Friday, 20 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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