Friday, 24 June 2016

Do you pick your child up from a party or give them an Uber account? Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 2

I'm sure many of you who read the title of this entry looked at it in disbelief and said surely that isn't a question that any parent in their right mind would ever even consider but sadly I'm hearing this more and more, right across the country. If it's not an actual account with Uber or a taxi company, there are more and more parents who are quite happy handing over a wad of cash to their teen so that they can 'safely' catch a cab home after attending a party or gathering on a Saturday night. And if you think I'm just talking about 17 year-olds here, I'm not. Sadly we're seeing Year 10s and even younger who are finding their own way home from these events.

If you don't believe me, ask any taxi driver who works on a Saturday night how many very young teens they are increasingly being asked to pick-up from (as well as take to) parties. They will also tell you that many of them refuse the fares, particularly the pick-ups, because of the state some of these young people are in (most often the young women) and the fear that due to their age and their obvious vulnerability, if they do allow them in the vehicle they could be accused of inappropriate behaviour at a later date. Recently I was talking to one driver who had found himself faced with the dilemma of whether or not to pick-up two very young women from a teen party. Having teenage daughters himself he wanted to make sure the girls were as safe as possible but they were in such a state that they could have vomited in his cab, resulting in him not being able to work for the rest of the night, or he felt he could potentially run the risk of being accused of some impropriety.

So here is Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 2 - 'You make the decision how they get home from the party and picking them up yourself is always the safest option'. This rule acknowledges that it is not always going to be possible (for whatever reason) for parents to get into their car and pick them up (the safest option). It provides parents that all important 'out' to hand over the responsibility to someone you trust with your child's life, as well as accepting that as they get older other options for getting home are going to be put forward by your child and you will make the decision as to whether that is acceptable or not.

Now I totally get it that it's a huge commitment ferrying your teen to and from a party or gathering every weekend but insisting on picking them up yourself is one of the only rules that I believe should be 'non-negotiable'. As I always say, pick your battles! As much as there are a whole pile of other things that you'd like to happen, this is one where you shouldn't make compromises - it's just too important.

Picking them up provides you with so much information about what they've been doing, who they've been with and what the party was like and what actually went down. Without a doubt if you're one of those parents who do make the effort to pick up their child you'll be asked to ferry a number of teens home. This gives you the opportunity to talk to others who attended the event and potentially strengthen the relationship you have with not only your own child but his or her friends as well. Most importantly though, you get to ensure that they're safe! There are so many things that can go wrong at a teenage party, but there are so many more that can happen on the way home, particularly if they or their friends have been drinking. I can't believe that parents of teens go to bed on a Saturday night and actually manage to sleep with the only evidence that they have that their child is fine is a text message!

A few years ago I was commissioned by a school to roll-out a survey to students, teachers and parents that examined patterns of alcohol use across all three groups, as well as their attitudes and values around the issue. When the principal requested that a particular question be added to the survey for parents I told her that I didn't believe we would get much of a response and if we did, it wouldn't be very useful - I just didn't think parents would be truthful when it came to that topic. The question was something along the lines of 'If you didn't pick-up your teen from a party on a Saturday night, what would be the reason?' - the response was staggering. Well over three-quarters of the parents that completed the survey answered the question, with well over one third of them saying that the reason was that they had been drinking themselves!

Thankfully, not all parents put their own drinking before their kids' safety. Last year I wrote a blog entry about a teacher I had met a number of years before who had written to me about parenting a 15 year-old girl and the 'sacrifices' he and his wife had realized they would have to make during the 'party years'. This is an edited section of the email he sent me:

"We have always made ourselves available for sporting commitments, music practice and other activities, but when our daughter first started getting asked to parties we quickly realized that we were going to have to be 'on-call' 24 hours a day, particularly over the weekends ... We did think about the whole designated driver thing, one of us being able to have one or two glasses of wine one week and then the other the next but in the end, we're in this together and alcohol isn't that important in our lives anyway. We also plan to be the parents who take her to parties and also pick her up (at least for the next couple of years) - we don't want to rely on others to do our parenting."

No-one is expecting a parent to pick-up their child from ever party they attend through their teen years - that would be nigh on impossible (and truly if you're planning on doing that, you need to get a life!). But when they're aged 14 or 15 every effort should be made to do it whenever possible and if you can't (or you simply need a weekend off!), you need to make the decision on who is going to take on that huge responsibility. Don't leave it to your child to tell you that 'Mrs Jones is picking me up and taking me to Jane's house' ... You need to be the parent - you tell them who will be picking them up!

Taxis and Uber can play a role when they hit the final year of high school (certainly no younger than that) and you believe they are able to handle the responsibility. Insisting on taking and picking up your 18 year-old to 18th birthday parties is not going to go down too well and will put great pressure on your relationship. Remember, rules need to be fair and age-appropriate ... That said, offering to be their lift for the night should they need it once the regular drop-off and pick-up has slowed down or stopped altogether could be a really great way of you finding out a little more about what they and their friends are actually getting up to! Just remember though, there will come a time (particularly in that scary 18-21 year age group when levels of drinking escalate and illicit drug use is far more likely) when you will inevitably say 'too much information' ...

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 1: If your child says you 'can't' do something, that means you 'must'!

When it comes to teenage parties and gatherings there are some simple parenting rules I believe are incredibly important, all of which help to ensure your child's safety. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll highlight each of these in my blog entries and try to flesh them out a little in an effort to assist parents to understand why they are so important and provide some tips on how to put them into action. Let me start by saying that none of them will be easy and I am sure that your teen will not like you doing them but parenting isn't easy and hopefully you didn't become a parent and expect to be 'liked' all the time ...

Adolescence is a time when young people are trying to establish their own identity, pulling away from their parents and becoming more influenced by same-age peers. I've talked about this before but in his book You and Your Adolescent, Laurence Steinberg says that 14-18 is "a time for distinguishing oneself from the crowd". He says that during this time parents should expect their child to do things such as start change their interests, plans and friends (e.g., they may stop playing the violin after years of lessons and awards, or simply drift away from the best friend they started school with for no apparent reason) or they may begin to obsess about their appearance. Although we tend to think about extreme change here (e.g., tattoos and piercings) and how they dress (e.g., becoming a 'goth') or wear their hair, it could be far more simple like adding new words to their vocabulary or adopting new mannerisms.

For many (but certainly not all) teens, parties and gatherings are a big part of working out where they fit in an adolescent world. Socialising with same-age peers is incredibly important during this time and being accepted (or not) by this group can be the difference between simply 'surviving' or 'thriving'. What social group do they belong to, who is accepting them (who isn't!) and who do they want to be accepted by are all questions that are in some part answered by attending weekend parties. These social gatherings are also a place where they start to establish 'sexual' relationships and all the associated joy, tears and drama that goes along with that. As much as you see relationships at school it really is at parties on the weekend where 'couples' openly display their affection for each other, start to establish rules and boundaries around relationships in their group, as well as the expectations around all the social interactions that result. As such, these parties and gatherings are incredibly important and play a major role in setting up our young people up for their adult life ahead.

So with that in mind, what is Parenting Party and Gathering Rule Number 1? It's simple and should be a mantra that every parent should share with others as often as possible ... 'If your child says you 'can't' do something, that means you 'must'!'

When it comes to parties, the kind of things that parents are usually told they 'can't' do are as follows:
  • "You can't call the parents who are putting on the party"
  • "You can't drop me off at the party"
  • "You can't pick me up"
If you ask them why you are not to do any of these things (and there are so many more examples I could give but essentially they're all a variation of the same theme) your teen will usually tell you that you that if you do 'you will shame them forever' - the old 'parental embarrassment' line. That is being delivered for one reason and one reason only - to make you feel bad and to stop you doing something that they know could jeopardise them getting something they desperately want. The sad thing is that it usually works! Almost every parent can remember their own Mum or Dad doing something terribly embarrassing when they were young and I guarantee you promised yourself that you would never do the same thing to your child. The important thing to remember is that if they don't want you to do something it's usually because they're aware of your values and expectations, as well as your rules and boundaries and they know what they want to do is 'pushing' some or all of these to some extent. Put simply, if you want to make sure your child is as safe as possible when they go out on a Saturday night, you can't afford not to do these things ...

With that said, it is important that when you do these things you make an effort to minimise any potential embarrassment that could be caused. Let me start by saying though that if your child is in Year 8 or 9 (aged around 13-14 years), I believe that you should be making the call before the party and actually walking them to the door of the house they will be partying in - damn the potential embarrassment! They're still children and at that age you want to know who's looking after them for the evening and where they'll actually be. This ridiculous practice of dropping a 14 year-old off at the end of a driveway and not even watching them go into the house is unbelievably dangerous and borders on child abuse as far as I'm concerned. Time and time again I hear of parents who do this because they are bullied into it by their child telling them that they will be embarrassing them in front of their friends if they're seen anywhere near the party. Big deal! Get over it - they're 13 or 14 - they'll survive it and so will you! They won't like you for a while but at least you'll know you did your best to keep them safe ...

When they get to Year 10, however, and you want to call a parent about a party they are holding, plan the call and attempt to involve your teen in this planning. Try to have a conversation with your son or daughter beforehand and discuss what you are going to say and ask for their input. This is not going to be an easy discussion but make it clear that you are going to make the call regardless, tell them why you are going to do it but also ask them if there is anything that they don't want you to say and if you can, respect their wishes. As they get older and trust is built, only call when you feel it is necessary. Once again, ask for their input - what do they think the party is going to be like? Tell them that you are going to start to rely on their judgement about how much you need to find out about the parties they want to attend. The same goes for taking them and picking them up - make sure what you do is age appropriate and reward good behaviour. At 15 years-old, every teen should be picked up from a party on a Saturday night and if you're not doing it, you should have a strong and trusting relationship with the parent who is ... This should start with you either going to the door to get them at the agreed time or meeting them at the end of the driveway at the very least. As they get older and trust is built, you may agree to park two doors down from the house, on the nearest corner or the like ...

The rules around alcohol and parties you set for your teenager must be both fair and age-appropriate. As I've said, they need to change as they get older and you need to reward good behaviour. As Steinberg says, one of the biggest mistakes parents make at this time is overcontrol. So how do you do all these things in an attempt to protect your teen but not run the risk of overcontrolling? Basically you pick your battles ... there are issues around their personal safety that you simply can't compromise on, particularly when they're in their early teens and not able to make good choices for themselves and then there are others where you realize that they may stumble and fall but they'll survive them (particularly when they get a little older) and learn from their mistakes.

If your teen wants to go to a party and you don't think that it will be safe, however, this is where you do stick to your guns and the rules and boundaries do come into play. Fight with them about everything, however, and your life will be very difficult. If you let the ones that really don't matter  slide once in a while you'll find yourself having a much easier time. And remember, always look for opportunities to allow your child to do something - it shouldn't be about wrapping them up in barbed wire and saying 'no' all the time. When you do say 'no', make it clear why and don't back down.

Reference: Steinberg, L. (2011). You and Your Adolescent. The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

"I'm honest about alcohol and parties with Mum and Dad - I don't need rules or punishments!": Why are some parents buying this line?

As I travel around the country at the moment I am busy collecting information from some of the young people attending my presentations. I'm focussing on Year 10s and 11s and asking some of them to fill out a short questionnaire. I don't want to know their name or the school they're from so it's completely anonymous but hopefully it will give me greater insight into a couple of areas that I am currently fascinated about in regards to teenagers and how they are being parented (or at least how they perceive they are being parented) in the area of alcohol and parties.

It's certainly not a rigorous piece of scientific research and I can't submit any of my 'findings' to a journal for publication. But what it does do is give me a very rough snapshot of what is happening across the country in this area. I really am in a very unique situation in that I get to speak to 10s of thousands of young people every year across all three systems - public, independent and Catholic. Having access to these students is a privilege and once in a while, if the schools allow me, I take the opportunity to collect some information that can hopefully make my presentations more useful. It's important to remember that all the information provided is 'self-report' and there is no way of knowing what they are telling me about what is happening in their lives in this area is the truth, but in my experience I believe most teens are fairly honest when they complete the survey.

I'm going to wait until I have around 500 completed surveys before I feed back the full results (almost halfway there!) but while entering the data this week one questionnaire caught my eye and I just had to share it!

Students are asked questions around first drinking experience (if they have actually consumed alcohol as yet), the last drink they consumed, curfews and 'punishments' (or consequences). I am particularly interested in the punishment issue as I am meeting more and more parents who appear to be having a real problem with applying consequences when their teen breaks rules (if they even have any rules, with a growing number of parents challenging me when I suggest that a teen needs to have rules and boundaries in this area, responding with 'I trust my child!'). In the survey I ask students to suggest an "appropriate punishment" for breaking a rule their parent has set and then a rule around parties and alcohol. I then ask them to tell me the "worst punishment" they have ever received and what they did to get it ...

In response to what was the "worst punishment" ever received, one Year 11 girl (aged 16 - for some reason she put her age on the questionnaire) stated the following:

"I have never been punished as I make sensible decisions. I'm also honest with my parents so punishment isn't necessary"

When asked what an "appropriate punishment" would be she wrote the following:

"Possibly a stern talking to to ensure that I had learnt my lesson. Personally I think that's too extreme and can lead to less trust"

When it came to the issue of alcohol and parties and punishments she was very clear about her views on the topic:

"I do not receive punishments for this as I am open and truthful about this with them"

When you look at all that, most people would think that the respondent was a strong and confident young woman who has parents who trust her and that that trust is, at least in part, justified. You would imagine that she is honest with them about what she does and is reasonably responsible (whatever 'reasonably responsible' means for a 16 year-old girl). It is when you go back in the questionnaire and look at her answer to what was the last drink you had that you realize that this young lady has her parents well and truly hoodwinked for her last drink was 'vodka and absinthe'!

Vodka and absinthe! Please note the highlighting in bold ... I didn't even know this was a drink, let alone that teens were consuming it! We're talking about something that would really knock your socks off and no-one (I repeat no-one) would ever drink this unless their aim was to get absolutely smashed. I very much doubt that she is telling her parents that this is what she is doing (and if she is and they're not pulling the reins in to some extent then they should be ashamed of themselves) and even though she is adamant that she is making "sensible decisions", this is an example of a young woman who obviously has her parents wrapped around her little finger and is putting herself at great risk. She is also one of the many students who report that they do not have a curfew, writing and then underlining next to the question "Curfews lead to less trust"!

I've said it before and I'll say it again - you can't trust an adolescent! Every one of us lied during our adolescence to get what we wanted, your son or daughter is going to do the same thing at some point or another. But it is important to remember that even though you can't trust them, you've got to trust your teen at some point or another. You can't lock them in a room and never let them out! Without a doubt, there's going to be a time when they let you down and break that trust and you're going to feel devastated. They need to break rules and push boundaries and suffer the consequences for doing that - that's what the teenage years are all about and that's what makes them into well-rounded adults who are able to cope with the world. But this idea that your child is going to be 'honest and open' about what they do and somehow that makes it safer is just ridiculous. Yes, they may tell you that they're going to drink at the party they are attending but are they going to tell you how they are going to drink (e.g., drinking games, shots, skolling), what and where they're going to drink and who else is going to be there? Just knowing they're drinking is certainly not protective no matter how much you may want to believe it is ...

Can you stop your teen from drinking alcohol if that's what they really want to do? Absolutely not! But should you just roll over and accept that they are going to drink and kid yourself that they're being 'honest' about it so everything is going to be ok? Once again, absolutely not!