there is a medication for almost every condition imaginable. We want a 'quick-fix' and pharmaceutical companies are only too pleased to provide them to us. We now start medicating our children from a very early age (far earlier than our parents ever did) and, as a result, train them to be very effective drug users not long after they are born. You only have to look at the huge range of 'baby-specific' over-the-counter (OTC) medications now available to see that this is a booming market and one that pharmaceutical companies are targeting very aggressively.

Whether they be pharmaceutical, legal or illegal, our children should be made aware of the risks associated with alcohol and other drug use. When it comes to pharmaceutical drugs or OTC medications, children need to be made particularly aware of the importance of appropriate use. In the first few years of primary school drug education lessons focus on this area and do it extremely well - in fact, this is most probably the most effective drug education provided in schools. Teachers at this stage don't talk about drugs being 'bad', instead they discuss that drugs can help people when used appropriately and it is the misuse of drugs that actually cause the problems. The message is always the same - these drugs come in packaging with directions and it is important that you always read and follow these to make sure that you are using them as safely as possible.

Unfortunately, many parents do not take the time to talk with their children about medicines, seemingly forgetting that they are drugs too. In the age of the 5, 7 or 10 minute consultation with a GP, we no longer have the time to ask what the drug is that they have prescribed and even though pharmacists will often give us some basic instructions to accompany the drugs we are given, because we have been given the product by a doctor most of us don't even question how safe or how dangerous it might be. We simply take it – no questions asked.

Over-the-counter medications are used in the same way. The last time your child (particularly if they are a little older) complained of a headache or a pain of some description, what was the first thing you said to them? I can almost guarantee that many of you told them to go and take a pill of some description. I bet that you didn't ask them why they had a headache or suggest a non-pharmaceutical option – you went for the quick fix - you went for the option that pharmaceutical companies have been extremely successful at selling us. It has got to the point that using a drug to solve a problem has become second nature.

We're also living in a very unique time in regards to the medicinal use of a range of illicit drugs. Most would be well aware of the push across the world to legalize the use of cannabis (or at the very least, cannabis products) for medicinal purposes, with Victoria being the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce legislation in this area. There is growing evidence that MDMA (ecstasy) could be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and there are a number of trials running in the US in that area. At the same time there are calls for a range of hallucinogens (particularly psilocybin found in 'magic mushrooms') to be investigated further for the treatment of a range of conditions including depression and pain management. This is not going to go away and really challenges the simplistic 'drugs are bad' message that some try to push onto young people.

So if that is the case and drug use, of some form or another, has become the norm – it is vital that parents discuss drugs from a very young age and, at the same time, try to avoid simplistic messages and warnings (i.e., drugs are bad) and rather discuss concepts as 'use' and 'misuse'.

The truth is that most illicit drugs can be used in a positive way. Heroin is an extremely effective painkiller and even amphetamines can be used to treat a range of medical conditions (narcolepsy, obesity and ADHD). That is not to say that these drugs are safe and that there are safe ways to use them. All drugs, no matter what they are (even if prescribed by a doctor), have a degree of risk associated with their use and we need to make that perfectly clear to our children. If we can communicate these risks to them about legally available products, such as drugs we obtain from a doctor or headache tablets we get from the supermarket, we have a much better chance of getting quality messages about illegal drugs (even those that may now be used for medicinal purposes) through to them effectively when they are a little older.

So am I advocating that you sit down and have the big 'drug talk' with your three-year-old? Of course not! I was recently in The Netherlands and met with some experts in the area of drug education who were talking about some research that they had conducted that suggested if you give too much drug-specific information, too early that you could run the risk of stimulating interest in those substances, particularly in more vulnerable young people. So it is vital that these conversations are 'natural', not forced, and they certainly don't need to be drug-specific (i.e., you don't have to sit down and talk about cannabis with a 10 year-old).

When parents of very young children ask me what these conversations should look like, I suggest they start by doing as something as simple as taking the time to show and then read the directions contained on the packaging before they next administer a medication to their child. This is such a simple thing but it sends such an important message to the child about the importance of following instructions when it comes to these products. Explain to your child that these directions are vital as medicines, like any drug, can be extremely dangerous when used inappropriately. Another great way of parents providing positive messages around drugs is to ensure that the next time you take your child to your GP and a prescription is issued, take a couple of minutes before you leave to ask the doctor to explain to both of you what the drug does and how it should be used. If he or she simply rips the script off their pad, hands it to you and then you walk out the door, your son or daughter is missing out on a valuable lesson in regards to 'respecting' a drug. What your GP has prescribed is a potentially dangerous substance if not used as directed, your child needs to understand that and 'respect' the drug and the possible risks associated with its use. Learn that about medicines and hopefully it will set positive foundations about other drugs in the future ...

The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes alcohol and other drugs, is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures. Make sure you speak to them about the range of drugs available, with an emphasis on those that they are most likely to come into contact with at their particular stage of development. For the very young, including primary school aged children, most of the conversations you will have will be around prescription or over-the-counter medications. It may also be useful at this time to talk to them about how you use drugs, whether they be drugs from a doctor or alcohol and tobacco.

Always look for opportunities in your day-to-day life to discuss the topic. If your child overhears news stories of the day or watches television programs or movies that touch on the topic of drugs or drug use, if it feels right, use that time to have a discussion and see what they already know and what they may want to know. But always remember that it is important that you never push the subject and make sure that the discussion is age appropriate. There are certain drugs you simply don't need to raise with very young children (e.g., having a talk with a 10 year-old about an 'ice bust' that you've seen on the TV news is most probably not needed unless they initiate the discussion, and even then I'd keep it quite general unless you're living in a particular area where it is a real problem). If your child makes it clear that he or she doesn't want to go there at that particular time and there is not a crisis that has to be dealt with, respect their wishes and try again later. That's what's so great about the casual discussions around medicines, they're natural and don't need to be forced and, if handled correctly, do not feel like lectures ...

Saturday, 23 July 2016

If your child has ever said "That's not fair!" ... they're usually right!

One of the special qualities young people have is an innate sense of fairness, particularly when it comes to how they are dealt with by adults. Make clear your rules and expectations, treat them with respect and if they then do the wrong thing and you come down on them, they usually wear it on the chin and accept whatever consequence and/or punishment that comes their way. I was reminded of this during the week when I was at a school speaking to a particularly lively group of Year 11 girls and I had two young ladies in the front row who just couldn't help themselves - I was presenting some pretty heavy material, telling stories relating to that material or giving the group important tips and strategies about how to stay as safe as possible and they kept on chatting. Admittedly they were always discussing what I was saying but regardless, I have a very clear rule - when I speak, they listen - that's just basic manners. When I begin my talk I always outline my rules and make it clear that if they don't follow my rules, there are consequences ... I addressed the issue a number of times and eventually told them that I would have to move them if it didn't stop. This was a good group of girls and it's fairly humiliating being pulled up like that in front of your whole class and I would have completely understood if they walked away after the talk, mumbling to themselves, not thinking of me too highly. Instead, one of them stayed after the talk with another friend wanting to ask me a question. When I told her that I didn't like having to pull her up in front of the class her response was priceless - "But I broke your rules and was doing the wrong thing - I can see why you did it! No problems!"

Of course, teaching and parenting are very different things but there are some basic principles that are effective in both areas. One of those is around establishing rules and boundaries. Ask your teen who their favourite teacher is and I can pretty well guarantee that it's not the one that tries to be their best friend. It's the one that starts the year off by making clear their expectations, outlining the rules that operate in their classroom and letting each and every student know why those rules exist. They're also the one that cracks down on any misbehaviour quickly, fairly and appropriately, treating all in the class with great respect. Parents need to do the same thing - rules and boundaries need to be established, consequences need to be made clear but it is vital that these are seen as 'fair' by your child!

If your teen has ever said "That's not fair!" (and I bet they have many times) have a quick think back and try to remember what it was about. I can pretty well guarantee that it was in response to a decision that you had to make 'on the run'. They had just misbehaved or done something wrong and it was related to something that you weren't prepared for, i.e., rules and consequences hadn't already been established around that particular behaviour. If you hand out a consequence or punishment for something that has never been discussed before, of course they're going to say it's not fair - particularly if that punishment is viewed as severe in their eyes - they haven't been told about that rule or that punishment. As I said, it's most probably not fair! Now I'm sure some of you are saying that it's not possible for you to be prepared for everything a teen could possibly do wrong and have rules and consequences for each and every potential scenario and, of course, you're right. But you can have some general rules established around your family values and expectations (i.e., in the basic areas of honesty, trust and respect at the very least), making them aware that if they let you down in any of these area there certainly will be consequences.

The other area where young people are often completely justified in their "That's not fair!" response is when the rules haven't been adjusted as they have gotten older. One of the most important things for parents to remember about rules (if you want them to be effective) is that they must be age-appropriate and they must change over time. The rules a parent establishes around parties for their 15 year-old must change - try to keep the same ones all the way through until 18 and you are going to have lots of trouble! I'm not saying you let them do what they want when they turn 16, but I would suggest sitting down with your teen regularly (at least once every six months) and having a discussion about their behaviour in this area. If they've been doing the right thing, reward them and adapt the rules accordingly - do that and it's going to make everyone's life just a little easier.

As regular readers would know I've been conducting a survey at some of the schools I visit across the country, asking Year 10s and 11s to answer a brief questionnaire which covers a number of issues, one of them being around breaking rules and what students believe are appropriate punishments. I'll be putting together a couple of blog entries in the next couple of weeks highlighting some of the findings of the survey but in the meantime I thought I'd include a few of the answers students provided when they were asked the following question - "If you broke a rule your parent had set around parties and alcohol, what do you think an appropriate punishment would be?"
  • "Grounding with no electronics beside computer use for homework" (Year 10, female)
  • "Take things off me, phone, PlayStation, also grounded and not allowed to play sport or go out but especially not go out with friends anywhere" (Year 11, male)
  • "Taking away my privileges so I could appreciate them more and respect the terms and conditions of those privileges" (Year 11, female)
  • "Not being allowed to go to similar events for a few months, depending on the severity of the breaking of the rule" (Year 11, male)
  • "Grounded for at least 2 weeks. No phone, no money" (Year 10, female)
  • "Tighter requirements before going out so that parents can ensure the party is safe" (Year 10, male)
  • "Not allow me to go to parties, or the parties with certain friends that influenced me" (Year 11, female)
In the last few schools I've conducted this survey I added an extra question straight after this one. It's all well and good asking what an "appropriate" punishment would be, but did they think that what they suggested was actually "fair"? Although this is included as a 'Yes'/'No' question, many of the students who have answered it have added a sentence or two usually stating that the punishment very much depended on the 'crime'. What was this rule that they had broken? One Year 11 girl also added "It so depends on whether I knew about the rule and fully understood it." Once again, that innate sense of fairness - if they are given rules and boundaries and it's made quite clear what will happen if they break those rules, they're not going to necessarily like what happens next but they're certainly less likely to turn around and say that it's not fair!

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 3: Find out as much as you can about the event and don't just rely on your child for the info!

When your child's school makes the decision to take students on an excursion, the number of hoops those teachers have to jump through to ensure each and everyone of those young people is as safe as possible is quite unbelievable. How are they going to get there? What will the student-adult ratio be? What transport company is going to be used to get them there and do they have the correct accreditation? The list goes on and on and you know what, as parents, you wouldn't expect anything less ... the school has a responsibility to keep your child safe while they are in its care and it doesn't matter whether they're going to a museum or wildlife park, it takes a lot of effort to ensure safety.

So why then do we not see more parents putting the same level of effort into finding out even a little more about the party or gathering their child is wanting to attend on a Saturday night? Let's quickly do a comparison - a school excursion for a class of Year 10s to a museum in the middle of the day and a 15 year-old birthday party held on a Saturday night for 80-100 of their closest friends - I think it's pretty obvious which one is likely to be the most risky!

With that in mind, here is Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 3 when it comes to keeping your teen as safe as possible - 'Find out as much as you can about the event'. Like the two other rules I have already discussed, this is not easy to do and certainly won't make you particularly popular but it is important and if you get it right nice and early, just as they start going to parties, you're not going to have nearly as many problems when they get older.

The key here is that you don't just rely on your child for this information. Put really simply, they will only tell you what they want you know and will not hesitate to lie through their teeth to get what they want! I know there are some people who get very angry when I say this, but all teenagers lie - I certainly did, I guarantee you did and if you really want to believe that your child is the only adolescent in human history not to tell an untruth then go ahead and get prepared to be terribly hurt at some point in the future!

So what information should you be after and if you can't rely on your child to give it to you, where do you get it from? When it comes to what parents need to know about a party to ensure their child's safety the list could go on forever, but essentially (regardless of your child's age) I would recommend the following four bits of information be gathered:
  • Whose party is it and do you know them and/or their parents?
  • Where will the party be held?
  • Will the parents be there and will they be supervising the party?
  • What time does it start and what time does it finish?
Based on the answers to these questions, parents should be able to establish whether or not they think the event is safe for their child to attend or not. As I said, this information should be collected regardless of the child's age - it doesn't matter if they're 6 or 16, if they're invited to anyone's home for a party doesn't every parent want to know the answer to these questions?

When they're younger so much of this is gathered through casual conversations at the school gate or provided on an official invitation that your child was given but as they get older it all gets far more difficult to access. Parents are less likely to drop their kids off at school and for this reason (along with many others) there tends to be less interaction with other Mums and Dads than there once was. Invites are now posted on social media and of course, teens start to become more secretive about the events they attend because they're doing things they know they most probably shouldn't! In addition, when they hit that wonderful age of around 14-15 and start to attend parties where alcohol may be used prior to arriving, smuggled in or even permitted, that's when you've got to start asking questions in that area ... Those questions could include the following:
  • Is alcohol going to be permitted at the party?
  • How are the parents going to handle the alcohol issue?
  • Will an effort be made to stop alcohol being taken into the party?
  • Will there be security?
So where do you get this information from? When your child asks you if they can attend a party it is at this point that you ask them your standard questions about the events to which they are invited. Hopefully you have made your expectations about the information you need clear over time (and from an early age) and fingers crossed they will provide this without any problems but you need to remember that around Year 9 and 10 you're going to start seeing their willingness to do this start to taper off. It is at this time that you must make sure you access other sources.

Without a doubt the most important source of information is the parent who is putting on the party. Now there is no way that your teen will want you to make contact and if you've never done this before and you start doing it when they are 15 years old you'll have a huge fight on your hands, but in my experience, if your child knows at the age of 10 that you call the house beforehand and you continue to do it over time - it's just what you do - you're not going to have anywhere near as much of an issue in the later years. It should be noted that these calls don't always go well (particularly if you start asking questions about alcohol) and can end up leaving some parents feeling very frustrated but as far as the safety of your child is concerned, they're vital!

Talk to other parents as well and find out what they know about the party. What time are you dropping off your child? Where are you dropping them off? Do you know the parents who are putting it on? Does their information match what you've been told by your son or daughter? This source of information is particularly important if you have concerns about the event, e.g., you called the house and you didn't feel entirely comfortable with the response you got from the parent but you haven't got any real concrete reason not to allow your teen to attend. Another option is to take a look at social media and see what has been posted about the party - if you're doing your due diligence and monitoring your child's online activity to some extent (hopefully with their knowledge and consent - I'm certainly not advocating spying on your children - be honest about what you're doing) this should not be too difficult to access and can prove very useful.

Now at this point I can imagine there would be some people who would be reading this and saying 'but at some point don't I have to trust my teen when it comes to parties?' Absolutely! As I say over and over again, with any rule around teens and parties  they need to be fair and age-appropriate. When they're younger and not likely to be doing anything particularly risky, that's the time when these rules should be 'airtight' - call the parents holding the party every time, take your child to the door and meet the parents, pick them up on time and no excuses, if they're late or they break any of the rules, there are consequences. When they're young and not doing anything wrong they have no problems with rules - in fact, at the age of 12-13 and they even have rules around parties they get pretty excited as it makes them feel more adult. As they get older of course they're going to want these rules relaxed and that can happen gradually over time as they demonstrate good behaviour and build and maintain your trust.

It will be impossible for you to know everything about a party that your child attends, regardless of how much effort you put into it. It is also important that parents don't risk jeopardising the positive relationship they have with their teen by obsessing in this area. In their final year of high school when they're not far short of 18, calling parents hosting parties to find out about each and every event your teen is invited to is going to be a recipe for disaster. Of course, if there is one party you are particularly worried about, for whatever reason, do your parental duty and call the hosts and, if need be, try your best to prevent them from going but at that age if you push too hard you run the risk of embarrassing your child and damaging your relationship. They are teenagers and they will make mistakes and poor decisions and, as hard as it may be, you have to let them stumble and fall occasionally. That said, you don't do this when they're 14 or 15, it's simply too dangerous and they don't have the life experience should something go wrong ... It's at this age when you do your very best to find out all you can about where they'll be on Saturday night, who they're going to be with and what they're planning on doing!

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.