Saturday, 30 January 2016

Australia, alcohol and unacceptable behaviour: Is it getting worse and how do we protect our kids?

You would had to have been living in a cupboard to miss the latest Australian 'sportsman behaving badly' story that, once again, involved a sportsman getting drunk and proceeding to take part in a number of 'lewd acts'. The shortened version of the video has now almost had 200K views on YouTube and I can't imagine how many times it's been watched via various media organisations' websites who have provided both edited and full versions (which apparently some of them paid for!) for their readership. Not surprisingly, the story continues to have legs two days after the video surfaced (I was interviewed on The Today Show this morning about the wider issue of the Australian alcohol culture but the lead-in was this particular case). Last night all news services covered the player's obligatory apology and his 'deep remorse' for his actions and there are the usual calls that he needs help and, not surprisingly, he has now been apparently sent overseas to an American rehab facility. As I said this morning when interviewed, we should now leave the man alone and allow him to somehow deal with what has happened over the past few days - but you can bet that there are camera crews from all networks waiting in the US to meet him at the airport and follow him to whatever centre he is admitted to - it truly is shameful!

Now there are those who will say that what he did was done 'in private' and we should get over it - he didn't hurt anyone. Doesn't everyone get drunk at some point or another and do stupid things? If you take even a brief look at social media you will find a huge number of people who simply respond with the 'get a sense of humour' argument - sadly, some people really do think this kind of behaviour is funny! I'm certainly not going to judge him here (I'll let the media do that) and I certainly don't think we should be attempting to destroy the man but there are issues here from a parent-child perspective that need to be considered ...

Watching the story develop over the past few days I really felt for parents of children and young teens who had to try to explain what this story was all about. As I said, you couldn't miss seeing at least some part of the video and its release couldn't have come on a worse day (for many young people it was the first day back at school) and how does a parent explain what this man was doing and why it was happening? Once again, I don't know how parents do what they do and these idiots make your job a heck of a lot more difficult!

What is really interesting though is that in Thursday's Daily Telegraph the NRL player story is not the only one to deal with the issue of alcohol and unacceptable behaviour. There's also one on former Liberal frontbencher Jamie Briggs attempting to explain his drunken behaviour involving a female staffer that forced him to resign late last year and another covering the inquest into the death of a young female English backpacker after a drinking binge, possibly due to alcohol poisoning. Although it's usually the sportsmen that attract much of the attention (and rightly so - there's is often the most extreme!), if you look at these stories it's an issue that cuts across so much of Australian society.

So is the situation worse than it was in the past?

If you look at the data on Australian drinking patterns, as a society we certainly don't appear to be drinking more, but unfortunately those that do drink in a risky way appear to be drinking in a far riskier way. Put simply, those that do get drunk, get really drunk! When you add social media and the resulting need of a generation to share everything they do with as many people as possible, as well as the 'YOLO' ('you only live once') attitude that encourages them to push themselves and others to the absolute limit and damn the consequences, you have that really pointy end of drinking and getting drunk very much in your face!

Unfortunately, we continue to have the attitude in this country that somehow drinking is just a part of our culture, it's a part of being Australian and if you don't drink (or you in any way criticise Australian drinking behaviour) then you are attacking what it is to be an Aussie! I tell the following story often and I don't think people always believe me, but at the last wedding I went to when I put my hand over my glass when offered some champagne for the bridal toast by a member of the wedding party and said I didn't drink alcohol, I was very aggressively told I was 'unAustralian' (and to give some context, shortly afterwards the bride was carried out of the reception, absolutely plastered!). Over the years there have been occasions after I say that I don't drink alcohol that I have been called 'unAustralian' (a couple of times during radio interviews) and it bamboozles me every time. To me 'unAustralian' is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous and certainly overused words that exists (for a great article on that topic have a read of this piece by Tim Dick in the SMH) ... and sadly I believe it's increasingly linked to any criticism of alcohol and the resulting negative behaviour linked to drinking ...

Drinking alcohol, getting drunk and taking part in totally unacceptable behaviour is not new. It's been around since man first fermented the product but we now live in a different time where we know far more about the consequences of such behaviour. As much as some people see it as 'harmless fun' and that anyone who criticises those involved in such activity must be a 'wowser', the reality is that in many cases this is actually potentially dangerous behaviour, not only for the drinker but for those who come in contact with him or her, it's not just about being 'political-correct'. Yes, it may be funny to some to watch a drunk person do something outrageous but things can and do go wrong. Research released earlier this week found that 1 in 7 people admitted to emergency departments around the country on Australia Day were there due to alcohol! Let's get real here - getting drunk can end up with you (or someone else around you) in hospital or worse!

So how do we protect our kids from this behaviour and all the risks associated with it? In truth I don't think you can (this week's 'sportsman behaving badly' story is proof of that) but I believe these stories can provide an opportunity for parents to begin an important conversation about alcohol and the consequences of drinking to excess.

Almost all young people learn about what happens to the body when they drink in health classes across the country - the potential damage to organs and the like. The problem with sportsmen (and other celebrities for that matter) who reportedly drink a lot is that there are often no signs of this sort of damage (the same can be said around illicit drugs). Also, most of these are long-term issues and most adolescents find it difficult to relate to issues that are not in the 'here-and-now'. It's important to remember that in relation to alcohol there are also a range of social effects that can arise as a result of drinking. The social impacts of alcohol and particularly drinking to excess are not discussed often enough but are very real and can have devastating effects. A sportsman finding himself on the front page of a paper after a night out of heavy drinking can have his reputation affected for the rest of his life. He could win every award possible in his future career in the sport but I guarantee that particular story will be mentioned in every story written about him in the future. The impact on his family and friends can also be immense and is rarely talked about.

This is the area that parents should be focussing in on - take a long look at how this man's drinking has now affected his life. No matter what you think about his behaviour, his televised apology is heartbreaking. I've grown extremely cynical about football player's apologies - they're often extremely well-scripted and obviously written by a skilled PR person and I believe, in many cases, not worth a grain of salt (yes, they're certainly sorry - sorry that they've been caught more than anything else!) but this guy was obviously hurting and if the opportunity arises to sit down with your son and daughter and talk through what led to this I would grab it with both hands. Certainly, when you're in the public eye the situation is much worse, but if you want to relate this story to a parent-child situation you can talk about getting a phone-call from a hospital to say that your teen was admitted to an emergency department after drinking too much. How would that make them feel when Mum and Dad came to pick them up? What would happen when you got to school on Monday and everyone was talking about it? And of course, how would their actions affect Mum and Dad?

Alcohol and particularly drinking to excess has consequences. Unfortunately, we do live in a culture where getting drunk is often celebrated and although things are slowly changing (at least we're talking about it now) it's going to take a long time before we see a real difference in attitudes. Stories of men (and women) 'behaving badly' after drinking are not going to end anytime soon so parents should learn to use them in as positive a way as possible in an attempt to promote healthier attitudes towards alcohol in their children. Good luck!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Parenting, the 'age of entitlement' and alcohol: 3 simple things that will keep your teen safer

As I've said time and time again, I really don't know how parents do it ... I am just finishing putting together my presentations for 2016 and looking at the available evidence around parenting and alcohol and other drug use. It's no surprise that parents are confused when there are so many theories out there about what is best practice.

Before you even start considering the alcohol and other drug issue - let's just look at what we know about effective parenting. There are websites, courses and books on 'positive parenting', 'attachment parenting', 'natural parenting' and 'slow parenting', programs like 'Taking Children Seriously' and then all types of warnings about 'overparenting' and the different type of parent you can become if you're not careful. There's been lots of discussion about 'helicopter parenting' for some time now but did you know there is now such a thing as 'lawnmower parenting' (mums and dads who attempt to clear all possible obstacles in the path of their child)? There's also 'underparenting', aka 'free-range parenting' where failing is seen as the new succeeding! Different animals are also used to describe particular practices, with the most famous being the 'tiger parents', but there are also 'jellyfish parents' and in response to the more aggressive tigers, there are now books promoting 'dolphin parenting'!

We also now apparently live in the 'age of entitlement'. It's difficult to establish when this phrase started being used, although there are a couple of books published in the mid 1990s that incorporated it into their titles. It made headlines in this country when the then Treasurer, Joe Hockey called for the end to the age of entitlement in his 2014 infamous budget speech, but it is in studies examining Generation Y or 'Millennials' (those born in the 80s through to the early 2000s) that you really see the concept start to be discussed in detail.  Research has found that this generation apparently has a "very inflated sense of self" leading to "unrealistic expectations" and "a sense of entitlement."

Experts believe that this entitlement was ingrained in the formative years and appears to stem from the 'self-esteem movement' that blasted onto the scene in the early 70s. The whole idea was that if we are able to boost young people's self esteem that will not only help them do well and be successful in the future, but also protect them from taking part in potentially risky activities. Certainly, even when I started in the drug education field, so many of the programs we wrote were rooted in the self-esteem philosophy - the belief being that if they felt good about themselves, then they would be more likely to resist peer pressure and less likely to use drugs. It kind of makes sense but when these programs were evaluated many years later, yes, the kids felt good about themselves but they also felt really good about taking drugs - not the intended consequence!

Of course you need to tell you're children how wonderful they are - "You're great, you're special," - are important words but they also need to know when they've done something wrong. They also need to know that some people are more 'special' than others (i.e., not everyone can get first place and receive a medal) and some people are going to be more popular than others (you're not going to be invited to every party) and that's the way life is! Unfortunately, the 'self-esteem movement' and the resulting 'age of entitlement' don't really allow for those possibilities and that can cause problems ...

So what to do around alcohol in this complicated world (we'll look at other drugs another time)? Here are four facts we know about alcohol and young people that end up confusing the hell out of parents:
  • Delay, delay, delay - try to delay their first drink of alcohol for as long as possible
  • If a teen is to drink, ensure their first drink of alcohol is with you in a controlled environment
  • If a teen believes their parent approves of teen drinking they're more likely to drink
  • If teens obtain alcohol from sources other than their parents, they're more likely to drink in a risky way
What we are telling parents, therefore, is that you should never give a young person alcohol (due to impact on brain development), but, in fact, you have to give it to them (in your home preferably) before they drink it anywhere else. If you do give it to them, however, this could indicate that you approve of their drinking leading to potential drinking problems in the future. In addition, you certainly don't want them to get alcohol from other sources when they go to a party or gathering as the research says that if they do they're at greater risk! One statement seems to contradict the next and it ends up being totally confusing!

There are no easy answers here and every parent has to make their own decision about how to deal with this very complex issue. You can read all the books in the world and do every parenting course available but it'll really come down to your child and the relationship you have with them that will determine what parenting strategies you use at that time. As I'm told by so many mums and dads, 'what works with one will not necessarily work with the others'. That said, the evidence is pretty clear that the most effective style of parenting, in a general sense, is 'authoritative parenting' - put simply, 'rules, consequences bound in unconditional love'. Those rules and consequences will be different for each family and most likely, for each child in that family, but nevertheless they need to be there.

But without a doubt, when it comes to alcohol there are just three simple things that every parent can do to keep their teen safer and they are as follows:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home
I've repeated these points many times as research has clearly shown that age-appropriate monitoring by parents plays such a huge role in keeping their teens safe, particularly where alcohol is concerned. At a time when parents are often accused of 'overparenting', I am sure some fear being criticised for asking these type of questions of their children (or wanting to find out more about what will be happening if they are to be in the care of other parents). We also have teens who do seriously believe it is their 'right' to go to parties and they needn't answer to their parents about such matters, thus leading to a great deal of conflict and resulting problems in the home. Getting the balance right early is the key - set the foundations when they are in primary school (or younger) and it'll be so much easier when they hit adolescence ...