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Thursday, 26 January 2017

Transition from primary to secondary school: The first 3 months are critical and can impact on future alcohol and other drug use

I still remember my first day of high school - it was horrible! I had attended a state primary school and my parents, like many others, made the decision to move me to the private system for my secondary schooling. It was a major financial sacrifice for my parents back then and they did it for all the right reasons, but it was tough! Apart from the move from a co-ed environment to a boys only school being difficult (sport certainly wasn't my thing!), it was made even harder because I knew absolutely no-one. Many of the boys had come from 'feeder' primary schools and entered the year with established friendships - I was completely alone!

I have a wonderful nephew who is just about to start high school (like me moving from the state system to the Catholic one) and his parents and I have had long talks about how to ensure this transition is as smooth and positive as possible. I certainly don't want him to have the experience I had and my brother and sister-in-law have made sure that the school he is attending has a strong transition program. Children are no longer just thrown into the high school environment and left to fend for themselves, with schools developing programs to ensure that no-one 'slips through the cracks' during this potentially stressful time. But it's also vital that parents realize that they play a crucial role as well and that those first three months of high school are incredibly important ...

Now you may be wondering how I've made the leap from the shift between primary and secondary schools to future alcohol and other drug use ... Well, apart from anything else, it's all about making sure our kids are resilient and the evidence clearly shows that this transition period plays a key role in building (or potentially damaging) resilience.

Essentially, resilience is the 'ability to bounce back', i.e., the capacity to overcome adversity and obstacles. We know that it is important to try to make our young people as resilient as possible, hopefully protecting them against the stresses and adverse situations that they will encounter as they go through life. We can't 'inoculate' them against possible problems (such as alcohol and other drug use) but if we can help them 'bounce back' should things go wrong, we are arming them in the best way possible.

The Australian guru in this area is Andrew Fuller and he truly is the 'go-to' person in this area. Much of what I'm going to say next is based on his work and if you've been living under a rock for the past couple of decades and don't know anything about him, I encourage you to take a look at his website ( and all the free material he makes available. Andrew has written that he believes that the transition between primary and secondary school is critical for building resilience in students. From a positive perspective, starting high school offers young people "an opportunity to re-invent or consolidate how they see themselves". However, for others, changing schools (or even moving from primary to secondary within the same school) can be a stressful event and has been linked to a lowering in self-esteem and an increase in psychological distress should it not run smoothly.

The good news for parents is that if students have had a smooth transition, by Year 10 they have higher levels of school attendance, better academic results, low behavioural problems and lower rates of substance abuse. And there's the link to alcohol and other drugs - positive transition, the lower the risk of future problems in that area! So why is this the case and what can parents do to help ensure their child has a positive experience?

Firstly, even though we're not quite at the 'middle adolescence' stage (that wonderful Year 9 group that I keep on talking about) parents need to remember, that even at this age, their child is growing up. They may not be as obvious at this age, but children are starting to go through physical and emotional changes, including a burst of hormones, particularly in the girls; the next stage of brain development begins; and although it's early in the piece, they are starting to try and create their own identity, with peers starting to become more influential than they once were.

Most importantly though this transition period requires all students (whether they're new to the school or not) to establish new peer groups. A significant number of new students enter the year group and there is always (and I mean always!) a shift in the group dynamics. Amongst the 'newbies' there will be those children that almost everyone will automatically gravitate towards, some will have pre-existing issues and problems, while there will be others who are strong academically or have athletic abilities. As these children are 'added to the mix', everyone will be affected in some way. Established friendship groups from primary school will be affected, some terminally. One new child added to a year group can have a ripple effect, in the first year of high school there will be a large intake - things will inevitably shift and these changes can be hard for young people ...

OK - so it's a tough time and potentially stressful - I'm pretty sure that most parents get that. What is a worry though is just how quickly things can go wrong at this time. In 2001, Andrew wrote a paper called 'Creating resilient learners' and there's a paragraph in it that I often quote to parents with children about to move into high school:

"I suspect we have no more than three months from the commencement of secondary school, and perhaps much less time, before a peer group develops negative attitudes towards learning."

Now the paper was all about building resilience and its importance as far as learning is concerned, but it works for everything else as well. What he is saying here is that those first months of high school have the very real potential to affect your child for the rest of their life. Frighteningly, I've heard Andrew say that it's more likely to really be the first six weeks that make the difference! What they will all be struggling to do during this period is to gain the acceptance of their peers, i.e., they want to find a friend or a friendship group. In his paper, Andrew wrote:

"The power of conformity and the strength of the desire to fit in (at almost any cost) ... mean that many young people choose peer acceptance over educational success."

In addition to finding friends, young people will also try to establish their place in the year group (or their established friendship group that may have been affected by new students). As they try, many will likely experience rejection to some degree. Not everyone is going to be popular and this can be difficult for anyone, let alone a young person entering adolescence who is beginning to struggle with a range of physical and emotional changes. The resulting self-doubt, lowered self-esteem and overall distress has been shown to adversely impact future resilience if they are not supported during this time.

In addition, as they bounce from group to group, trying to find which one will accept them and where they actually fit, there is the potential for them to find themselves being accepted by a peer group that could end up being problematic. Remember what Andrew said above - "the power of conformity and the strength of the desire to fit in (at almost any cost)." Your child needs friends and a friendship group (at almost any cost) - this is a time when you could find them 'falling in with the wrong crowd'. Even though you have worked hard to instil your values and attitudes in your child, it can all come undone during this very short period of time.

So what can parents do to support their child through this transition period and, in doing so, help build their resilience? And is there any way that you can ensure that they don't find themselves in a potentially problematic peer group? There are no certainties here, but here are a few simple things that any parent of a first year high school student should try to do over the next month or so:
  • keep talking to your child and show an interest - they may not want to tell you everything that is happening but keep asking the questions. High school is so different from primary school - they now have multiple teachers, they may be getting to school a different way and they're meeting many new people - show an interest in all of it. But know when to stop - don't be a nag! If they don't want to tell you more, don't push it!
  • be involved - ask any high school teacher and they will tell you that they rarely see a parent unless something goes wrong. Parents need to be actively and respectfully involved with what is happening during this transition period. Don't embarrass your son or daughter and show up halfway during an English lesson but make an effort and attend any parent sessions the school puts on. Try to make a time to see their Year Coordinator to introduce yourself and see how things are progressing, particularly if you have any concerns 
  • meet their new friends - if they start talking about new friends, encourage your child to invite them to your home so you can meet them. This shouldn't be a 'vetting period' but rather a simple but effective way of staying connected and being more aware of what is happening in your child's life
  • meet their new friends' parents - meet the friends, then meet their parents. You can tell so much about a child by having a brief chat to their Mum or Dad. If they seem to have similar values as you, grab them and hold them tight - they're going to be useful in the future. If they don't, be prepared, you're most probably going to have work twice as hard!
  • don't be afraid to express your concern if you're worried about who they're hanging out with - if you don't feel comfortable with their friends, let them know. This has to be handled extremely carefully and respectfully but, if it doesn't feel right, it most probably isn't and you need to let your son or daughter know how you feel. Trying to ban your child from seeing certain people is not going to be helpful, particularly during this transition period, but talking through your concerns and working through possible solutions is important
And most importantly, if you don't do this already, start working on it today - find a special activity for you and your child to do at least once a week.

We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is so important in building resilience. Having an activity that involves a time when it's just you and your child 'connecting', particularly just before they enter their teens can be so helpful in maintaining a strong and positive relationship.

If your child has just started high school, it can be very exciting for them but also very stressful. If they're having trouble fitting in and finding friends, or they're having problems with their old friends, they may find it difficult to talk to you about it. There's a great deal of shame associated with not being popular ... much more than we were young, much of it to do with the important role social media plays in many of their lives. Having a regular time to catch up and chat about what you're doing and what's happening in their lives can make those difficult conversations a little easier.

Sadly, many parents think that an activity like this has to take a great deal of time and as a result they don't make the effort to put one into place. In fact, if you spend just 5 minutes a week of real quality time with your child it can work wonders. On the other hand, having an hour of 'Dad-time' with you on your phone for half of it won't work - you might as well not do it! The key to finding the right activity is that it has to be fun for both of you, distraction free (no electronic devices that can interrupt you) and something neither of you does with anyone else!

Fuller, A. (2001). Creating resilient learners. Learning Matters, 6, 22-25.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Parties and parenting: Start the year as you mean to go on, particularly you Year 9 parents!

It's not long now until school starts again. I'm sure many of you have had to deal with the party and gathering issue over the holidays but it will really fire up in the weeks ahead. As young people start to socialize in the school environment once again, discussions about what to do and where to go on the weekend, including which parties to attend will dominate schoolyard conversations for many. The invites will start rolling in and parents are going to have to make decisions about whether to let their son or daughter go to wherever on a Saturday night.

If you're one of those parents whose teen has been going to parties each and every weekend and you haven't been policing the situation properly, to be honest, there's very little you can do. It's not only extremely difficult to change your approach 'midstream', it's also unfair and I can guarantee that your son or daughter will let you know that. In the words of my mother, "You've made your bed, now you've got to lie in it!" You can't all of a sudden insist on calling parents hosting a party or tell your child that they can't sleepover at someone's house if you've never done that sort of thing before. You can try, but you'll have problems and life won't be easy at your house ... Of course, if they've done something wrong and you're punishing them, that's a different matter, but suddenly changing your rules around parties is just not going to work. The only time that you possibly have a chance to change the way you do things is when they're making the transition from Year 10 to Year 11 - the move into upper secondary and those looming final exams. This is about the only time you can try a 'reboot'!

As they begin their final years, it is possible to renegotiate rules (or at least your approach to the rules) if you come at it in the right way. Of course you want them to have time to socialize and relax with their friends but partying every weekend, particularly if alcohol is involved, is not going to be helpful if they want to achieve their very best. Having a discussion about your expectations, the rules around parties and gatherings and the final years of high school can be really useful at this time.

But the parents that have the most to gain from getting it right now are those parents of Year 9s (sometimes Year 8s if the child is more socially developed or even Year 10s if they're a little less mature). I've talked about the Year 9 cohort many times, particularly around parenting and parties, but this is a great time to remind any parents going through this stage about some of the key issues they are about to face. This is the year that you start to hear about the party culture building (with a small but influential group starting to drink, some to excess) with some Year 9 girls being asked out by boys a couple of years older than them and subsequently finding themselves invited to Year 10 and 11 events. It's also when you begin to see students bringing cannabis to school and then being either suspended, 'moved on' or expelled. Year 9 certainly appears to be a very difficult time for many families, with parents often confused as to why this is happening.

This is the year they usually turn 14 and enter the time of their life often referred to as 'middle adolescence' - the time when the search for identity becomes a central concern. They start to pull away from their parents and their peer group becomes far more important. They're maturing and growing up, many are physically changing and are beginning to look much older, particularly the girls, and parents find themselves in a really difficult place. On the one hand they want to give their child the opportunity to create their own identity and establish where they fit in the world and start to make more decisions for themselves, but on the other, they want to keep them as safe as possible during this potentially very dangerous time and that involves maintaining rules and boundaries.

This is where these parents get into trouble - they can see that their child is growing up and believe that they need to let them start to make their own decisions and trust them 'to do the right thing'. Year 9 is the year of the 'sleepover', as well as the 'party' or 'gathering', and instead of making the call to parents hosting these events and dropping their teen off at the home and then picking them up, they begin to get increasing pressure (from their child but also friends and family members as well) to loosen the rules a little and let their child fly a little more. They've got to be trusted at some point but really, is Year 9 the time to do it, particularly when it comes to sleepovers and parties? Far from it - this is the time when if you see their wings sprouting, you should be getting a great big pair of garden shears and clipping them off as quickly as possible!

So to all you parents who are just about to begin that rollercoaster year, whatever age your teen may be (depending on their maturity level) - but I'll say it again, it's usually those dastardly Year 9s - here are just a few tips around the issue of sleepovers and parties:
  • Don't be bullied into making a decision about whether they can attend or not. 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!"
  • Know where your child is and who they're with – at this age, they're likely to start lying to you about where they're planning on going. If you want to let it slide, that's up to you, but I can guarantee you'll never forgive yourself if something terrible happens. To make absolutely sure, always take them to where they're going and pick them up. Don't leave it up to someone else to do if you can possibly help it!
  • Always call the parents who are hosting the sleepover, party or gathering. Speak to them and find out some basic information about supervision and whether alcohol will be provided or tolerated. Your teen is not going to like this and they'll most probably tell you that you're ruining their life - but that's your job! If they tell you that they hate you - respond with "But I love you ..."
  • Create rules and consequences around sleepovers and parties and stick to them. The beginning of the school year is a great time to have a family discussion about the rules you have in this area. The consequences of breaking those rules should also be clearly laid out and agreed to by your child. They can't say they're unfair later if they've agreed to them. Most importantly, if you don't follow-through should a rule be broken, you may as well throw in the towel straight away - the first time you buckle and let something slip, you will lose your credibility and your rules will become totally ineffective.
  • If kids don't like the rules, then they're most probably perfect. But remember, reward good behaviour and modify the rules as they get older to make sure they're age appropriate.
  • If things start to get out of control, get help. Too often parents leave it too long to seek help should things be going wrong in this area. If your teen is climbing out of the window on a Saturday night and not coming home, that is not normal behaviour. You can always start with the school counsellor, or even your GP, but make sure you talk to someone and get professional advice if things start to get too difficult!
With teens of this age, it's also incredibly important to 'choose your battles'. You and your partner need to identify what your 'non-negotiables' are (i.e., those things you won't compromise on) and spell them out clearly to your teen. Fight with them about everything and your life will be very difficult. If you let the ones that really don't matter (i.e., they have nothing to do with personal safety and more to do with your personal disappointment, e.g., "You're not going out dressed like that!") slide once in a while you'll find yourself having a much easier time. Letting a Year 9 have a win occasionally can make family life so much more pleasant. If your 14-year-old wants to sleepover at someone's house or go to a party and you don't think that it will be safe, however, this is where you do stick to your guns and the rules and boundaries do come into play.

And remember, it's not all about saying 'no' to everything. If you want a warm and positive relationship with your teen always look for opportunities to allow your child to do something. If it looks safe and you feel comfortable - say 'yes'! Wrapping them up in cotton wool and saying 'no' all the time is not healthy. But when you have made the decision that you're not going to give your permission, say 'no', make it clear why you're saying it and don't back down!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

With media promoting drinking as the 'norm', how can parents help their teen develop healthy attitudes towards alcohol, including regarding 'non-drinking' as a valid option?

Last night I was watching the TV news and during a story about the current Test match the cameras suddenly turned their focus onto none-other than our ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. I didn't catch why we had turned our attention away from the game but a moment later we flashed back to the older statesman while he successfully skolled a beer in celebration of our success on the field. The commentators obviously loved it, thoroughly enjoying his drinking skills laughing and saying "He's still got the capability – good on him!" The SMH continued the same line this morning writing "to the delight of the crowd, the 87-year-old pulled out his party trick, downing a frothie with aplomb … Hawke was then shown on the SCG's big screen fulfilling expectations, to the cheers of an adoring crowd." (By the way, the screen is sponsored by Victoria Bitter beer!) had the headline - "Hawke knocks back a frothie" and Sporting News wrote "Bob Hawke necks a beer at the cricket"...

Now I have no problem with anyone, whether it be Bob Hawke, The Queen or Humphrey B Bear, enjoying a drink and even skolling a beer if they wish while they're watching sport, socialising with friends or whatever. It's a legal activity and it's not my business what anyone does in that area as long as it doesn't affect me or anyone else that I care about. That said, did Channel 9 really need to turn a camera onto an 87-year-old man and show him skolling a drink and then actively celebrate it, not once, but over and over again? Not surprisingly, the SMH story took it even further, grabbing the opportunity to let us all know (once again) that our one-time PM once set a world speed drinking record …

"The former PM was re-enacting his feat from the 2012 SCG Test against India ... Without hesitation, the then-82-year-old downed the beer in one go in front of an ecstatic crowd - taking about 11 seconds to finish the drink. That is the same amount of time he is said to have taken to drink 2½ pints of beer when he set a world speed drinking record during his time as a student at University College, Oxford in 1955."

As I said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what our ex-PM did – he looked like he was having a great time and good on him! What I have the issue with is that we don't need to see it. It was a cricket match – show the cricket! So many young people watch the sport – what message are they getting from this sort of coverage? Most of them would have no clue who Hawke was – all they would be picking up from what they were seeing is a very clear message that alcohol and sport go together and that if you can drink it quickly it will be celebrated. Skolling a beer or any form of alcohol is seen, at the very least, as funny (the commentators thought it was hilarious), and, if you're lucky, you may even get a standing ovation for your efforts!

Australia has a unique relationship with alcohol. It plays a major role in many people's lives when it comes to socialising and is not only regarded as 'socially acceptable' but 'socially expected', i.e., if you don't drink, there must be something wrong with you. We drink alcohol to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax, to have fun, in fact, it is central to almost any social gathering or event held in this country. It is interesting, therefore, that even within such a culture, we have a growing number of adolescents choosing not to drink. Not just drinking less (and the numbers there are increasing as well), but actually not drinking at all. Unfortunately, however, alcohol use is perceived as the norm and it is vital that we start to support those who choose not to drink and promote 'non-drinking' as a valid and socially acceptable choice.

It is difficult to be an adult non-drinker in this country, with few, if any, social gatherings or events where the presence of alcohol is not front and centre. Most adults who choose not to drink, for whatever reason, will tell you that they find it incredibly annoying that most people assume that everyone drinks, and if you don't there must be something wrong with you. Constantly explaining and often defending the reasoning behind your decision can get tiresome at best. If adults feel that great social pressure, how difficult must it be for a 15-16-year-old adolescent who is struggling with working out where they fit in the world?

So how can we support our young people when they are constantly bombarded by messages (like the ones that we saw celebrated at the cricket yesterday) that suggest the only way to 'have a good time', particularly in a sporting context or at a special event, is to drink? One simple way is to challenge existing stereotypes around alcohol, with families able to play an important role if they set their mind to it. Unfortunately, many parents believe that they can do little to influence their child’s drinking behaviour. This is not true. Parents can make a real difference and promote positive attitudes around alcohol, including seeing non-drinking as a valid and socially acceptable option, by doing the following:
  • acknowledge all types of drinking – 'risky', 'moderate' and 'non-drinking'. There are basically three options when it comes to alcohol. You can choose to drink to excess, drink responsibly or you can choose not to drink at all. All are valid choices (with varying degrees of risk) and all should be acknowledged. Assuming that every young person will drink alcohol at some point or another is simply not true and can make your child feel something is wrong with them or their choice if that is the path they want to follow
  • if you know a 'non-drinker' – talk about them! If you or your partner doesn't drink alcohol – talk about your decision. Don't jam it down their throat - but if the topic arises, grab the opportunity. If alcohol is a part of your life, a non-drinking relative or family friend can be 'wheeled out’ occasionally to talk about their decisions around drinking with your teens. Your child needs to be aware that adults can have a good time without alcohol and that if they choose not to drink they will not be a 'social outcast'.
  • discuss reasons people choose not to drink – we know most drink to socialize, why do people choose not to? This is an important conversation to have with a child, acknowledging different religious and cultural differences, that some people experience great problems with alcohol possibly due to their family history, while others simply don't like the taste or just aren't interested and that's okay!
  • promote positive norms – 'flip the figures' and talk about how many people don't drink to excess and that the majority of teens are not doing these things, e.g., most 15-year-olds classify themselves as non-drinkers and the number is growing.
  • challenge misconceptions and avoid generalizations – all too often parents make huge statements like "everyone drinks" or "they'll all drink at some time or another". Actually, not everyone drinks, they won't all do it and most teens don't take part in some of the riskier alcohol-related behaviour often reported in the media!
  • be a positive role-model – a child learns so much about alcohol from watching you and your drinking behaviour, not only during their teen years but from the very early years. If you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm every time you're out with friends, you are sending a strong message to your kids about the role alcohol plays in socializing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just important that you talk about it.

So what can you so to be a good role-model? Here are some simple things that parents can do that can make a positive impact on your teen's attitudes around alcohol and socializing:
  • talk about your alcohol use – how do you try to drink safely?
  • try to limit your alcohol use in front of your children
  • organise events with families and friends that don't involve alcohol
  • provide food and non-alcoholic beverages if making alcohol available to guests
  • don't portray alcohol as a good way to deal with stress, e.g., "I've had a bad day, I need a drink!"
  • sometimes decline the offer of alcohol

I'm certainly not about promoting abstinence when it comes to alcohol – it's a legal product and, as I've already said, if you want to drink and you're not hurting anyone else, go for it! It's important to acknowledge that we live in a society where alcohol is used widely, with the majority of Australians drinking reasonably responsibly. Most adults actively support, both by their actions and by what they say, those teens who choose not to use illicit drugs, however, the same cannot always be said when it comes to alcohol. If teens choose not to drink alcohol they need to be supported in that choice and the best way to do that is to make it very clear that choosing not to drink is socially acceptable and those who don't drink do not have three heads and are, in fact, completely normal!

I'll say one more time – I am not criticising Bob Hawke for having a drink or even skolling it – that's his business. But when are we going to get to the point when the media realizes that their constant 'promotion' of the link between alcohol and sport (e.g., any Melbourne Cup coverage, or winners of almost any sporting event are shown popping open a champagne bottle) and any special event (I can almost guarantee that any news coverage of Australia Day will involve at least a few cans and bottles and a couple of people looking a bit worse for wear!) is not helpful? Most importantly, they don't need to show alcohol in these stories. It's simply not necessary. There's so much more they could include in a 90-second spot on the news about any sporting event (like the actual sport perhaps?) and do we really need to see a pile of drunk Aussies with tinnies in their hands in a piece highlighting our national day? (The image of a surfer paddling at Bondi balancing a can of VB with an Australian flag in it on his board played over the final credits of the Channel 9 News on Australia Day a couple of years ago still baffles me. There must have been so many other wonderful shots that could have been used - why that one? Is there any other country in the world where their flag is used to promote alcohol to such an extent?)

Challenging the messages our kids are bombarded with around alcohol by the media is not going to be easy. It's not about being a 'wowser' and demonising alcohol and those who choose to drink - it's about redressing the current imbalance and acknowledging that it's okay if you don't.  Parents can make a difference in this area if they put their mind to it. At the very least, it's worth a shot, particularly for those kids who don't want to drink and constantly feel like something is wrong with them because they don't fit in with what they see as the 'social norm'! 

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.