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Saturday, 31 March 2018

Why do parents lie to other parents? How can you keep your teen safe when those you trust to look after them don't always tell the truth?

You would expect that when you contact a parent hosting a party and ask specific questions about what will and won't be happening at that event that you would get an honest answer. As I am often told, this just simply isn't always the case!

I've talked about this issue a number of times before but since the beginning of the year I have heard from a number of Mums and Dads who allowed their teen to go to a party based on information they received from the host parents, only to find out later that what they had been told was completely untrue. Now, it is important to acknowledge that as far as alcohol is concerned, if young people want to get it into a party they are usually going to find a way, no matter what parents try to do. So if you have been told that the hosts are going to not allow alcohol at an event and then find out that one or more of the invitees has got drunk, it's important to remember that parents can only do their best ... That said, if you have been told that there will be bag searches or active supervision at a party, that is exactly what should happen. There is simply no excuse for hosts of a teen party telling an outright lie to parents of invitees. I have written about the following case in the past but it is well worth revisiting ...

A number of years ago I received an email from a distressed mother (let's call her Jane) who felt as though she had nowhere else to turn and simply wanted someone to tell her that what she was feeling was valid and absolutely warranted. The message has been edited down but the gist of the story is as she sent it through ...

"I have a 15 year-old daughter who is wonderful. She is now being regularly asked to attend parties and gatherings and having heard you speak a number of times at parent nights I allow her to go as long as I contact the host parents and make sure that I feel she is going to be safe ... Up to a month ago I have never had any problems - my daughter certainly doesn't like me calling but she knows that is the only way she is going to go so she is willing to put up with it. She was recently invited to a 16th birthday party at a friend's house (a friend I had never really heard her mention before - that should have set alarm bells ringing!) and I did my regular 'Mum thing' and asked for a phone number to call. When I finally got a number (the day before the party) I made the call and asked the questions. Will you be at the party? Will there be alcohol available? What time does it start and finish? All the usual stuff to which I got all the right answers, although thinking back on it, the mother did sound very stand-offish and didn't thank me for calling, which I nearly always get when I make contact.

I dropped my daughter off outside the house and watched her go inside and then drove off feeling pretty confident that I had done all the right things. Two hours later I had a phone call from her. She was in quite a state and wanted to be picked up (with a number of her friends) because the party had gotten completely out of control. I raced over and collected them, a number of them in tears, and found out that although I had asked specifically if the parents were going to be at the house and monitoring the party, they weren't. Instead they had left the party in the hands of their 19-year-old son who had invited a whole pile of his friends over. Alcohol was flowing (even though, once again, I had asked if alcohol was going to be available) and the police had been called. My daughter and her friends were terrified.

A couple of days later, after I had calmed down, I called the mother who I had spoken to before the party to let her know how upset I was that she had lied to me. I was told by her to "loosen up" and that there was no harm done and that she was the one who should be angry as it was her house that was trashed! She then hung up on me. Although the school was supportive when I called them they said there was nothing they could do - what happens on a Saturday night is not their issue. And even though my daughter's friends' parents were as angry as I was when I dropped them off on the night, they have told me just to let it go. I even contacted the local police and asked if there was anything they could do and although they didn't say it in so many words, once again, I was made to feel as though I was over-reacting and that this type of thing was 'normal'.

Is this normal and am I over-reacting? Is it truly okay for a parent to lie to me when I call to find out what a party will be like? I want my daughter to have fun and party with her friends but at 15 I need to know she is safe and my trust in people has now been well and truly destroyed. What do you think?"

Of course Jane was not over-reacting - if this had happened to me I would have been furious! As I said to Jane in my response, thank god she had a daughter who felt confident enough to make the phone call to ask to be picked up. Who would ever think it was appropriate to leave a 19-year-old young man to look after a girl's 16th birthday party? So many things could have gone wrong - there's issues around an ability to supervise appropriately, alcohol supply and all the risks associated with that and then of course the possibility of sexual assault.

Making that call to host parents in an attempt to find out what will be happening at a party can be extremely difficult. Your teen doesn't want you to do it ("You'll shame me forever!"), it's never easy to 'cold-call' someone you don't know and ask them questions that may seem to them as though you're questioning their parenting practices and, let's be honest, do you really have the time and energy in your busy life? It boils down to safety though - if you want to do your best to make sure your child is as safe as possible - you need to make the call! If you're going to 'bite the bullet' and do this, I believe you should never ask anymore than three questions (you don't want to turn it into the Spanish Inquisition!), plan and write them down and ensure you let your teen know what you are going to ask (there should be no surprises for them!). My suggestions for questions are as follows:

  • What time does it start and what time does it finish?
  • Will you be there and will you be actively supervising?
  • How will you be handling the alcohol issue?

Jane did just that and she was lied to ... that's appalling behaviour on the other mother's part! It's sad but I continue to hear stories like this one from around the country where parents try to do the right thing and make the call and then get lied to ... Why would a parent lie to another about a party they are hosting? Is it that they simply want to appease the person on the other end of the phone and truly believe that nothing bad is going to happen and the parent calling will never find out about the lie? If they thought that what they were doing was right, why wouldn't they just tell the truth, justify their decisions and then allow a parent to choose whether to allow their child to attend or not? Or do they so desperately want to be their child's friend that they're willing to lie to others to ensure that as many people turn up as possible and damn the consequences? I'd love to know the psychology behind such behaviour because once you know the reason why they do it, maybe we could address it more effectively.

As already said, the only reason you are trying to access this information is to ensure you can make an informed decision about your child's safety. The good news is that as appalling as some parents' behaviour can be, many of our teens (like Jane's daughter) are able to identify when things are not right and respond appropriately, i.e., 'this is not a 'safe space', I need to call my Mum and get out of here'. As always, it comes down to the type of relationship you have with your child. Is it open and honest and do you have the type of 'connection' that ensures they feel comfortable enough to make that call when faced with this type of situation?

I totally get Jane's frustration - she was angry because even though she did everything she could, her daughter was put into a situation that was potentially dangerous and she can't find anyone to take responsibility for that. She trusted another mother to tell her the truth and then she was lied to - that's  hard to deal with. Sadly for her daughter, it most probably took a very long time before she was able to trust another parent again. The most important thing a parent can do in this type of situation is be thankful that nothing terrible happened - as I said to Jane, no-one was hurt. Grab that fact and hold it very close - so many things could have gone wrong but didn't.

Unfortunately, parents such as the one that Jane encountered are often 'serial offenders' they do this kind of thing again and again. This is shameful behaviour - they are not only putting their own children at risk but other people's as well ...

Saturday, 24 March 2018

What about France? Don't European parents provide alcohol to teens? They don't have problems with underage drinking ... or do they?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a UNSW study that found no evidence to support that parental supply of alcohol to children will 'teach them to drink responsibly' or be protective in any way. Instead, it found that this was actually "associated with subsequent binge drinking, alcohol-related harm(s) and symptoms of alcohol use disorder". Not surprisingly, some parents had huge issues with this and I received a number of emails and messages from Mums and Dads who refused to accept the findings. Now, as I wrote at the time, what you do with your child is your business and if you believe that it is appropriate to give your child a glass of wine with a meal then go ahead ... all I am trying to do is make it clear that if you are doing that because you believe there is evidence to say that this practice is likely to make your son or daughter a more responsible drinker in the future, there isn't!

A number of people who wrote to me raised the issue of France in their argument, usually going along the lines of that in that country there were few, if any, laws around underage drinking. There didn't need to be as the French had a very 'mature' attitude towards alcohol, i.e., it was often introduced in the home from a very early age, was almost always only consumed with a meal and the French did not 'drink to get drunk'. So is that actually the case? Do the French not have laws around underage drinking and has their 'laissez-faire' attitude towards alcohol protected them from the problems we have seen in countries like Australia?

In actual fact, France does have a legal drinking age, raising it from 16 to 18 years in 2009. It was raised, as the government at the time were quoted as saying, "to reduce a dangerous addiction among youths", with both drinking and purchasing ages being brought into line with most European countries. In the early 2000s, the French still viewed binge drinking as a phenomenon largely limited to those from the UK and northern Europe, particularly some of the Scandinavian countries. Then the situation began to change with the term 'le binge drinking' increasingly being used to describe the behaviour of French young people. Between 2004 and 2008 France saw the number of children under 15 admitted to hospital for drunkenness increase by 50% and alcohol-related hospital admissions for those under 24 rose by 50%.

In 2015, a study found that France's alcohol consumption had halved in the past 20 years, with just 18% of French men and 6% of women drinking on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the news was not so good for parents with 11.2% of 17-year-olds reporting drinking alcohol more than 10 times every month. Another study conducted in 2014 found that 59% of 11 to 12-year-olds had consumed alcohol, whilst 60% of 15 to 17-year-olds had been drunk at least once, and 79% of 16-year-olds claimed to have consumed alcohol within the last month. In addition, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), a study of over 96,000 students across the European Union member states, spirits had become the favoured drink of French students.

To many French people this simply does not make sense - they have always had a sense of pride regarding their 'mature and sophisticated' relationship with alcohol. Many have chosen to blame the influence of visitors from other countries, particularly the UK, as causing this cultural change and that certainly may have something to do with it, but experts tend to believe that global factors such as the increasing influence of alcohol advertising and the growing link between alcohol and sport are also important things to consider.

If it isn't France that people bring up, it's Italy or Greece! What they are usually referring to is the 'Mediterranean Model', i.e., introducing alcohol to a child in a family setting with a meal. In 2009, Time Magazine wrote an article on the changing face of underage drinking in Italy. It reported that Milan had recently imposed a strict new local law that, for the first time in Italy, meant that parents of anyone underage caught drinking and anyone who supplied someone under 16 with alcohol would face punishment, with a fine of up to $700. This was as a result of a study that had found 34% of 11-year-olds have "problems with alcohol". Another national study had also found that 63% of underage youths get drunk on weekends, with boys consuming an average of four drinks per drinking session and girls consuming six.

When it comes to Greece, the ESPAD provides some frightening data regarding the alcohol use of young people from that country. In Greece, the study found that teens drink their first bottle of beer or wine at 12-13, before quickly moving to spirits (vodka, tequila, whisky) by the age of 14-15. In addition, around 9% of teenage boys and 5% of teenage girls get drunk for the first time at 13-years-old. The introduction of a glass of wine with a meal doesn't seem to be being too protective there!

Although many find it hard to accept, it is important to acknowledge that even in countries where the 'Mediterranean Model' once appeared to have been successful there are growing issues when it comes to underage drinking. Now do these countries have as significant a problem as others, including Australia? Maybe not, but to throw France, Greece and Italy into someone's face and say "these countries have got the whole underage drinking issue in hand" is just plain stupid!

Now some of you maybe asking yourself, but doesn't this guy usually go on about the growing numbers of non-drinkers amongst our young people? What about them? Well, they're certainly there - in fact, across the world we are seeing growing numbers of young people who choose not to drink, however, if they are drinkers, they are often highly problematic drinkers. They start earlier, drink a lot when they drink, which is often regularly and they are more likely to choose high-strength alcohol products such as spirits. What the research seems to be saying is that providing young people alcohol, even in cultures that traditionally were protective, does not seem to always have the desired effect ... What we are learning is that although family influence is incredibly important, there are so many other external pressures that bombard our kids from a very early age, most of which are almost impossible to control, that the potentially positive messages you are trying to send can become confused. It would appear that although you may be attempting to teach them to drink responsibly by providing them sips or a drink with a meal, what they are actually picking up from your actions (even in countries like France!) is simply 'Mum and Dad give me alcohol and they support my drinking ...' - most probably not the message you intended!

EMCDDA/ESPAD (2016). ESPAD Report 2015 — Results from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs. Lisbon.

Israely, J. (2009). Italy Starts Cracking Down on Underage Drinking, Time, July 29,,8599,1913176,00.html

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Why are we seeing so many cannabis-related school suspensions and expulsions? Use isn't increasing but attitudes are changing and teens are doing 'stupid things'. What can parents do?

Over the past 12 months I have been contacted by an extraordinary number of schools struggling to deal with cannabis. Regardless of the system - Independent, Catholic or state - it would appear that a growing number of young people are making the foolish decision to take the drug to school. Once they have brought it onto the grounds, they are either choosing to smoke it, usually with a group of friends of their own age, or are selling it, either to others in their year group or younger students. Now many people may be thinking that this is nothing new - if there was an illicit drug that was likely to be used by secondary school students, it would be cannabis. I can certainly remember cannabis being sold or supplied to others when I was at high school and I was a teen in the mid-70s - to be honest some people went to school to buy drugs at that time! But times have certainly changed and if you speak to school principals across the country, they will tell you that having to deal with a student bringing an illegal drug to school is not the norm. The vast majority of schools have not had to deal with this sort of problem for some years ... but that certainly seems to be changing ...

What is interesting is that this is occurring at a time when we are continuing to see some of the lowest rates of cannabis use amongst our young people. The most recent Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey conducted in 2014 (released in 2016) found that although cannabis continues to be the most commonly used illicit substance by students, they are about half as likely to use the drug as they were in the late 90s. Cannabis use, whether it be lifetime or recent (used in the last 12 months), has actually decreased.

If you look at the graph provided, you can see across all year groups, lifetime cannabis use has decreased dramatically since the national survey began in 1996. Now it does need to be acknowledged that amongst the older students (those aged 15 or above), use has risen slightly since 2011 - but that small increase is not enough to explain the situation we are currently seeing ... So it would appear that what we have is continuing low rates of cannabis use but those young people who are using the drug are doing so in a much more risky way. So why is this happening? Why, after so many years, are we starting to see cannabis creeping back into the schoolyard?

I believe it has to do with how we're currently talking about cannabis. There is so much talk about legalizing the drug, as well as the whole medicinal cannabis issue, that young people are 'confused' about the legality of the drug. Now, this is not an article on whether or not the drug should be legalized, or issues around medicinal cannabis - the fact is that cannabis is an illegal drug (as I always say to young people who have strong feelings about the illegality of cannabis and believe the law should be changed - if that's how you feel, do something about it! Join a group that wants the law to change - don't just moan about it and say it's not fair, get up and take action!). It is vital that we ensure young people are aware of the law and what the consequences are should they choose to break it ...

I recently found a study from Norway that attempted to examine why young people take up opportunities to use cannabis - its findings were really interesting. According to the authors, Norway has experienced a decline in cannabis use amongst young people similar to the Australian experience, however, the study found that the proportion of adolescents exposed to 'concrete use opportunities' had increased significantly. At the same time, they found the perception of cannabis-related risks were significantly lower. The authors speculated that this could be "at least partially to the intense and growing international debate concerning cannabis deregulation, which may be interpreted as evidence of its minor harms, de-stigmatization, and use normalization among young." I think we're seeing the same thing here - young people just don't see cannabis as being a particularly risky drug. Ask any teacher and they will tell you when there is any discussion around cannabis, one of the first things that is brought up is "It's a medicine, it can't be bad for you!"

The reality is that, even the pro-cannabis lobby would say that it is best to delay use of the drug for as long as possible. The evidence is pretty clear that the younger you start using the drug, the greater problems you will experience. If you want to disregard the potential physical and psychological cannabis-related harms that teens may experience, the legal and resulting social ramifications of getting caught with the drug can affect a young person's life forever. No school wants to suspend or expel students but bringing illicit drugs to school cannot be ignored ...

Going back to the study, the researchers were also able to identify three 'protective factors' that were likely to prevent those 'opportunity-exposed' young people from taking up cannabis use opportunities and to remain non-users, i.e., when they found themselves in situations where the drug was available and offered to them, they were able to refuse. They were as follows:
  • if they reported that their parents knew where they spend their Saturday nights
  • if they were involved in sports regularly, and
  • if they perceived even minimal or occasional cannabis use to be risky
Not surprisingly, parental monitoring plays a role here with this study supporting previous research that has found the general positive effects of proactive parenting strategies and close parent-child relationships when it comes to cannabis involvement. In addition, when teens believed that there were harms associated with even occasional use, this was a barrier to potential use. If we want to delay (or even prevent) early use of cannabis, or any substance, we must ensure the information we provide to young people is honest, accurate, credible and actually means something to them.

Unfortunately, recent Canadian research has found that, for the most part, youth does not seem particularly concerned about potential cannabis risks. In a qualitative study of young people aged between 14-19 years of age, when asked about the consequences, legal ramifications were rarely mentioned. Very few "felt school presentations and learning about the health, social and legal consequences of use was enough to deter youth from trying ..". Physical risks, such as the potential smoking effects on eyes and throat were acknowledged but downplayed, however it was the psychological impacts on others that were regarded as most important. Changes in behaviour, such as lessening the ability to handle things, decreased motivation, mood swings, and the drug's capacity to make someone closed off and anti-social were raised as issues by those interviewed. Most importantly, young people reported personal experiences among their peers with worsening pre-existing mental health issues such as schizophrenia, psychosis or depression they believed were induced or aggravated by the use of the drug.

Is going down the 'mental health' road the way to go? It certainly is something that I cover when I speak about cannabis but you do have to do it carefully. Like any potential harm, you have to be careful you don't 'over-play' it. The reality is that most young people who use cannabis won't experience these problems - if you start making wild statements like 'everyone who uses cannabis will go crazy and develop a mental health problem', you're going to lose them. Many of them, however, will know someone who is experiencing problems, whether it be becoming social isolated, losing motivation, paranoia, or depression. Highlighting that if you see this in a friend you need to tell someone and get help could be a way of getting across that this is not a 'risk-free' drug.

In the past couple of months I have spoken to so many parents who are really having a tough time with their adolescent in relation to cannabis. The majority of these teens are young men, but there are certainly some young women who have also found themselves in trouble with this drug. Getting a call from the school and facing the nightmare of, at best, having a child suspended, or at worst, having them expelled or asking them to be withdrawn, must be earth-shattering, particularly if you didn't see it coming. For most parents, this is a 'one-off' thing - their child did something stupid with their mates, got caught and they won't do it again. Experimentation is a part of adolescence - that doesn't mean it can't be extremely damaging but it's what some teens will do! Unfortunately, for other parents, this will be the start of a long dark road and it's often really difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel ... As I always say, if you find yourself in the latter situation, the cannabis use is not usually the problem, but a symptom of a much greater issue that needs to be identified and dealt with. Trying to 'fix' the cannabis issue (e.g., trying to put them into rehab or the like!) without digging deeper and finding out what that underlying problem is will often result in a lot of time-wasting and can destroy families ...

As community attitudes change and we see more countries move to decriminalise and even legalise cannabis, and medicinal use of the drug becomes more widely accepted, young people's perceptions of cannabis-related risks are also changing. Adolescents are at the greatest risk when it comes to cannabis-related harms - the earlier they use, the greater the risk - so it is important to delay potential use for as long as possible. Cannabis use amongst our school-based young people is certainly not 'spiralling out of control' but something appears to be happening, with those who are using, more likely to do silly things like take it to school ... We need to try to address this quickly by ensuring that schools have rules and protocols around bringing drugs to school and that these are clearly communicated to all students. At the same time, we must make sure that cannabis prevention programs are based on best practice and that the information we provide to young people is honest, accurate and credible. Trying to 'scare' teens is not going to work but if the current research is to be believed, it is most probably the mental health consequences that are going to have the most impact on our young people. At the same time, parents need to support these messages, making sure that they also provide balanced messages in this area.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that for most young people cannabis use will not cause significant issues, they may experiment and use once or twice and then come out at the other end relatively unscathed. Where it does become a problem, however, it is usually life-changing, affecting both the user and all those around them. Take the time to talk to your teen about cannabis - tell them your views and get an understanding about how they regard the drug. Remember those protective factors - knowing where your teen is on a Saturday night; being involved in sport (but realistically involvement in any organised activity, whether it be music, drama or whatever is likely to have a similar effect); and seeing cannabis use as potentially risky. Highlighting realistic and credible cannabis-related risks in a conversation with your child is likely to be helpful ... remember, even though you may think your words may not have an effect, research shows you were their first teacher and will always be an important influence in their lives, even through those difficult teenage years ...

Andreas, J.B. & Bretteville-Jensen, A.L. (2017). Ready, willing and able: the role of cannabis use opportunities in understanding adolescent cannabis use. Addiction 112, 1973-1982.

McKiernan, A. & Fleming, K. (2017). Canadian Youth Perceptions on Cannabis, Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (PDF downloadable version)

White, V. & Williams, T. (2016). Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the counter and illicit substances in 2014. Cancer Council Victoria.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

How do you best handle the 'alcohol issue' at an 18th birthday when there will be many underage young people present?

The 18th birthday is now a far more important event than it once was. For many of us it was the 21st birthday that was the major celebration and our entry into true adulthood but that has now changed, with many teens in their last year of school insisting they need a 'party to end all parties' to mark this major milestone. It certainly makes sense in many ways - they are now officially 'adults', they can vote, drink alcohol legally and no longer be regarded as 'underage' ... Unfortunately, any parent who decides to agree to an 18th birthday has to navigate through the 'alcohol issue' and try to work out how best to deal with a group of young people, some of whom are now legally able to drink alcohol (including their son or daughter) and other underage partygoers who are not ...

When I'm asked by parents for advice in this area, I have to be honest and tell them that if they can possibly get out of holding such an event, that's most probably the best option! Promising your son or daughter an even better 19th birthday party is a great way to go, but not surprisingly, the offer is rarely taken up! The major problem with this issue is that no parent wants to embarrass their teen and insist on rules and boundaries that apparently no-one else imposes, but there are some important legal issues to consider in this area.
We now have 'secondary supply' laws across all states and territories which means it is against the law to 'provide' under 18s with alcohol in private settings without parental consent. What does this mean in a practical sense and how does it affect 18th birthdays? The WA Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor have provided a series of FAQs on secondary supply laws and I have included a few of these below:
Q: What if a 17-year-old attends the 18th birthday party of a friend and the person whose party it is supplies the 17-year-old with alcohol?
A: The 18-year-old will need consent to do so from the 17-year-old’s parent or guardian – failure to obtain consent will make the 18-year-old liable for at $10,000 fine.

Q: I am having a party at home for my son's 18th birthday and some of the people attending will be under 18 years of age, is it okay for me to give them alcohol if they have a note from one of their parent's giving permission for them to drink alcohol?
A: Yes, provided that you are satisfied that the note has been provided by each juvenile's parent or guardian and not another person (for example a sibling).

Q: I am having a small gathering at my home for my daughter's 18th birthday, a few of her friends haven't turned 18 yet; is it okay for me to serve them alcohol if one of their parents rings me and gives their permission over the phone or provides permission by text message?
A: Yes, but again, provided that you are satisfied that the person you have spoken to, or received the text message from, is each juvenile's parent or guardian.

Q: My daughter is having her 18th birthday party at home, one of her 17-year-old friends told me that her mother had given her permission to drink alcohol, is it okay for me to give her a drink in my house?
A: No. You must obtain the permission from the parent or guardian.

The laws are slightly different in each jurisdiction (e.g., fines imposed for the offence and the definition of 'provide' or 'supply' can vary) but around provision of alcohol at 18th birthdays, they're all pretty much the same. Host parents have to either receive consent from the parents or guardians of those underage attendees, allowing them to drink alcohol, or do their best to ensure that those young people don't drink at all! Neither of those are going to be easy and one of them is likely to cause friction between you and your teen. So let's take a quick look at these two options and the problems associated with each of them ...

If you decide to go down the path of obtaining permission for those underage partygoers to drink,  there is an additional legal responsibility that comes with that choice. This is best explained by another of the questions from the WA Government site:

Q: If I have the permission of a parent to supply alcohol to my son's friend who is still 17 years old, are there any legal responsibilities that I have to be aware of?
A: The new laws require that if you a supplying alcohol to a juvenile you must observe responsible supervision practices at all times; including making sure juveniles don't get drunk (or you do not get drunk yourself) and that you are able to supervise the consumption of alcohol at all times.

So not only do you have to make sure you have received consent where appropriate, you also have to ensure that you are "able to supervise the consumption of alcohol at all times". Ask any licensee and they will tell you that's difficult when you have trained bar staff, CC-TV and security on every door in the venue - it's going to be almost impossible for a parent hosting an 18th birthday party!

I've talked about 'active supervision' before and as far as 18th birthdays are concerned I believe it should involve the following:
  • be there, right in the thick of it - don't plonk yourself in the middle of a group of teens and just stand there! Find reasons for being there, such as carrying food around ... Always consider your teen here as well - do this in an oppressive way and he or she will be mortified and rightly so but those attending are now truly young adults, have a conversation with them if it's appropriate. There can still be a fine line between 'being there' and 'lurking' - try not to cross it!
  • move around - most probably the biggest mistake parents make in this area is to position themselves in one place, justifying their decision by stating that the partygoers will know where to find them if something goes wrong. Having adults regularly moving through the space ensures that all those attending be a little more careful about what they are doing and may be more likely to monitor their drinking a little more carefully
  • talk to those attending - the best way to know what is going on at a party is to talk to as many teens as possible. This should not be intrusive and don't try to be cool - kids can see through that in seconds! Be yourself - ask them how they're going, if they're having a good time and the like. Not only does this help you to get to know your child's friends a little better but it also helps you gauge how the party is going and monitor alcohol consumption
  • most importantly, stay  sober! There is no way that you are able to effectively monitor a houseful of 17 and 18-year-olds if you have been drinking yourself ... 
What about the other option? What if you decide to state clearly that those under the age of 18 will not be able to drink alcohol at the party? This is also not easy (I told you offering a 19th birthday is a better option!) but I have to say, many parents have found ways of making it work. I very much doubt whether all of the underage partygoers actually remained 'alcohol-free' in these cases, but at least the host parents did their best ... Here are some of the ways other parents have navigated through this issue:
  • the trust option - this appears to work best when parents have a strong relationship not only with their son or daughter, but also their friends. It's also much more likely to be successful at smaller parties or gatherings. Alcohol is provided for those who are 18 or over but the invitation states clearly that due to legal issues, the host parents will be asking those who are underage not to drink. Many may be surprised to find out that this can often work - the hosts putting the responsibility back onto the young people and they respond accordingly ... 
  • the wristband system - another popular method of trying to control who is able to drink alcohol or not. Parents using this system have to be organised, usually creating a guest list that separates those who are 18 or over from those who are not. When partygoers arrive they are issued a wristband indicating which group they are in. In my experience, this does not always work well and is regarded by many of the young people I have spoken to as 'restrictive' and 'too controlling'. That said, I have spoken to many parents who have used this option and have found it to be successful - once again, it has so much to do with the parent-child relationship 
  • a bar service where proof-of age has to be given before alcohol is served - I now know of a couple of parents who have used this option and from what they have said, it worked well. It's based on what would happen at a bar or club if you wanted to drink alcohol. There is no BYO and attendees are informed on the invitation that there will be trained bar staff present who will be serving alcohol to those 18 years or over - proof of age will be required. No spirits are allowed, you can only collect one drink at a time and because alcohol is only available from the bar, levels of intoxication can hopefully be monitored. An interesting option ...
  • hold the event on licensed premises - this is the one I often suggest to parents who are really struggling in this area. If you hold an 18th birthday on a licensed premises, even if a parent wants to give consent for their teen to drink, they can't - it is an offence. All those who are 18 or over are able to drink and establishing proof-of-age is no longer your responsibility. The licensee must monitor the young people coming to the party and they also have to ensure that no-one on their premises drinks to the point of intoxication. It's a 'win-win'! This can be an expensive option and some young people don't like it because of the restrictions that will be placed on some of their friends but it does tick all the boxes for a parent!
So there it is - whether you choose to allow those who are underage to drink alcohol at an 18th or you try to prevent it from happening, neither way is going to be particularly easy. Regardless of what you do, involve your teen in the organization process and let them see what actually goes on when putting on such an event. As already said, the success of the event will usually depend on the relationship you have with your son and daughter ...Whatever decision you make, you want a celebration like this to bring you together and certainly not tear you apart!

Friday, 2 March 2018

Why would teens use some of these more 'unusual' substances? How are they accessing them and why would they decide to use them at school?

A couple of weeks ago, many Australian readers of this blog would have seen reports of an 'overdose' incident at a Gold Coast school. Now I need to make it clear that I do not have any connection with that school and I have not been privy to what actually occurred on that day - I only have media reports to rely on, which as we all know are not always entirely accurate. Regardless, it would appear that we can be quite certain of some basic facts, i.e., a group of Year 10 boys took a substance (with Queensland Police confirming that it was Phenibut later in the week) to school and then made a decision to use it while on school grounds. They then had an adverse reaction to the drug with seven of them being taken to hospital, four reportedly in a critical condition. All of the boys have now recovered and according to media reports, have been expelled from the school.

Without a doubt this would have to be one of the most bizarre stories regarding school-based young people that I have ever been asked to comment on ... When I was first asked to be interviewed I asked for a little time to check up that what I was being told by the journalist was actually true! There were (and still are) so many questions about this incident, including the following:
  • why would young men mess around with such a bizarre drug?
  • how did they find out about the drug?
  • did they have any idea about the risks involved with using the substance?
  • where did they get it from and are there many other young people experimenting with it?
  • why did they decide to use the drug at school?
Firstly, it's important to acknowledge that groups of young people experimenting with 'weird and wacky' substances is not unusual. In some of the interviews I was asked if I had heard about this kind of 'mass overdose' situation before. As I said at the time, there have been a number of similar events over the past 25 years, but they usually involved easily accessible household products (e.g., sniffing aerosol cans) or pharmaceutical drugs, usually mixed with alcohol. There have also been a number of cases of naturally-occurring hallucinogens causing similar problems. I pride myself on usually having my 'finger on the pulse' when it comes to what young people are doing and I've never been greatly surprised by the overdoses of the past, but this one floored me ... It is also one of the first that has occurred on school grounds ...

Hardly a week goes past without a young person either asking me a question, either face-to-face or via email, about some new drug - Phenibut however, had never been discussed. So what is it and why would teens want to experiment with it?

Phenibut is a depressant, approved in Russia, Ukraine, and Latvia for the treatment of, amongst other things, insomnia and anxiety. It is not approved or available as a medication in most other countries of the world, including Australia, but is sold online as a 'nutritional supplement'. Although you can find online discussion about the product in chat rooms dealing with drug use, it is on YouTube that the drug is really promoted. Videos with titles such as 'My Phenibut Review – What You Can Expect And What It Feels Like', 'Beginner's Guide To Phenibut' and 'The Ultimate Phenibut Dosage Guide' can all be found there and are easily accessible to young people.

What is interesting is that the majority of people featured in these videos are older, they're certainly not teenagers. Many of the YouTube videos tout the product as an effective treatment for anxiety, some have bodybuilders promoting it is a useful supplement, supposedly stimulating growth hormone, while others claim it is a 'smart drug', useful in helping you prepare for an exam. Other videos discuss the euphoric effect of the drug, similar to that of GHB, a drug also known as 'fantasy' or 'liquid ecstasy' - a drug very well-known in this country for its links to mass overdoses at dance festivals over the years. So, in terms of why young people would experiment with this substance, the answer is most probably its supposedly 'euphoric' effects, although Erowid (one of the best sources of drug information available) states that it is likely to cause a "feeling of wellbeing, relaxation, slight disinhibition comparable to the effects of low-dose alcohol". Not really a ringing endorsement for a substance!

When it comes to access to this drug, all you need to do is to type 'Buy Phenibut' into a Google search and you will find a range of sites that will allow you to purchase the so-called 'nutritional supplement'. This is not a product that you have to search the so-called 'dark web' for - it truly is just a couple of clicks away for anyone with access to a computer! Worryingly, I'm starting to see more young people who are accessing pharmaceutical drugs in exactly the same way (particularly Xanax - a drug that I'm being asked more and more about in recent times) - finding online pharmacies that are extremely easy to access that are more than happy to provide a wide range of medications.

But then we come to the real question that I am still struggling with - why would these young men make the decision to experiment with this drug at school? To be quite honest, if they hadn't and had chosen to use the product at home and had had a similar reaction, they may not have been found and there could have been truly tragic consequences. That said, it is highly unusual for young people to experiment in this way on school property. All of the other 'mass overdose' incidents involving teens and 'strange substances' I can remember usually took place on a weekend in homes, parks or bushland. Now, if you're thinking teens, particularly young men, have always played around with drugs like cannabis at school, that would be true - it was once an issue - but it hasn't been for some time. Recently, however, we have seen this starting to happen more and more, with growing numbers of schools having to deal with students bringing and using cannabis at school, leading to far more suspensions and expulsions than I have seen for many years.

So why is there this change? Why are young people choosing to take the risk of bringing an illicit drug like cannabis or one of these more 'unusual' substances like Phenibut into schools? It truly makes little sense - the chance of them getting caught is much greater and the consequences of having drugs in your possession on school property are very clear. If we look at it purely from a physiological perspective, we need to remind ourselves of how a teenage brain works and why they take risks ... Young people don't take part in risky behaviour because they want to hurt themselves and it's not that they don't understand the dangers - it's just that they weigh risk versus reward differently. As one academic has been quoted as saying - "they don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff." This reward increases when around their peers - that is why you usually see groups of young men, not individuals, taking part in such activity.

So why is this all of a sudden a greater problem, haven't teen brains have always been the same? I wish I knew ... certainly many of the schools I work with are really struggling with how to deal with this potentially dangerous behaviour. Interestingly, it appears we are seeing more drugs being brought into schools at a time when use is actually decreasing amongst school-based young people. For some reason, even though less teens are using illicit drugs, those who are choosing to use are doing more 'stupid things' ... Add to that, new substances are being added to the mix on a weekly basis, all of which are discussed and reviewed openly in online chat rooms and various websites. And finally, access is no longer limited by 'who you know'. Although many of these substances can only be purchased via the 'dark web', there are others that can be found by a quick Google search, bought and paid for, arriving at your door via Australia Post! Let's just hope that we don't see a tragedy as a result ...

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.