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Saturday, 27 February 2016

How worried should parents be about ecstasy and dance festivals?

If you were one of the many parents that watched ABC TV's 4 Corners episode 'Dying To Dance' who have never had anything to do with the nightclub or dance festival scene I'm sure you were quite confronted by what you saw. Since it aired a couple of weeks ago I have received a number of emails and phone calls from parents so disturbed by the program that they made contact to try to establish if the program truly represented what was happening at dance festivals across the country. Most of them had sons or daughters that were regular festival-goers and many found it extremely hard to believe that they could be involved in the kind of activity that they saw on the program.

Let me start by saying that I thought the program offered a unique insight into a culture that is rarely examined in such detail. Gaining access to dance events is incredibly difficult for the media - no promoter wants a television crew wandering around their event, particularly if the producers are trying to identify and discuss illicit activity. At the very least it could lead to the event receiving bad publicity when the program goes to air and at worst potentially being shut-down. How they got promoters to agree to taking part in the program is beyond me! Getting young people to open up about their drug use on TV (whether or not they are identified) is fraught with problems for all concerned (but not necessarily difficult to do), but finding a dealer to not only speak about what he does but also take a reporter on a drop-off of drugs to a customer is a real coup! As I said, a remarkable insight ...

Over the years I have attended, organised, worked at and consulted for dance events both here and around the world. Nothing on the program surprised me and the drug activity shown was certainly representative of a particular type of festival-goer that attends such events, but were Brooke and Jessie (the two young ravers attending a five-day 'bush doof') your 'average' kids going to Good Vibrations or the like? No way, those guys were extreme (they were planning on using ecstasy, speed, ketamine, cannabis, alcohol and 'dexies' and were also hoping to find some 'magic mushrooms') ... they weren't the norm and that's why they were selected for the program. I can totally understand why they didn't use a couple of regular kids who were taking a few pills to a day out at a Sydney festival - they're not that interesting. Brooke and Jessie made great television!

The day after the program aired I was at a school and one of the teachers asked me for my thoughts. She had watched it with her two children (both in their early 20s, both regular festival-goers) and simply didn't believe what she had seen. Brooke and Jessie were the major problems because they were so extreme and they just didn't match what she saw in her own children and their friends. Her children had told her that they had seen drugs at festivals but they didn't take them and most others didn't either, and, not surprisingly, she believed them. Now whether they have used illicit drugs or not is beside the point, but when I told her that many attending festivals actually do use (and available evidence suggests that it the case) and that most ecstasy users are not as extreme as those shown on the program, it all became a lot more real for her ...

My major problem with 4 Corners is that they rarely provide a context to their drug stories. They are able to gain incredible access to people and tell their stories with great honesty and without judgement (something tabloid current affairs shows can't do!), but they are usually extreme stories and not necessarily the 'norm' - that's what makes them so compelling and why they get so much attention when they air. Nothing that was said on the program was factually incorrect (4 Corners is known for its fact-checking - in fact, I was called by the producers the week before the program aired to check a figure that was quoted in the script) but it would have been so simple for them to have just said something like - 'But not everyone attending the event had taken illicit drugs'. I know it would have been a big ask but a statement like 'Australia has the highest rate of ecstasy use in the world but still 89% of our population have not tried it' would have acknowledged there is an issue but at the same time provide some context.

My other major issue was one of the closing statements of the program - "Australia's current strategy against illicit drugs ecstasy and MDMA is failing. Powerful voices tell us we are heading for a catastrophe: we must act now." Now you're not going to get an argument from me that our current strategy in this area is failing, the program clearly showed that. Millions of dollars being ploughed into policing is not seeing any positive outcomes, but 'heading for a catastrophe', what does that mean? Yes, we have had deaths and everyone of those is a tragedy and we should do our very best to ensure that we don't have any others but are we really heading for an abyss and life is going to end as we know it?

So how worried should parents be about ecstasy and dance festivals?

Historically there is a strong link between ecstasy and the dance culture - you can't get away from that! The drug's popularity increased through the 80s and 90s as the international dance scene grew. A significant proportion of those who attend music festivals, dance events and nightclubs certainly use ecstasy and other drugs to 'enhance' their experience - altering their perception and giving them energy to dance for long periods of time. This does not mean that all people who are part of this culture use illegal drugs. However, it is important for parents to know that, at the very least, their child will come into contact with drugs such as ecstasy if they regularly attend such events. Talking about drugs and letting your child know how you feel about drug use will play an important part in helping your child make good decisions in the future.

As someone who worked at these events for many years, I do not believe that the vast majority are suitable for those under 18 years, in fact, it is only quite recently that many of these events even allowed underage patrons. I've had huge arguments with some young (and not so young) people about this is in the past - but that's my experience and based on what I've seen over many years. To each their own! That said, there are some very young people who do just want to be there for the music - I get that - and parents have to make their own decisions about whether or not their child should be allowed to attend.

If your child is going to these events I believe there are a few things that you can do to make it just a little safer for them and make you feel a little better at the same time:
  • 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.
  • Let them know that you are happy to be part of a plan if something goes amiss. 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 anything goes wrong with them or their friends, you want them to know that you will be there for them - no questions asked!
  • Discuss 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 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.
  • Ensure that they know about the legal consequences of taking drugs such as ecstasy. Most of them would be aware of drug detection dogs but very few know a lot about mobile or roadside drug testing.

As much as some parents would love to think 'not my kids', the reality is that if your child is going to dance festivals, at the very least they are exposed to drug use. Of course, not all young people who go to dance events will use illicit drugs but a significant number will and there is the chance that things can go wrong. Death is not the norm, although, not surprisingly, it those tragedies that attract a great deal of media attention. There are a range of other harms that festival-goers are far more likely to experience, particularly around the legal consequences of being caught with illicit drugs, that are not often discussed as much as they should.

The 4 Corners program provided a confronting insight into a potentially high-risk youth subculture that is heavily policed. Should parents be concerned for their children who attend dance festivals and are potentially using illicit drugs like ecstasy? Absolutely, there are a range of risks associated with this culture! Are we heading into a 'catastrophe'? I don't think so ... Let's be level-headed here and try to address the issue in as sensible way as possible ... We know the best way for parents to keep their kids safe is to stay connected and keep talking. If you did watch the program and your child does go to festivals, use what you saw to have a healthy discussion with them - that's most probably the best way forward. If you didn't see it, take a look - it's well worth watching. Just remember that not all festival-goers are the same and that what you're watching is not necessarily representative of all those who attend these events ...

Saturday, 20 February 2016

What if your teen wants to take alcohol to a party or gathering?

What do you say the first time your teen turns around and asks if they can take alcohol to a party they have been invited to? This is the situation a mother I met during the week had recently faced and she found herself really struggling with how to respond ...

Tina's son Adrian is 16 and has found it really difficult since he started at a new school two years ago to find a group of friends. Last week he was invited to his first teenage party and, although a bit worried about the whole 'party thing', she was also thrilled that this could be the beginning of him finally starting to 'fit in' ... Unfortunately straight after she said he could go, he threw her a curly one and asked if he could take alcohol. According to Adrian, everyone else was going to take a couple of drinks and he didn't want to be the only one who didn't. Tina certainly didn't feel comfortable giving her son alcohol to take to a party (and she made it clear to me, it was never going to happen!) but she also didn't want to ruin her son's social life ...

This is a difficult issue for many parents of teenagers, with some in our community believing that alcohol consumption is simply a 'rite of passage' into adulthood and that 'everyone will go through that stage' at some time or other. Community attitudes are certainly changing with more and more parents expressing concern about young people drinking at an early age, particularly in a party environment. As we learn more and more about the impact of alcohol on adolescent brain development and calls of 'delay, delay, delay' become louder and louder, growing numbers of parents simply don't feel comfortable providing even the smallest amount to their teens. Evidence shows that a liberal approach to underage drinking leads to an increased risk of a range of serious consequences including dependence, violence, sexual assault and even death.

Your child is bound to tell you that you are 'the only parent who won’t let them take alcohol' if you decide not to provide it and that 'you will shame them forever' and that they will be the laughing stock amongst their friends. Whatever your decision (and let's make it perfectly clear - it is your decision, no-one can tell you what to do with your child), you need to make sure you make it based on good quality information and not pressure from your child and their friends, and certainly not other parents trying to make you feel bad about your efforts to keep your child as safe as possible.

Sadly, whether or not to provide alcohol to your child to take to a party or gathering is going to be a major issue for many families at some time or another through that difficult period called adolescence. We are bombarded with messages from every direction about the important role alcohol plays in socialising, whether it be through advertising and marketing, or simply by watching a sporting event on the television, that it is not surprising that most young people believe you have to drink alcohol to have a good time.

There are no easy answers to this complex issue but here are some simple tips for parents to consider:
  • Communicate: Explain why you don't want them to take alcohol to parties. Tell them about the range of risks involved and your concerns about their physical, psychological and social health. They may not agree with your views on the matter but they need to understand why you have created the rules that exist in your home.
  • Don't be afraid to say 'no': Your child learns more from one word than almost any other – 'no'. Unfortunately too many parents fear that saying no to their child will make them unpopular and that their child won't like them - I've got news for you, you're a parent, they're not meant to like you! Remember, your child has lots of opportunities to make friends, they only have one set of parents.
  • Challenge ridiculous statements: If your child tells you that you are the 'only Mum who won't provide alcohol' - make sure you do not let this statement go unchallenged. Most parents do not support providing alcohol to take to underage parties. If your teenager insists that this is the truth, let them provide some proof. Give them a piece of paper and a pen and ask them to supply names and phone numbers of five parents who do provide alcohol. 
  • Talk to other parents: Make sure other parents know your views on the subject of supplying alcohol to teenagers who are underage. If you do not believe that it is appropriate to provide your child with alcohol for a party, you will be most probably be pleasantly surprised as to how many parents agree with your stance. If parents have differing viewpoints that is their right, but let them know your reasons and make it clear that you do not want your child to drink at this stage in their life.

Unfortunately for Tina her situation is a little more complicated ... her dilemma is compounded by the fear that her decision could jeopardise her son's relationship with his newly found group of friends. Many parents fear that saying 'no' to alcohol or parties (or any activities they feel are potentially dangerous for that matter) will result in their child not 'fitting in', but that's not what is happening here. As Tina said to me, "If this was a group of friends that I knew well and he had had for a while I wouldn't have even thought twice about saying 'no', but he's been so unhappy and so lonely at his new school, I really have had to try to work out how to stay true to my beliefs but not cause too much devastation!" ...

Sixteen is a tough age! At this time of their life, teens are desperately trying to gain (or maintain) acceptance from their peers and, at the same time, well and truly pulling away from their parents in an effort to create their own identity. Tina does need to handle this carefully - every parent wants their child to have friends and have a healthy social life - but it is still important to maintain rules and boundaries based on your family values. Let your guard down here once and you'll never get it back ... As I said to her, I certainly don't believe that 'everyone else' going to the party was going to be given alcohol by their parents but in this case I don't think challenging her son in that way is necessarily going to help. My advice consisted of a number of simple steps:
  • Sit down and ask what rules he would like around attending the party - i.e., how would he like to get there? What time did he want to be picked up? How would information about the party be obtained? I recommend that teens write down this 'wish-list' on a piece of paper - it makes it much more concrete for them ... Ask him to include his thoughts about alcohol ..
  • Ask him to indicate his Top 3 from the list - the ones that are most important to him. As much as taking alcohol may be up there - you can guarantee that you not calling the house beforehand, not walking him to the door, not meeting the parents, as well as a later pick-up time are going to be far more important to him in terms of saving face
  • Tell him what you want  - what is the most important thing for you? Once again, I would recommend you write it down - right next to his list. I can almost guarantee that the only thing you put down there is 'safety' - you want him home in one piece!
  • Tell him that you are not going to give him alcohol but you are willing to compromise on his Top 3 as long as they match what you want - his safety! It's important that he also knows that these rules will change over time and that you will reward good behaviour but you cannot provide alcohol - you just don't feel comfortable doing that ...

Adrian needed to understand that his mother was willing to compromise, she was not going to just stand there and say 'no' to everything. Yes, he could go to the party. Yes, she was willing to give a little on some rules, but alcohol was the 'line in the sand' - he needed to know there was no compromise there at this point in time. Rules need to be perceived as fair and they must be age-appropriate, that's why they must be updated regularly (every 3-6 months for a 16-17 year-old) but they need to be there, particularly during adolescence. I also suggested to Tina that if her son was open to the idea, they could come up with strategies to help him deal with questions about why he didn't bring alcohol so he could save face. This is likely to be a difficult ask for a 16 year-old young man and his mother but there may be another significant adult in the teen's life that could help him develop an 'out' that is socially acceptable and he would feel comfortable using ...

Is there any guarantee this strategy is going to work? Of course not, you're dealing with a teenager but at least you're giving it your best shot!

As teenagers mature, they certainly begin to regard themselves as young adults and want the freedoms (but often not the responsibilities) that go with adulthood. As I've already said, no-one can tell you how to bring up your children - you have to make those decisions yourself. That said, I still struggle to understand the argument that some parents throw at me of "I give my teen two drinks to a party because at least I know what they're drinking!" If you want to allow your child to drink in your home with you, go for it, but supplying alcohol to underage drinkers for consumption at a teenage party or  gathering is fraught with legal as well as personal dangers so, whatever your decision, make it carefully.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

5 messages about ecstasy that every parent should discuss with their teen

During the week I met two mothers who had both recently discovered that their daughters had been taking ecstasy. Both were very worried and wanted advice on what to do now that they had this information. After finding out what their daughters were up to, both had confronted them with what they knew, aired their disappointment and concerns but were told in no uncertain terms that they had no intention of changing their behaviour and that they were worrying about nothing and that 'everyone does it'!

Both of these mums were pretty amazing. It seemed like they had been able to keep their cool when discussing the issue with their daughters, knowing only too well that if they had exploded and ranted and raved, they really did risk jeopardising the already tenuous relationship they had with their child. But you could really see how frightened they were and when one of them said to me - "I just don't want to wake up one weekend and find her face on the front page of the paper after something has gone terribly wrong!"- it truly broke my heart ...

The greatest problem for many parents around ecstasy is that it is a drug that they simply don't 'get'. It wasn't a drug that they used when they were younger (although there are certainly a growing number of parents who did experiment with the drug in the 90s - but that's another story and we may talk about them in another blog later in the year as they face another set of challenges!) and all they know about the drug is what they see and read in the media. Unfortunately, the only time the media covers the ecstasy issue is when there is a death and although ecstasy-related deaths certainly do occur, they are rare - that's why they receive so much attention! This coverage leads many to believe that ecstasy-related deaths are common and that death is a likely outcome should someone choose to use the drug - something that simply isn't true!

Ecstasy continues to be a popular drug in Australia. Although recent use (use in the past year) has decreased since 2007, those reporting ever having tried the drug has continued to rise to almost 11% of the Australian population aged 14 years and over (according to the UNODC, we are the world's largest consumers of ecstasy by some way). The number of school-based young people who reported recent use of the drug, however, had remained fairly steady for some time (around 4% of 12-17 year-olds) but dropped in the most recent survey to 2.7%. It'll be very interesting to see what the 2015 data looks like when it is released in the next few months.

Ecstasy is the street-term for a substance called MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). Available in pills, capsules, powder and now crystal form, it is a notoriously impure drug with users never really being sure what they're actually taking. MDMA is a difficult drug to make and as such other drugs are often substituted during the manufacturing process, some of which can be highly toxic. Recently new processes have been developed and, as a result, we have seen a dramatic increase in MDMA quality across the world. This increased purity has led to questions being asked as to whether this could be the reason we saw far more ecstasy-related deaths in this country over the summer break - we will know more when toxicology results are released throughout the year.

One of the questions I'm usually asked by parents who know little about this drug is 'why do they use it?' With the only stories people read about ecstasy usually dealing with deaths or, at the very least, hospitalisations, why would young people want to use the drug and take the risk? Put simply, for most people who ever take this drug they describe their first experience as the 'best night of their lives' (so much so that for many of them, they continue to attempt to reach those heights again for the rest of their ecstasy-using career!). I know that many people don't like hearing that drugs can make the user feel good but that's the truth - of course things can go wrong but we need to understand why substances are used if we ever hope to effectively educate young people about them.

Without going into the science of the drug and its effects in any great detail, MDMA essentially 'tricks' your brain into releasing large amounts of serotonin (the brain's 'feel-good' transmitter). Our brains release small amounts of serotonin everyday, each time we laugh or something good happens to us - when MDMA is taken, much larger amounts are released and the 'reuptake' of this chemical is blocked resulting in serotonin staying in the brain for much longer and the user feeling good for a number of hours ...

Unfortunately, young people are provided very little quality information on ecstasy and rely on friends and the Internet when making choices around this drug. What is provided to them through school-based drug education programs or government mass media campaigns is often regarded as unbalanced, 'propaganda' that focuses on possible, but less likely outcomes such as death. We therefore need to look for other opportunities to provide information that is accurate, credible and useful.
Of course, it is unreasonable to expect most parents to be 'experts' on drugs like ecstasy (and if you tried to sell yourself as one to your teen they are likely to laugh in your face) but here are 5 simple messages that could and should be conveyed if the opportunity arises. I totally get that the first two may be difficult for some parents to discuss, particularly with a teen who has carried out a little research on the topic and may try to bamboozle you with what they have read or heard from others - but the final three are not complex and can easily be handled by even the most drug-naïve parent:
  • MDMA is not a safe drug. Over the years I have heard from many parents that when they start talking about their fears around ecstasy the first thing that is thrown back at them is that it is safer than alcohol. I'm not going to go into whether I believe one drug is any safer than another - the fact is that all drugs, legal, illegal or pharmaceutical, can potentially cause harm. MDMA is not a 'safe' drug - of course there are risks associated with its use. Are you likely to die when you use the drug? No, deaths are rare, but they certainly do happen. It should be noted that many of the deaths that have recently occurred in Europe have been proven to be MDMA overdoses due, we believe, to the increase in MDMA quality now found in pills, powder and crystal. It is true that many deaths that have occurred in the past have been due to adulterants (most often PMA, a highly toxic form of amphetamine) and that has led to some believing that if you have MDMA in your pill then it will be safe. It needs to made very clear that too much MDMA can result in death.
  • Even if you know what's in a pill, it doesn't mean it's safe. There's been lots of discussion around pill testing lately and how this strategy could save lives. The theory (as far as some users are concerned) is that if you know what you're taking then that makes it safer. Undoubtedly, knowing what is in the pill is better than not knowing, but young people must realize that they have no way of knowing how those substances contained in the pill or powder will affect them should they choose to use it. Of course we should have pill testing in this country and we should be getting far more information out to users about the drugs they are considering using, whether they are illegal or not (this does not condone use as some people suggest), but at the same time we need to make sure that young people are aware that even if you do know what you're taking, there can be no certainty as to how it will affect you ...
  • Ecstasy is illegal and more people are being busted for use than ever before. Young people need to be reminded that if they do get caught with ecstasy and receive a conviction, their life will change. A drug conviction will mean they will not be able to get certain jobs and they will not be able to travel to certain countries, just because you got caught with one pill in your pocket. Drug detection dogs and roadside (or mobile) drug testing are part of their world – they need to know the law – ignorance is no excuse!
  • Different drugs affect different people in different ways. This is such a simple message but one that often gets forgotten and it applies to all drugs, including alcohol. Everybody will be affected in a different way when they use a drug and it's likely that they will be affected in a different way each time they choose to use it. Just because someone they know took a pill and had a 'great time' on it does not mean that they will have the same experience. People who have died after taking a pill or capsule were not the only ones who used that drug, many others did and they didn't die. Sometimes a death can be put down to something as simple as 'bad luck' – they just had a tragic reaction to that drug on that day!
  • If something goes wrong, call 000 ASAP. When in doubt, don't hesitate to call for help. Ecstasy deaths are rare but they do happen and when things go wrong, they go wrong very quickly. Young people need to know that they don't have time to wait and see if their friend is going to get better, they need to call for help immediately. Police are not routinely called to illicit drug overdoses, if you call an ambulance, that's what you get! Ensure that your teen knows that they have your 100% support in calling an ambulance and that you want them to call you straight after and you will be there to help them should they need it. Calling an ambulance for a friend who has suffered an illicit drug overdose is terrifying - they need to know that you will be there, no questions asked, no matter what they have been doing.
As I have said, I get that the first two may be difficult, particularly if the whole illicit drug scene is completely alien to you, but the final three are not hard. Finding the opportunity to discuss this issue can be challenging but to be honest, with all the media coverage around a death (when one occurs) or drug detection dog operations and subsequent arrests, starting a conversation about ecstasy and your concerns can be much easier than you think.

Just one word of warning however - if you do discover your son or daughter is using ecstasy, don't start the discussion with your fears about death ... As already said, ecstasy deaths are rare and you can almost guarantee that it is not part of your child's experience if they are taking the drug or hanging out with friends who do ...Of course, you need to express your concerns and fears for their safety but if you only go down the 'death' discussion you will undoubtedly lose them pretty quickly. The truth is that their experience is usually overwhelmingly positive (and most of them certainly do not know anyone who has died after using this drug), acknowledge why they have made the decision to use it (you certainly don't have to be happy about it!) and then discuss the points above.

Do I believe that this will stop them taking the drug? Most probably not, but it certainly makes it very clear to your son or daughter how you feel about the situation and proves to them that this is not a 'knee-jerk' response from a hysterical parent but rather an educated discussion with someone who loves them very much and wants them to be as safe as possible ...

Saturday, 6 February 2016

"Don't tell my Mum!": The importance of letting your teen know they can call you anytime, anywhere and no matter what you will still love them

This week I was back on the road, travelling across the country speaking to young people. Once again I was blown away by how incredible our kids are and the way they respond to the messages I deliver. As many of you would know, I make it very clear to schools that I don't preach a 'don't do' message - I certainly hope that of those who do drink or use illicit drugs, many of them choose to make better choices as a result of listening to me - but essentially my aim is to try to get the students I speak to to understand the importance of looking after themselves and their friends should they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Due to their brain development, during the teen years adolescents can find it very difficult to believe what happens to others could possibly happen to them. Many of them are certainly aware of the consequences of taking part in particular activities and most know that if their friend drinks to excess then bad things can happen, they just don't believe it will happen to them when they drink. That's why I focus solely on talking about the impact of drinking and drugs on their friends when I speak to them - they just soak that up! They all want to know how to look after their mates!

That said, I continue to hear stories from students that terrify me about their reluctance to seek help because of fear around what their parents would think if they found out they were drinking or taking drugs. I've covered this topic in a previous blog but I really do believe it is worth revisiting.

During the week a group of Year 10 girls approached me to thank me for my talk. One of them was quite obviously distressed about what I had said about alcohol poisoning and the importance of getting help. In my presentation I provide four simple warning signs that could indicate alcohol poisoning, one of which is vomiting without waking up and stress that they would be unable to look after someone who is in that state and have to call 000 immediately to get medical assistance. This was what she told me ...

The year before my visit (the girl was 14 at the time) she and a friend had gone out partying with her older brother and his mates (I ask you, where were the parents? She was 14!) and had got very drunk. Her friend finally passed out in a bedroom and although she tried to get some assistance, none of the older teens they were with were willing to help. She had the good sense to put her into the recovery position but almost immediately the friend started to vomit and kept on vomiting for a number of hours, all while completely unconscious! Drunk herself, and very sleepy and also feeling unwell, she sat in front of her trying to make sure she kept breathing ...

After listening to my talk she now realized that her friend's life had been seriously at risk that night. When I asked her why didn't she call her parents to help her, I got the usual answer - "I couldn't do that, I'd never call my Mum!" When asked why she didn't call an ambulance, she replied "But wouldn't they call my parents?"

That's a question I get asked a lot, the answer to which I have dealt with in a previous blog entry, but I thought I would just raise it again to remind parents or anyone who cares about young people that it is vital that you constantly remind them how much you love them and that your love is unconditional. No matter what they have done, you will be there for them and you will keep loving them just as much. That doesn't mean that you won't get angry, upset and disappointed in their behaviour but making it clear that your rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love is so important and goes a long way to keeping them safer. Remembering to end any conversation around parties or gatherings and really any social activity by letting your child know that they can call you at any time and you will be there for them is vital.

One of the saddest things I have ever heard come from a young person's mouth was at the very first Schoolies Week I ever attended. A young girl, heavily intoxicated and having difficulty breathing, had been brought to the medical tent. She was only just conscious and had been found alone in the street. When she was asked if there was someone we could call to be with her, her response was a very timid "Not my mum!"

We didn't get a name of a friend or a relative, we were simply told not to call her mother. That sentence would break almost every mother's heart but let me tell you, so many young people feel that way. Over the years I have tried to tease out why so many adolescents respond like this (emergency department workers and paramedics have told me that they often hear exactly the same thing - particularly from young women) - is it because they are frightened about getting into trouble? Are they worried about the possible consequences or punishment they may be given by their parent? What is it that leads to young people making it extremely clear that they don't want one of the people who loves them the most in the world around at such a traumatic time?

From my discussions with young people it is often embarrassment and shame that leads them to respond in this way. They feel they have let their parents down and if they are aware enough to know what is happening to them (which is certainly not always the case), they know exactly how disappointed their parents are going to be with them. I don't think there really is any way of changing that because the truth of the matter is that you are going to be hurt and disappointed (and so you should be - they have broken your rules and got themselves into a potentially life-threatening situation). They have let you down and nothing can change that but wouldn't it be great if a young person also felt secure enough in their relationship with you that they understood that your disappointment could never overshadow how much you loved them?

Taking the time to clearly outline what 'unconditional love' means to an adolescent is vital. Most young people 'know' that their parents love them (whatever that means) but they also need to clearly understand what that means in practical terms, particularly as they start to socialise and go to parties and gatherings.

I had a long conversation with this group of girls and discussed 'unconditional love' and the fact that I could guarantee, no matter what they thought, that their parents would want to be called the second they got into trouble, no matter what they had done. I also told them the story of a mother who attended one of my sessions many years ago who right at the end of my presentation threw her hand in the air and told everybody that she needed to share something with everybody or she would bust! I must admit I was a bit worried about what she was going to say but I shouldn't have been because all she wanted to tell everybody was how proud she was that her daughter had called her from a party she was attending the weekend before because one of her friends was drunk and she needed help. As she finished the story, so thrilled that her daughter trusted her enough to make the call, she ended it with "I'm just so happy that I'm that seen as that kind of mum, the one that gets called if something goes wrong!"

I think the girls found the story a little a bit hard to believe but I swear that it's true!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you were the parent of a child who was picked up for whatever reason and asked "Who should we call?" and they said, without flinching, "My mum! I want my mum!"

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.