Saturday, 24 September 2016

Want to have a good conversation with your teen? Talk to them at night, very late!

"Every conversation I have with my 15 year-old at the moment ends in a fight! Apparently I don't understand anything about the world, my rules are completely different to every other parent's and, as I'm usually told as the door slams, I just want to ruin her life!"

As tempting as it must be sometimes to just turn and walk away and think this is just all too hard when this kind of thing happens, it is incredibly important that parents continue to try and work hard to maintain a dialogue with their son or daughter during the teen years. I've just pulled this quote out of one of many emails I've had over the years  - I can't tell you how many times I've been told by mums and dads that their wonderful, communicative and co-operative teen went up to bed one night and was somehow replaced by aliens with a 'pod person' - an adolescent that they now simply don't recognize! If their child did actually decide to converse it was usually to argue with them about absolutely everything but it was more often the case that words were replaced with mono-syllabic grunts, particularly where young men are concerned, and any attempts to find out what was going on in their lives were often met with great resistance.

Without doubt the most important thing that parents need to do during the teen years (and particularly middle adolescence - around that 14-15 year-old period) is to try to keep 'connected' to them. This can be extremely difficult for many parents due to the changes that an adolescent is going through during this time in their lives. This is the time when young people are trying to find their place in the world - to develop their own identity and, in doing so, often pull away from their parents. When reviewing the available evidence, a recent study (Onrust et al, 2016) listed some of the changes often seen in middle adolescence as follows:
  • start of separation and individuation from the family and striving for autonomy and independence
  • relationships with parents change and increasing peer influence leads to rejection of parental values
  • peers become most consistent source of reinforcement as well as source of information on values and beliefs
  • capable of abstract thinking and organize complex thoughts about others – leads to greater understanding of other's feelings and perspectives
  • changes in brain lead to rapid changes in emotional states and increasing sensitivity to rewarding outcomes
  • presence of peers results in greater risk-taking as peer approval is a reward in itself
This is a tough time for parents (and according to the study, really difficult in terms of providing prevention messages around alcohol and other drugs as this age group is not open to adults' views) and they are going to need as many strategies in their 'tool box' to help them maintain a positive and open relationship with their child.

At all my parent sessions this year I have discussed the book Staying Connected To Your Teenager (subtitled How To Keep Them Talking To You and How To Hear What They're Really Saying) written by US parenting expert, Michael Riera . There are a whole pile of strategies that he suggests in this wonderful book, including some that I've been talking about for years (e.g., never underestimate the quality of conversation you can have in the car when you are driving them somewhere - they're sitting right next to you, they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!) but I want to highlight one idea that I speak about at every presentation that I have had some amazing feedback about ... I did discuss this in a blog entry last year but I think it's well worth repeating.

In the opening chapter of the book Riera talks about the different sleep rhythms that adolescents have and how parents can use these to enhance their relationship with their child. He talks about research that has shown that teens have a different circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) than adults. Where the fully developed brain releases sleep-inducing chemicals in the early evening (around 7.00pm) causing adults to start to get sleepy after dinner, teens don't experience the same effect until much later, with many of them not getting sleepy until around 11.00pm. Because they get sleepy earlier, adults are able to wake up in the morning feeling well-rested and able to function  (I'm sure many people reading this are saying that isn't necessarily their reality but there it is!), while teens on the other hand find the mornings very difficult and trying to have a quality conversation with them over breakfast or anytime before lunch is likely to fail.

Adolescents are most likely to open up and talk late at night and Riera suggests using this unique wake-sleep cycle to connect with your teen. In addition to their brain chemistry, it is at this time that they've had time to reflect on the events of the day, their defences are down to some extent and there are far less distractions. The problem for parents is that this is their natural time to sleep and it actually takes a little bit of forward planning to get these late night conversations happening. Riera gives a couple of great examples of parents who have used this strategy successfully, including one mother who actually set her alarm to wake up at 1.00am and 'accidentally on purpose' bumped into her daughter and started a conversation by simply asking her 'How are things with you?'. In the words of this mum, "I've learned more about her life during these talks than I have in all the family dinners we've shared during the last three years."

He also talks about the importance of using the same 'late night' strategy when having phone conversations with your child if they are away from home - he uses the American examples of camp and college, but the same 'rule' applies if your teen has taken a 'gap year' and is travelling overseas or the like - you are much more likely to find out what is really happening if you speak to them later in their evening.

Of course, once you've got them talking you've got to know how to respond appropriately and there's always that risk that they're going to tell you something you really don't want to know (I can remember a conversation with my mother in my late 20s when I was telling her about something that was happening in my life at the time - possibly sharing a little too much - and she turned around and said "I think we've reached the point where I don't need to know anymore"!) and you need to be prepared for that and make sure that you don't react in a way that is going to shut down future conversations. It's important to remember that sometimes just listening is enough ...

I've been saying it all year but I'd strongly recommend that parents take a look at this book, whether you're struggling to keep connected with your teen or not. Here is a quote from the end of the chapter on the late night strategy that will give you some idea of the positive messages contained in the book - I think you'll agree, it's well worth a read.

"Remember, your teenager has a different rhythm to his day than you. Therefore, even though it isn't convenient, it is well worth the effort that it takes to adapt your rhythms to match his, if even only for an evening every now and again ... Those are ... the nights that will help you get through all the other nights when it's an hour past curfew and you haven't heard a peep from your wayward teenager. It's all about balance. Just never let yourself forget that it is your connection with your teenager that will always lead him back home."

References:
Onrust, S. et al (2016). School-based programmes to reduce and prevent substance use in different age groups: What works for whom? Systematic review and meta-regression analysis, Clinical Psychology Review 44, 45-59.

Riera, M. (2003). Staying Connected To Your Teenager, Da Capo Press Lifelong Books.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A mother's concern about alcohol, football and 'Mad Monday'

Alcohol and sport are bound together tightly in this country and, to be honest, it doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. I remember going to a conference many years ago and hearing from an expert in the area that it took 25 years from the day Bob Hawke announced that tobacco sponsorship of sport would end to the day it finally did, but if a Prime Minister did the same thing around alcohol today, it could take close to 40 years to disentangle the two! Pretty amazing stuff but not really surprising ...

Participation in sport is regarded as a protective factor for young people when it comes to alcohol and other drugs. It's a healthy activity, keeps them busy and 'off the streets', as well as offering them a sense of 'connectedness', particularly when it comes to team sports. It is also a way of parents maintaining a positive relationship with their child - e.g., driving them to training and to the actual sporting events, showing an interest in what they do and who they're associating with, supporting them in their efforts and just basically being a part of their lives. Why then would some parents go and stuff this all up by adding alcohol to the mix? Over the years I have heard from many parents who have written to me concerned about the group of mothers who insist on bringing a couple of bottles of wine to watch their primary school children play netball, or the Dad with a carton of beers cheering his son on from the sideline (who will often congratulate his efforts at the end of the game with a swig from a bottle and a slap on the back!) ... Alcohol and school sport should simply just not go together!

I'm certainly not trying to be a wowser here, but really, can't you get together with other adults for a couple of hours watching your child play sport without having a drink? Is it really that much of a hardship to socialise without alcohol? There's a time and place for everything and your child's sporting event is not the place for drinking ...

A mother recently emailed me regarding her concerns about football and the alcohol culture, particularly in relation to the behaviour of fathers, and the impact this could potentially have on her relationship with her son. When a parent tries their best to keep their teen safe and promote positive attitudes towards alcohol and others display such disregard for their beliefs and wishes it makes it extremely difficult. Here is her email ...  

"I should preface this by saying that my husband and I have a united front on this issue and I attribute his convictions, even more than my own, to the fact that our children have not been drinking yet. They know how we feel about the issue and we talk very openly about it.  As a consequence they actually share a lot of stories with us about what is happening and the nature of the 'gatherings' being held.  We do not live in a dream land and know the boundaries can change quickly (and should change), but for now our children accept the rules (even if the oldest one isn't always thrilled about it).  Our eldest has recently attended his first 'gatherings' and they have tested our resolve (and his). At each of these events I was horrified that most of the boys arrived with alcohol supplied by their parents who were clearly authorising their drinking.  While I have heard from many of my own girlfriends that they are allowing their sons to take 'just two beers' (don't get me started!), I know several families where the fathers have recently supported their son's 'need' to take a six pack of beer which has now become the norm. At one of these gatherings the fathers of several of the boys, already intoxicated themselves after a long Friday lunch, actually joined the 16 year-olds in their Friday night drinking!  When my husband said to one of these fathers the next day that our 16 year-old son was not allowed to drink, he had the audacity to tell my husband "your son NEEDS a drink"!   

While the drinking culture around Year 10 and Year 11 youths is an ongoing battle, the catalyst for my email is the conclusion of the football season and the drinking culture that is perpetuated by fathers who are re-living their own football careers through their teenage boys.  Many junior football associations recently had their football grand finals on Sunday.  Several of my son's friends played in grand finals, and a few won them.  Many of these Year 10 and Year 11 boys (and their parents) re-convened at the home of one of the players for a prolonged drinking session on the Sunday evening following the match during which many parents consumed excessive amounts of alcohol (including skolling beer) WITH their 16 and 17 year-old sons! Further, these same parents (and there is a large cohort of them) then gave their sons the following day off school to enjoy a 'Mad Monday' recovery day.  What has the world come to? Is there any wonder that we see the appalling behaviour online towards women when many of their parents are complicit in creating this very atmosphere of entitlement in their sons from such a young age?

I have shared these stories with you because my husband and I feel helpless. As parents we are committed to delaying our teens' drinking for as long as we can but we are realistic that for the oldest boy, that is not far away.  The great advantage of delaying it so far is that he has seen first-hand, the consequences of drinking too much (boys unconscious or vomiting violently… and parents embarrassing their kids with their own drunken attempts to be their best friend!). I wonder if you can use your own profile to raise the profile of the particular drinking culture associated with football celebrations (not football clubs, who generally have strict rules in place, but parents who host post-match 'gatherings' and supply the alcohol for them), the sheer lunacy of a 'Mad Monday' for 16 and 17 year-olds and the significant role that fathers need to play if there is going to be a change in the cycle?"  

As far as this 'Mad Monday' thing is concerned - I contacted a couple of schools that I visit who I know are 'football mad' and asked them if they had experienced any issues with absenteeism after finals week. They asked me to be very careful about what I wrote here but one school admitted to a 10% absentee rate in some classes on the Monday! They have cracked down on parents in this area in recent years (apparently it used to be even worse!) and to their knowledge no parent admitted that that was the reason their son was absent - but it was clear that those who were away were all from the winning football team!

Some, I'm sure, will say that the young men the mother referred to were 16 and 17 years-old - they're almost 18 (I don't quite know how you say that 16 is almost 18, but believe me, I get that all the time - I'm not too sure what mathematics these people work on!). They're very close to being the legal age and I'm sure if you met some of these young men that's exactly what they would look like, young men. That's absolutely true and I have no problems with any parent providing their son, no matter what age (within reason), with alcohol in their own home. If they want to 'do shots', play skolling games or the like, that is also their business. It is when they involve other parents' teens in this type of activity and then ridicule them for not allowing their child to take part that I think it becomes a huge problem. When it comes to young men, it is also the reinforcement of the 'boozy, bloke culture' that is of great concern.

This mother is right - we do need to do something about the culture around alcohol and sport, particularly the football codes. This notion that the two go together and that it is a 'natural fit' simply doesn't make sense and is something that the alcohol industry has worked hard to establish and keep reinforcing through aggressive advertising and sponsorship. Parent who reinforce this link, whether it be by drinking alcohol on the sidelines while watching their child play sport, or worse still by celebrating or commiserating with them after a game, really need to take a close look at their behaviour and work out whether it supports the ideal of why they wanted their teen to participate in the activity in the first place. And, if there are truly fathers out there "who are re-living their own football careers through their teenage boys", well, let's be blunt here - you're tragic!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Identifying appropriate consequences when your teen breaks rules: 3 simple rules to remember

One of my major messages to parents this year has been the importance of understanding why young people do the things they do during adolescence. You can sit with your teen, carefully explaining your rules and boundaries and tell them what will happen should those rules be broken and they may still walk away and, within minutes, do the 'wrong thing'. It is at this point that you may start to question your parenting and also the intelligence of your teen ...

Put simply, teens make 'dumb choices' because of their developing brain. The adolescent brain is far less developed than we once thought, with male brains developing much later than females (no surprise there!). When we make decisions as an adult, we rely on parts of the brain that are amongst the last to fully develop, i.e., the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and promotor cortex. These sections deal with reasoned thinking and judgment, as well as learning and memory (remembering past experiences) and a range of other functions that help us with effective decision-making. As an adult, we're terrified of everything - before we do anything we quickly weigh up the 'pros' and 'cons', considering the potential risks and then make a decision that is most likely to benefit us, as well as keeping us as safe as possible. As a result we usually err on the side of caution ...

These important areas of the brain aren't fully developed in teens, so they tend to rely on the amygdala (i.e., emotions) to process information. This causes them to respond with 'gut reactions' rather than think through possible consequences - as a result there is a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. They 'jump into things' during this stage of their life and the basic mantra for an adolescent as far as decision making is concerned is - 'If it feels good, I'll do it!' I need to emphasise, it's not that they don't necessarily understand the risk involved (I've never met a Year 10 that doesn't know that drinking alcohol at their age is bad for them!), it's just at the point where they have to make a decision about doing something or not, the perceived 'reward' is so much more important for them than the potential risk ...

Getting 'hung up' and worrying that you didn't make the potential consequences clear enough when your child makes a bad decision and breaks your rules, or marching down to a school and telling them that they need to do more to educate teens on these issues is a huge waste of time and energy. Of course, young people need to be told about the risks involved with certain activities and education is vital, but always remember that just because teens make dumb choices that doesn't mean they're stupid - they usually know what they're doing (or at the very least have a general awareness - as far as alcohol and other drug education is concerned, we have some of the very best in the world), they are aware of the risks and they know there will be consequences but they'll worry about those later!

So you now know why they do the things they do, so what do you do if they break your rules? How do you decide what an appropriate consequence should be? A couple of years ago I met a young man and wrote a blog entry about the consequences his parents had given him that were fairly extreme and, as far as he was concerned, seemed overly harsh.

Without going into too much detail and slightly changing some of the aspects of the situation to protect his privacy, a Year 10 boy approached me after a student session, concerned about the punishment he had been given by his mother. He had gone out with friends a couple of weeks before, got terribly drunk and became separated from his friends. He had little memory of what happened leading up to being picked up by police but was later told that he was quite abusive and aggressive. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"

He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime. I need to say that at all times he was incredibly respectful to his mother - he didn't criticise her but wanted some advice on how to possibly 'move her' a little.

If you've ever heard me speak to parents, one of my key messages is that the 'authoritative' style of parenting (i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love) has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken! Unfortunately, too many parents create the consequence 'on the run' - something happens and the punishment is created in anger and not well thought through. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by a young person that they have been 'grounded for life!' Really, you've got to look at that and think who are you really punishing there?

Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. It is incredibly important to remember that when they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise!  I believe there are three simple rules to remember when deciding on 'appropriate' consequences for your child breaking rules you have set:

  • they must be fair and age appropriate (i.e., they should 'fit the crime'). As I've said time and time again, young people have an innate sense of fairness and if they believe that the punishment you have doled out is unfair, there's a really good chance that it is. As already said, you responded when you were angry, hurt and let-down by your teen's behaviour and didn't think it through - if the consequences for breaking a specific rule were clearly outlined when the rule was made, this should never be an issue
  • they must be 'balanced' (i.e.,they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt'). No-one wants their child to suffer and having the person you love the most in the world sitting in their bedroom screaming that they hate you must be the worst thing in the world but it is important to remember that they'll get over it. There is no point having a consequence if it doesn't have an effect but don't be cruel ... As much as parents don't like removing electronic devices from their child, it really is one of the most powerful punishments you can administer, but use it appropriately. There is no reason to take a phone off a 15 or 16 year-old for a week or even a number of days - take it off them for an hour or two and you'll see their fingers twitching! Short, sharp and balanced consequences are usually the best - they certainly have the greatest impact and don't harm the parent-child relationship  
  • they must be able to be enforced. Kids pick up on everything and the first time a parent doles out a punishment and doesn't carry it through, it will never be forgotten. Never create a consequence that you can't enforce ... this is why grounding is one of the most problematic punishments for many parents, particularly when you start talking about grounding for extended periods of time. Do you really want a screaming match every Saturday night for a period of weeks or months? Once again, trying to take a phone or other electronic device off your teen for an extended period of time is just going to make your life a living hell and, as most parents tell me, they usually end up giving in fairly soon and hand it back - what's the point? Give your child a punishment that can't realistically be carried out and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place - they're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time

Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness as the mother of this Year 10 boy had to do?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. The key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger - you may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Also, always remember that you are the adult here and if you believe the consequence you did dole out in anger was inappropriate, be 'big enough' to sit down with your teen and look at the punishment again, still making it clear that what they had done was wrong but also acknowledge that there is always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"We trusted our teen and we were terribly let down": One Mum's story ...

The evidence is pretty clear that if you want to do your very best to keep your child safe through the teen years there is a simple parenting formula to follow:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home
This involves a lot of work. It takes time and energy to check up on what your teen has told you, calling other parents to find out whether they're going where they say they're going and making sure they do what they say they're going to ... but if that's what it takes to ensure your child comes home in one piece, I'm pretty sure most would agree it's worth the effort! As I say in my parent sessions, sometimes when I end my talks with these three simple tips I can see some people in the audience who look like I have just stabbed them in the heart. When I have approached them afterwards and asked them what the problem was (because there was so a problem!), they turn around and say "But if I did those things and checked up on my child they would think that I didn't trust them!"

Let's put it really simply, if you think you can trust your 15 or 16 year old you're being quite foolish! Do you need to trust your adolescent? Absolutely! But can you trust an adolescent? Of course not! If there is one of you reading this who can honestly say that you didn't lie or cheat at some time or another to get what you wanted during your teens then please take 30 seconds to forward a photograph of yourself to my email address and I'll include you in all my future talks as the only adolescent in history who didn't! Blindly trusting your teen will at some stage lead to them taking advantage of the situation and you being terribly disappointed.

I met a Mum this week who told me a story that perfectly illustrated this point and I asked her to put it into an email so I could share it with others ... here is an extract of what she sent me:

"My daughter threw all the usual guilt onto me when I asked her anything about the parties she was going to and what she was doing when she went there with her friends. Every time I questioned her I was thrown the "But don't you trust me?" line and to be quite honest, I had no reason not to trust her. She has always done exceptionally well at school, I knew all of her friends (and some of their parents) very well (or so I thought) and I was convinced my 15 year-old daughter was the one who never lied. As a result, I didn't do the checking, I allowed her to go to sleepovers and didn't make the calls and I was one of those Mums who picked her teen up by text (when I even bothered to pick her up, convinced by her that other parents were doing that perfectly well). This went on for two years until I had a phone call on a Saturday night six months ago from one of her friends to tell me that she had been taken to hospital by ambulance in a critical condition. 

In the following weeks I found out things that have made me question everything I believed about my daughter and her friends and, most importantly, my parenting. From the age of 14 she and her friends had been drinking regularly, she had started smoking cannabis at 15 and had been going to nightclubs most weekends from the age of 16. Don't get me wrong, my daughter is a good girl. Smart (her grades have never dropped once and she is highly likely to get into medicine next year), beautiful and loved by all who know her - she just lied to us continually about her social life for over two years. It wasn't even that we are strict, controlling parents - we never stopped her attending parties and the like, we never even put a lot of rules around her going out when she was 14 because we trusted her and we believed her. I'm not sure what we would have done about alcohol but, to be honest, she didn't even give us a chance! We trusted our teen and we were terribly let down."   

This is a fairly extreme example - this young lady had lying down to an art! It must have also taken an awful lot of work to co-ordinate everything she did on the weekends so that her parents never realized what was going on. This is not the norm and teens taking advantage of 'blind parental trust' doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to go and experiment with illegal drugs or get drunk, or rack up debt on your credit card or steal from you in other ways, but make no mistake they will certainly use that trust to get what they want. Never forget that teens are master manipulators (I think we all too often forget what we were like at that time) - they know who to talk to (i.e., who is the 'weakest link'?), when best to ask the question and they also know exactly what you want to hear? I guarantee they'll give you the perfect answer to almost every question and if they can make you feel guilty for asking it, well they'll throw that in every time!

Of course you 'need' to trust your teen - every parenting book ever written will tell you that trust is vital in a parent-child relationship. By all means, make an effort to show you trust them and you do that by allowing them to take part in activities that may be risky (e.g., going to a teenage party, surfing the internet), but at the same time you actively parent and try to ensure their safety by checking up on them and imposing rules and boundaries. Should you be checking up on them every couple of minutes or even every time they go out? Of course not! But asking questions and conducting age-appropriate checking is a must.

It's also important to remember that at some point you've got to start letting go and give them opportunities to make mistakes - but should that be at the age of 15 as was the case with the mother I met during the week? I think 17 year-olds should certainly be given more trust, it's the year of the 18th and they're not far off being legally adults - you want to strengthen the relationship and keep lines of communication open - not giving in a little at this age is highly likely to do more harm than good. But that doesn't mean you stop asking the questions though, it just may mean you don't work as hard on checking the answers they give you!

When I visit schools I love asking young people whether they believe their parents should trust them or not ... the usual answer is 'absolutely not'! I don't think it would be the answer they'd give Mum or Dad but it's certainly what I hear from them. It needs to be said that the response is often tempered with comments like "It depends what they're trusting me with" and "I would never do anything too bad!" but most teens are well aware that when put in a situation where they have the opportunity to do something they really want to do or get something they really want it won't take much for them to break their parent's trust. Remember, they're brains are not fully developed and the reward is just too great (they weigh risk versus reward in a completely different way to adults). It doesn't mean they're bad kids, or that you are a bad parent - they're just being a teenager!