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Friday, 26 January 2018

Starting high school: The importance of parents being involved, staying involved and talking to one another

This time last year I wrote an article on the importance of a 'smooth transition' from primary to secondary school. Research has shown that by Year 10, those students who managed to get through this difficult transition period without too many issues are likely to have higher levels of school attendance, better academic results, low behavioural problems and lower rates of substance abuse. What happens in the first few months of high school can play an important role in how their future plays out …

I recently read a wonderful research paper by Anne Coffey that discussed the key to a successful transition being 'relationships'. In the article, the author identified a number of potentially 'negative' changes that can occur during the move from primary to high school including the following: 

·       a decline in self-esteem due to changes in learning environment and more demanding schoolwork
·       a "dip in academic performance and motivation", and
·       a disruption of existing friendship networks, with peer groups forming and reforming in the new school setting

The last point is what I discussed last year – the fact that this is a period when existing peer groups will often go through major changes and young people will 'bounce' from group to group in an effort to find one that, not only do they want to be a part of, but is also willing to accept them. The so-called 'popular group' is always pretty easy to identify and it's sad but true that no matter what your age, most of us would secretly love to be a part of the 'cool group'. But that's not going to happen for most of us and in the first few weeks of high school there's going to be a mad scramble to find out what group you'll end up in …

At this stage of development, it is becoming increasingly important to gain acceptance from peers and many will establish peer groups at this time that they will take through their whole secondary school experience. All parents hope that their sons and daughters end up with a 'great group of friends' – but what does that really mean from a parenting perspective? Realistically, you want them to 'hang out' with peers who have similar values and attitudes as you have hopefully tried to instil in them. Sadly, that doesn't always happen and when it comes to alcohol and parties, that can end up being a nightmare for some parents!

Coffey states that research has found that, not surprisingly, one of the chief concerns of students at this time is 'making new friends and fitting in'. If they've come from other schools, some will grieve for the friendships they had there and even if they go to a K-12 school, there is always a significant influx of new students that will undoubtedly impact upon existing friendships. It's important to note that this concern has usually disappeared by mid-way through Term 1 as the friendship groups start to settle and the students 'find their place'.

Now, you can't choose your child's friends for them (as much as I'm sure many of you would like to!) but I did suggest that there are a few simple things you can do to ensure you know as much as possible about what is going on in this area. Remember, what happens during this period is really going to help you in the years ahead around socializing. So, do your best to do the following:

·       keep talking to your child and show an interest
·       be involved
·       meet their new friends
·       meet their new friends' parents
·       don't be afraid to express concern if you're worried about who they're hanging out with - if you don't feel comfortable with their friends, let them know but do it carefully and respectfully but, if it doesn't feel right, it most probably isn't and you need to let your child know how you feel

Coffey agrees that parents' participation is critical in the whole transition process. According to the research, parents who are involved at this time are more likely to remain a participant in their child's secondary schooling. Evidence clearly shows that this partnership increases the likelihood that students will achieve at a high level, be well-adjusted and are less likely to drop out of school. We've been talking about the difficulties that young people face during this time, but it is also important to remember that it can be difficult for parents as well. They need to forge relationships with either a new school and/or new teachers. All of a sudden, you're not dealing with one classroom teacher – you're dealing with many, some that your child may have a great relationship with and others not so much. 

So, it's not just me saying that parents should be involved at this time – the research backs me up! The problem is that we know so many parents do just the opposite and instead of maintaining and building upon the relationship they may have had with their child's primary school and teachers, they pull away when they hit high school – some never to be seen again!

I get it – your child is growing up and they need to develop independence, they also don't really want you to turn up at the school, no matter what the reason! This is a time, however, when parents not only need to be well-informed about the school and procedures, they also need to develop effective parent networks. These are incredibly important and can assist you in all sorts of areas, particularly parties and gatherings and, of course, alcohol. Do this early and identify like-minded parents who have similar values and attitudes to you and it'll be so helpful in the future. Your kids are going to try to 'silo' you as much as possible, telling you that you can't call the parent hosting a sleepover or making sure they limit the amount of information they give you about any upcoming event – don't 'silo' yourself! Get involved, stay involved and keep talking to one another.

If your child is just about to start high school, make sure you try to:  

·       attend as many information evenings as you can now and later – they're important! No school puts these on because the teachers want to stay on school grounds for longer – they're held for a reason. They provide valuable opportunities for parents to be positively involved in the transition period and beyond
·       grab every opportunity to meet other parents through school events – as your child makes new friendships during this time, establish contact with other parents. If you were a parent who walked your son or daughter to school every day when they were in primary, that provided you wonderful opportunities to meet others who did the same thing. That doesn't happen during the secondary years and so you've got to find other ways to meet parents and create those vital networks


Coffey, A. (2013). Relationships: The key to successful transition from primary to secondary school, Improving Schools 16, 261-271.

Friday, 12 January 2018

8 things parents need to tell their teens about alcohol and vomiting

The response to last week's blog that asked parents 'Would your teen know what to do if something went wrong at a party?' was amazing! Well over 20,000 people read the piece over a 2-day period and the content seemed to really resonate with parents. The incredibly sad story of the 15-year-old girl who choked to death on a bed while being watched by four of her friends is particularly powerful and, as a result, many readers forwarded the link to their teens. Amongst all the comments was one that I found particularly interesting:

" … Death by vomiting is a real danger. I must have been lucky as a young bloke to not have died. My life was saved several times whilst vomiting unconscious. I had good mates who looked after me. A wife who saved my life three times. I no longer drink at all. The fun aspect disappeared long before I got the help I needed. I don't think all that much has changed over the past 50 odd years ... I quite like young folk. Times change. Kids don't. I believe a lot of oldies forget their youthful years."

What a great comment – "Times change. Kids don't." … Of course, he's absolutely right – nothing really changes - it's just that we now know far more about the potential risks. As a result, we can try to ensure our kids are far more informed than we were and hopefully, if they do get into trouble, at least they'll have a better idea what to do!

Getting drunk and subsequently vomiting is not something new. When I talk about the potential risks around alcohol in schools, teachers often come up afterwards and say something like, "I was so lucky" or "How did we ever make it through? We did all those things and were never aware of what could have gone wrong". Unfortunately, getting drunk and dying as a result is not new either. Deaths caused by choking on vomit after a heavy drinking session have been happening since man first started using alcohol. A number of famous people have died this way, including Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham, who reportedly drank 40 shots of vodka and subsequently choked to death in his sleep and of course, AC/DC lead singer, Bon Scott who passed out in a friend's car and inhaled his own vomit.

Most people have vomited at least once in their lives and many have a great 'vomit story' – particularly relating to alcohol! Even though it is incredibly unpleasant, it is important to remember that there is a reason for this bodily function. So, what is that reason? Why do we vomit when we drink too much?

Most alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), breaks it down into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can make a person feel sick. This is then broken down by another enzyme into acetate, which is excreted. Although acetaldehyde is usually broken down quite rapidly, when you drink alcohol it builds up in the body, causing nausea. When you drink too quickly, these toxins accumulate, and your body gets the message that it needs to get rid of them. You then vomit – expelling the contents of the stomach, including the toxins!

If a young person is going to look after someone who is vomiting, they've got to have an understanding of why it is happening … Now trying to explain all about ADH and acetaldehyde is going to bore them to death and many won't understand it. So, although this is an oversimplification, a good way of explaining what is going on is as follows ... When you drink too much, alcohol 'turns off' the brain areas that control consciousness and breathing, resulting in unconsciousness, coma and, in extreme cases, death. You've been poisoned! Our bodies try to protect us from getting that far by making us vomit and getting rid of unabsorbed alcohol before it reaches the brain. It prevents further poisoning and in the process, save your life.

When it comes to educating teens about anything I'm of the view that we should 'start from where they're at', i.e., begin by talking about something they've experienced themselves and when it comes to alcohol, that's vomiting! Even if they've never drank alcohol, most young people who have attended a party or met a group of friends in a park on a Saturday night have seen someone else drink too much and end up being sick. If it's not their friends, it'll be a family member. That's why a conversation about alcohol and vomiting is far less likely to be 'shut down' by your teen. They're going to know what you're talking about and there's a better chance they're going to listen.

So, what should you be telling them? Here are 8 key points about alcohol and vomiting that every young person should know:
  • vomiting can be life-threatening. Although many look back at a night of vomiting and laugh about their experience, it is vital that teens understand that it can be extremely dangerous. Apart from choking to death, dehydration and salt imbalances are the biggest concerns in most vomiting episodes
  • if someone is vomiting, or it looks as though they may start, stay with them – never leave them, not even for a few seconds. It can take just seconds for someone to choke on their own vomit, so it is vital you stay with them and monitor them closely at all times
  • don't force them to drink lots of water. For some reason, young people (and adults too) believe that water is going to fix everything. Of course, if they are not vomiting and just feel unwell or nauseous, ensure they replace lost fluids. It is also important to ensure they rehydrate once they have finished vomiting, but if they're forced to drink water while they are being sick, it is highly likely that they will simply vomit it back up relatively quickly. Soak a t-shirt or cloth in cold water and have them suck on that in between vomits. That way, they are still rehydrating, as well as getting rid of the horrible taste in their mouths
  • vomiting won't sober someone up. Getting rid of unabsorbed alcohol from your stomach is not going to sober you up. Certainly, some people report that immediately after vomiting they can feel clear-headed and some even believe they are now sober enough to drive! This effect is believed to be due to the flood of endorphins that are released when vomiting but usually disappears quite quickly
  • never prop a drunk friend onto a toilet bowl to vomit. Too often, people end up with a range of facial injuries (losing teeth, breaking their noses, etc) when left lying over a toilet and either pass out or fall to sleep, smashing their faces onto the porcelain. Drunk friends should be taken to a safe and well-lit place and given a plastic bucket or bowl
  • try to keep them comfortable - if they are feeling sick they are likely to be feverish. Putting a cold compress (or even a cold-water bottle) on the back of the person's neck can reduce their temperature and make them feel a little better. On the other hand, if they start to feel cold, make sure there is something warm to wrap around
  • if you see blood in the vomit, call 000 immediately. Although, this can be caused by something as simple as the person biting the inside of their mouth or tongue, it could also be something far more serious, such as retching tearing the small blood vessels of the throat or the oesophagus. This usually looks like small red streaks in the vomit, like nose bleed blood. Although this may not be life threatening there is no way of knowing for sure without seeking medical attention
  • if in any doubt, call 000. It's hard to be too specific here as everyone is different when it comes to what constitutes a 'medical emergency' but 'if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'. As a parent, make it clear to your child that you support them in their decision to call 000, then they need to call you. Even if the ambulance arrives and the situation has resolved itself – it's better to be safe than sorry.

How do you know if a person is just drunk or actually suffering from something much more serious - like alcohol poisoning? It's difficult, but if you see one of the following, call 000 immediately – this is not something an adult can deal with, let alone a teenager:
  • the person is unconscious and can’t be awakened by pinching, prodding or shouting
  • the skin is cold, clammy, pale or bluish or purplish in colour, indicating they are not getting enough oxygen
  • the person is breathing very slowly, if there are more than 10 seconds between breaths – this is an emergency
  • vomiting without waking up
Many parents reading this will remember a drunken night out when they were in their teens (or early 20s) when everything went wrong. We usually learn by our mistakes and a night of vomiting after a big drinking session can often lead to long-term changes being made when it comes to alcohol. Sadly, that one drunken night can sometimes result in a death. We need to make sure our kids know more than we did. This is not necessarily going to be an easy conversation but it's an important one ... Remember, if you want to have a better chance of success, frame the conversation around looking after a friend and avoid talking about their own drinking behaviour (that's another conversation altogether!) ...

If parents are interested in learning more, there are two fact sheets specifically developed for young people on the DARTA website that may help. One is called 'How do you look after a drunk friend?' and the other is 'How do you look after a drunk vomiting friend?' 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Would your teen know what to do if something went wrong at a party? Even with the information do they have the 'brain wiring' to respond appropriately?

In her book, The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen talks about adolescence as being a particularly risky time of life due to their brains still "being wired", resulting in them often finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations and simply not knowing what to do next. She quotes a 2010 study conducted by the British Red Cross that examined how teens react to emergencies involving a friend drinking too much alcohol.

"More than 10 percent of all children and young teens between the ages of eleven and sixteen have had to cope at one time with a friend who was sick, injured, or unconscious owing to excessive alcohol consumption. Half of those had to deal with a friend who passed out. More broadly, the survey found that nine out of ten adolescents have had to deal with some kind of crisis involving another person during their teenage years - a head injury, choking, an asthma attack, an epileptic seizure, etc. Forty-four percent of the teens surveyed admitted to panicking in that emergency situation, and nearly half (46 percent) acknowledged they didn't know how to respond at all."

I don't think the results of the study would shock many, in fact I was surprised that it was only 10% who reported looking after someone who was drunk (although the age range could have something to do with it - you would hope very few 11 or 12-year-olds would be dealing with this issue). Years ago I used to ask Year 10 students to indicate whether they had ever had to look after a drunk friend - it was usually about one third of the group who said that they had. That's frightening when you think that these are 15-year-olds who have little, if any, life experience and brains that are not 'wired' to respond well to danger ... A significant number of these young people are trying to deal with potentially life-threatening situations and don't have the information or the capacity to respond appropriately.

Over the years I have been involved with so many tragic cases of young people dying simply because those around them did not know what to do when something went wrong. When it comes to this area, there are two issues that continue to frustrate me with parents:
  • some believe that if alcohol is provided to young people or they are given a 'safe space' to drink then if something does go wrong they will be more likely to seek help from adults without fear of getting into trouble, and
  • those parents who choose to provide alcohol to their child to drink at parties rarely, if ever, ensure that their teen is also provided with accurate information and advice on what to do if something goes amiss
If so-called 'safe spaces' ensured that teens would seek help when something went amiss I would be much more likely to support them. The fact of the matter is that, in my experience, they don't! When looking at the alcohol-related deaths I have been involved with over the years, almost everyone of them occurred at a party or gathering where alcohol was either provided or, at the very least, tolerated by the host parents. One of the most tragic deaths I was involved with happened at a 16th birthday party held in Melbourne almost 15 years ago.

Cassie had recently separated from her husband and wanted to make her daughter's birthday special. Even though she didn't feel comfortable with the decision, she was eventually bullied into providing alcohol at the party by her daughter, Jo, who convinced her that everybody else's parents were doing the same thing (something she later found out simply wasn't true). At some point during the evening one of Jo's friends, aged just 15, became so drunk that she lapsed into unconsciousness. Instead of seeking help from Cassie, or one of the other adults at the party, Jo and three other girls carried the drunk young woman into a bedroom and lay her on the bed. The four girls, who had also all been drinking, sat on the bed and did their best to look after their friend. It was not until some time later that they realized their friend was dead. At some point she had vomited and choked to death and not one of the four young women had noticed!

I kept in touch with Cassie for many years. She was understandably devastated by what had happened and for a long time believed that she had 'killed' the young woman. There were a whole pile of issues that she struggled with but she could simply never understand why four smart young women did not come to her or find another sober adult to help look after their drunk friend. Why didn't they call an ambulance? They were not going to get into trouble and no judgement would be made about their behaviour. It just didn't make sense ... In her book, Jensen gives a similar example of teens not responding appropriately to an alcohol-related incident. Something went wrong and they took action but they didn't call an ambulance. She describes this behaviour as follows - "... the teenagers' amygdalae (the emotional part of the brain) had signalled danger, but their frontal lobes (reasoned thinking and judgement) didn't respond. Instead, the teens acted in the moment." Put simply, during the teen years they simply don't have the 'brain wiring' to always respond appropriately ...

I wrote about my second concern only recently but it's worth saying one more time! If you are going to make the decision to provide alcohol to your teen to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night (and that is only your decision to make - no-one can tell you what to do with your child) then the least you can do is to ensure they are armed with some basic safety information at the same time! Simply handing over the bottles, then dropping them off at someone's house without one skerrick of advice or information should something go wrong is plain wrong and totally irresponsible ...

Now you may be thinking 'but what's the point of providing them information if their brain is not wired to use it appropriately?' Well, this is where it comes down to understanding what the teen brain is capable of doing, or at least what type of information has the best chance of being effective. If you want a teen to respond to safety advice, it really boils down to three key points:
  • keep it simple
  • keep it practical
  • repeat and repeat and then repeat again
A great message could be "If something goes wrong, call 000 and then call me" and you say it every time they walk out the door. There's no judgement, it's simple and practical and it could save a life! I can guarantee that there will be some young people who will roll their eyes, tell you that "we don't do that kind of stuff" or the like but keep saying it - repetition of messages is important during the teen years ...

We're never going to be able to prevent young people from finding themselves in risky situations. As much as all parents want to protect their kids from danger, at some point you have to let them take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. But this does not mean that at 14 or 15-years-old you should abandon all rules and boundaries and simply accept that 'they're all going to drink anyway' and place them in situations of unnecessary risk ... As they enter middle adolescence, many of them may start to look like they have the bodies of young adults but parents should never forget that their brains have a lot of catching up to do ...