Saturday, 16 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 September 2017

Is providing 'fake' alcohol a good way of trying to help your teen deal with 'peer pressure' at parties?

Over the years I've been contacted by a number of parents who have wanted my opinion on providing 'fake' alcohol to teens attending  parties or gatherings. Last week I received the following Facebook message from a mother asking the same question:

"I am just wondering what your view is on the idea of teens (15-year-old) 'pretending' to drink at a party by filling vodka cruiser bottles with cordial or soft drink?"

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived in a world where we didn't have to assist a 15-year-old to 'fit in' by providing fake alcohol? The sad thing is that this 'peer pressure' (although I believe it is far more likely to be a much more insidious 'social pressure') is also a reality for many Australian adults. As I've said many times before, I don't drink alcohol and I can think of many times over the years where it was just easier for me to grab a glass or bottle and walk around a party or other event and pretend that I was drinking. Having to deal with the party's host or people serving alcohol constantly asking me why I wasn't drinking can get really annoying. I'm sure some of the drinkers reading this will say, well why didn't you just grab a soft drink or water? Without doubt, there are many situations where that works but I can tell you that there are others (e.g., a wedding) where holding a mineral water (particularly when you are about to toast the happy couple) is seen as totally unacceptable by some! At the last wedding I went to, when I declined the offer of a glass of champagne from a waiter and asked for a mineral water instead, I remember a guy looking at me and saying loudly "I don't trust anyone who doesn't drink alcohol!" When I told a radio 'shock jock' who was interviewing me that I didn't drink alcohol (after he had specifically asked me a question about my drinking behaviour), he told me that that was "un-Australian"! I have no idea what that really means but it's kind of sad ...

So in the context of that culture where drinking is perceived as the 'norm', how do our young people cope with that social pressure? If you look at the evidence there are certainly growing numbers of teens who are choosing not to drink alcohol. As I've said before, I believe that one of the reasons for this is that many drinking groups now actually 'embrace' non-drinkers. They see them as valuable members of their social group. These are the guys or girls that look after the drinkers and become the designated drivers and, as a result, being identified as the non-drinker in the group does not necessarily mean the 'social suicide' that it once did. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and there are certainly groups of young people who drink alcohol who reject those who don't ... I am sure this happens amongst both genders, but in my experience it is the girls who are likely to face the greatest pressure here ...

When I wrote my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs, I interviewed a mother who was really struggling to help her daughter maintain her position in a friendship group. The following story didn't end up making the final cut of the book but it perfectly illustrates the challenges that some young people face in this area:

An elite athlete, Alison was in Year 12 and represented Australia in her chosen sport. She was on the way to gaining a place at the AIS and had made the decision not to drink alcohol from an early age, prepared to sacrifice partying to make sure she achieved her dream. She had a great group of friends that she had had since primary school but recently each of them had started to drink alcohol when they went to parties. Even so, there were no problems as they all understood why she didn't drink and totally supported her decision.

Unfortunately, their attitude started to change at the beginning of Year 12 with Alison starting to get great pressure to join in with the drinking behaviour. In fact, according to Beth (her mother), she was going to lose her friends if she didn't agree to partake ... Beth was desperate to try to find a way to help her deal with the pressure she was getting to conform and keep her friends but, at the same time, not compromise her values ...

Beth finally came up with the idea of buying bottles of premixed spirits (e.g., Bacardi Breezers), emptying them out and then filling them with up with lemon squash. She would recap them (and even went to the extent of going to a factory to get them capped professionally!) and her daughter would take two of these to take to a party. According to Beth, the plan had worked and Alison was able to carry off the charade and keep her position in the social group.

I can remember having a long talk with Beth about the major issues she had with this strategy. She certainly didn't feel comfortable doing it and she had a huge problem understanding why a group of so-called 'friends' (many of whom she knew well) would suddenly put this kind of pressure on her daughter. But knowing how important being accepted by your peer group was at this age, she was willing to do anything to help. She was also extremely worried about what would happen if her daughter was found out. What if someone else had a sip and found out that it wasn't really alcohol? That was surely going to result in a far worse outcome - how would young women feel about a friend lying to them and bringing fake alcohol to a party? Interestingly, she told me that she had even experimented with a couple of spices (as well as Aromatic Bitters and even vinegar) to try and get a taste that could possibly resemble something similar to alcohol should a bottle fall into the wrong hands ... I don't think she had great success in that area!

So is providing fake alcohol a good strategy and are there any problems associated with assisting your teen in this way?

As I've already said, many non-drinking adults can think of a time when they have pretended to drink alcohol in social settings to help avoid annoying questions or comments or simply just 'fit-in'. For many it can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, I don't think it works as well for teens. There are just too many things that can go wrong, particularly when they are very young (around that 15-year-old age).

Firstly, there are all the legal issues to consider. In almost every Australian state and territory (apart from SA), it is illegal for a parent to host a party at their home and allow other parents' teens to drink alcohol on their property. The only way they can do it is if they get those teens' parents to give them permission to do so ... How do you handle that with fake alcohol? If a parent was hosting a 'dry' event and caught your child with the fake alcohol you had provided them, how does your teen deal with that and think of the position you're putting the host parent when they're totally unaware of what is really happening. Should you be telling host parents that the alcohol your child is drinking is fake? If your child is refused entry to a party by security I'm sure you're not going to be happy about it, but how would they know better? Even worse, if your 15-year-old was caught with alcohol in a public place, they could be charged and given an alcohol caution. How does your child cope with a complex situation like that? Do they just sit back and accept the charge or do they 'out' themselves in front of their friends and tell the truth?

Beth's concern about being caught out by their peers is another real issue here ... It only takes one person to realize that your teen is lying about what they're drinking and it can get really ugly, very quickly! If your child has a social group where drinking is that important that they feel they need to take fake alcohol to fit in, I can't imagine the reaction they would get if their lie was caught out ... To be quite honest, I don't think it's worth the risk!

But most importantly, I believe you really run the risk of normalising alcohol in their social group even more if you utilise this strategy. Assisting your teen to 'cave in' and fit the supposed norm may seem like a good idea in the short-term when they are really struggling in this area, but it is not going to help them in the long-run. What could be far more useful is helping your teen come up with a realistic 'out' that assists them to say 'no' to drinking alcohol but ensures they still 'save face'. I've written about 'outs' before but here are a few that I have picked up from teens over the years that have actually worked:
  • "I am allergic to alcohol"
  • "The medication I'm on at the moment doesn't mix well with alcohol"
  • "Dad found out I was drinking last weekend and I'll be grounded if I get caught again"
  • "Mum's picking me up and she always checks my breath when I get in the car"
So how did I respond to the Facebook message I received last week? Well, it's short and sweet and was as follows:

"I certainly do know of teens (and their parents) who use this strategy, although I have to say, I don't hear about it nearly as much as I once did (increasingly non-drinkers are becoming more socially acceptable and so the pressure seems to be lifting for many, but certainly not all, young people). My worry about doing it with such young teens (15-year-olds) is that it normalises alcohol in their social group even more ... that said, if it works for your family and your teen is under such great pressure that you need to resort to this, well, anything to keep them safer ..."

I also told her that I'd be writing a blog entry on the topic ... Most importantly though, it doesn't really matter what I (or anybody else for that matter) believes, as I said, if a strategy works for you and your family, well, anything to keep them safer! Just remember to consider all your options and not just a short-term fix, particularly at the age of 15. You have years of adolescence ahead, a long-term strategy may take a little more thought and effort but it is likely to be far more effective ...

Saturday, 2 September 2017

If you even think your teen may be going into a situation where there is alcohol, try to arm them with information to keep them and others safe!

The story of Nicole Emily Bicknell's death after consuming an enormous amount of alcohol at her 18th birthday party in 2014 raised a whole pile of issues around young people, alcohol and celebrating. The inquest into her death was held earlier this year but it was only last week that WA's Deputy State Coroner handed down her verdict of "death by misadventure". The night in question is described in graphic detail in this article from The West Australian newspaper and is deeply disturbing and, although it was found that alcohol intoxication alone caused the death, it is obvious that if those around her on the night had responded in a different way, the outcome could have been different. Nevertheless, the Coroner's recommendation was that, as a result of the death, alcohol education be provided to every secondary school student in the state (something that I'm pretty sure is already done, at least to some extent), particularly around the physiology of alcohol toxicity.

I posted the story on my Facebook page and, not surprisingly, it received quite a reaction ... It has been shared more than 100 times and has had almost 20,000 views! Many people have also posted comments. If you look at some of these, many parents obviously took the time to direct the story to their teens. One mother even used the story to congratulate her daughter on 'doing the right thing', potentially averting a similar situation:
  • "even though she wasn't as intoxicated as this young woman, you did the right thing at the party by keeping that girl moving and calling the ambulance"
The one comment that I found particularly interesting, however, was the following (not surprisingly from a teacher):
  • "Why is it always left up to schools? There are already programs running. I sat with my daughter and watched a very graphic film made in WA about binge drinking that she had to analyse for homework. As a teacher I think parents need to also educate their own children. The party was not held at school!! Very sad for all concerned"
Of course, schools play an extremely important role in educating young people around alcohol and other drugs, but shouldn't parents play a part in keeping their teens safe? As the woman said - "The party was not held at school!!" ... Schools can provide all the information in the world to teens about the dangers of alcohol but there has to come a point where parents have to take some responsibility, particularly if they know they're sending their teen off to a potentially risky environment like a teenage party ... This is not just about simply warning them of the potential dangers, it's about giving them practical advice and strategies on how to look after their friends and themselves should something go wrong ...

I've presented to students from 10 schools in the past fortnight, speaking to Year 10s, 11s and 12s. When I see Year 10s (average age - 15 years), along with other messages, I show them how to look after a drunk friend and what to do in an emergency. At every one of those sessions there was a sizeable number of young men and women who had had to already deal with a drunk friend, some of them doing this multiple times. Rarely, if ever, was an adult present when this was happening. Many of them had also had to look after a drunk vomiting friend at some point. With few exceptions, most had absolutely no idea what they were doing. These are not situations that any 15-year-old should have to deal with by themselves but so many do, weekend after weekend, right across the country ... When you ask them what they do in these situations, the response is often terrifying ... As with Nicole's death, many of these young people simply put their friends to bed 'to sleep it off', some of them hiding their intoxicated friends from parents, frightened of possible repercussions. It truly is a miracle that we don't see more fatalities than we do.

What continues to frustrate me is that those parents who make the decision to provide alcohol to their teens to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night simply hand over the bottles, drop them off at someone's house and don't even consider providing them with one skerrick of safety information should something go wrong ... Now I know some parents will say that this is the school's responsibility and that doesn't this get taught in health education classes? Maybe it does, but if you're handing over a couple of bottles or cans to your teen, wouldn't sharing some good quality information on what they should do if something went wrong be advisable when you do?

When I first started delivering the type of presentations I do now, I based them on interviews I conducted with hundreds of young people across the country. I wanted to find out what information they wanted, not what I thought they needed and I didn't want to rehash things that were already covered in health and drug education lessons. Overwhelmingly, what they wanted was advice on how to look after their friends. When pushed on whether they were interested in being provided information to help themselves, not surprisingly, it became quite clear that they really didn't believe any of these 'bad things' would happen to them. Talking about what would happen to their friends was the key. So what is it that they really want to know? Without a doubt, the three questions that teens want answers to are as follows:
When I speak to students, I do my best to provide answers, as well as simple strategies that could help them in potentially dangerous situations (I have linked some of my answers from my blog for young people, as well as a fact sheet from my website, if you are interested). Most schools attempt to provide similar messages. But wouldn't it be great if parents took some responsibility for providing this information to their teens, particularly if they're actually giving them the alcohol to drink at a teenage party or gathering? When you ask a 15-year-old girl how she knew what to do after she has just told you that she has recently spent 4-5 hours looking after a drunk, vomiting friend (and you have to ask where were her parents or any other adult?) and she says her 'maternal instincts' kicked-in - it's deeply disturbing. The young woman had absolutely no idea what she was doing, never contemplated calling an adult to help her and instead, just hoped that her 'instincts' would get her and her friend through ... A simple 5-minute discussion from a parent about how to look after someone who is vomiting could save a life - that's all it could take!

Then there are all the questions about calling 000 and how much the ambulance costs, who will pay and will the ambulance or hospital call parents? I've already provided this information before but here's some simple advice on how to best deal with the topic and some of the key points to cover:
  • Download the 'Emergency +' app from the App Store and acquaint yourself with its key features. This is a fantastic tool that everyone who owns a smartphone should have - when opened it provides all the key emergency numbers, as well as activating your GPS, providing not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address 
  • If your child has a smartphone, sit down as a family and ensure that everyone  puts the app onto their phone - this provides a great opportunity to talk about 000 and its services and when everyone does it, it helps to emphasise the importance of the service. If they don't own a smartphone, make sure they see all family members are loading it onto their phone 
  • If they have a mobile - make sure 000 is listed in their address book under 'Emergency'. Once again, talk about 000 and its services
  • Ensure that they know that 000 can be accessed even if the phone does not have any credit or the phone is locked, i.e., you can pick up anyone's mobile and call 000 even if it locked. Show them that when the keypad is locked the option for 'emergency call' is always there
  • Talk through what will happen when they call regarding a medical emergency (read through the DARTA fact sheet on the topic for full details) but the most important points include who they will be talking to (an emergency operator and then the ambulance operator - many teens are completely unaware that they will be talking to two people) and what information they will be asked for (location, mobile number and what is the problem)
  • Make sure they know that it is not them (or you) that pays for an ambulance if they make the call - it is the person being transported! A real barrier to teens calling for help for a friend is that they are frightened there will received a bill for the ambulance
  • If you have ambulance cover, make sure they know that - if you live in Queensland or Tasmania they should be told that their ambulance costs are covered
  • Most importantly, ensure that they know that they have your complete support should they ever have to call an ambulance. I would suggest the following - "If you need an ambulance, you call one straight away. I totally support you. Then you call me - straight afterwards"
Sitting down with your teen and talking through some possible scenarios that may occur at a teenage party around alcohol is not ever going to be easy. They'll try to dismiss you, telling you that they don't do those sort of things, or accuse you of not knowing what you're talking about, but it is vital that you persist. One possible way in is to talk about your own experiences and what went wrong when you were young and how you handled it ... Speaking honestly about how you looked after a drunk friend (warts and all), acknowledging that you may not have done everything correctly, could be really useful and lead to a great discussion about keeping friends as safe as possible. And if you don't know all the answers or what to do, try to find out together ... use this as a valuable 'connecting' opportunity with your teen.

Without question, if your child is going out anywhere on a Saturday night, you must have a discussion about 000 - I've said that so many times. But if they're going to a party or gathering and you even think they, or their friends, may come into contact with alcohol, try to arm with them some simple strategies that could help them deal with a potentially life-or-death situation. At the very least, let them know as they're stepping out of your car or walking out the front door that if they need you, for whatever reason, you'll be there for them, no questions asked! You do not want your 15 or 16-year-old son or daughter having to deal with something as frightening as a drunk friend who could potentially choke to death on their own vomit by themselves. They need to know that you'll be there for them to either provide advice or support them in whatever way they need ...