Saturday, 24 June 2017

Are schools really being swept up in a "drug epidemic"? Have things really changed since we were teens?

Earlier this week the Herald Sun published an article titled 'Victorian schools swept up in drug epidemic as hundreds of children struggle with addiction'. Not surprisingly it attracted a great deal of attention, being picked up by most media outlets across the country, with radio and TV jumping onto the story very quickly. It came out just after I had written a blog on the fact that fewer Australian teens reported drinking alcohol (which some people refused to believe was true) and fed right into the belief of some that if indeed young people were drinking less then that had to be due to the fact that they were simply now using more illicit drugs (something that is not supported by the data that we have ...)

So what about this story and the fact that according to the Herald Sun (and I would presume data they received from Victoria Police), police "have been called to investigate more than 450 drug offences on school grounds, or at school events, since January 2014" - what does that actually mean? Do the figures that were provided to the paper really mean that Victorian schools are being 'swept up in a drug epidemic'?

Now, before I get into what these figures may or may not mean, I want to make it clear that I'm not saying that we don't have a problem with illicit drugs in schools. As the Education Department spokesman Alex Munro is quoted as saying in the story - "Our schools are a reflection of our communities, and unfortunately, the problems that we see in our community sometimes affect our schools." It's a great quote and he's absolutely right - illicit drugs continue to be a problem in our society and it's no surprise that illicit drugs can be found in schools. That said, does the data provided in this story support the notion that Victorian schools are being swept up in a "drug epidemic"? Absolutely not! If that was the case we'd be seeing many other indicators such as increasing number of young people being hospitalised, more drug-related deaths amongst our teens, rising youth crime rates and sky-rocketing drug arrests and charges amongst our school-based youth. If any of this was happening I am sure the Herald Sun would be the first to let us know about it!

All the data we have suggests that use of illicit drugs amongst school-based young people is low, far lower than it was in the 1990s (where we have comparable data). That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Drugs are certainly used by some teens and in some parts of the country there are real problems. Small regional centres, particularly in Victoria and WA, with lots of social problems such as high youth unemployment and poverty have been devastated by methamphetamine (or 'ice'). In other parts of the country there is just greater access to some drugs and, for whatever reason, the use of these drugs have been normalised. It's also important to remember that in higher socio-economic areas where teens have access to money, as well as greater freedom in many cases, drugs like ecstasy and cocaine are increasingly being regarded as just part of what you do when you socialise.

So what do these police figures actually mean? At this point I need to say that I have not been able to access the data that the Herald Sun was provided. Based on similar data released from other states in the past, however, here are some important things to consider when trying to interpret what police investigating 'drug offences' on school grounds could really mean ...

Firstly, it needs to be stated that schools now have a legal obligation to contact the police should they find what they believe to be an illegal drug on the school grounds, regardless of whether the drug has been brought into the school by a student, an adult or whoever. If a drug or drug paraphernalia (e.g., a bong or an ice pipe) is found at a school on a Monday morning after a weekend, police need to be called. When the police are called to a school to investigate a drug issue it doesn't necessarily mean a student was using a drug or even found with one. As the article states - "Some of the drug offences had been committed by older perpetrators, who were caught dealing and using within the school grounds."

In many of these cases (particularly those involving primary school children) I can almost guarantee that the police were called because a child had brought a drug to school that they had found lying around at home. When I was a primary school teacher in the early 80s I can remember a couple of occasions over the years where very young students (Years 1 and 2) brought in drugs or paraphernalia for 'show-and-tell'. I can't imagine that has changed, although there would now be a greater range of drugs or equipment some children may now find. In the article the police are quoted as saying that "Kids aged 11, 12, 13 have been picked up with ice pipes on them" - without a doubt there would be some cases (particularly in areas with lots of social problems and disadvantage) where you may see drugs being used by this age group (many of these have been well-documented by the media), but for the most part children bringing pipes to schools would simply be doing that - bringing them to school - they're certainly not planning to use them!

What I found most interesting in the piece is the reluctance of the reporter to mention the word 'cannabis'. He talks about teens being caught with ketamine (twice!), LSD, ice, "dangerous new synthetic drugs", as well as ecstasy, but fails to mention the illicit drug that we know is most likely to be used by school-based young people. Now, as I have already said, I don't have access to the data that the Herald Sun was provided but I can almost guarantee that cannabis was the number one drug that police were called to deal with in schools. I can also tell you that if there had been a significant number of ice-related incidents the paper would have reported the actual number - there weren't that many, so they just made sure to mention that it was in the mix. In 2015 the Sydney's Daily Telegraph published a very similar story about police responding to drug-related incidents in schools. Once again, they highlighted the sensational, but at least they acknowledged that 75% of all the incidents were cannabis-related. Now I'm not trying to downplay the cannabis issue - it's an illegal drug, but you need to ask yourself why didn't the reporter mention it in the story ... It's simple, the other drugs sound so much more frightening and will grab attention. Cannabis is a drug that some readers may have used during their teens, it's not scary enough - let's throw in ketamine (twice!), parents reading the article won't know what that is and that's going to have more of an impact! Sad but true!

The article states that "drug-dealing charges have been laid in 78 cases". It is not clear whether they were school students or not. This, once again, feeds into the myth that there is a lot of drug dealing going on in school grounds. I get contacted by many parents who "have heard stories" of dealing going on, only to have their concerns confirmed when some students (usually Year 9s) have been suspended or expelled. It is important to acknowledge, however, that many of these students who get caught bringing cannabis to school are just 'silly kids' - we're not talking high-level drug dealers here. These teens usually don't have a lot of friends and are able to access the drug in some way (e.g., steal it from an older brother or parent) and simply take it to school to impress a group of their peers. In many cases, there was no actual 'dealing' and some of those involved had rarely, if ever, actually used the drug. They just wanted to make friends, made a stupid decision and then found themselves in great trouble. As much as the article talks about "sophisticated rackets" being uncovered (and without doubt that sometimes happens), for the most part it's just 'silly kids'.

In addition, the reporter throws sentences around like "some children have landed in hospital after taking drugs on school camps" - no numbers are given or what drugs were involved. If you're going to report a story like this, provide all the data - don't 'cherry-pick' it and try to terrify people ... No parent wants their child to be exposed to drugs when they go to schools and this story plays right into all those fears Mums and Dads have in this area.

Drugs have always found their way into schools. I went to a Catholic boys' school in Perth in the early to mid 1970s and I remember wondering why on earth a group of my peers in Year 7 were sitting at a bus stop spraying 'Pure and Simple' into a brown paper bag and then passing it around to sniff it. As for illicit drugs, I first saw cannabis in Year 9 in Brother Alphonsus's Social Studies class when someone handed me a matchbox and told me to pass it to the boy sitting next to me. I opened it up and saw a box full of what I thought was lawn clippings! It was also well known across the school that cannabis grew down by the school swimming pool. The group of older boys who planted and sold it had a thriving business ... None of my friends were involved in that scene at all - it simply wasn't a part of our lives and that's exactly the same today. Yes, there will be some who will get involved but the majority won't...

When I taught in the early 1980s I worked in a particularly tough school in a lower socio-economic part of Perth for a couple of years and we would often have to confiscate tins with small amounts of petrol or other products from Year 4s and 5s that they would bring from home, planning to sniff them at recess or lunchtime. I can also remember being given a small foil of cannabis by a Year 5 student I taught who had found it in the playground. My memory is that the principal simply flushed it down the toilet - we didn't call the police. That just wouldn't happen today ...

What has certainly changed is the range of drugs that are now available, as well as access. In addition to ecstasy/MDMA, amphetamine and other drugs that may not have been as popular or accessible when we were young, GHB and ketamine have been added to the mix. When you add the growing number of emerging psychoactive substances (EPS) or 'synthetic drugs' that are now around, together with easy online access to substances, it's not surprising that there is a great deal of fear in this area. It is important to remember, however, that most school-based young people don't use these substances - once they leave (or become disengaged from) school, that all changes and changes quickly - but while they're at school, for the most part they are protected.

I am fully aware that if a person reading this believes that drugs are spiralling out of control in our schools and classrooms, nothing I am going to say is going to change their mind ... The fact that police have to be called to schools to investigate drug offences at all, of course is a concern and, in a perfect world, it wouldn't happen. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world and drugs are around and can be accessed by young people.

What I find offensive is the headline and the reinforcement of the belief by many that today's young people are so much worse than previous generations, not only in the area of alcohol and other drugs but almost everything! There is certainly illicit drug use amongst some of our school-based young people and a small number who get themselves into great difficulty as a result of their drug use. But that is not a new thing - it's always been there and there is no evidence to suggest that the situation has changed dramatically in recent years (in fact, the reverse is true - illicit drug use has reduced!). Yes, there is a greater range of drugs available today and increased access, mainly due to the internet, but most of our school-based young people make good choices in this area ... but don't let that get in the way of a good headline!

Saturday, 17 June 2017

If fewer teens are drinking alcohol and if they do drink, they're older when they start, do we know why?

With the release of the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) results we now have even more evidence that growing numbers of our young people are choosing not to drink alcohol. At the end of last year we saw the release of the data from the Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey(23,000 students from Catholic, Independent and state schools surveyed from across the country) which told a very similar story. Put simply, fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol. My favourite piece of data from the ASSAD survey is that in 1999 we had around one in ten 12-17-year-olds who had never used alcohol, but in the 2014 survey we had 1 in 3 who reported never drinking. That is a phenomenal result and a cultural shift that we should be celebrating!

This is not just an Australian phenomenon, we are seeing similar results in many parts of the world. I was in The Netherlands last year when their school data was released and their numbers are almost identical to ours, the recently-released US figures show a decline and some of the UK figures show quite dramatic reductions in alcohol use. It would appear that we are seeing a shift in attitudes towards alcohol and drinking amongst our young people. Now it's important to make it clear that we still have significant issues with some of our teens and underage drinking. Australian data shows that although we appear to have fewer teens drinking, those that do, continue to drink in a risky way, with some research suggesting that they may even be drinking in a riskier manner than in the past.

So if there are fewer Australian teens drinking (and that certainly reflects what I see in schools across the country), why is this happening?

There has been very little research conducted on those young people who choose not to drink and why they make this decision. Most studies have focused on how this group deals with the pressures they face to drink, particularly during adolescence, as well as examining some of the strategies they choose to use in social situations to avoid drinking. As more young people make the decision not to drink (or at the very least, delay their first drink or drink less), however, more research is being conducted, particularly in university or college settings in the US, and, as a result, we are learning more about their motivations. 

Some of the more 'traditional' reasons given for young people not drinking include the following:
  • religious and/or cultural prohibitions
  • sporting or academic ambitions
  • family history of alcohol misuse
  • not liking the taste and/or effects of alcohol
  • cost of alcohol
In more recent research, although factors such as taste, cost and not fitting in with other commitments continue to be identified, it would appear that real life observations (i.e., young people watching those around them, both family and friends), appear to have the greatest influence. In a 2014 study looking at young people who drink little or no alcohol, the following influences were identified:
  • good parental models – their family set boundaries around appropriate drinking behaviours and had provided them with positive role models in 'how to drink'
  • seeing negative effects of alcohol on family members – as much as the family can provide good role models around sensible drinking, some young people experience the negative consequences of parents' or other family members' alcohol use and the problems it causes to their lives and relationships leading them to choose to abstain
  • seeing negative effects of alcohol on friends and others around them – friends and others drinking to excess and experiencing problems (e.g., personal harm and damaged social reputations) reinforced the decision not to drink
None of these are really surprising and still don't explain why we have seen such a significant change with the young people of today. Could there be something that is unique about this generation that makes them view alcohol and drinking differently? 
Recently, there have been a number of studies conducted in the UK that have sought to explain why we are seeing growing numbers of those aged 18-25 years choosing not to drink alcohol. A 2016 article in the New Scientist called 'Generation Clean' highlighted some 'modern' issues that have been identified in recent research that could possibly explain this phenomenon. These included the following:
  • financial pressures – this, of course, relates to the cost of alcohol once again, but studies suggest that this generation, in particular, have great concern in this area with growing student debt, greater job insecurity and rising housing costs. Drinking alcohol costs money and there is evidence to suggest that some young people are opting for cheaper ways of socializing
  • socializing no longer requires meeting in a pub or bar – there are a number of studies to suggest that social media could be impacting on drinking behaviour. Traditional methods of communicating and socializing continue to be important for many, but there are now other options and young people are embracing these. So much communication is now conducted on-line and does not necessarily have to involve holding a drink in your hand in a crowded venue
  • concern about on-line image - once again, this relates to social media and the fact that cameras are everywhere. If you drink to excess and do something stupid, it is now there forever. Young people are also becoming increasingly aware that employers often look into a job-seeker's online presence - what you do on a Saturday night can have long-term implications on your future employment prospects
  • increasingly diverse populations – as countries increasingly welcome newcomers from cultures where drinking is less common, some experts believe this could be exposing young people to alternative ways of socializing that don't necessarily have to involve alcohol
  • possible 'backlash' to the excess of their elders – this is a particularly interesting one and is often referred to as the 'Ab Fab' theory (after the TV show Absolutely Fabulous). It suggests that young people are choosing not to partake, essentially bucking the trends of their parents (the teens of the 90s) who were drinking to excess and experimenting with illicit drugs
From my perspective I believe that one of the major changes we are seeing with our current school-based young people is the growing acceptance of non-drinkers by those who choose to drink. More and more, non-drinkers are now being regarded as a valuable part of a social group. Where once the 'cool drinking group' would want nothing to do with those who didn't drink, they now welcome them, knowing full well that they can be very useful on a Saturday night. Not only are they the people who look after those who get into trouble but they can also be incredibly useful in later years as the 'designated driver'.
When I try to explain these very positive results to parents I boil it down to three things, firstly I think there is enough evidence to suggest that social media is indeed having a significant influence. The way young people communicate and socialize is now very different from in the past and this must be having some impact. This does not always have to be a positive influence (as I'm sure every parent is aware) but there is a growing awareness amongst teens of their online image and social media does offer them so many other ways of interacting with their peer group, particularly for those who are not interested in partying and drinking to excess.

Secondly, you can't underestimate the impact of education in this area. We now have a much better idea of 'what works' in school-based drug education drug education around alcohol. Simply saying "don't drink" is not going to work and, instead, we have moved towards arming our children with empowering messages around looking after themselves and their friends. Some young people are going to drink alcohol, no matter what we do, keeping them as safe as possible is vital. At the same time these messages have helped non-drinkers feel good about their choices, as well as helping those who abstain be seen as valuable and valid members of a social group.
Most importantly though, due once again to education, I believe we are seeing a major shift in parental attitudes in this area. Parents have now got the message that we must try to delay drinking for as long as we possibly can and many try their very best to do just that. It's not going to be easy and the Australian culture and our attitudes around alcohol and its role in socializing makes it even more difficult but it appears that our efforts in this area seem to be starting to pay off. Sure, there are always going to be those parents who make it even more difficult for others by trying to be their child's best friend and providing (or tolerating) alcohol at parties and gatherings, but there are growing numbers of Mums and Dads who are working hard to instil good values and attitudes in their kids and provide rules and boundaries in this area in an effort to keep their teen as safe as possible.

So let's take the time to celebrate our teens - they live in a very complex world and they're doing a pretty good job of navigating through it! We should grab the results of this survey and yell them from the rooftops because I can pretty well guarantee you they'll be something pretty miserable coming out about their mental health, links to crime rates or use of social media in the coming weeks ...

Herring, R., Bayley, M. & Hurcombe, R. (2014). "But no one told me it's okay to not drink": A qualitative study of young people who drink little or no alcohol. Journal of Substance Use 19, 95-102.
White, J. (2016). Generation clean: Why many young adults choose to stay sober. New Scientist 3102, 3 December.

Friday, 9 June 2017

"We didn't call other parents – he told us we didn't need to!" One Mum's story of when it all went horribly wrong ...

I've talked so much about trust over the last couple of months and the importance of remembering that during adolescence your child is likely to lie to you to get what they want. There are certainly those parents who don't agree with me, choosing to believe that if you trust your teenager they will 'repay' that trust with being open and honest about their behaviour, whatever that may entail ... As I have said, I believe strongly in the following - most young people will do the 'right thing' most of the time, however, all young people will do the 'wrong thing' at least some of the time!

Parents need to be prepared for their child to 'let them down' at some time or another. Of course, don't 'expect' them to do the wrong thing but it is important to 'accept' that they are likely to slip up now and then, that's just what adolescents do! Every parenting expert will tell you that you have to trust your child at some point, but as I have said time and time again, blind trust is dangerous ... A couple of weeks ago I had this comment posted onto one of my blog entries:

"I heard you speak a number of years ago and remember feeling quite confronted when you said that my son would lie to me at some point. He was 12 at the time and I am ashamed to say that my husband and I completely ignored almost all of the advice you gave that night about boundaries and rules. We really believed that if we trusted our son he would repay that trust by being honest with us. He is now 16-years-old and has recently been arrested for the third time for drug use. He is a good kid but we let him down by not providing the boundaries we should have when he was younger. We didn't call other parents – he told us we didn't need to! It took a police officer knocking at our door for us to finally realize what had been going on for over 2 years! I wish we'd listened …"

I have since had contact with this mother (let's call her Jill) who is really struggling at the moment. Jill and her husband are desperately trying to work out how to deal with their son who has well and truly 'gone off the rails'. He successfully manipulated his parents from the age of 14 (and possibly even younger) and had them totally convinced that they had an open and honest relationship. Even though they never took him to where he was meant to be going, never spoke to the parents who were supposedly hosting parties he was apparently attending or did any other type of checking up on what he was doing on a Saturday night, he had them convinced that all was fine! As she said to me over the phone, "He was doing well at school, the friends of his that we had met seemed nice and we had no reason to believe that anything was amiss."

Now, apart from his third brush with the law, their Year 11 son is now facing expulsion from school for bringing cannabis to school, his grades have fallen dramatically and their family is crumbling. I feel so sorry for these parents - they sound like really good people who were trying to do the right thing but just found themselves being well and truly played by an extremely manipulative teen. The very real problem they face now is how to deal with placing rules and boundaries around a young man who simply has never had any before. Trying to change the way you parent when they are 16-years-old is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Realistically the only thing Jill and her husband are going to be able to do at this point is to try to build and maintain some sort of positive relationship with him, keep him as safe as possible and work in partnership with his school in an effort to get him through to his final exams. They have a very tough 18 months ahead of them ...

When I look at a group of students, particularly Year 10s, I can certainly see the problem that many parents face. Many of these teens are well and truly becoming young adults - they are physically changing, they are developing their own attitudes and values around so many things, particularly social issues and they want to be treated like adults. This means that they want to make their own decisions about where they go and what they do and they want to be trusted. Of course, parents need to respect how they feel and the changes their child is going through, but at the same time we must remember that they are adolescents and they need our help to get safely through this stage of their life ... The truth is that they are not able to make good decisions at this time - their brains are not fully developed and are 'programmed' to weigh risk in a very different way to an adult. In fact, their brains actually push them to take risks - this is an evolutionary feature that we are never going to change. We need to keep them safe ...

I am in the middle of reading an amazing book at the moment (I've read three great books recently, all of which I'll talk about in the coming weeks) and I don't think I have ever seen such a perfectly written explanation of adolescence and why effective parenting and boundary setting is still so vital at this stage of life. The book is called Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Teen by Robert J. MacKenzie and he writes the following in his summary of a chapter dealing with a parent's changing role in adolescence:

"When children enter adolescence they want and need us to shift from a direct and active role as primary authority figure to a seemingly less involved background figure that coaches from the sidelines. The role they want us to play is full of contradictions. Most teens want, and still need, us to be the central authority figures in their lives, but they don't want to think of us as such. They prefer to think of themselves as free agents who can manage their own affairs.

But the vast majority of teens are not ready to be the 'free agents' or to manage their own affairs. They still need our firm limits to guide their testing and exploration, our encouragement, our assistance with problem solving, and our instructive consequences when they choose to learn their lessons the hard way ..."

MacKenzie then goes onto talking more about 'coaching from the sidelines' (really another way of saying that during adolescence you move from a 'managing role' (parent-child) to a 'consulting role', which I have talked about many times). Where this book is quite different is that it really focuses on parental behaviour and responses to teen behaviour - I haven't finished it yet, but that quote is so 'spot-on' I just had to share it ...

When we spoke on the phone I asked Jill whether she would permit me to include her comment in a blog entry. Her response was heartbreaking. She burst into tears and said "Please let other parents know that this can happen to them. No-one wants to go through what we're going through at the moment. We feel like we've lost our son and it's all our fault!" Now, as I said to her at the time, I don't agree that it's all their fault - when you hear some of the things their son was doing from the age of 14, this was not 'normal' behaviour. He was clever and knew how to shut them down when they asked questions. Certainly, things may not be so bad if they had set boundaries and did some basic checking, but realistically, he sounds like a young man with some issues that would have always caused them problems, no matter what parenting style they had used.

Only you can make decisions around how you parent, nobody else can tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing. As I said to Jill, you can only do the best you can do at the time and, if things go wrong, you can't waste time beating yourself up about it. You've got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and work out what you're going to do next. You're going to be no good to your teen if you sit around saying 'What if?' ... I think the most important thing that I got Jill and her husband to do was to go and seek professional counselling - not for their son but for them! They are so beaten up and so convinced that everything is their fault that they are going to be no help for their son at all. As I said, the next 18 months is going to be tough for their family, they need to be strong and supported - professional help is vital ...

MacKenzie, R.J. (2015). Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Teen. Harmony Books: New York.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Alcohol and other drugs: Why the media often gets it so wrong and why I have pulled away from interviews ...

For those of you who listened to Triple J in the late 1990s, I was the 'drug guy' on The Morning Show. For seven years I was a regular on ABC's youth radio network where for an hour each Friday morning we discussed a different drug-related topic, took calls from listeners across the country and talked about the 'pros and cons' of use. It was an amazing experience and I need to thank the wonderful Angela Catterns for first taking me under her wing and introducing me to the unique and incredible Triple J audience. I don't believe that there is any way that a segment like that would run on a national radio station today. Perhaps you would get one up-and-running on community radio, but even then it would take a brave broadcaster to cover some of the topics we dealt with back then ...

For almost 20 years I regularly appeared in the media. In my role as the Information Manager at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), I provided comment on drug-related issues of the day, as well as promoting the research findings from the Centre. It became a major part of my role and I developed great relationships with journalists and media organisations across the country. When I left that role I continued to do interviews, focussing in on only alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and young people - that fitted in with my new business and it was the area that I was most passionate about. If appropriate, I would agree to be interviewed about other topics but more often than not I would refer the journalist to someone with expertise in the area.

For the past couple of years, however, I have refused almost all media requests and am frequently asked by those who remember the Triple J days why they rarely hear from me anymore ... I thought it was about time to explain my decision to pull away from making media comment ... I have just returned from overseas after presenting at a conference on the changing role of the media and its impact on the AOD field but it was a phone call from a reporter just before I left that really led me to write this blog entry ... She wanted me to comment on what I knew about 'flakka' and the fact that it was making those who used it have sex with trees! She was putting a piece together based on the UK article shown above and after a 15-minute conversation with her about the merits of a piece on this topic I realized that it was time to say something ...

I always promised myself that I would not become my father and be that person who says "but it's not like it used to be!", but that's exactly what I'm going to do ... Let's make it clear at this point, the media has never got the alcohol and other drug issue completely right but at least there were some people who tried bloody hard! Now that we find ourselves entrenched in the '24 hour news cycle', are drowning in commentators (from both sides of the political spectrum) who seem to hold unbelievable power and spit vitriol rather than ever having anything positive or constructive to say and have so many people rely on Facebook and other social media for their news - it's almost become impossible to get any accurate and well-balanced information out there!

I've talked about the media and the 'ice epidemic' issue many times before but, for me, that has been the straw that broke the camel's back! Every time I have been interviewed about this topic, particularly in the print media, I provide them with the prevalence data we have on the use of methamphetamine - they don't like the numbers, as they don't match what they want to write, and so they inevitably move onto asking me about whether I have seen much ice use at the schools I visit. I tell them I haven't seen any and, once again, they tune out! I have spent hours with journalists from across the country on this topic and my comments are rarely, if ever, used. When I read the published article they have inevitably gone to an unnamed police source or the like and got the quotes they actually wanted - "Ice is everywhere, it's unbelievably cheap and everyone's using it!" It's infuriating! Yes, this is a horrible drug that has caused devastating effects on users, families and the wider community but it is vital that the issue is given a context. Most people don't use the drug and they never will ...

As I said, there's going to be a lot of 'it's not like the old days' for the next few minutes but, regardless, here are just a few of my concerns in the area:
  • entertainment programs are now often sold to the audience as news or current affairs programs. Morning television shows used to be a great place to roll-out new research findings. Yes, there was always an entertainment aspect to these programs but for at least the first hour of airtime, you got 'hard news'. You were given a good 3-5 minutes to cover an issue and it was 'live' and 'face-to-face', that often gave you a minute or two to talk to the interviewer and let them know one key message you wanted to get across. Now, you're lucky if you get 3 minutes and, even if you're in the same city that the program is recorded in, you're placed somewhere else in the building to make it look like they're doing a 'live-cross' to you - why, I have no idea!  
  • TV programs are now constantly looking for that 'water cooler moment' - there's real competition across the networks to get that one comment or incident that will then make it online and go viral. Instead of simply reporting the news, many breakfast and morning programs actually want to make the news. The opportunities to get quality information about a range of issues out to the general public via these programs is reducing all the time
  • so much of what is discussed in so-called 'news programs' is now delivered by 'media personalities' and not experts in their field. I get it that not all academics or other experts are great talent - some I have worked with over the years should never provide media comment - but whoever thought it was a good idea to get a collection of 'personalities' to discuss complex issues like medicinal cannabis and drug testing in the workplace is beyond me! One I saw recently had a panel of 3 people, two women and one man - a footballer's wife, a fashion designer and a radio host - discussing cybersafety! The number of times I have wanted to put my foot through the television when one of these people has said something that is so factually incorrect is ridiculous ... The trouble is there are people out there who believe that if it is said on the TV it must be true - no matter who says it!
  • journalists aren't prepared to wait for thoughtful and considered comment. The media has always worked to tight deadlines but in the 24-hour news cycles, there is simply no time to wait for the interviewee to examine what they have been asked to comment on and then think about an appropriate response. When one person won't provide the comment in a timely manner, journalists are simply finding someone else who will. I certainly don't blame the journos for this - their job has become increasingly difficult and the pressure they must be under is unimaginable. That aside, as a result, we're increasingly finding media stories covering AOD issues containing information that is incorrect. When it is discovered that what has been written is wrong, it is rarely, if ever, corrected and misinformation continues to circulate
  • many online stories, once published, are there forever. That's great if what has been written is accurate, but if it is incorrect, then that piece of misinformation is dredged up over and over again, often being referred to years later
  • 'media grabs' have always been a part of the interview experience but now that's it, there's often nothing else done to support those grabs. Working out three key points you want to cover for a TV or radio news spot has always been one of the most 'fun' parts of doing a media interview. These would be a simple summary statement of a complex issue that you could almost guarantee would be dealt with in greater detail elsewhere - there would be an article on the topic printed in the newspaper, a lengthier TV interview was due to be aired later that day. That's not the case anymore - a grab is all you sometimes get. Alcohol and other drug issues, like so many other social issues, are presented in a couple of 'black and white' statements and there are no 'shades of grey'
Alcohol and other drugs is a complex issue and no-one (no matter what their viewpoint) is ever going to be completely happy with how it is covered in the media. Journalists have one of the most difficult jobs in the world and now, with the 24-hour news cycle and the growing influence of social media, it is getting harder. We also now have a growing discussion about so-called 'fake news' and its impact. Whether we like it or not all of us are influenced by the media in some way. You can be the most 'media-literate' person out there and be well aware of the particular biases that particular outlets may have, but when you are bombarded with the same message over and over again (e.g., previews of tabloid current affairs programs as you watch one of your favourite TV shows, reading headlines of newspapers or magazines as you sit opposite someone on a train or bus), it is a strong person that isn't going to be affected in some way ...

It is extremely important that people examine the media critically - looking beyond the headlines and the 'click-bait' and looking at who is being quoted and why. This is particularly true for parents of teens, many of whom are worried about things they see and hear in the media that most probably aren't even going to be on their own children's radar. Of course, parents should be concerned about this area but they should always be wary of sensational coverage and misinformation.

After presenting at the conference, writing this piece and really thinking through this issue I now have to consider what I do next in this area. Do I start to engage with the media more and just 'grin and bear' the frustration when things don't go as hoped or do I continue to sit back, refuse to make comment and let it all happen around me? It's a tough one - I love writing my blog and engaging with people, particularly parents - but there's no better way of reaching huge numbers of people and hopefully making a positive impact than by having a 3-minute live interview on a television program! Watch this space ...

Saturday, 6 May 2017

If teens really want to drink alcohol, they're going to find a way! It's just important to not make it easy for them ...

Recently after having given a Parent Information Evening I was contacted by a mother who wanted to say 'thank-you' for the talk. She also wanted to share something her 17-year-old niece (who had been babysitting) had said to her regarding the provision of alcohol. Here is an extract from the mother's message ...

" ... (she) asked us all about it and was really interested to hear about it. We mentioned about how it is imperative that parents don't give kids alcohol to take to parties etc. and she was adamant that she "would not recommend" we send our kids to parties without alcohol! I was taken aback but she said that in her experience if the kids didn't have alcohol and wanted to drink they just get alcohol off other kids. I guess this is a real issue to consider ... I thought it was an interesting response."

I always find the 'if you don't give them the alcohol they'll get it from somewhere else' argument quite bewildering. Realistically, if your child wants to drink alcohol, no matter what you do they will find a way - but does that mean you should just throw your arms up in the air and give it to them? That's certainly the response that your teen will want and, unfortunately, all too often that's what happens in many families. Some parents believe that if they give them the alcohol that somehow this makes it 'safer' than if they get it from somewhere else ... Alcohol is alcohol, it doesn't matter if you give it to them, they get it from a friend or they buy it themselves - it's still the same product! Now, if you feel comfortable providing them alcohol and it's what you want to do, that is totally your business and no-one can tell you to do otherwise - but if you don't think it's the 'right-thing' to do then you should never be forced into doing it simply because your teen threatens you ....

Sometimes I get the whole 'drink spiking' argument thrown at me, i.e., if you provide the cans or bottles, at least you know that the drink hasn't been interfered with in some way. Have you seen how teen parties operate when alcohol is around? Are they realistically going to carry the two bottles around with them for the whole night to ensure that the two drinks you gave them are going to be 'safe'? Of course not! Another argument is based around the provision of low alcohol-content options. Give them low-alcohol beers, ciders or ready-to-drinks (RTDs) in an attempt to keep them away from more problematic spirits. Some young people have told me that if they are given these by their parents they simply trade or sell them onto younger groups and then purchase the drinks they actually prefer.

For many reading this I guarantee that your parents didn't want you to drink alcohol, wouldn't provide it for a party and so you found your own way around their rules and boundaries and did it anyway ... It's highly likely that your first drink of alcohol with friends was in a park, squatting behind a bush or tree drinking a 'box of wine'! It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience, there wasn't a great deal of alcohol available and all in all, it was pretty scary.

I believe that young people of today are much smarter than we were when it comes to finding new and inventive ways of drinking alcohol, particularly in a party or gathering setting ... as I always say, it would appear that very few of them want to drink in a park if they can possibly help it, preferring instead to drink with their friends at someone's home! To illustrate just how clever some of these kids are getting I just thought I'd share a couple of the more inventive ways they are now smuggling alcohol into a party setting. Here are just a few:
  • hip flasks - these have always been around but have become the latest fashion accessory for some young women and can be bought online from many websites. I'm talking to 14-year-old girls who own one of these and this appears to be the number one way alcohol is snuck into sleepovers ...
  • 'a present room' - when your teen requests a special room at the party for presents - be wary! Amongst the wrapped presents they have been given there could be 'liquid gifts' ... The teen usually ensures that this is a room that is made 'out-of-bounds' from everyone apart from those they want to take in themselves so that they can share with them what has been so generously given. A number of parents have contacted me to let me know about this ingenious strategy, most of them totally bamboozled as to how some of the partygoers were becoming intoxicated until stumbling upon the drinking that was going on in the 'present room'
  • fruit injected with alcohol - this is a really clever one (apparently it's all the rage at sporting events, with men in their 20s injecting oranges with vodka to avoid alcohol restrictions at cricket games and the like!), with grapes being the preferred fruit for 15 and 16-year-old parties (but teens have told me that they have seen watermelon, strawberries and even nectarines used). And you thought your teen was on a health kick when they asked for a fruit platter at their birthday party!
  • a range of devices bought online - some of these are truly bizarre. You can now buy tampons that are hollow inside that hold one standard drink, a hairbrush which has been designed to carry liquid, as well as a range of other products usually worn under clothing that can be used to conceal alcohol. The most outrageous of these devices are the range of bras that can be purchased, where each cup can be used to hold a reasonable amount of whatever drink the wearer desires (apparently, usually vodka!)! These also come with a 'tap' to ensure easy access to their drink of choice ...
But my personal favourite story about creative ways of attempting to get alcohol into a party (and how the elaborate plan was foiled) is as follows ... Here is an edited version of an email that Martine, a mother of a 16-year-old daughter, wrote to me over the Christmas break ...

"Matilda was desperate for a 16th birthday party and since she hadn't ever had a party at our house we decided to go for it. We pulled out all the stops and wanted to make sure it was as special as possible. At the same time we made it very clear to her that there would be no alcohol. Some of her friends had had parties and parents had permitted BYO and had tried to control it. None of them worked out well, with one ending up with the police shutting it down. She didn't like it and we certainly had a couple of tantrums but as the night grew closer she seemed to accept our decision."

"On the Friday before the party (Matilda was at school) we had a company come to the house to erect the marquee and as they were putting in the pegs into the garden they hit a bottle of vodka buried beneath the ground. After the first bottle (and a couple of cans) were found we decided to do a thorough investigation. It took us a while but we ended up finding an absolute treasure trove - bottles of vodka and bourbon, UDL cans and an assortment of other bits and pieces! We decided to say nothing to Matilda and simply watch what happened on the night ... Watching those teens desperately digging through that garden searching for their alcohol almost made up for the huge disappointment we felt in Matilda! Nothing was said on the night and I truly believe that most of the kids had a great time (we believe it was a core group of about 6 kids who knew about what was going on - at least they were the ones that were obviously distressed!). What surprised me was how organised these kids had been - one bottle in the dirt or a couple of cans hidden in the bushes maybe, but hundreds of dollars worth of alcohol carefully buried? They're certainly far more clever than we ever were!" 

As I said, teens will find a way if that's what they want to do - we did and so will they!

If you don't believe that giving them alcohol is the right thing to do - make it clear that you don't want them to drink before a certain age and that you won't be giving it to them. Let them know that if they decide to break your rules and drink and you catch them then there will be consequences. Will this mean that they won't break the rules and they'll do everything you want them to? Of course not, for many young people there will come a time when they will decide to experiment with friends, no matter what you say or however strong your relationship, but I can guarantee you that if they do choose to drink, for the most part they are likely to be a lot more careful with how much they consume because you have made it clear as to what will happen if they get caught!

We know through research that when you provide alcohol to teens the only message they get from that is 'my parents give me alcohol' - they certainly don't get any messages about safer or responsible use. Of course, at some point you have to trust your child to 'do the right thing' - at 17 many parents start changing rules (no matter what their values) because it is 'the year of the 18th' but at 15 or 16 I find it hard to believe that anybody would think it would just be easier (and safer) just to send them off to a party with alcohol. It may sound like a good idea at the time but if it should go wrong and something terrible happens to your child - and remember, we lose one 14-17-year-old due to alcohol in this country every weekend - you will never forgive yourself ...

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Parents, teens and trust: Are teens more likely to lie during adolescence?

Last week I discussed a simple 'how-to-guide' when deciding on whether your child attend a party, gathering or sleepover. In the last paragraph I repeated what I have said many times before around adolescents not always telling their parents the truth and that even though you have to trust your child during this time, you just have to make sure it's not 'blind trust'. As I said, "do that and it's just plain stupid and potentially unbelievably dangerous!"

This statement received a fairly strong response from one person who posted the following on my Facebook page:

"I am disappointed to see this old chestnut rolling around in a place I generally regard as offering wise, evidence guided suggestions, "As I've said many times before, you can't trust an adolescent - they're going to tell lies and let you down - that's what they do!"

I call bulls***. I was a teacher in secondary schools for a decade and I have three adolescent children. Adolescents are no less trustworthy than anyone else. They have my trust unless and until they break it. If I respect and trust them, if I share my values, concerns, and expectations, they come to value our relationship and my trust enough to avoid breaking it. Parenting is all about building solid connections and meaningful relationships. Expecting kids to lie to me undermines that goal."

Now I would normally just simply respond directly to the comment on the page but I wanted to take the time to answer and make sure that it was addressed appropriately. There have been many people who have challenged me over the years on this topic (some simply getting angry that I have suggested that their child would lie to them, while others, like this person, holding the belief that adolescents are no less trustworthy than adults) and even though I have tried to clarify my position many times, it may be wise to do so again ...

Firstly, I believe that our young people are wonderful - they live in an increasingly complex world and the vast majority manage to navigate through the adolescent years without too many problems. I have worked with them for over 30 years and the current generation of teens constantly amaze me when it comes to their resilience and ability to adapt to the huge changes that are occurring in the world today. Each week, across the country, I meet adolescents who are doing incredible things and, sadly, we do not talk about their achievements enough ...

Secondly, I suppose the best way of explaining my beliefs around parents, young people and trust is as follows:

Most young people will do the 'right thing' most of the time, however, all young people will do the 'wrong thing' at least some of the time

I totally agree with this mother - sharing your "values, concerns and expectations" with your child is vital in developing a valued and trusting relationship. And of course, parenting is all about "building solid connections and meaningful relationships" but it is also important to remember that during the teen years they do not have fully-developed brains and as such this affects their decision-making ability, including whether to tell the truth or not.

You can have the best relationship with your child - one that both you and your child values greatly - but when they are put into a situation where they have to make a decision, they weigh 'risk-reward' differently than adults. If a teen is put into a situation where they have to decide whether or not to tell their parents the truth about whether they are planning to drink alcohol at a party or not, they have to 'balance' risk and reward. The risk is they would jeopardise their wonderful relationship with their parents if they lie and the potential reward is that they get to drink alcohol with their friends ... As adults, we would look at these two options and would regard the risk as too great - the relationship is far more valuable than a couple of drinks. Adolescents, however, are more likely to see the reward as far more important, leading them to not always telling the truth ... Does this mean they value the relationship with their parents any less? Of course not, it's just that their brain is pushing them to the reward - they "don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff"! It is also important to note that this reward is increased if they are around their peers - the more friends around them, the greater the reward. So in actual fact, adolescents are likely to be less trustworthy than adults simply because of this evolutionary feature ...

So should parents 'expect' their teens to lie? Absolutely not! If parents went through the teen years with that negative attitude they'd be driven mad ... I don't believe you should 'expect' your child to lie, but you need to 'accept' that they will at some time. Does this undermine your relationship with your child? I don't believe that it does - it's simply being realistic and acknowledges that teens do not always make the best decisions, not because they're 'bad kids' (or you're a 'bad parent') but simply because they're going through a stage in their life when their brains are going through major changes and they also need to push against rules and boundaries to work out exactly where they fit in the world.

Without doubt, the better the relationship you have with your child, one in which your values, concerns and expectations are discussed, the more likely it is that they will be truthful and share what is happening in their life. Accepting (not expecting) that your teen is going through a stage of their life where they are not always able to make the best decisions and may lie to you ensures that you don't fall into the trap of blindly trusting them. I have met too many parents over the year who have totally believed that their relationship with their son or daughter was one built on respect and trust, only to find out too late that they had been lied to, sometimes for years. All too often they discovered this out when their teen had ended up in hospital, been sexually assaulted or in some cases, when they had died.

Of course, you should always think the best of your child - raise the bar and they are likely to lift themselves up to reach it! Trusting your teen to do the 'right thing' is vital in maintaining a positive relationship during adolescence. However, accepting that teens lie and understanding why they may do this, even in the most trusting and open relationships, helps avoid blind trust and potential disappointment ...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A simple 'how-to-guide' when deciding on whether your teen should attend a party, gathering or sleepover

Every parent wants their child to have friends and to 'fit in' with their peer group. Many Mums and Dads are terrified that their child may be socially excluded in some way, particularly if they themselves experienced some kind of rejection when they were young. With increasing awareness and concern around mental health issues, particularly around adolescence, this fear has only intensified in recent years and most parents would do almost anything to ensure their child is socially accepted and has a good group of friends.

That is where deciding whether or not your child should be able to attend a party, gathering or even a sleepover can become extremely difficult. On the one hand, you are thrilled that your son or daughter has been invited to an event and wants to go (i.e., they have a friend and are keen to interact with a social group), but at the same time you have questions such as will this be a safe place for them to go and how much do you really know about the people who are hosting? You desperately want your child to fit-in and have a fun time with their friends but you don't want them exposed to potential risks or dangers. At the same time, you are also juggling issues around maintaining an open and positive relationship with your teen - saying 'no' to them all the time can certainly jeopardise that, particularly if they do not understand the reasons behind your decision.
Let me start by saying that I believe strongly that if your child wants to attend a social gathering on a Saturday night (and there are many young people who don't, including an awful lot who have done it once or twice and discovered pretty quickly that it's not their thing!), in most cases, it is usually better to allow them to go than not. Parties and gatherings are where teens learn to socialise in a different way than they do at school and, as such, are an important part of growing up. Still, just blindly saying 'yes' to a teen when they ask if can they go to an event is not the way to go.
So, with that in mind, here are my thoughts on how to make a decision on whether your child should attend a party gathering or sleepover.
Firstly, and most importantly, don't be bullied into a decision – you don't have to give an answer straight away, no matter what they say. Gather the information you need to make an informed decision and if they tell you they need an answer now - the answer is 'no'. Take your time and get it right. If both parents are on the scene, make it clear right from the very start that both of you make decisions around sleepovers and parties. Adolescents are extremely clever at setting up one parent against the other and it is vital that they understand that there is a 'united front' on this issue. Make it clear to them by telling them – "Don’t come to me, don't go to them – come to us!"

To make an informed decision you need good quality information. Every parent needs to decide for themselves what that should be and when they have worked that out, sit down with their child and let them know what that is ... It then needs to be made clear that without that information they won't be going. This is going to be a difficult process if you suddenly start doing this when they are 15-years-old, but get the ball rolling when they are in primary school and it just becomes part of 'what you do' and you won't have the drama later. I believe the following four questions need to be answered to ensure that an informed decision can be made:
  • whose party is it and do you know them and/or their parents?
  • where will the party be held?
  • will the parents be there and will they be actively supervising the party?
  • what time does it start and what time does it finish?
Of all the questions here the final one is most probably the most important, mainly because it helps you sort out whether your teen is asking about attending an actual party or a 'pre-party'. This relatively new phenomenon is catching many parents off-guard, particularly those new to the whole teenage party scene. Your teen asks you whether they can be dropped off at Jane's house at 7.30pm and that's where you think they will be for the night. If you haven't done your due-diligence and actually called Jane's parents to find out what is actually going on, they may not even be there at 7.30pm. This is actually a 'pre-party' where a small group of teens will assemble, often pre-load with alcohol (as already said, there are often no parents present, while at other times, some actually 'supervise' this drinking!) and then in a couple of hours the group will move onto the actual party that they were planning to attend all along, with you being none the wiser! Finding out starting and finishing times of an event can help avoid being left in the dark in this area.

So if you need this range of information, where do you go to find it? There are a number of places you can go but unfortunately, in my experience, many parents are simply not willing to put the effort in when it comes to this area …
  • first of all, if you're a complete idiot, you'll rely on the old favourite and simply ask your child! This, of course, is not the most reliable source and your teen is more than likely to avoid telling you anything they know would prevent them from going ... That said, you need to always ask them first - what do they know about the event and what will be happening? You can pretty well guarantee that they don't know much and you will be lucky if you get very much valuable information from this discussion. I had a wonderful chat with a young lady this week who took great joy in telling me about the wonderful relationship she had with her mother - "I tell her everything and she trusts me completely," she told me. She had just been sharing a story about a drunken friend that she had tried to carry up some stairs at a party and so I asked her what her Mum had thought about that. "Oh god, I didn't tell her about that! If she knew that my friend had got that drunk she would start worrying about us ..." Obviously, even in the most 'trusting' relationships, choices are made around what needs to be shared and what doesn't!
  • most importantly, go to the source – contact the parents hosting the party. This is the best place to go but you're going to get resistance from your teen and the conversation with the parents is not always easy, particularly when it comes to the alcohol issue. As much as some parents have told me that when they have made the call they have been met with a positive response - e.g., "I'm so pleased to hear from you, I haven't had anyone else call and find out what's going on!" - there are others who have had extremely unpleasant experiences. Some claim that they have even been verbally abused by host parents, accused of 'overparenting', with many being asked the question "Why are you calling? Don't you trust your child?" This is always going to be a tough job but is without a doubt the best way to get the information you need
  • talk to other parents – this is the one that most parents are least likely to use, but it really is one of the best. If your child has been invited to an event that you are concerned about, talk to their friends' parents to find out how they feel about it. Do they know the parents who are hosting? What has their child told them about the event and does it match up with what your teen has said? If, at any stage during your child's schooling, you can find other parents who you believe have similar values to you in this area, staple them to your side and stick with them for as long as you possibly can! These people can become useful allies throughout the teen years and are also an invaluable source of information ...
  • look at social media – has anything been posted online about the event? This is a tough one and I need to make it clear that I do not advocate spying on your child ... When they are in their early to mid teens and are on social media, most cybersafety experts will tell you that a condition of them being on these platforms is that you will be following them in some way. I do not claim to be an expert in this area but if you're going to be doing this I believe it should be done in an honest and upfront way - creating a false identity and 'stalking' your child or finding out their passwords and then secretly accessing their accounts only cause much greater problems later should you actually discover something inappropriate (i.e., how do you tell them that you found out about it?) ... Be upfront and tell them that you need to have access. Should they have concerns (and they will), discuss these and try to reach a compromise. As far as parties, gatherings and sleepovers are concerned - social media can provide valuable information about upcoming events and can certainly help you to make a decision about whether you teen should attend or not
As I said earlier, I believe that it is usually best to let your child attend these social events whenever possible. Of course, there will be times when the information you have collected clearly shows that the event is too risky and you have to say 'no' - you simply have no choice! For some parents it will be the availability of alcohol that will be the deciding factor in whether they allow their teen to attend or not. I certainly believe that if your 14 or 15-year-old is invited to an event and you discover that alcohol will be permitted or tolerated by the parents hosting, that is an extremely good reason to not allow your child to attend. So many of the parties held on a Saturday night around the country are not small - we're often talking about events with 60-80 young people attending. Trying to keep that number of teens safe when alcohol is added to the mix is almost impossible - that is going to potentially be a dangerous event ...

When it comes to 16-year-olds I think this is where trust starts to come in ... If you keep saying 'no' to your child when it comes to attending social events purely because alcohol may be there, you're going to be at risk of them pulling away, that all-important connection can be broken and you could lose them. Once you have done your homework and found out about the event they want to attend and you have concerns, these need to be expressed. Tell them that you don't feel comfortable but that you trust them to do the 'right thing' and that they are allowed to go but there are caveats, i.e., different rules apply to this party than for others. These may include limiting the amount of time they are there or agreeing to be picked-up from the party in a different way than normal. If your trust is broken (i.e., they break your rules), there will be consequences. Over time, reward good behaviour and 'free the reins' a little - they are growing up and becoming young adults.

As I've said many times before, you can't trust an adolescent - they're going to tell lies and let you down - that's what they do! Like everything else during the teen years, however, when it comes to parties, gatherings and sleepovers you have to start trusting them at some point ... you just have to make sure it's not 'blind trust' - do that and it's just plain stupid and potentially unbelievably dangerous!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

5 things parents should discuss with their teen before they leave homefor a sleepover, party or gathering

If you allow your teen to attend a sleepover, party or gathering on a Saturday night, you've made a pretty big decision. They're going to be going to someone else's home (often someone you don't know particularly well) and they are going to socialise with other teenagers. Regardless of whether alcohol (or other drugs) are going to be involved - things can go wrong. Once you've told your teen they can go to wherever it is that they are going, your work doesn't stop there!

I've written about the importance of making decisions about how they get to the event and how they get home (as I've said many times, I believe this is the one non-negotiable in this area - you decide what happens here - not your child!), as well as talking about your expectations around behaviour, but it is also vital that, regardless of their age, your child should never leave home without a number of simple things being discussed. These are all around safety and planning and although I am sure some parents will read these and think that these are 'overkill' and bordering on 'smothering', it's the way that they are raised that makes all the difference ... This is not about a sit-down discussion where you give them a lecture, but rather some of these should just arise in general conversation in the lead-up to them leaving home for the night or just become part of the ritual of dropping them off to wherever they may be going.

Most importantly, every parent's mantra as their child leaves home on a Saturday night should be as follows - "You can call me anytime, anywhere – if something goes wrong and you need me – I'll be there!"

Even though you've made the decision that they can go to wherever they're going you continue to be a parent. Make sure you are available to them should they need you. Your child should feel comfortable calling you in any situation, at any time, feeling absolutely confident that you will be there. This needs to be conveyed to them whenever you take them anywhere, over and over again ... Now if you decide to say this, you must be able to follow-through and ensure you are able to do it and that may mean that you will have to sacrifice your 'fun' on a Saturday night. If they're at a party or even a sleepover (i.e., there are no plans for them to come home that evening), one or both of you are always going to have to remain sober to ensure that you can hop into your car to get them at a moment's notice. That may be really difficult for some people but that's what being a parent is all about! Sure, you can always call a cab or an Uber if need be, but if your child calls you in a state because everything has gone 'pear-shaped', you are going to want to get there as soon as possible and be in a state to look after them ...

Apart from this mantra, here are five things I believe every parent should discuss with their teen before they leave home on a Saturday night:
  • remind them of your support should they need to call 000 - this is the one that I am always amazed that parents simply don't do! In my experience, the number one reason that young men don't call an ambulance is the belief that the police routinely attend ambulance calls (which, of course, is completely untrue - they don't even know an ambulance call has been made unless the paramedics call them) and young women fear that their parent will find out ... That is incredibly sad - they actually make the decision not to call for help because they're scared of what you may think. Every child (not only teens) need to feel completely supported should they find themselves in a situation where they need to call an ambulance, always remembering that the slightest hesitation could possibly lead to tragic consequences. As already said, this reminder should not be part of a major lecture and could be as simple as a throwaway line as they're getting out of the car like "You know that you have my 100% permission to call 000 if something goes wrong and then call me ..."
  • check that they have the address of wherever they are going stored in their phone or written on a piece of paper - this takes five seconds to do but can save a life in an emergency. Regardless of where they're going (or their age - I've met university students who say this was one of the best tips I gave them when they heard me at their school years before, as they're still doing it!), make sure that you see them putting the address of where they're planning to go into their phone. If something goes wrong and they need to call for help, they will need to know their location. I recommend that every parent ensures that their entire family downloads the 'Emergency +' app onto their smartphones (this activates your GPS and provides not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address), but just to be on the safe side, having the address written down somewhere is a great idea and also ensures your teen understands the importance of planning ahead, as well as providing you with some peace of mind
  • find out who their 'buddy' is for the night and make sure you have their number - the worst thing that can happen to a parent is when, for some reason, they need to contact their teen when they are out and they can't get hold of them. For whatever reason, they don't answer their phone or they don't respond to a text. Establishing the importance of identifying a 'buddy' for the night, once again, stresses the importance of planning and also provides parents with a safety-net in this area. A buddy is the person that your teen is planning on being with for the night (it is important to make clear that this is not about being 'joined at the hip', it's just they're planning to be with or around them). The whole idea is that if you are unable to get hold of your teen (and you would only do so if it was absolutely necessary - you don't want to be bombarding them with messages all evening - do that and you'll never be given a buddy's number!), you can contact the buddy, just to make sure all is fine
  • discuss your 'out word' and remind them that you're always willing to be the 'bad guy' if they need you to be - I've talked about coming up with an 'out' word or phrase with your child to help them get out of situations and still 'save face' many times before. This can be used in either a text message, a phone call or a conversation whenever your child wants to be taken out of a situation - e.g., they may not be enjoying a sleepover they are at (either missing their bed or you), there may be things happening at a party that they don't feel comfortable being around or they just simply be bored out of their brains and want to come home. Remind them that if they feel that way, they can use the out word and you'll be there and you're happy to be seen as the bad guy by their friends and take the blame to get them out of any situation
  • "if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't" - once again, this is a statement that needs to be thrown out in a casual conversation but needs to be put out there often. Making it a part of the ritual of dropping them off or as they walk out the door can be so powerful. Regardless of where they are going and who they are with, your teen is going to have to make many decisions throughout the night, some which could have major consequences if they make the 'wrong' ones. You can't make those decisions for them - they're going to have to do it for themselves. You have undoubtedly aimed to raise your child with a set of values that are similar to yours - simply reminding them that 'if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't' will hopefully demonstrate to them that you are trusting them to make the 'right decision', whatever that may be ...
It constantly amazes me that many parents will often send or drop their teens off on a Saturday night without more than a quick "I love you". Of course, you can't wrap them up in cotton wool and protect them from absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong - they are growing up and they are going to have to fend for themselves at some point or another. That is why it is important for them to socialise with their peers and have a good time - some of them will make mistakes and things will go awry - that's a key part of growing up. That said, it is also vital that parents remember that they are going to potentially dangerous events - taking the time to cover just a few simple things that can keep them just a bit safer is not 'overparenting' or smothering. If done correctly, it's simply showing them that you love them and, at the same time, provides them with some basic life skills for the night ahead and their future ...  

Saturday, 1 April 2017

"Take $100 out with you and stop drinking when you've spent that!" - a father's advice to his 16-year-old son around safer alcohol use!

No-one can tell a parent how to deal with the alcohol issue when it comes to their children. Your child is precious to you and only you can make decisions about how to handle the 'if they drink, when and how many' questions ... If you believe that providing alcohol to your child is appropriate and that, in doing so, you are keeping them safer and they are learning how to drink responsibly, that is your business and no-one else's. As I have said many times before, the only problem I have is when parents impose their values on others and invite other people's children to events where alcohol will either be provided, permitted or tolerated - thus putting those parents who do not feel comfortable with their teen drinking in a very difficult position. That is incredibly unfair. That said, I think there are some extremely well-meaning parents who are trying to do the right thing when they provide alcohol to their teen who simply have no idea about how much they are handing over ...

I recently visited a school and after my Year 12 presentation a number of young people came up to me wanting to ask me questions. I was finally left with two young men, who were obviously friends, both 17-years-old. One of them had already asked his question but stayed around to support his mate who wanted some advice - here is the general gist of his question:

"When I go out to a party and there is alcohol available I find it really difficult to stop at just one. If there is a carton of anything, I'll start with a can or a bottle and have every intention to stop after I've had that. I don't understand why, but I find that incredibly difficult to do - I keep going back and sometimes drink an entire carton, often making myself feel sick in the process. In my head, I want to stop - I know what will happen if I keep drinking - but I almost can't stop myself. What should I do?"

I asked him whether he drank during the week (he didn't), whether he thought about alcohol or drinking at any other time (he didn't) and a couple of other questions to try to determine whether he could be coming alcohol dependent but, to me, it sounded more likely to be a lack of self-control more than anything else (he was also one of those young people who simply didn't feel comfortable in a social situation without a drink in his hand) ... I then suggested a couple of tricks he could use to slow his drinking down and asked him if he had spoken to anyone else about this 'problem'. He then told me what his father had suggested to him when he had asked for advice - his answer blew me away!

"Dad said the best thing I could do was to make sure that I only had $100 in my pocket when I went out and to stop drinking when I spent that!"

Now I don't know what my face looked like but his mate's face was a picture! Before I could say anything (and I have to be honest, I didn't quite know what to say!), his mate blurted out "But that could be four bottles of vodka!" I'm sure that father had the best of intentions when he gave his son advice (and isn't it great that he went to his Dad for help with this?) but had he really thought it through and worked out how much alcohol he was actually recommending?

I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago when I discussed the bizarre phenomenon of parents hosting post-formal events who include on the invitation that those young people attending are able to bring up to four cans to drink at the event. As I said at the time ... "Do the parents hosting this event realize how much alcohol that actually is?" Even if each can (or bottle) was the equivalent of one standard drink (which it rarely is), that is still four standard drinks ... The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking recommends that "for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion" - and that's for adults! No number of drinks is recommended for those under 18-years, with the guidelines stating that "not drinking alcohol is the safest option."

Once again, I realize that 'not drinking alcohol' is not realistic for all young people, but this idea that four drinks is an appropriate (and safe) number for parents to provide to their teens is frightening. It is equally as concerning when you hear that there are people who believe that stopping drinking when you're spent $100 on alcohol is somehow promoting safer use!

When I discussed this last, I had recently surveyed some Year 10-12 students and asked them some simple questions about the last time they drank alcohol - e.g., who provided the alcohol, how much they provided, what type of alcohol was it, and how much they drank? The results clearly showed that amongst those parents who did provide alcohol to their teens, there appeared to be a poor understanding of how much they were providing and their teen was consuming, as well as the potential harm associated with such behaviour.

When you read some of the responses from the students, the sheer amount provided is staggering and clearly illustrates that some parents simply don't understand how much alcohol is in the can or bottle that they hand over to their child ...
  • "My Dad gives me a 6-pack of beer to take with me. I've been given that since the end of Year 10. They don't want me to drink spirits like my mates." (Year 12 male)
  • "I have three Smirnoff Double Blacks, sometimes 4 depending on what kind of party it is and whether my parents know the people who are hosting it." (Year 11 female)
  • "Usually 4 bourbon and cola UDLs. My parents have said that if they catch me drinking straight spirits then that'll stop but they've been giving me this much since the end of Year 10." (Year 11 male)
  • "Two Smirnoff Double Blacks. I told my Mum that all my friends drink vodka and that I think that's dangerous and I am able to better control my drinking with these drinks and not get into trouble." (Year 10 female)
  • "Four beers and never anymore. Mum and Dad have said they don't want me to drink spirits and have said that beer is safer. Some weeks I start off with a couple of shots of vodka with my mates just to get the night going but that's about it." (Year 10 male)

Let's break down just how much alcohol some of these teens were actually being provided ...
  • A 6-pack of beer is going to be around 8.2 standard drinks (full-strength - 1.2 per can), around 6 (mid-strength - 1 per can) and 4.2 standard drinks (light - around 0.7 per can). Of course this varies depending on brands (cans and bottles can vary slightly but not too much usually) but realistically that's a lot of alcohol
  • The number of standard drinks in bourbon and cola UDL cans vary depending on whether they are the 'normal strength' or 'black label' variety. Four of these cans can amount to anywhere from 4.8 to 6 standard drinks for cheaper brands, up to 7.6 for the higher strength and more expensive ones
  • Four Smirnoff Double Blacks (which continues to be the most popular drink amongst young women) results in them consuming 7.6 standard drinks – more than a third of a bottle of vodka!

I firmly believe that most parents who are providing their teens alcohol to take to parties and gatherings are doing so for what they believe are the 'right reasons'. I hear it all the time from parents I meet - "I give it to them because they're going to get it from somewhere and I'd much rather they get it from me - at least I know what they're drinking."

These are parents who truly love their kids - I don't for a minute think they are intentionally trying to put their kids into harm's way. In fact, I think it's just the opposite - they're trying to protect their child. I'm sure that was the case with the father I mentioned earlier - his son had approached him for help and he gave him the best advice he could ...

You can see from the student responses provided that a common theme was that their parents didn't want them to drink spirits. I think that is still the case - parents, for the most part, are very aware that groups of young people downing bottles of vodka, bourbon or rum is extremely risky. The theory, therefore, is providing them with beer or pre-mixed drinks could reduce the risk of them going down that path. Unfortunately, when they do this, they don't seem to have any idea as to how much alcohol they are actually providing their teens - at least, I hope that is the case. For, as I have said in the past, if there is any parent who truly believes that they're keeping their child safer by providing them with the equivalent of well over a third of a bottle of spirits to take to a party or gathering (because that's what a 6-pack of beer or 4 Smirnoff Double Blacks actually is) we really have a problem!   

Saturday, 25 March 2017

My cousin, heroin and how his death shaped how I work with young people today

One of the questions I am most often asked by students, teachers and parents alike is why I got into this area and why I am so passionate about the topic. There are really two parts to the answer - the first, fairly boring and uninteresting and the second, deeply personal ... 

The boring part is simply that I fell into it - there was no grand plan and I certainly never saw myself as ending up working in the alcohol and other drug field. Ask anyone I went to school (or teachers college or university) with  and they would say I was most probably the last person they would imagine would end up in that area. I trained as a primary school teacher, taught for a number of years and then left, moving through a number of jobs until finally ending up working at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW. Schools would occasionally call the Centre and ask for a researcher to give a presentation to students and, not surprisingly, no-one was interested. One day, someone suggested I do it ... and that's how it all started ...

For the first few years it was simply something I did - it certainly wasn't a passion. In one of my previous jobs I had developed drug education resources so I knew the literature. 'One-off' presentations by outside speakers were not effective, with the classroom teacher being the best person to deliver drug education. Don't get me wrong, I loved working with young people again, but I didn't necessarily believe that I was making much of a difference - I didn't think I could ... That all changed in the year that my family discovered that my cousin David was using heroin ...

You often read about 'troubled' young people – that definitely described David. Red-haired, freckled and slightly overweight, he had always been self-conscious and really didn't know where he fitted in the world. My extended family, including David, all lived in the UK (my parents emigrating to Australia when I was 10) and so when they discovered that he was using heroin in 2000 they immediately asked if I would travel home to try and assist him to get onto some sort of drug treatment program. At that time he was 27-years-old.

Understandably, the whole family, but particularly my aunt (his mother), was devastated when David's heroin use was discovered. She came from a generation that simply did not understand illicit drug use. Although she had heard of heroin, it was something that characters in a movie or a television soap opera used, definitely not her son. When I flew to the UK it was as much to support her as it was to assist David to find a suitable program. She had so many questions and did not know where to go for the answers. She had done all the right things – she had gone to a counsellor, she had looked for a local parent support group – but she was confused and felt terribly alone. She was living in a different world to that of David, and regardless of the phenomenal love they had for each other, the chasm that was between them in terms of drug knowledge and experience was proving extremely problematic. When I arrived, my first priority was to stop my aunt from continuing to go to David's dealer to buy the heroin for him, as she innocently believed that, if she got caught, she wouldn't get into trouble because the drug wasn't for her. She was only helping her son - how could she get into trouble for that?

David and I immediately bonded. My family had moved to Australia when I was 10 and, although I had met him a number of times on previous visits, I really didn't know him at all. He always had problems in the years that I got to know him but, regardless of the issues, I found him to be a wonderful, caring human being. He was fascinated with what I did for a living and was always asking me questions about a whole range of substances. All of us had been completely unaware of his extensive drug use history. He had been using drugs for years, had tried almost everything and had even become involved in organised crime and trafficking. Like most drug users, however, he had no desire to hurt himself as a result of his drug use and although his behaviour could be extremely self-destructive, he was keen to find out as much as he could about the 'story' behind a range of drugs so that things would not go wrong. He told me over and over again that he would have loved to have been given the opportunity to hear some of the information I was sharing with him when he was younger. When I asked him what was wrong with the drug education he did receive from school and the like, one thing he said particularly resonated with me - "They kept telling me what they thought I should know instead of what I actually wanted to know ..."

From that day on I started to change how I present to young people, particularly in terms of the messaging I developed. It's no wonder that young people don't listen to us when it comes to this area, so much of the information we provide is designed to shock and scare. Drug education is about so much more than information provision, but it is a part of it - we need to make sure what we are providing them is credible and useful. We rarely, if ever, ask teens what they want to know in this area, instead focussing on trying to ensure that they never go near drugs. When I started to go into schools and ask students what information they would like, the overwhelming response was how to look after each other. Most of them drink or take drugs to have a 'good time', they certainly don't have any desire to hurt themselves or anyone else. What did they need to do if something went wrong? If we give them information like that, it still lets them know about the risks and hopefully illustrates that 'no use' is the best and safest option, it's just provided in a way that is more palatable to young people. When I started to change the messaging, the response from students changed dramatically ...

David died from a heroin overdose in 2007. He was 34-years-old. My cousin was a great success story in so many ways. Although he had had relapses he had found real happiness in the last year or two of his life. He had met someone and the last time I saw him he told me his life had never been so together. Six months before he died he had saved enough money to travel overseas with the girl he cared so much about and his life appeared to be heading in the right direction. We will most probably never really know what went wrong but regardless of what happened I know he is in a better place.

When I wrote my book in 2009 I dedicated it to David and his mother, my Aunty Pat (who sadly passed away last year). Both had been looking for answers to a whole range of questions about drugs for a long time. I don't think my aunt ever really got the answers she so desperately wanted and needed - I don't think any parent who loses their child ever does - but I did often say to her that it was my time with David that truly shaped what I do today. It certainly didn't stop her hurting (she never recovered from his death) but she truly appreciated that David's story and even his death had resulted in something positive ...