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Saturday, 20 August 2016

Why don't parents make the call to find out what is happening at a teen party? If they do, what should they ask?

A friend of mine recently contacted me to let me know that her Year 10 child had really enjoyed the talk I had given her. This wonderful mother had been 'building me up' for years and, finally, her daughter was at the age when she was going to hear what all the excitement was about! Not surprisingly, her teen's expectations were high but according to her mum her 15 year-old came home more than happy with what she had heard and the family had a great conversation about the talk and the messages presented. Unfortunately the next part of the conversation was not so positive ...

She and I have spoken a number of times about the importance of parental monitoring and knowing where your child is, who they're with and when they'll be home. She and her partner have attended a number of my parent sessions and I have warned her about the change in parent behaviour she was likely to see when children hit those teen years and started to be invited to 'gatherings'. Recently she held a party for her daughter and saw for herself what I had been saying was true. Not one of the parents of the teens who were invited made an effort to contact her beforehand to find out anything about the event. Compounding her frustration (and disbelief) was that almost all of the young people who attended were simply dropped off at the end of the driveway (no-one came to the door to hand-over their 15 year-old daughter to the people who would be looking after their child for the evening) and then, to top it all off, at the end of the night the vast majority of the girls were picked up by way of text!

I've dealt with this topic many times before and I accept that contacting a parent you don't know and asking them questions about a party they are holding is not going to be an easy task, but that's what parenting is all about – a whole pile of not very easy tasks! I also understand that making that call is not going to make you popular with your child but parenting is not a popularity contest - you're not there to be liked, you're a parent! You can guarantee that your child will not want you to contact the parents holding the party they have been invited to, but remember one of the golden rules of parenting that I recently discussed - 'if your child says you can't do something, that means you must!' If you want to make an informed decision when it comes to your child attending a party or not, you are going to have to bite the bullet and make the call ...

Over the years I have met a number of parents who have lost their children. Although I have been directly involved in far fewer deaths in recent years, a growing number of Mums and Dads have reached out to me due to issues around their daughters and sexual assaults that have taken place whilst intoxicated at parties. So many times when you talk to these people their grief is compounded by their belief that they didn't do more to find out about the party or gathering their child was attending.

So why don't parents make these calls? When I've asked parents this question, I pretty well always get the same answers:
  • "I didn't want to embarrass my child"
  • "She's a teenager, I had to start trusting her sometime"
  • "Nobody else calls the house - I didn't want to be 'that' kind of parent"
  • "I couldn't deal with the arguments - it was just too difficult to get the number to call from my child and I didn't want them to be left out"
  • "I trust my child and his friends - they're good kids"

Essentially it boils down to four things - potential embarrassment (of child and possibly self), trust issues, how they will be perceived by other parents (and their children) and 'it was just too hard'. Now I'm sure that they all sound like great reasons at the time and if nothing goes wrong you can then pat yourself on the back and say you did all you needed to do. However, if the night goes 'pear-shaped' and a tragedy occurs I can guarantee you will never forgive yourself. Look at all of those 'reasons' for not making a call carefully and I'm pretty sure you'd agree that not one of them is important enough to justify compromising a child's health and safety.

So what do you say to the parents hosting the event and how do you start the conversation and not sound like one of those parents you always promised yourself you would never be? None of the information below is new (I have discussed this issue many times before) but it seems like a good time to remind parents once again.

Most importantly, when you contact a parent to ask them about their party make sure you plan what you are going to say beforehand. Write down the questions you want to ask and make sure they are asked in a way that is not confrontational and accusatory. Some of the ways you could approach the subject when you make the call could include the following:
  • My son has just started going to parties and I'm still trying to negotiate my way through setting some ground rules. I'm just calling to find out how you’re dealing with the alcohol issue.
  • Thank you so much for inviting my daughter to the party. We have some basic rules around parties and alcohol that we have developed and we just want to find out some information about what will be happening on the night.
  • I know it can be very difficult to host a party and I really do appreciate that you are offering your home to the young people. We're considering holding an event in the future, can you let me know what you're doing about adult supervision and alcohol use?
Of course, their response to this introductory statement will make all the difference on what happens next, i.e., if you're met with a "I don't understand why you're calling" or "But don't you trust your child?" or something as equally insulting, you should simply thank them for taking your call, put the phone down and make a quick note to yourself - 'Well, they won't be going there!'

As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, there are a minimum of 5 questions that I believe need to be asked by parents when it comes to teen parties and they have to do with supervision, alcohol, security and start and finish times. These can be adjusted to match your own values and expectations but here are my thoughts:
  • Will there be adult supervision? Does this mean actual supervision or will there just be adults in the house?
  • Who will those adults be?
  • What will you be doing about alcohol?
  • What type of security are you planning?
  • What time is the party starting and finishing?
In addition, there are a whole range of other questions that you could ask and if you have an existing relationship with the hosts I would strongly advise that you ask them, if only to ensure that they have thought all possible scenarios through. However, if you do not know the parents they could take offence that a complete stranger has even considered asking them such questions. These include things such as:
  • What have you got planned to deal with uninvited guests?
  • Have you registered your party with the local police?
  • What will you do if you discover underage drinking?
  • Have you got plans in case things get out of control?
Always remember that not every parent is going to have the same views as you on this issue and if they do have a different viewpoint, this phone call is definitely not the time for you to give them a lecture on what you believe is the right way to bring up a child. Thank them for their time, wish them luck for the evening and get off the phone. Getting into a dispute about the right way to hold a teenage party is not necessary. You are highly unlikely to change their opinion on the subject and the whole experience will only leave you angry and frustrated. Putting the phone down and walking away is the best thing to do. Then thank your lucky stars that you did the right thing and have now prevented your child from getting into what you perceive as a high risk situation. As a parent you can only do what you think is right for your child. How other parents raise their children is their business and it really is not your place to become involved in their parenting decisions.

Most importantly, when you've made the decision that they can go to the party and they actually attend, continue to be a parent. Make sure you are available to them should they need you. Your child should feel comfortable calling you in any situation, at any time, feeling absolutely confident that you will be there. This needs to be conveyed to them whenever you take them anywhere, over and over again ... Now this may mean that you will have to sacrifice your 'fun' on a Saturday night. If they're at a party or even a sleepover (i.e., there are no plans for them to come home that evening), one or both of you are always going to have to remain sober to ensure that you can hop into your car to get them at a moment's notice. That may be really difficult for some people but that's what being a parent is all about!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

When your teen does something wrong, remember the mantra 'They're missing a piece of their brain!'

During the week I met a Year 11 girl who wanted to apologise to me for something that had happened to her only a few weeks after I had presented to her and her classmates last year. She had gone to a small gathering with a group of friends, including her boyfriend (who had also heard me speak at another school), was planning on drinking but certainly not getting drunk, and things just went pear-shaped. She ended up being taken to hospital after vomiting for a number of hours, being placed on life-support and was now totally mortified after causing her friends, boyfriend and family so much distress due to her actions. So why did she want to apologise to me? I am paraphrasing but this is essentially what she said:

"I have no idea why I didn't listen to you. I loved your talk and I listened to everything you said. You told us all the things we should do if we were planning on drinking alcohol, all the things to keep us safer and I didn't do any of them. In fact, I almost did the exact opposite of what you said! You told us to have a fistful of food before we went to the party, I purposely ate nothing all day. You said we should have a glass of water to start the night, I had a shot of vodka. I have had a whole year to think about why I ignored what you said and I just don't understand it. If I'd have died that night (and the doctors told me that I almost did), and you came back to the school and found out what had happened, I'm sure you would have thought that we don't listen to you and that's not true - I just wanted to say sorry ..."

We had quite a long conversation about the evening and what happened as a result of the decisions she made that night (can I tell you, thank god for her amazing boyfriend - he undoubtedly saved her life) but it was obvious that she wanted more than just to make an apology, she wanted an explanation as to why she had made such bad choices. She simply couldn't get her head around the fact that she had done something so stupid ... During my Year 11 talk, which she had just heard, I had talked about brain development and the fact that teens have not yet fully developed their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with reasoned thinking and judgement. I asked her what she thought of that part of the presentation and could she see how it could relate to the choices she had made that night? Yes, she had made some dumb decisions but she shouldn't keep beating herself up about it. She had learned some valuable lessons from the experience and I can pretty well guarantee you that she won't do it again, but why had she done it? Put simply, she was a teenager and she was 'missing a piece of her brain'!

Strictly speaking, of course, teens are not actually 'missing' a piece of their brain, it's just that there are some important areas have not yet fully developed. Development in the brain occurs in a back to front pattern, with the prefrontal cortex being the last area to fully develop, for females around the age of 21-22 years and for males much later (around 25-26 years at least, but recent evidence suggests that some development may continue until possibly even 35!). This prefrontal area is the part of the brain that adults primarily use when making decisions, i.e., we use reasoning and judgement and balance up the 'pros' and 'cons' before we do things. With this section not yet fully developed, teens have to rely on another area when processing information and making choices - the amygdala (the 'emotional' part of the brain). This means they are more inclined to respond to situations with 'gut reactions', rather than think through possible consequences, i.e., there is a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. They jump into things, often well aware of the consequences (let's be clear here - the vast majority of teens are completely aware of the risks associated with drinking to excess, it's not like they don't know the risks), it's just that they don't think it will happen to them. Almost all of the decisions they make are based on the simple premise - 'if it feels good, I'll do it!'

Teens will do dumb things, that's a part of being a teenager! Of course, there's the issue of personal responsibility and when their actions affect other people (or endanger themselves), you can't simply ignore bad or dangerous behaviour and wipe it off by saying that it's due to their adolescent brain and their inability to think through consequences adequately. As the old saying goes - 'Do the crime and pay the fine!' When your teen breaks the rules, there have to be consequences. But it is important for parents (and their children) to understand why this behaviour takes place and so much of what they do and the choices they make during adolescence is due to their developing brain. Towards the end of my Year 11 presentation I always ask the students to try to think of something they have done in the past fortnight that literally five minutes after they had done it they thought, why did I do that? Their faces are always a picture - big smiles and sometimes laughter clearly shows that they can all think of something they did that just made no sense. Why did they do it? It's simple - 'They're missing a piece of their brain!'

If you are the parent of an adolescent, or you have that to look forward to in the coming years, here is one of the most simple tips I can suggest to help you get through that time without going completely insane and blaming yourself for everything that is bound to go awry!

When your child is standing in front of you, having done something so wrong and so completely out of character and you feel like you're a failure as a parent and they're certainly a failure as a child, before you say anything to them, simply turn to the wall, close your eyes and repeat this mantra - 'They're missing a piece of their brain, they're missing a piece of their brain, ...' You repeat that sentence at least five times before turning back to face them and have to start dealing with whatever it is that they have done and by the time you do, I guarantee things will look at least a little brighter!

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Should you be automatically responding to your child's 'call for help' via text during the school day? How could this affect their future resilience?

Last year I posted a Facebook entry about an incident at a school I had recently visited ... it went something like this: 

Just have to share ... Went to a school recently and met with the Year 10 Co-ordinator who appeared very flustered. It was obvious that something had upset her. When I asked her if she was okay she told me about a phone call she had just received and it totally floored me ... Apparently she had given one of her Year 10s a detention and within minutes the girl's mother called her to request if she could do the detention for her!!! Can you believe it? What is wrong with some of these parents?

At the time I was completely unaware of how often this actually goes on in schools. Of course, this is an extreme case, a mother actually asking to do her daughter's detention for her is highly unusual (although according to principals and teachers across the country it certainly happens more than you would think!), but parents responding to their child's calls for help via text during the school day is not.

From what I can tell, it goes something like this ... something happens in the classroom (e.g., a teacher tells a student off, a child gets sent to the principal's office for a punishment, there is some sort of argument or disagreement between two or more students, they get a bad mark on an assignment), the child then manages to send a text through to their parent briefly describing the incident from their perspective, and then the parent immediately responds to the 'call for help' by either calling the school or sending an email to the teacher involved, usually demanding that something be done to rectify the situation or ask that no further action be taken until they are present. A school recently did a quick audit of how much time their teachers spent responding to these sort of incidents, either by email, face-to-face meetings or phone calls, and they estimated that it was averaging almost 5 hours a week! Imagine adding 5 hours to anybody's workload - it's frightening!

But even more importantly, what long-term impact could this 'instant parent response' to a 'call for help' via text have on the child? As far as I'm aware there is no research in this specific area (i.e., responding to text messages) as yet but there is certainly growing evidence that this type of parenting (often referred to as 'helicopter parenting', or the even more extreme 'lawnmower parenting') certainly has a negative impact on a child's future 'resilience'.  

Let's make it very clear - there is no way to 'inoculate' your child against potential alcohol and other drug use. As much as we would like to think there is some 'silver bullet' to prevent our young people from taking part in risky behaviour, the reality is that adolescents are almost 'wired' to not think through consequences, act impulsively and respond with 'gut reactions'. We can give them all the information about risks, provide them with strategies to look after themselves and their friends but realistically the best thing we can do to try to keep them as safe as possible through adolescence and beyond is to build their 'resilience'.

One of the most often quoted definitions of resilience is " … the inherent and nurtured capacity of individuals to deal with life's stresses in ways that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives." Some young people are naturally resilient and are able to handle almost anything that life throws at them, whilst others need some help. Over the past 20 years or so, schools have dramatically changed their practices, with most now having specific structures in place designed to build students' resilience - most of them embedded in the pastoral care and well-being areas. The wonderful Andrew Fuller (who has been working with school communities for many years promoting these practices) describes resilience as "the fine art of being able to bungee jump through life. The pitfalls are still there but is as if you have an elasticized rope around your middle that helps you to bounce back from hard times."

At many of the schools I visit, particularly those I have had a long working relationship with, I meet unbelievably committed people who work incredibly hard to ensure that each and every one of the students at their school feels valued and special and that no-one 'slips through the cracks'. We know that if children are supported in that way and that they feel 'connected', they build resilience. It's not going to solve all their problems but it's sure going to help! So when I hear of parents who are doing this kind of thing it just makes my blood boil!

Young people are going to have to face a range of problems at school and elsewhere, particularly during adolescence. They're not always going to get on with all their teachers, many will do the wrong thing and get punished and they're going to have fights and disagreements with friends and other students. We all had the same issues and, you know what, we had to deal with them! We didn't have a mobile on hand to send a quick text to our parents to say "come and fix my problem for me" - we had to work our way through whatever was happening and, even though it didn't feel like it at the time, we most probably learned a valuable lesson as a result. Parents who almost automatically respond to their child's text messages, attempting to solve the problems they're experiencing at school for them are running the very real risk of damaging their future resilience.

Kids need to struggle occasionally, they need to experience disappointment and failure and they need to learn how to respond appropriately when things don't go their way. If they have a parent that intervenes every time something goes wrong how are they ever going to learn how to deal with the problems that will inevitably occur later in life? How resilient can they possibly be?

So am I saying you should ignore your child's calls for help? Of course not, if your teen is struggling and things are not going well at school, whether it be with a teacher or another student, you need to be supportive and act accordingly. But should you be responding immediately to a text message? Absolutely not! Give them the opportunity to deal with the problem themselves. Although this can be difficult, keep remembering that we survived our teens without a mobile phone and a direct 'lifeline' to our parents. They will too ...

If you do get a text (and realistically you should be educating your child that sending a text from school should only ever be done in an emergency - clearly defining what an emergency is - and if you're regularly texting your son or daughter at school, stop that immediately, that's just tragic!), the best thing to do (if it is not an emergency) is to text them back with something like "We will deal with this when you get home". This practice of responding to a text by immediately contacting the school or teacher without getting the full story, giving the child an opportunity to deal with the problem themselves or, in many cases, simply allowing some time for things to calm down and the child to think it through, is at the very least ridiculous, but at worst incredibly dangerous ...

US research examining the impact of 'helicopter parenting' (and let me assure you, responding to text messages in this way is actually far more likely to be classified as 'lawnmower parenting', i.e., not simply 'hovering' over a child but rather, trying to remove all barriers and problems before they even encounter them) suggests that once they leave school, young people parented in this way are far more likely to drop-out of university and find it difficult to function effectively in the workforce. Put simply, they don't know how to 'stand on their own two feet' and deal with the real world.

A parent's natural instinct is to protect their child and a 'call for help' from school via a text message is going to be difficult to ignore, but we now know that the most important thing we can do to keep our kids as safe as possible is to build their resilience. Making sure they have the ability to 'bounce back' from whatever problem they may face in the future is vital. Parents who try to 'fix' each and every issue their child experiences at school instead of letting them try to deal with it themselves are likely to have an adverse effect on this resilience. Of course you support them, and if you need to get involved, throw yourself in feet first, but automatically responding to a text is not the way to go ...

If you have been doing this, it's going to take a little time to wean both you and your teen off the 'mobile lifeline' and it's not going to be easy. Sit down and have a discussion with you son or daughter about texting you during a school day (i.e., it should only be done in an emergency, and establish what constitutes an emergency? Forgetting your lunch isn't!). Then talk through how you plan to deal with any issues they may experience during the school day, making sure that they understand that you're not going to ignore them, it's just better that before you act, they're discussed face-to-face with them so you can get all the facts, and your response is not just based on a few words sent in a text message. It's going to be hard, particularly for you 'lawnmower parents' out there (and you know who you are!) but next time your mobile buzzes, check the text, and if it's not an emergency (and it most probably won't be!), take a breath and wait until you have that face-to-face discussion with your child before sending off an email or making that call to the school or teacher! I can assure you that it'll be well worth it in the long-term ...

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.