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Friday, 15 December 2017

Parenting, parties and the Christmas holidays: If you have a 14 or 15-year-old, hold on tight - it could be a bumpy ride!

If you speak to teachers, particularly Year Co-ordinators who follow a cohort of students through high school, they will often tell you that they see the biggest change occur in the young people when they return to school after the Christmas holiday period between Years 9 and 10. Sometimes it can be a year earlier or even a year later, but it nearly always seems to occur when the students have returned from that extended summer break. Now you could argue that this is simply due to the length of time the students are away from school but in my experience this behavioural change often appears to be due to a change in parenting that occurs over those summer months, particularly in regards to those young people aged around 14 and 15.

The summer break (both before and after the Christmas and New Year holidays) is a time when there are usually lots of parties or gatherings and parents are bombarded by requests to attend this or that event. It's the most social time of the year, for both teens and their parents, and everyone wants to let their hair down just a little. The holidays are also long - very long! Many teens have almost 8 weeks away from school, that's a time where you have to maintain your daily schedule (particularly difficult if both parents are working), keep your family running as usual and also ensure your kids are occupied and safe. They're going to want to catch up with friends, go to the movies, travel to the beach or whatever and, at the same time, you have to keep doing what you would usually do if they weren't on a break and maintain a healthy level of parental monitoring and control ... It's not surprising that at this time of the year some parents find this all just a little bit too difficult and let their guard down, letting some things 'slip through to the keeper'. Things that you wouldn't normally allow to happen are permitted and then you've set a precedent and it all goes downhill from there!

I've written about the unique issues that I believe parents of Year 9s face many times. Those aged 14-15 years are going through that really interesting time called 'middle adolescence' and they are going to push as many boundaries and rules as they can to try to get want they want. They're also going to be relentless in their efforts - begging and pleading, threatening, slamming doors, telling you that you're a bad parent, "you're the only one that does that!" and that they hate you - and in normal circumstances you're often able to stand your ground, but it would appear that the summer break is where this age group can often find the crack in their parents' resolve!

A great example of this is how many 14-15 year-olds manage to get permission from their parents to travel into the city they live and watch the NYE fireworks! Groups of unbelievably young people making their way into the city, usually by public transport, and then wandering the streets (often drinking alcohol) - truly bizarre! What is a parent thinking? I don't know if any of these people have actually been into a city on NYE but it's certainly not the place for a group of 14 and 15-year-olds to travel unsupervised. Last year I had a mother contact me to ask me what I thought about her 15-year-old daughter's request to travel into Perth to watch the fireworks there - she didn't want her to go but she seemed to be the only parent who had a problem with it and was she simply being overprotective, as one of the other mothers had suggested? All I did when she called me was to ask her whether she felt comfortable with her daughter taking part in such an activity and if she didn't, why not? She was adamant that she didn't and essentially her reason was 'safety' - she didn't feel that it was a 'safe' thing for someone of her daughter's age to do. I then asked her why then was she was even considering it? The answer was simple - her daughter would not let up - the begging and pleading and the constant barrage of "you're the only one" was just too much. As she said to me - "At least when she's at school I have some relief during the day, when she's on holidays I can't get away from it!"

As I've said many times before the key to good parenting is not all about saying 'no', it's more about looking for those opportunities where you can say 'yes' and allow them to do something. 'No' remains one of the most important words you will ever say to your teen (most probably the fourth most important, just behind the three little words "I love you") but if you overuse it or don't use it properly, you're going to have great conflict and your relationship with your child will suffer. Of course you have to have rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences if your child breaks those rules but you can't simply lock them up in their room and wrap them up in cotton wool in an effort to keep them as safe as possible. They're going to have to do things you don't want them to do and then make mistakes and do the wrong thing, that's how they learn, that's how we learnt. You just don't want those mistakes to be potentially life threatening ... Am I for one second suggesting that you should even consider allowing a 14 or 15-year-old wander into the city to watch the NYE fireworks? Of course not, this is incredibly dangerous and to my mind this has the word 'no' all over it!

Without any doubt your teen is going to 'try it on' over the summer break, particularly that group who are going through that wonderful stage of 'middle adolescence' (parents of Year 9s, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean!). They're getting older and they're going to want more independence and if there's ever a time you're going to let them get away with just a little more than in the past it's during the school holidays - the long school holidays! You'll be tired and they'll be relentless in their efforts to get what they want. It's a very strong parent who is able to maintain their resolve throughout this time - most give in, at least a little! Remember, look for opportunities over the summer break to say 'yes' - identify activities or events that you may now feel a little more comfortable with, particularly things that they may have previously requested that you said 'no' to in the past, e.g., going to the movies with friends by themselves, catching a train to the beach, etc. Make sure you still have your rules and boundaries around these and maintain your standards but 'allowing' them to do new, more adult things will help keep your relationship just a little more healthy when you have to say 'no' to the big ones which are bound to raise their ugly head!

Most importantly, remember that once you have let your guard down and allowed them to do something, it is extremely hard to go back. At 14 or 15 they may think they're now adults but they have very little, if any, life experience and when put into adult situations and things go wrong they simply have no idea what to do. The vast majority of the deaths I have been involved with in schools over the years have involved this age group - young people who did not have any clue how to respond when things didn't go as planned. Of course you've got to let them grow up and have experiences that are potentially risky, but at 14 and 15 (and even 16 in most cases), these should be controlled as much as possible. If you're going to 'give in' a little over the break (and no-one can blame you - it's a long time to maintain your resolve), choose carefully - you don't want to paint yourself into a corner for the year and years ahead ...

Friday, 8 December 2017

"But that's what happens when you get drunk": Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about 'consent'

This year I have met, or heard from, more young women who have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk than ever before. I have written about this topic many times, often highlighting stories that young women have sent me via email or have bravely chosen to divulge after hearing me speak. Sexual assault is a crime and, as I say to all students, if I am told about a crime I cannot keep it a secret - but to be quite honest, if they're going to approach me and tell me their story, they're usually ready to go the next step. Sadly, however, we know most never report what has happened to them. When I have asked girls why they choose not to say anything, it's always the same story - "But that's what happens when you get drunk, it's just part of the alcohol experience!"

Earlier this year I had a girl approach me and tell me that she had been assaulted when drunk. The school was well aware of what had happened and the crime had been reported, mainly due to the incident being photographed and the images subsequently circulated via social media. She was 15-years-old. I asked how she was feeling and if things were getting better and she told me that she had no memory of the night at all. It was then that I saw this beautiful young woman literally 'melt' in front of me - her face dropped and her whole body started shaking. She started to cry and said that she had only just found out that someone had 'tagged' her name on one of the photos. "My children will be able to see those photos and maybe even my grandchildren - they will never go away ..." she said. Absolutely heartbreaking ...

Many of the sexual assault cases I have been told about recently often also involve the sharing of videos or images of the actual assault via social media. Frighteningly, in most of these cases, it is young women who appear to be more likely to share these ... When I first heard this I found it extremely hard to believe, why in heavens would girls want to do this? But at one school I visited this year it was what the principal told me about the parents response to this issue that really floored me ... When the parents of the girls who had been caught sharing videos of a sexual assault were told what their children had done, instead of being shocked and expressing concern about the young woman who had been assaulted, they apparently defended their daughters' actions, telling the principal "She was a slut, she went to the room with the boys!" and "What did she expect, she's always getting drunk!"

It is extremely difficult to determine rates of sexual assault and most of the data we have are estimates based on police reports, national survey samples and hospital admissions. In the US, it has been estimated that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life and 18% have been raped. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 18% of women and around 5% of men have ever experienced sexual violence. So where does alcohol fit into the picture? Well, as with other violent crimes, around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drunk alcohol. Similarly, half of all sexual assault victims reported drinking alcohol at the time of the assault ... Research shows that alcohol consumption by both the perpetrator and victim tends to co-occur (i.e., it is rarely only the victim drinking). This is not a surprise, as drinking tends to occur in social situations (e.g., parties or bars) but trying to disentangle so-called 'drunken sex' from sexual assault has proven to be difficult and could be another reason why many young women do not come forward and report this crime.

With the #metoo campaign continuing to encourage more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, it is a perfect time for parents to take this opportunity to discuss this issue with their children. Most importantly, our young people need to have a greater understanding of what 'consent' means (and that they can't legally give it until they are a certain age) and the difficulties around negotiating consent when they or their partner has been drinking ... If you haven't already had this discussion and you know (or even think) your child could be drinking on a Saturday night, it's a talk you have to have! I'm sure even thinking that your teen could be having sex must be pretty confronting, let alone having to talk about it with them but sticking your head in the sand about this isn't going to help anyone ...

In recent years there have been an increasing number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of what consent means. An often used definition is as follows: "Consent is informed, and is freely and actively given. Consent is communicated through mutually understood words which indicate willingness by all of the involved parties to engage in sexual activity." One American college campaign uses four distinct headings to describe the term:
  • clear - consent is active - silence is not consent
  • coherent - people impaired by drugs or alcohol or are asleep or unconscious cannot consent
  • consistent - consent is never given under pressure
  • ongoing - consent must be granted every time
On top of all of this, of course, is the legal age of consent. Depending on where you live in Australia, you must be either 16 or 17 years of age (SA and Queensland being the two states where you must be a year older) before you can legally give permission to have sex. Until they reach that age, even though they may agree to have sex with someone, that person can still be charged with sexual assault.

Negotiating consensual sexual activity can be difficult for sober adults in long-term relationships! It's a potential minefield for drunk teens at a party - when you mix 'raging hormones', alcohol and an adolescent brain, it's a recipe for disaster so it's important to arm our teens with as much information as possible ... This is not going to be an easy conversation to have but it boils down to three simple points that all young people need to understand:
  • 'no means no'
  • if  someone is drunk they are unable to give consent, and
  • sex or sexual contact without consent is a crime and needs to be reported 
In recent years, we have seen a real shift in the messages that are disseminated around alcohol-related sexual assault. Where once the message targeted potential victims, i.e., 'Don't get drunk', 'Don't lose control' – we are now far more likely to target the potential perpetrator, shifting the onus away from the person avoiding assault or turning down an advance, to promoting the idea of 'enthusiastic consent'. As one female academic wrote in an article I recently read - "When kids are little, we don't teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to hit." When it comes to sexual assault, we shouldn't have to teach young women how to avoid being assaulted, instead, let's make sure we have a society where it is not acceptable for men to commit that crime ...

With that in mind, in addition to beginning a positive dialogue about consent with their teen, I believe parents should also consider the following to help ensure their child has positive and healthy attitudes and values in this area:
Parents of young men
  • as well as being taught that it is not acceptable to have sex or sexual contact with someone who is too drunk to consent, they also need to be empowered to not sit back and ignore other young men who commit the crime or even joke about such behaviour. That could be their sister, their girlfriend or someone else they care about that is being assaulted or spoken about
  • ensure they have positive male role models, particularly around drinking and attitudes towards women. Research shows that young men who are brought up in homes where traditional gender beliefs are present and hostility towards women is regarded as acceptable are more likely to commit this crime
  • watch what you say – off-the-cuff comments (e.g., "Look what she's wearing?", "What does she expect when she's drunk") reinforce negative attitudes towards women and a victim blaming culture
  • provide advice on how to protect themselves – as already discussed, talk through how consent can be negotiated, but very importantly, alert them to the risks of being alone with a drunk girl and the possibility of them being accused of inappropriate behaviour
Parents of young women
  • it is vital that young women look after and support each other. 'Victim blaming' and so-called 'slut-shaming' is not acceptable and is a form of bullying that is extremely damaging
  • as with the young men, watch what you say – be wary of reinforcing shaming culture
  • make others aware when they say 'the wrong thing'. Don't just let this behaviour slip by unaddressed – make it clear that it's not okay to say those things
  • discuss simple safety strategies for young women when they are socializing, these could include the following: looking after your mates – stick together and don't let friends go off on their own or leave them behind; adapt the 'designated driver' model driver for situations when no-one is driving, simply making sure there is at least one sober person in the group at all times, just in case'; and encourage young women to discuss expectations of friends - i.e., when should a friend step in and help and when is it inappropriate
This is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. We are currently in the midst of a cultural change in regards to what is regarded as acceptable behaviour and what is not - but we have an awfully long way to go yet ... We must make sure that we are raising young men who know that it is unacceptable (and illegal) to have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent and empower them to stand up to those who think that behaviour is okay. At the same time, however, it is vital that we ensure our young women look after and support each other. Victim blaming is one of the most destructive forms of bullying and, in my experience, is rife in our schools. Sadly, this is often supported by parents and the only way we're going to ever really achieve change is if we take a long hard look at our own behaviour and what we say and do ...

Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P., Clinton, M., & McAuslan, P. (2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. Alcohol Research and Health 25, 43-51
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017). 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS): Key findings accessed 11 November, 2017.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

It's important to say 'no' to your teen, but at the same time, always look for opportunities to say 'yes'!

'No' is one of the most important words you can say to your child. It's a tiny word, but for many people, particularly parents, it can prove incredibly difficult to say. There are books dedicated to the word and its importance, written from a business perspective, in regards to relationships and personal development, as well as the role it plays in parenting. Many of us avoid using the word because we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else, or believing that saying it will somehow change how others view us. Research has found that many parents avoid battles with their children, because they feel that if they say 'no' to them, they will stop loving them. Interestingly, little children seem to have no issues with the word, in fact, toddlers (i.e., the 'terrible twos') tend to scream it constantly! It seems, however, that as we grow up many of us learn to become 'people pleasers' and, as a result, 'no' seems to drop out of our vocabulary.

Without a doubt, parents of today who try to tow the line in this area have it particularly tough. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, those who adopt a more permissive parenting style (i.e., less likely to have rules and boundaries and more likely to 'buckle' and say "yes" to their child) put far more pressure on those parents who appear to be more strict. A couple of years ago I told the story of a mother who came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and burst into tears. When I went to console her she smiled and said "I'm not upset and nothing bad has happened, it's just that after hearing you I finally feel okay about saying 'no' to my daughter! It's just such a huge relief!"

She had been facing great pressure from other parents to 'loosen up' (as so many others I meet say they have) and give her daughter a little more space. There was a party coming up and it was to be hosted by the same parents who had put on an earlier event that had got out of hand and she did not want her daughter to attend. She had been convinced by others that to say 'no' and not let her 15-year-old go was tantamount to child abuse and, although it went against everything she felt was right, she was willing to follow the other parents. My talk had really resonated with this woman and she felt empowered to finally follow her heart and tell her daughter that she would not be attending - she just didn't feel comfortable letting her go!

In addition to this growing 'peer pressure', a new parenting style has been receiving growing attention in recent years - 'yes parenting'. This is aimed far more at parents of young children and is described by one of its key spokespeople, Bea Marshall in the following way:

"Yes Parenting finds positive, playful and gentle ways to respond to children, without the habitual use of the word No. By saying Yes to our children's individual needs, preferences, and interests we reduce conflict and increase closeness. Moving away from saying no builds trust and transforms our relationships with our kids."

A number of years ago there was a belief amongst some parenting experts that saying 'no' could somehow 'damage' a child. I remember going to an information session where the speaker presented some very dodgy research that suggested that using the word could somehow stifle a child's creativity! If you're just going to say 'no' to everything and not explain why you're doing the things you do, of course that isn't going to be helpful, but the word 'no' is one of the most important words that a parent can use if it's used appropriately.

Parents need to remember the following rationale behind saying 'no', as well as be absolutely clear about what may happen next and how best to respond ...
  • adolescence is a time when young people work out where they fit in the world. It is also a time where they are more likely to take risks
  • parents need to set limits for teens to push against, as well as to keep them safe as possible
  • 'no' provides limits and sets boundaries
  • you cannot control how your child feels about these limits or how they react to them so don't even bother to try
  • you are only able to control yourself and your behaviour
  • remember that the only reason you have rules is because you love them - make that clear and then walk away

No child likes being told that they can't do or have something they want. This gets worse when they become adolescents as in their minds they are now far more grown up and should be able to take part in adult activity that they observe all around them. Parties or gatherings are where they learn how to socialize and it is no surprise that some teens want to take part in this activity as most adults do, i.e., with alcohol. As I keep saying, I am a strong believer that if your child wants to attend a social event, whether it be a sleepover, party or gathering, if you can find a way to let them go (i.e., apply caveats to try to ensure they are as safe as possible), then you should let them. However, if you have a 14-year-old daughter who wants to attend a party where there will be 18-year-old young men drinking alcohol, that's a 'no'! Most parents who have a problem with saying 'no' talk of their dread as to how their child may react, i.e., screaming, name-calling, throwing things or the like. Others just give up and end up saying 'yes' because of the constant badgering, with their teen following them around begging and pleading or cleverly setting up one parent against another.

As I have already said, just saying 'no' for the sake of it is just as damaging as letting your teen run off and do whatever they want. As Laurence Steinberg says in his book Age of Opportunity, parents should "gradually relinquish control and try to permit - rather than protect - when you can." Every opportunity you get to allow them to extend themselves a little, which you believe to be as safe as possible, and doesn't compromise your values and beliefs, grab it with both hands! Always remember, for every 'no' you say, you're going to lose a few points as far as your teen is concerned, but if you say 'yes' you can be sure you'll earn yourself at least a few extra credits! Now before anyone says that parenting isn't about 'point-scoring', I couldn't agree more, but I haven't met a Mum or Dad who doesn't say that it sure helps ...

It's worth remembering that as far as alcohol and parties are concerned, there are a few certainties when it comes to saying 'no' to your teen - these are as follows: 
  • they're not going to like it
  • you're in for a fight, or at the very least the 'cold shoulder' for a while
  • you will be accused of being the 'worst parent ever'
  • they're going to go behind your back and try to find someone else to say 'yes'
  • no matter what they say, they still love you!

And of course, there are going to be some teens who will just go off and try to do it anyway - that's where parental monitoring comes in! If they break the rules you have set, there must be consequences. But remember to 'pick your battles' - don't fly off the handle at every little mistake your child makes. Of course, if they do something wrong, they need to know you won't tolerate bad behaviour but make sure the 'time suits the crime' ...

Most teens who hear 'no' from their parents won't like it very much. They're likely to respond in an emotional way and, as a result, it won't be very pleasant around the house for a day or two. There are cases, however, where it gets much worse - adolescents running away to a party on a Saturday night and not returning home, physical violence and a range of other unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviour. It is vital that parents understand that if this sort of behaviour occurs they should seek professional help as soon as they possibly can. Don't try to deal with this by yourself.

Friday, 17 November 2017

"You're grounded for life!": Why 'grounding' doesn't usually work and the importance of making sure the 'time fits the crime'!

A few years ago I wrote a blog entry about a young man who approached me after my talk with his first words being "Mr Dillon, I made a big mistake ..." This young man had gone out with friends a few weeks before and had got terribly drunk. He had not intended to get that intoxicated and he claimed that he had never been in such a state before. He was eventually found and taken to the local police station. 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?"
As I said at the time, if you could have seen this young man's face it would have broken your heart! He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - I haven't gone into any great detail about what he did that night but it didn't sound good and the phone call from the police must have been terrifying for the mother - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime.
One of my key messages is that the 'tough love' (or 'authoritative') style of parenting has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children, i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love. 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, grounding continues to be one of the most often-used consequences by parents even though evidence would suggest that it is one of the least effective. One of the main reasons it doesn't work particularly well is that grounding is usually blurted out 'on the run' - something happens, tempers flare and the response is created in anger and not well thought through. If you want consequences to work, they must be able to be enforced. Grounding your child for long (or even short) periods of time is just going to make your life tougher and, in my experience, most parents 'give in' pretty quickly and as a result, lose all their credibility as far as rules and boundaries are concerned. It's also important to acknowledge that when parents respond in this way (i.e., telling them they're grounded), they are usually focused on 'winning' the fight (i.e., making it clear to their child that they are the boss) rather than actually teaching their child to do the right thing. Although it can seem like a perfectly appropriate response at the time (particularly when you are angry or hurt), trying to show your child that you are in control and that you are the 'winner' sets up a power struggle that is not healthy.
Every parent has to make their own decisions around how they choose to discipline their children. Working out what you want to achieve from the 'discipline techniques' you use is important. Do you want to 'punish' your child or do you want them to learn something as a result of the consequences you impose?  In an online article, Sarah Holbome writes how consequences should be used as 'teachable moments' whenever possible ... 
"The word "discipline" comes from the word "disciple", which means, "to teach". Therefore, discipline should not be seen as "punishment", but rather as a teachable moment. Essentially, when you discipline your child you are teaching him or her; you are teaching right from wrong, what is acceptable behaviour, and what is unacceptable behaviour. Punishment treats the person as wrong and focuses on what has happened in the past, but discipline treats the act as wrong and focuses on the future and what can be done differently. The goal is for your child to eventually become self-disciplined (demonstrating acceptable behaviour without needing your help and reminders)."
I recently spoke to a Mum and Dad who are currently struggling with their Year 10 son who has been 'pushing all their buttons'. These were great parents who obviously love their son. He sounds like a great kid but he's been sneaking out of the house without their knowledge on a Saturday night and was recently found almost unconscious in a shopping centre car park after drinking too much. When I asked the mother how she responded to leaving the house without permission, you could hear the frustration in her voice when she said the following:
"Nothing seems to have an effect. The only thing that worked, when we could actually see that it made a difference, was when we took him to the barber and we cut off his long hair!"
Punishment and consequences are very different things and if you want to ensure your teen learns a lesson after doing the 'wrong thing' it is important to ensure that you know the difference. Cutting her son's precious locks off was a punishment and I can almost guarantee that the 'difference' she saw in her son's face as they were being lopped off was in no way related to a positive 'teachable moment'. The mother did it to show she was in control and that she was boss. She was hurt - that is absolutely understandable. He was angry and resentful. The punishment may result in him never sneaking out of the house again, it may not, but if this 'power-based' response is regularly used it has the potential to cause great damage to the parent-child relationship.
So am I suggesting that grounding never be used? Of course not, if used appropriately, grounding can be a very effective consequence. It just needs to be thought-through and planned. 
Consequences need to be fair (they 'fit the crime'), balanced (they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt') and, as already stated, able to be enforced. The key to finding 'appropriate' consequences for breaking rules is ensuring that they are developed at the same time as those rules. 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. 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! So the best way to use grounding is to introduce it as a potential consequence when rules around parties and alcohol are discussed. This could be done in the following way:
"You know our rules around alcohol at parties. We trust you to follow them. If we discover, however, that you have broken these rules then you will not be attending the next party you are invited to."
Here's the rule and here is the consequence if you break that rule. They can't say they didn't know what was going to happen! It's fair, balanced and enforceable ...
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?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. If you want to do this in the most effective way, trying to ensure they actually 'learn' something from what you choose to impose, rather then simply punish them and potentially build resentment and damage your relationship, consider the following four simple steps:
  • Wait: Never decide and administer consequences in anger. You or your child are likely to say something you will regret and nothing positive will come of it. Wait until things have calmed down and you and your teen have a clear head.
  • Talk and then listen: When the time comes to talk to your child, start by telling them that whatever they do, you will always love them. You may not like their behaviour but nothing they do will change the fact you love them. Then tell them why you are upset or angry and then give them the opportunity to explain their behaviour. It is important to acknowledge that in many cases teens will not provide any justification for what they have done. At other times, they may try to shift the blame onto others or simply not accept that what they did was wrong. Just listen ...
  • Discuss how that behaviour can improve: Once they have had their say, give them the opportunity to come up with ways that things could be done differently in the future. How are they going to change this behaviour so that they don't find themselves in this position again? This may even involve you agreeing to consider renegotiating rules and boundaries in the future if they can prove that they can be trusted and their behaviour improves.
  • Let them know the consequences: It is important to ensure that whatever consequence is used it should be connected to the misbehaviour in some way. If they get an allowance and they have spent money on alcohol, it is entirely appropriate for you to reduce the amount you give them for a period of time. When they don't come home at the agreed time, reduce their curfew by half an hour. If you decide to remove a privilege that they have earned in the past, it is also important that they are aware that this can be earned back if behaviour changes.
The key is to never develop and discuss consequences in anger - that's why grounding is so often ineffective - it's nearly always doled out when tempers are flared. 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. Give your child a consequence that can't realistically be carried out and followed-through by you 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. Most importantly, even though most would not like admitting to it, grounding is used by parents to show their child who is boss. Something's happened, they feel like they're not in control and they lash out with something like "You're grounded for ... a month!" The time period means nothing, it wasn't thought through and it's usually completely ineffective ...

Holbome, S. (2016). Why does "You're grounded!" never seem to work? April 5, Youth Service Bureau, article accessed 16 November, 2017,

Saturday, 11 November 2017

'Old-fashioned parenting': What does that really mean and why is the term now increasingly being used as an insult?

This week a dear friend of mine attended one of my parent sessions. Jo has heard me speak many times over the past 18 years but her reaction to this talk was very different than it had been in the past. She and her husband are currently raising their 15-year-old grandson (having had him since he was a baby) and although they've been through the adolescent years before with their children (many years ago), they're now going through it all again – this time feeling far more pressure than before. When I finished my presentation she turned to others in the audience, took a great big sigh and said "I'm so pleased I came tonight, I am constantly being told that I am being 'old-fashioned' when it comes to my parenting – I now feel like I actually may be doing the right thing!"

We had a bit of a chat about what she thought 'old-fashioned parenting' actually meant and in what context the term was being used. Jo's response reflected what I am hearing across the country from parents who attend my talks. Not surprisingly, teens are likely to use the phrase, particularly when their parents are restricting them in some way (I'm sure we can all remember a time that we threw a line at our parents like "You don't know what it’s like nowadays … "). But when the term is used by adults to criticise or judge someone else's parenting choices, often around alcohol and partying, that's when I find it quite offensive. As some Mums and Dads have said to me recently, try to enforce some boundaries or rules around parties and alcohol and, heaven forbid, roll out some consequences if those rules aren't actually followed and you can find yourself being criticised by all and sundry. "Loosen up a little", "Don’t be an old fuddy-duddy", "We live in a different time now" or even "Do you really want to be the same as your parents?" are just some of the statements people have shared with me that have been thrown at them when they have tried to put their preferred parenting strategies into place …

It is important to make it clear at this point that there is a big difference between the 'family' and 'parenting'. Our understanding of what makes up a family today is very different to what it was even 20 years ago. Where once the 'average family' was portrayed as Mum, Dad, two kids (usually white and middle class) and a dog, all wrapped up nicely in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, it is now accepted (by most but certainly not all) that families can come in many forms. But regardless of whether a child is brought up in what was regarded as the 'traditional family', or a blended family with step-parents and siblings, a single Mum, a single Dad, two Mums or two Dads, or a mixture of all of the above, what we know about parenting and what is most likely to work remains the same ...

Earlier this year I received an email from Rochelle, a mother who had attended one of my Parent Information Evenings that touches on a similar issue (she even used the term ‘old-fashioned’ at one point), this time regarding how she saw her own parenting style. Here is an edited version of her message:

"My parents (and most particularly my father) were very old-fashioned when it came to parenting and there was little love in our home. The rules we lived under were extremely restrictive and my sisters and I weren't allowed to do anything. I would never have been able to go to parties when I was in my teens and I dread to think what would have happened if they had ever caught me drinking. From a positive perspective, I didn't start drinking alcohol until my 19th birthday, unfortunately when I started, I didn't stop and ended up having a significant alcohol problem all the way through my 20s, culminating in a stint in rehab in my early 30s. I always promised myself that I would be different than my parents – I wouldn't wish that 'type of parenting on anyone.  But after coming to your talk and hearing that rules and boundaries being so important I am totally confused ... If I do have rules, how do I make sure that my children don't grow up with the same terrible attitude towards drinking that I developed …"

I think Rochelle's story highlights the conflict that many people face around parenting, particularly if they have strong and painful memories of their own adolescence. In a recent blog I talked about how we have recently seen a move away from more 'adult-centred' parenting, that was more the norm in previous generations, to a style that is more 'child-centred'. So does old-fashioned parenting have to mean that it was 'adult-centred'? I don't think it does and after talking to many parents right across the country, it would appear that so many of our parents actually 'got it right'!

Four types of parenting styles have been identified, each defined along two axes – strictness ('parental control') and warmth ('parental support'):
  • authoritarian (strictness but not warmth)
  • authoritative (strictness and warmth)
  • indulgent (warmth but not strictness)
  • neglectful (neither warmth nor strictness)
Parental control reflects how children's behaviours are managed, e.g., how family rules are developed and enforced, parental knowledge and monitoring of their child's activities, etc. Parental support refers to parental affectionate qualities and is associated with characteristics like warmth, acceptance, and involvement. I've talked a lot recently about indulgent parents and those that come under the neglectful banner are in essence almost abusive, so let's put those to one side for the purposes of this piece. What I'd like to do is take a bit of time to tease out the first two and try to establish the key difference between them because that's where I think some parents of today are getting confused.

Authoritarian parenting is often referred to as 'top-down' parenting. These parents make rules and expect that their children will follow them without exception. Children are not usually given the reasons for the rules and there is little room for any negotiation. Authoritarian parents are far more likely to use punishments instead of consequences. To clarify, consequences are the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads to positive choices. On the other hand, punishments are about causing pain and suffering and usually aren't logical or natural (i.e., they don't 'fit the crime').
Authoritative parents also have rules that children are expected to follow, and the consequences of breaking those rules are made clear, however, all rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love. Rules and boundaries are set because you love them and want to protect them. This is sometimes referred to as 'tough love' parenting. These parents are more likely to tell children the reasons for the rules and involve them in the rule-making process to some extent. Changes to the rules are made over time, usually as a reward for good behaviour and an acknowledgement that they are growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.  Authoritative parents tend to use consequences instead of punishments and use positive consequences to reinforce good behaviours.

What I say in my talks (and what Rochelle would have heard) is that research has shown that the most protective parenting style, particularly in terms of future drinking behaviour, is authoritative parenting, i.e., rules and consequences bound in unconditional love. Unfortunately, as soon as I mention rules and boundaries I think many people (including Rochelle) confuse this style with the more 'top-down' approach, i.e., authoritarian parenting. The most important part of her email is when she says "there was little love in our home". One of the most important keys to good parenting is unconditional love. Put the rules in place, make sure there are fair and age-appropriate consequences but make sure this is all wrapped up in a great big package of love ... Yes, there were lots of 'restrictive' rules in Rochelle's home as she was growing up and she rebelled as soon as she was able to and developed a range of problems as a result. But was it the rules that caused the issues or was it how they were implemented? When there is no warmth or love in a home and no understanding of why rules exist (i.e., because you love them and you want them to be safe), it is no real surprise that problems arise in the future.

No matter how you handle the issue of alcohol and partying, your teen will continue to do things to test and push you to your very limits (that's their job!) and you will need to hold fast and try to maintain your boundaries and adjust them when needed (that's your job!). But remember when they do something terrible and let you down (and almost everyone of them will at some time or another) and you're tempted to explode and say something you may later regret, always remember that it's their behaviour at that time that you don't like but you will always love them - no matter what they do!

Certainly, the adult-centred parenting of the past is not effective, particularly in regards to promoting healthy attitudes around alcohol and partying, with many young people rebelling against it at the time or developing problems in the future as a result of their experience as a teen, as Rochelle's story clearly illustrates. As much as some people would love to categorise anyone who has rules and boundaries in this area and enforces them as 'old-fashioned', often using the term in a derogatory way, I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of parenting if it is (or was) based on love. For many of us who were very clearly told in our teens that alcohol was a 'no-go', that we would be dropped off and picked up from the parties we went to on a Saturday night and that if we broke the rules there would be consequences, we were also told (or shown) that this was all being done because our parents loved us ... If that's old-fashioned parenting, bring it on! We didn't necessarily like the rules and many of us regularly broke them but deep down we knew they were there to keep us safe and if we didn't know it then, we certainly gained a appreciation of it later in life.

When I told Jo that I was going to use her comment as a subject for a blog entry, she told me about a recent discussion she had had with her daughter where she had voiced her concerns about once again taking on the parenting role of a teen so much later in life. In response her daughter had told her mother that she wanted her "to raise him (her son, Jo's grandson) just like you raised us" ... as Jo said, "I couldn't have got it all so terribly wrong, I must have done something right!" I told Jo to wear the term 'old-fashioned parent' as a badge of honour - she and her husband obviously love their grandson very much. They may not get a lot of appreciation for their efforts now but the future will see them hopefully reap the rewards!

Friday, 3 November 2017

'Loving' or 'indulgent'? 'Child-centred' parenting and its implications for a child's future socializing and potential alcohol and other drug use

I've given a lot of talks over the years, to a wide variety of audiences but over the past couple of weeks I've delivered a number of presentations specifically targeting parents of primary school-aged children. I've offered similar talks to schools over the years, but of the handful I've delivered, they've attracted very small audiences. It's always a battle to get parents to attend any presentation around alcohol and other drugs (AOD), but if they do come, it's usually when they believe their child is starting to be exposed to the issue, i.e., they're starting to be invited to parties and gatherings or they have actually discovered that their teen is drinking. I think most parents of primary school-aged children who see an AOD talk advertised believe that this is something they're going to have to worry about in the future and brush it off, saying that they'll attend something like that when it becomes an issue. Of course, prevention is better than cure, so it makes perfect sense to get to parents nice and early and to provide them with some simple strategies that could help either prevent, or at least delay, potential problems in the future. Lay the right foundations when they're young and parenting during adolescence will be so much easier.  Unfortunately, if you 'get it wrong' during the pre-primary and primary years, the implications for the future can be frightening, particularly when it comes to socializing and, of course, that's where alcohol and other drug use comes in ...

I say this in almost every blog entry but it's important to note it one more time ... no-one can tell you how to parent your child, not your sister-in-law, a so-called 'parenting expert' or your best friend. Unfortunately, your child does not come with a rule-book - you and your partner are the only ones that can or should make those decisions! That said, there is a wealth of research that you can use to inform your decisions, so with that in mind, here are some things to consider if you are a parent of a pre-primary or primary school-aged child ...

We know that one of the keys to getting your child safely through adolescence, particularly in relation to alcohol and partying, is 'monitoring' them effectively, i.e., know where they are, know who they're with and know when they'll be home. It's a message we hammer home to parents of teens - keep up the monitoring! Of course, this needs to be age-appropriate and needs to adjust as they get older but keep on doing it ... When it comes to parents of young children, however, we know that the vast majority monitor their sons and daughters extremely well. So if they're getting the monitoring so right, where is it potentially going wrong? There are a number of concerns but essentially it all boils down to a move towards more 'child-centred' or 'indulgent' parenting.

Child-centred parenting arose in response to 'adult-centred' parenting, which was regarded as the norm for previous generations, i.e., where parents set the rules and children were expected to follow them. There was no explanation given as to why the rules existed and this was often regarded as quite 'brutal' or 'top-down' parenting. In contrast, child-centred parenting is organized around the needs of the child, rather than those of the parent. In a 2015 online article, Michael Mascolo identified three reasons why this type of parenting has become so popular with parents in recent years:
  • child-centred parents want to foster children's autonomy, initiative and creativity, believing that "too much parental direction can undercut a child's autonomy", therefore adopting a less directive role
  • parents love their children and want the best for them and want to protect them from bad feelings.  They believe children need to have positive self-esteem – praising them whenever possible, often withholding critical feedback fearing that it might in fact damage a child's self-esteem
  • some see their children as 'little adults' who have rights that are more-or-less the same as adults.  As such, they are hesitant to 'infringe' on their child's right to make their own choices
Mascolo goes onto say - "Research shows that there is a rather large paradox in child-centred parenting.  Parents who emphasize loving care over high expectations tend to have more conflict in their homes than not." As much as this may seem a really positive way of parenting, we know that in many cases (but certainly not in all) it often leads to a range of problems.
When it comes to socializing and alcohol and other drug use, what are the potential issues? Most parents who support this type of parenting believe that allowing children to make their own decisions from an early age ensures that they are better equipped to make healthier choices when they are older. The problem that parents are increasingly facing is that after allowing their children to make their own choices when they are in primary school (that usually do not involve a great deal of risk), they find that their teens also want (and expect) to make their own decisions about going to parties and drinking. Quite quickly these parents find that if they want to keep their son or daughter as safe as possible, they're going to have to have an input about what does and doesn't happen and, of course, this inevitably leads to conflict!
Put simply, if you have a home that revolves around your pre-primary or primary school-aged child and they are having too much of a say in the decision making that takes place, you should prepare yourself for a rocky road ahead, particularly in the teen years. The good news is that if you act now, you can make a difference. Sure, you should love your kids but there's a difference between being 'loving' and being 'indulgent' ... 
So how do you know if you've crossed that line and you now have a 'child-centric' home? If you find yourself answering 'Yes' to 4 or more of these questions, my suggestion is that it's time to 'apply the brakes':
  • Are you constantly negotiating rules with your child?
  • Do you need to 'bribe' them to do tasks?
  • Are their demands being met simply to 'keep the peace'?
  • Are you not following-through with consequences because you do not want to deal with their response?
  • Are you asking the school to 'parent' for you?
  • Do you use their teacher as the reason limits have been set instead of 'owning' the rules yourself?
  • Are you allowing them to do things you do not feel comfortable with because they say 'everybody else does'?
  • Are they never satisfied with what they have and always wants what others have, and then you give it to them?
  • Are you constantly shielding them from potentially difficult situations and emotions?
  • Do they have too much say in what your family does in daily life?
Applying the brakes, particularly as they get older, is not going to be easy but nothing about parenting ever is - but trying to get that balance of love and strictness right in the early years is so important and worth the effort. And to those parents who still believe that child-centred parenting (instead of a more balanced approach of rules, consequences bound in unconditional love) is the way to go and strongly relate to the reasons that Mascolo put forward as to why many gravitate towards that style of parenting, I'll leave you with a quote from his article that highlights the inherent flaws in that argument:

"It is true that children are act out of curiosity, but without parental guidance, children cannot learn to go beyond their comfort zones and learn about things that do not interest them.  It is true that children need loving parents who are sensitive to their emotions, but they also need adults who teach them how to cope with hardship, struggle and failure.  And it is true that children have rights, but these rights do not make them equal to adults."

Mascolo, M. (2015). The Failure of Child-Centred Parenting. May 15, Psychology Today, article accessed 2 November, 2017,

Friday, 20 October 2017

Is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old? Do parents use the 'extra half' to justify behaviour they don't feel comfortable with?

I am considering writing another book at the moment (it's been almost 8 years since the last one was published!) and so have been taking special note of the questions I am being asked by those attending my seminars. As regular readers would know, sometimes a particular question just comes right out and hits me between the eyes, screaming to be written up as a blog entry. Over the last couple of weeks, however, I have been noticing a particular way that questions have been asked by some of the parents after my talks that I find fascinating and I thought was worth discussing ...

Recently a mother came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and asked me the following question:

"My 15⅟₂-year-old daughter is going to parties and I know she is drinking. She knows our rules around this issue and we have never caught her with alcohol but we know it is happening. My husband and I don't like her going behind our backs and we're frightened other things are going to start being done and pushed underground if we don't do something quickly. She's 15⅟₂ and we're wondering whether it's time to relax the rules before she goes ahead and breaks them anyway ..."

That same night a couple asked me how to deal with their 16⅟₂-year-old son who was asking if he could start taking a couple of drinks to take to a party because 'everybody else does'. Last week a similar thing happened, again with two separate queries from parents both beginning their questions by referring to their teen not as 15 but as 15⅟₂! After the second mother asked her question I asked her why she had referred to her daughter as 15⅟₂ and not as a 15-year-old or a Year 10. She was a little taken aback at first and then replied by saying that 'she was almost 16' ... I then said that I didn't mean to be rude but when was her actual birthday? It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that her daughter wasn't even close to 15⅟₂, in fact, she had only recently had her 15th birthday! I then told her why I had asked the question and my recent observations in this area. We then had quite a lengthy talk about why she (and other parents) were using this 'extra half' when they talked about their teens. After the discussion we came to the conclusion that it often appears to be used by parents to justify one or both of the following:
  • changes to their parenting that they didn't necessarily feel comfortable with but felt they had been 'forced' or coerced into doing because of their child's behaviour
  • changes in their teen's behaviour that was beginning to cause concern but they felt powerless to control
I'm not a psychologist but I'm sure there's some other stuff going on there as well but for the purposes of this piece, let's stick to these. What is particularly interesting is that in my dealings with adolescents I can't recall any young person refer to themselves as 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂. I'm sure it's happened (and I am sure many parents reading this will say that their teens throw the extra six months at them all the time, particularly when they want to push set boundaries or rules) but in my experience, it's certainly not the norm. Lots of them may say "I'm almost 16" but adding the 'extra half' appears to be much more a parent thing ...

So is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old (or a 16 and a 16⅟₂-year-old for that matter) and does that six months difference justify sacrificing your values around potentially dangerous teen behaviour?

Of course there can be a chasm of difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old. During adolescence dramatic changes can occur overnight, let alone over a six-month period. This is why it is so important that as far as rules and boundaries are concerned they keep changing and are re-negotiated where appropriate. I believe, a good rule of thumb around parties and gatherings is to reassess the limits that have been set in this area at least once every six months, ensuring that you reward good behaviour. Remember, if you want your household to survive adolescence, rules for teenagers need to be fair and age-appropriate ... That said, there need to be rules! No 15 or 16-year-old is going to like having any restrictions put on them when it comes to their socialising but it is a parent's job to keep their teen safe, so there have to be boundaries put into place to help ensure things don't go wrong ...

Taking a closer look at the questions the parents were asking where they referred to their teens as either 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂, it's clear that none of them felt at all comfortable with what was happening but they all felt totally powerless when it came to trying to stop what was going on. One of the couples had recently found alcohol in their Year 10 daughter's room and she had now admitted to regularly drinking at parties. Her response to them had been that now she had been caught she was going to continue to drink and there was nothing they could do about it. I asked them what they had done about the situation and they looked blankly at me and said 'nothing'! She was 15 (or 15⅟₂ as they said!), of course there are consequences a parent can impose for breaking rules at that age. It's not going to be easy, there could be some shouting and screaming and slamming of doors, but if nothing is done, you lose all your credibility and your teen is then going to walk all over you. More importantly, you'll be leaving them open to risks and dangers they simply don't have the capacity to comprehend or deal with at their age.

All the parents that I have mentioned above were feeling forced in some way to accept behaviour around alcohol from their teens that they did not feel comfortable with (i.e., they were threatened with "I'll go behind your back if you don't let me", "There is nothing you can do about it" and "Everybody else does"). I don't think one of them wanted me to turn around and say "Yes, let them do what they want" - all of them were desperate for someone to tell them to stand resolute and be a parent! Of course, rules need to change over time but when it comes to keeping your teen safe, these need to negotiated carefully and, as a parent, you should never feel forced into making changes you don't feel comfortable with ... If your teen's behaviour starts to become really challenging and you feel as if they are at real risk, get professional help, don't try to justify it by saying "Oh, they're getting older, they're 16⅟₂!" 

The most important thing you can do as a parent when it comes to alcohol, parties and gatherings and the like is stay true to yourself and your values. I have met too many parents over the years who have lost their children due to alcohol or other drug use - the vast majority being terrible accidents that should never have happened. When a parent loses a child after being forced or coerced into doing something they didn't feel comfortable with, however, it is particularly devastating. If you feel like it's time to relax your rules in this area, for whatever reason, go ahead and change them accordingly and own your decision. But never feel forced into making changes that don't feel right for you or your family - for as I always say to young people - 'If it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Parental monitoring: Getting it right for your family - your kids, your decisions!

I was speaking to a teacher recently who had just returned from maternity leave. I have known Cherie for years and it was wonderful to see her so happy (although still a little tired), with motherhood being everything she had expected and so much more ... When I saw her last year she was elbow-deep in baby books, trying to absorb everything she could about how to get the whole 'parenting thing' right and while we were talking I asked her if there was one book or other resource that she had found most useful when it came to what went down in real-life. Cherie's answer didn't really surprise me but it was so succinct and 'real', I asked if I could use it to highlight a key issue I think all parents need to remember regardless of their child's age ...

"My head was practically exploding with all the advice that I was given or read about being a good parent. In the end, my husband and I took it all, tried to absorb what we thought was useful and would work for us and then did the best that we could at the time. I would love to say that we followed all the 'rules' but some of them simply wouldn't have worked for us. We wouldn't have survived!"

Trying to sort through all the different parenting theories and 'what works?' and 'what doesn't?', particularly when it comes to keeping your kids safe is incredibly difficult. Over time, views have changed and we must never forget that what seemed to work well for one child may not necessarily work for another. As I always say, there is no rule book here and you can only do the best you can do at any particular point in time ... Cherie's response was perfect - she and her partner tried to access as much good quality information as possible, identified what they thought would work for them and then applied it to their family the best they could. You can't get much better than that ... In a perfect world where they had access to an endless supply of family support, nannies, time and energy, perhaps they would have done things differently but few parents have those luxuries so they did the best with what they had!

With that in mind, what's the best advice I can come up with in terms of keeping your teen as safe as possible when it comes to alcohol and other drugs?

We certainly know that there are a number of things that parents can do that are supported by research evidence that, at the very least will delay, but may also even prevent early alcohol and other drug use. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to drink to excess and/or use other drugs.

Without doubt, however, 'parental monitoring' is vital. So what exactly do we mean by 'parental monitoring' and how does this work when we don't live in a perfect world? Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what is going on in their child's life —what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are, we say they are monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:
  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen's behaviour - what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there 'follow-through'?
Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, parental monitoring not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies.  Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent's alcohol and other drug use.

It is important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child's life to match their stage of development, but that doesn't mean they hit 15 or 16 years of age and you throw your hands in the air and say "now it's up to you!" Appropriate levels of monitoring still needs to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information. A crucial element of monitoring is 'parental knowledge'. Parental knowledge refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not.

But how you do this with your child is your decision - every parent will monitor their teen in a different way, with most parents ending up monitoring each of their children slightly differently. Simply asking a child where they are going and who they will be with may not actually result in a truthful response and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. But only you can work out how you do this within your family and you have to 'own' whatever decision you make. Don't try to 'blame' others for your parenting decisions. No one should be making you do something you don't want to do as far as parenting is concerned. If you believe you have to 'up' the monitoring of your teen (for whatever reason), then own that and let them know that it's what you want to do - don't blame me, the school or anybody else! Your kids, your decisions! You have to work out what works for you and for your child - no-one else can do that for you ... no 'parenting expert', not your sister-in-law or best friend, not even your own parents - your kids, your decisions!

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It is a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they are often told that their adolescent children do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their teen's behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence. What 'ongoing parenting' means for your family, however, is for you to decide.

As Cherie and her partner discovered, there is so much information out there around effective parenting and what to do and not to do ... If you tried to follow every bit of advice you were given or read about you'd be driven insane - you can only do the best you can do at any point in time! Sadly, regardless of your best efforts, I can almost guarantee that if you do attempt to monitor your teen effectively they're going to 'hate' you, at least for a little while, but doing your best to know where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years ... Sometimes this will work out wonderfully, while at other times you'll feel like a terrible failure - that's parenting for you ... I guarantee, however, that if you do the best you can do in this area, based on good quality information, but at the same time, be true to yourself and your values, they'll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it!

Friday, 29 September 2017

How should parents respond to 'emotional blackmail'? "If you don't give me alcohol, I'll get it from somewhere else and drink in a park!"

If you look at the latest secondary school student data, parents continue to be the most common source of alcohol amongst young people, with 37.9% of current drinkers aged 12-17 years reporting this to be the case. Friends (22%) and 'someone else' (19%) were the next most likely responses, with siblings (8.7%) and 'took it from home' (4.7%) being the least likely sources.

As I always say, what you do with your teen around drinking is completely your business and if you believe that providing them with alcohol is the right thing to do, whatever your reason, then all power to you! There are many parents who believe that giving their child a glass of alcohol with a meal in a family environment is the best way to teach 'responsible drinking'. The available evidence in this area does not necessarily support that view, but if that's what you believe and it feels right for your family - go for it! When it comes to giving a teen alcohol to take to a party on a Saturday night I believe there are far fewer parents who actually feel comfortable doing this ... regardless, many still do. Once again, it's your choice what you do here. As long as you don't impose your beliefs onto other parents, or criticise other families for having different values in this area, it is you who has to live with your decision and only you can judge whether your teen is able to handle adult behaviour like drinking in social settings.

So why do so many parents who don't want to give their teen a couple of drinks to take to a party end up actually doing it? Well, I believe in many cases it is simply a matter of 'emotional blackmail'.

I am constantly meeting parents who have been told by their teens that they are too strict as far as alcohol and parties are concerned and that if the rules don't change they will go behind their backs and find alcohol themselves and go and drink it in a dangerous place like a park, or that their inflexibility will result in them not going to them if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, as we move closer to the summer months and the number of parties and gatherings that adolescents start to be invited to increases, this type of emotional blackmail really starts to raise its ugly head! It's typically Year 10s (but I'm hearing it more and more from parents of Year 9s) and these clever teens are all trying their best to manipulate their poor parents by threatening them with the terrible things that could happen to them if they don't get what they want, i.e., permission to drink and/or for their parents to provide the alcohol to them.

I've shared the following email before but it's certainly worth re-visiting. It's from a mother who was grappling with this exact issue ...

"Our son has been to parties where 15- and 16-year-olds were drinking. He always told us that he didn’t drink and that he keeps an eye on his friends. We have always picked him up from the parties and never smelt any alcohol on him ... Last weekend my son said to me that his friend has told his parents that he had been drinking and they said they want him to come to them if he gets himself into trouble. Our son said that he wouldn't be able to come to us because we are so strict and inflexible and won't allow him to drink and he knows that there will be consequences should we catch him drinking. Now I am at a complete loss how to respond to this because we certainly want him to know that he can come to us with problems but how can we uphold our rules without him totally rebelling?"

When a parent finds themselves in this situation I suggest they try to answer the following questions as honestly as they can. Once they have they usually are able to work out what to do next ...
  • What exactly is your child asking you for? The young man above is asking for a couple of things - he is certainly asking for more flexibility around the rules around alcohol and parties and is most probably asking for permission to drink when he attends these events
  • Do you feel comfortable with allowing that to happen? This is where you have to 'follow your heart'. Do you feel ok with easing the rules a little around parties and do you feel comfortable with giving him permission to drink alcohol at 16? No-one can answer that question but you and your partner - no-one!
  • If you don't feel comfortable, why not? This is incredibly important to think through and actually be able to articulate clearly. It really doesn't matter what the reasons are, as long as you have them clearly laid out (maybe even written down) and you can explain them to others (not just your child) should you be asked - not that you have to justify your parenting decisions to others, but it's always useful to have them on hand, just in case
  • Have you explained your reasons clearly to your child? I always say in my presentations to parents that really the only reason you ever have to give to your child is "because I love you!", but really that's the answer you give when they don't like the rules you've laid out and you don't want to enter into a screaming match with them! When you are explaining the rules you certainly should be making it very clear why you've made the rules you have - simply saying "because I said so ..." is just not going to cut it!
  • Are you being inflexible? This is a really difficult one for some parents - a 15- or 16-year-old is growing up and there does need to be some flexibility with rules. That doesn't mean you cave-in and give them what they want, basically you start to reward good behaviour ... If they have been going to parties regularly for 12 months and things have been going well, sit down with them and say something like ... "You've been wonderful. We're so proud of the way you've been behaving at parties, it's time to take another look at our rules". This is where curfews come in so handy, give them an extra 30 mins before you pick them up from a party. Never be frightened of asking them what changes they would like to the rules and see which of those you're happy to go with ...
  • Most importantly, do you really believe that your child would actually do what they are threatening? Realistically, the kids that are going to get into real trouble here are not the ones who are going to ask their parents for permission to do this - they'll just go and do it behind their backs! If they're talking to you and asking for rule changes, that can be a really good sign. Don't ever believe that all that great work you've done over the past 15 or so years with your child is now worthless. If you have a positive relationship with your child (you've been an authoritative parent - rules, consequences bound in unconditional love), that's not going to change because of something like this. They may not like you very much but they'll still love you. However, if you are being inflexible and not listening to your teen's concerns things could go pear-shaped - but as I said before, that doesn't mean you give them what they want, it just means you may have to do a better job of explaining your actions!
Always remember that the one thing that most adolescents are brilliant at is the art of manipulation. Once again, I have told the following story before - it's about a mother who was being manipulated by her 15-year-old daughter to such an extent that it was almost abuse ...

The mother wanted my advice regarding her daughter, parties and the provision of alcohol. Her daughter had told her that all her friends drank alcohol, their parents provided this without question and that all of the parties she attended alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided. She also told her mother that she believed that they had a great relationship - she could tell her everything and she did, nothing was kept hidden, unlike other girls and their mothers she knew. Unfortunately for the girl, her mother did not feel comfortable about giving her alcohol to take to these parties and this was causing heated discussion at home. The daughter then informed the mother that if alcohol was not provided then she would have to resort to finding it elsewhere and going behind her back. This, she threatened, would mean the end of their open relationship.

When questioned the mother had not spoken to any of her daughter's friends' parents. She had not called one parent who had hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15-year-old had successfully 'siloed' her mother, ensuring that she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on - she was feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened (there is no other word for it) her mother and told her that their 'wonderful' relationship would be jeopardised if she didn't get want she wanted. As I said to the mother at the time, this is not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it gets completely out of control.

I'm pretty sure we all used emotional blackmail to get what we wanted from our parents when we were teenagers (my mother still goes on at me about the grey Levi jeans that I had to have when I was 15 and how I told her that I would be totally ostracised from my entire year group if I didn't have them - the fear of social exclusion continues to work wonders with parents!). Today's teens are no different and, like us, they certainly know how to pull at Mum's or Dad's heartstrings.

Every parent has to make their own decision on how to move forward when their child resorts to this type of manipulation but the bottom line for me is always - whatever the decision, make sure you follow your heart and ensure you can live with the consequences should something go wrong. I have met too many parents who were bullied into making decisions and changing rules that they were not comfortable with and then either losing their child in tragic circumstances or finding themselves with a 15-year-old daughter who had been sexually assaulted or being called to a hospital after their 16-year-old son had been admitted due to alcohol poisoning or been a victim of violence. No matter what anyone tells you, giving them permission to drink or providing them the alcohol does not protect them from things going wrong!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Having problems with your teen and alcohol or other drugs? Three 'must-do's' that may help you get through ...

Hardly a week goes by without me receiving an email or a phone call from a parent who is having a problem dealing with their son or daughter and their alcohol or other drug use. Some of these mums and dads put on as brave a face as possible when they speak to me, while others are terribly distraught, some even breaking down in tears, desperate to find a solution to the problems they are facing with their child. This week I had four parents call me in just one day, all of whom were struggling with very different issues, but all telling me that they felt they really had no idea where to go to get help or advice.

Now I need to emphasise that I am not a trained counsellor or health professional, and I make sure I make that clear to anyone who calls me for advice in this area. I'm also not a parent so it is impossible for me to imagine what these people are going through. When I am approached by these people I see my role more as one of referral, trying to direct them to the correct services, agencies, as well as health professionals who may be able to assist them with their problem. There are usually three pieces of advice, however, that I do give them, three simple 'must-do's' that any parent struggling with a teen and their alcohol and other drug use can and should do to help them get through this extremely difficult time. They are as follows:
  • Make sure you and your partner are okay before you do anything else. By the time these parents speak to me the vast majority are a complete mess! They have been struggling to deal with what has been going on in their home for some time and the whole family is suffering. Marriages are sometimes at breaking point and if there are other children (particularly younger siblings) they too can be terribly affected. Let's be clear here, if you're a mess then there is no way that you're going to be able to help your teen. Don't be afraid to get professional help - so many are afraid to do this, believing that it somehow means they have 'failed' as parents - nothing could be further from the truth. You can go to your GP and ask for a referral to a health professional who specialises in this area (yes, they do exist!) or if you feel comfortable speaking to counsellor at the school your child attends, they may also be able to assist. Whoever you speak to, you need to use the opportunity to talk through what you are going through and possibly even get some strategies on how to communicate with your son or daughter more effectively. It is vital however that this is all about you - it is not about fixing your child's problem - this is all about making sure you are ok! You can worry about your child's issue once this is done ...
  • Before you react to anything, walk away and count to 10! Without doubt, every parent I speak to talks about the clashes they have with their teen and often the reason they took the step to contact me is that these are escalating. These clashes are usually due to the child not doing something that was expected of them or flagrantly breaking a rule and then the parent reacting. If you want one simple thing that will almost automatically reduce the suffering in the home it is never, ever react immediately. You're angry, they've been found out and their back is against the wall - it's not going to end well. I'm well aware that this simple strategy does not go towards solving the alcohol and other drug issue you have with your teen but it does make life more bearable! When something happens, walk away - count to 10, make a quick call to a friend and vent, scrawl out swear words on a piece of paper for a couple of minutes - and then come back to them and express your concerns. Once the old pattern of reacting straight away is broken, you have a better chance of dealing with the issue in a more positive way (and you'll feel less stressed!)
  • Remember that you're the adult and they're the child - one of the lines I hear constantly from parents is "But they won't even meet me halfway ...". A key to good parenting in this area is the setting of clear boundaries and rules and making sure consequences are in place should they break those rules. That said, young people are still going to push against those boundaries and you will need to punish them accordingly - that's a normal parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, there are teens who are going to ignore rules altogether and no matter what you do, they're simply not going to tow the line. Now this is not the norm and if your child is acting out in a major way you may need to change the way you approach your relationship. Instead of keeping insisting that they at least meet you halfway, you may have to go 'over halfway', reach over and grab them and then pull them back! So much of this has to do with parents realizing that you're not going to have total control over their teen's behaviour, no matter what you do ... Now I'm not saying you do this the first time they do the wrong thing, but if you obviously have a problem and you fear losing them - you have to change tack! What I'm talking about here is essentially a change in attitude - no matter how mature they may think they are, you are dealing with an adolescent who doesn't have a fully developed brain. They aren't able to think through things rationally and everything is based on a 'gut reaction'. Remembering this when you are trying to talk to a difficult teen is not going to solve the problem but it may at least lower your frustration level.
If you do have a child who you believe is having issues with alcohol and other drugs you need to remember that you are not alone. You also need someone to talk to about it. If you have a family member or friend that you believe is appropriate - go for it - but in my experience, so often parents who go down this route end up feeling even more frustrated when the person they trusted ends up telling them not to worry and that 'it's just a stage they're going through'!

If you do need to talk through what is going on in your family and you want a non-judgemental ear to listen I advise parents to contact a wonderful organisation called Family Drug Support (FDS). FDS was formed in 1997 by Tony Trimingham who lost his son to a heroin overdose. It is a caring, non-religious and non-judgemental organisation primarily made up of volunteers who have experienced first-hand the trauma and chaos of having family members with drug issues. They have a Support Line for parents that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - 1300 368 186.

As already said, the most important thing parents need to do is to make sure they're ok before they do anything else. This can involve getting professional help or simply having a great family or friend support network around them when things get tough. Remember, you're no good to your child if you're not coping well - when you feel good (or at least better) you're going to be able to deal with this type of issue much more positively and effectively ...

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.