Saturday, 29 April 2017

Parents, teens and trust: Are teens more likely to lie during adolescence?

Last week I discussed a simple 'how-to-guide' when deciding on whether your child attend a party, gathering or sleepover. In the last paragraph I repeated what I have said many times before around adolescents not always telling their parents the truth and that even though you have to trust your child during this time, you just have to make sure it's not 'blind trust'. As I said, "do that and it's just plain stupid and potentially unbelievably dangerous!"

This statement received a fairly strong response from one person who posted the following on my Facebook page:

"I am disappointed to see this old chestnut rolling around in a place I generally regard as offering wise, evidence guided suggestions, "As I've said many times before, you can't trust an adolescent - they're going to tell lies and let you down - that's what they do!"

I call bulls***. I was a teacher in secondary schools for a decade and I have three adolescent children. Adolescents are no less trustworthy than anyone else. They have my trust unless and until they break it. If I respect and trust them, if I share my values, concerns, and expectations, they come to value our relationship and my trust enough to avoid breaking it. Parenting is all about building solid connections and meaningful relationships. Expecting kids to lie to me undermines that goal."


Now I would normally just simply respond directly to the comment on the page but I wanted to take the time to answer and make sure that it was addressed appropriately. There have been many people who have challenged me over the years on this topic (some simply getting angry that I have suggested that their child would lie to them, while others, like this person, holding the belief that adolescents are no less trustworthy than adults) and even though I have tried to clarify my position many times, it may be wise to do so again ...

Firstly, I believe that our young people are wonderful - they live in an increasingly complex world and the vast majority manage to navigate through the adolescent years without too many problems. I have worked with them for over 30 years and the current generation of teens constantly amaze me when it comes to their resilience and ability to adapt to the huge changes that are occurring in the world today. Each week, across the country, I meet adolescents who are doing incredible things and, sadly, we do not talk about their achievements enough ...

Secondly, I suppose the best way of explaining my beliefs around parents, young people and trust is as follows:

Most young people will do the 'right thing' most of the time, however, all young people will do the 'wrong thing' at least some of the time

I totally agree with this mother - sharing your "values, concerns and expectations" with your child is vital in developing a valued and trusting relationship. And of course, parenting is all about "building solid connections and meaningful relationships" but it is also important to remember that during the teen years they do not have fully-developed brains and as such this affects their decision-making ability, including whether to tell the truth or not.

You can have the best relationship with your child - one that both you and your child values greatly - but when they are put into a situation where they have to make a decision, they weigh 'risk-reward' differently than adults. If a teen is put into a situation where they have to decide whether or not to tell their parents the truth about whether they are planning to drink alcohol at a party or not, they have to 'balance' risk and reward. The risk is they would jeopardise their wonderful relationship with their parents if they lie and the potential reward is that they get to drink alcohol with their friends ... As adults, we would look at these two options and would regard the risk as too great - the relationship is far more valuable than a couple of drinks. Adolescents, however, are more likely to see the reward as far more important, leading them to not always telling the truth ... Does this mean they value the relationship with their parents any less? Of course not, it's just that their brain is pushing them to the reward - they "don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff"! It is also important to note that this reward is increased if they are around their peers - the more friends around them, the greater the reward. So in actual fact, adolescents are likely to be less trustworthy than adults simply because of this evolutionary feature ...

So should parents 'expect' their teens to lie? Absolutely not! If parents went through the teen years with that negative attitude they'd be driven mad ... I don't believe you should 'expect' your child to lie, but you need to 'accept' that they will at some time. Does this undermine your relationship with your child? I don't believe that it does - it's simply being realistic and acknowledges that teens do not always make the best decisions, not because they're 'bad kids' (or you're a 'bad parent') but simply because they're going through a stage in their life when their brains are going through major changes and they also need to push against rules and boundaries to work out exactly where they fit in the world.

Without doubt, the better the relationship you have with your child, one in which your values, concerns and expectations are discussed, the more likely it is that they will be truthful and share what is happening in their life. Accepting (not expecting) that your teen is going through a stage of their life where they are not always able to make the best decisions and may lie to you ensures that you don't fall into the trap of blindly trusting them. I have met too many parents over the year who have totally believed that their relationship with their son or daughter was one built on respect and trust, only to find out too late that they had been lied to, sometimes for years. All too often they discovered this out when their teen had ended up in hospital, been sexually assaulted or in some cases, when they had died.

Of course, you should always think the best of your child - raise the bar and they are likely to lift themselves up to reach it! Trusting your teen to do the 'right thing' is vital in maintaining a positive relationship during adolescence. However, accepting that teens lie and understanding why they may do this, even in the most trusting and open relationships, helps avoid blind trust and potential disappointment ...

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A simple 'how-to-guide' when deciding on whether your teen should attend a party, gathering or sleepover

Every parent wants their child to have friends and to 'fit in' with their peer group. Many Mums and Dads are terrified that their child may be socially excluded in some way, particularly if they themselves experienced some kind of rejection when they were young. With increasing awareness and concern around mental health issues, particularly around adolescence, this fear has only intensified in recent years and most parents would do almost anything to ensure their child is socially accepted and has a good group of friends.

That is where deciding whether or not your child should be able to attend a party, gathering or even a sleepover can become extremely difficult. On the one hand, you are thrilled that your son or daughter has been invited to an event and wants to go (i.e., they have a friend and are keen to interact with a social group), but at the same time you have questions such as will this be a safe place for them to go and how much do you really know about the people who are hosting? You desperately want your child to fit-in and have a fun time with their friends but you don't want them exposed to potential risks or dangers. At the same time, you are also juggling issues around maintaining an open and positive relationship with your teen - saying 'no' to them all the time can certainly jeopardise that, particularly if they do not understand the reasons behind your decision.
Let me start by saying that I believe strongly that if your child wants to attend a social gathering on a Saturday night (and there are many young people who don't, including an awful lot who have done it once or twice and discovered pretty quickly that it's not their thing!), in most cases, it is usually better to allow them to go than not. Parties and gatherings are where teens learn to socialise in a different way than they do at school and, as such, are an important part of growing up. Still, just blindly saying 'yes' to a teen when they ask if can they go to an event is not the way to go.
So, with that in mind, here are my thoughts on how to make a decision on whether your child should attend a party gathering or sleepover.
Firstly, and most importantly, don't be bullied into a decision – you don't have to give an answer straight away, no matter what they say. Gather the information you need to make an informed decision and if they tell you they need an answer now - the answer is 'no'. Take your time and get it right. If both parents are on the scene, make it clear right from the very start that both of you make decisions around sleepovers and parties. Adolescents are extremely clever at setting up one parent against the other and it is vital that they understand that there is a 'united front' on this issue. Make it clear to them by telling them – "Don’t come to me, don't go to them – come to us!"

To make an informed decision you need good quality information. Every parent needs to decide for themselves what that should be and when they have worked that out, sit down with their child and let them know what that is ... It then needs to be made clear that without that information they won't be going. This is going to be a difficult process if you suddenly start doing this when they are 15-years-old, but get the ball rolling when they are in primary school and it just becomes part of 'what you do' and you won't have the drama later. I believe the following four questions need to be answered to ensure that an informed decision can be made:
  • whose party is it and do you know them and/or their parents?
  • where will the party be held?
  • will the parents be there and will they be actively supervising the party?
  • what time does it start and what time does it finish?
Of all the questions here the final one is most probably the most important, mainly because it helps you sort out whether your teen is asking about attending an actual party or a 'pre-party'. This relatively new phenomenon is catching many parents off-guard, particularly those new to the whole teenage party scene. Your teen asks you whether they can be dropped off at Jane's house at 7.30pm and that's where you think they will be for the night. If you haven't done your due-diligence and actually called Jane's parents to find out what is actually going on, they may not even be there at 7.30pm. This is actually a 'pre-party' where a small group of teens will assemble, often pre-load with alcohol (as already said, there are often no parents present, while at other times, some actually 'supervise' this drinking!) and then in a couple of hours the group will move onto the actual party that they were planning to attend all along, with you being none the wiser! Finding out starting and finishing times of an event can help avoid being left in the dark in this area.

So if you need this range of information, where do you go to find it? There are a number of places you can go but unfortunately, in my experience, many parents are simply not willing to put the effort in when it comes to this area …
  • first of all, if you're a complete idiot, you'll rely on the old favourite and simply ask your child! This, of course, is not the most reliable source and your teen is more than likely to avoid telling you anything they know would prevent them from going ... That said, you need to always ask them first - what do they know about the event and what will be happening? You can pretty well guarantee that they don't know much and you will be lucky if you get very much valuable information from this discussion. I had a wonderful chat with a young lady this week who took great joy in telling me about the wonderful relationship she had with her mother - "I tell her everything and she trusts me completely," she told me. She had just been sharing a story about a drunken friend that she had tried to carry up some stairs at a party and so I asked her what her Mum had thought about that. "Oh god, I didn't tell her about that! If she knew that my friend had got that drunk she would start worrying about us ..." Obviously, even in the most 'trusting' relationships, choices are made around what needs to be shared and what doesn't!
  • most importantly, go to the source – contact the parents hosting the party. This is the best place to go but you're going to get resistance from your teen and the conversation with the parents is not always easy, particularly when it comes to the alcohol issue. As much as some parents have told me that when they have made the call they have been met with a positive response - e.g., "I'm so pleased to hear from you, I haven't had anyone else call and find out what's going on!" - there are others who have had extremely unpleasant experiences. Some claim that they have even been verbally abused by host parents, accused of 'overparenting', with many being asked the question "Why are you calling? Don't you trust your child?" This is always going to be a tough job but is without a doubt the best way to get the information you need
  • talk to other parents – this is the one that most parents are least likely to use, but it really is one of the best. If your child has been invited to an event that you are concerned about, talk to their friends' parents to find out how they feel about it. Do they know the parents who are hosting? What has their child told them about the event and does it match up with what your teen has said? If, at any stage during your child's schooling, you can find other parents who you believe have similar values to you in this area, staple them to your side and stick with them for as long as you possibly can! These people can become useful allies throughout the teen years and are also an invaluable source of information ...
  • look at social media – has anything been posted online about the event? This is a tough one and I need to make it clear that I do not advocate spying on your child ... When they are in their early to mid teens and are on social media, most cybersafety experts will tell you that a condition of them being on these platforms is that you will be following them in some way. I do not claim to be an expert in this area but if you're going to be doing this I believe it should be done in an honest and upfront way - creating a false identity and 'stalking' your child or finding out their passwords and then secretly accessing their accounts only cause much greater problems later should you actually discover something inappropriate (i.e., how do you tell them that you found out about it?) ... Be upfront and tell them that you need to have access. Should they have concerns (and they will), discuss these and try to reach a compromise. As far as parties, gatherings and sleepovers are concerned - social media can provide valuable information about upcoming events and can certainly help you to make a decision about whether you teen should attend or not
As I said earlier, I believe that it is usually best to let your child attend these social events whenever possible. Of course, there will be times when the information you have collected clearly shows that the event is too risky and you have to say 'no' - you simply have no choice! For some parents it will be the availability of alcohol that will be the deciding factor in whether they allow their teen to attend or not. I certainly believe that if your 14 or 15-year-old is invited to an event and you discover that alcohol will be permitted or tolerated by the parents hosting, that is an extremely good reason to not allow your child to attend. So many of the parties held on a Saturday night around the country are not small - we're often talking about events with 60-80 young people attending. Trying to keep that number of teens safe when alcohol is added to the mix is almost impossible - that is going to potentially be a dangerous event ...

When it comes to 16-year-olds I think this is where trust starts to come in ... If you keep saying 'no' to your child when it comes to attending social events purely because alcohol may be there, you're going to be at risk of them pulling away, that all-important connection can be broken and you could lose them. Once you have done your homework and found out about the event they want to attend and you have concerns, these need to be expressed. Tell them that you don't feel comfortable but that you trust them to do the 'right thing' and that they are allowed to go but there are caveats, i.e., different rules apply to this party than for others. These may include limiting the amount of time they are there or agreeing to be picked-up from the party in a different way than normal. If your trust is broken (i.e., they break your rules), there will be consequences. Over time, reward good behaviour and 'free the reins' a little - they are growing up and becoming young adults.

As I've said many times before, you can't trust an adolescent - they're going to tell lies and let you down - that's what they do! Like everything else during the teen years, however, when it comes to parties, gatherings and sleepovers you have to start trusting them at some point ... you just have to make sure it's not 'blind trust' - do that and it's just plain stupid and potentially unbelievably dangerous!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

5 things parents should discuss with their teen before they leave homefor a sleepover, party or gathering

If you allow your teen to attend a sleepover, party or gathering on a Saturday night, you've made a pretty big decision. They're going to be going to someone else's home (often someone you don't know particularly well) and they are going to socialise with other teenagers. Regardless of whether alcohol (or other drugs) are going to be involved - things can go wrong. Once you've told your teen they can go to wherever it is that they are going, your work doesn't stop there!

I've written about the importance of making decisions about how they get to the event and how they get home (as I've said many times, I believe this is the one non-negotiable in this area - you decide what happens here - not your child!), as well as talking about your expectations around behaviour, but it is also vital that, regardless of their age, your child should never leave home without a number of simple things being discussed. These are all around safety and planning and although I am sure some parents will read these and think that these are 'overkill' and bordering on 'smothering', it's the way that they are raised that makes all the difference ... This is not about a sit-down discussion where you give them a lecture, but rather some of these should just arise in general conversation in the lead-up to them leaving home for the night or just become part of the ritual of dropping them off to wherever they may be going.

Most importantly, every parent's mantra as their child leaves home on a Saturday night should be as follows - "You can call me anytime, anywhere – if something goes wrong and you need me – I'll be there!"

Even though you've made the decision that they can go to wherever they're going you continue to be a parent. Make sure you are available to them should they need you. Your child should feel comfortable calling you in any situation, at any time, feeling absolutely confident that you will be there. This needs to be conveyed to them whenever you take them anywhere, over and over again ... Now if you decide to say this, you must be able to follow-through and ensure you are able to do it and that may mean that you will have to sacrifice your 'fun' on a Saturday night. If they're at a party or even a sleepover (i.e., there are no plans for them to come home that evening), one or both of you are always going to have to remain sober to ensure that you can hop into your car to get them at a moment's notice. That may be really difficult for some people but that's what being a parent is all about! Sure, you can always call a cab or an Uber if need be, but if your child calls you in a state because everything has gone 'pear-shaped', you are going to want to get there as soon as possible and be in a state to look after them ...

Apart from this mantra, here are five things I believe every parent should discuss with their teen before they leave home on a Saturday night:
  • remind them of your support should they need to call 000 - this is the one that I am always amazed that parents simply don't do! In my experience, the number one reason that young men don't call an ambulance is the belief that the police routinely attend ambulance calls (which, of course, is completely untrue - they don't even know an ambulance call has been made unless the paramedics call them) and young women fear that their parent will find out ... That is incredibly sad - they actually make the decision not to call for help because they're scared of what you may think. Every child (not only teens) need to feel completely supported should they find themselves in a situation where they need to call an ambulance, always remembering that the slightest hesitation could possibly lead to tragic consequences. As already said, this reminder should not be part of a major lecture and could be as simple as a throwaway line as they're getting out of the car like "You know that you have my 100% permission to call 000 if something goes wrong and then call me ..."
  • check that they have the address of wherever they are going stored in their phone or written on a piece of paper - this takes five seconds to do but can save a life in an emergency. Regardless of where they're going (or their age - I've met university students who say this was one of the best tips I gave them when they heard me at their school years before, as they're still doing it!), make sure that you see them putting the address of where they're planning to go into their phone. If something goes wrong and they need to call for help, they will need to know their location. I recommend that every parent ensures that their entire family downloads the 'Emergency +' app onto their smartphones (this activates your GPS and provides not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address), but just to be on the safe side, having the address written down somewhere is a great idea and also ensures your teen understands the importance of planning ahead, as well as providing you with some peace of mind
  • find out who their 'buddy' is for the night and make sure you have their number - the worst thing that can happen to a parent is when, for some reason, they need to contact their teen when they are out and they can't get hold of them. For whatever reason, they don't answer their phone or they don't respond to a text. Establishing the importance of identifying a 'buddy' for the night, once again, stresses the importance of planning and also provides parents with a safety-net in this area. A buddy is the person that your teen is planning on being with for the night (it is important to make clear that this is not about being 'joined at the hip', it's just they're planning to be with or around them). The whole idea is that if you are unable to get hold of your teen (and you would only do so if it was absolutely necessary - you don't want to be bombarding them with messages all evening - do that and you'll never be given a buddy's number!), you can contact the buddy, just to make sure all is fine
  • discuss your 'out word' and remind them that you're always willing to be the 'bad guy' if they need you to be - I've talked about coming up with an 'out' word or phrase with your child to help them get out of situations and still 'save face' many times before. This can be used in either a text message, a phone call or a conversation whenever your child wants to be taken out of a situation - e.g., they may not be enjoying a sleepover they are at (either missing their bed or you), there may be things happening at a party that they don't feel comfortable being around or they just simply be bored out of their brains and want to come home. Remind them that if they feel that way, they can use the out word and you'll be there and you're happy to be seen as the bad guy by their friends and take the blame to get them out of any situation
  • "if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't" - once again, this is a statement that needs to be thrown out in a casual conversation but needs to be put out there often. Making it a part of the ritual of dropping them off or as they walk out the door can be so powerful. Regardless of where they are going and who they are with, your teen is going to have to make many decisions throughout the night, some which could have major consequences if they make the 'wrong' ones. You can't make those decisions for them - they're going to have to do it for themselves. You have undoubtedly aimed to raise your child with a set of values that are similar to yours - simply reminding them that 'if it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't' will hopefully demonstrate to them that you are trusting them to make the 'right decision', whatever that may be ...
It constantly amazes me that many parents will often send or drop their teens off on a Saturday night without more than a quick "I love you". Of course, you can't wrap them up in cotton wool and protect them from absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong - they are growing up and they are going to have to fend for themselves at some point or another. That is why it is important for them to socialise with their peers and have a good time - some of them will make mistakes and things will go awry - that's a key part of growing up. That said, it is also vital that parents remember that they are going to potentially dangerous events - taking the time to cover just a few simple things that can keep them just a bit safer is not 'overparenting' or smothering. If done correctly, it's simply showing them that you love them and, at the same time, provides them with some basic life skills for the night ahead and their future ...  

Saturday, 1 April 2017

"Take $100 out with you and stop drinking when you've spent that!" - a father's advice to his 16-year-old son around safer alcohol use!

No-one can tell a parent how to deal with the alcohol issue when it comes to their children. Your child is precious to you and only you can make decisions about how to handle the 'if they drink, when and how many' questions ... If you believe that providing alcohol to your child is appropriate and that, in doing so, you are keeping them safer and they are learning how to drink responsibly, that is your business and no-one else's. As I have said many times before, the only problem I have is when parents impose their values on others and invite other people's children to events where alcohol will either be provided, permitted or tolerated - thus putting those parents who do not feel comfortable with their teen drinking in a very difficult position. That is incredibly unfair. That said, I think there are some extremely well-meaning parents who are trying to do the right thing when they provide alcohol to their teen who simply have no idea about how much they are handing over ...

I recently visited a school and after my Year 12 presentation a number of young people came up to me wanting to ask me questions. I was finally left with two young men, who were obviously friends, both 17-years-old. One of them had already asked his question but stayed around to support his mate who wanted some advice - here is the general gist of his question:

"When I go out to a party and there is alcohol available I find it really difficult to stop at just one. If there is a carton of anything, I'll start with a can or a bottle and have every intention to stop after I've had that. I don't understand why, but I find that incredibly difficult to do - I keep going back and sometimes drink an entire carton, often making myself feel sick in the process. In my head, I want to stop - I know what will happen if I keep drinking - but I almost can't stop myself. What should I do?"

I asked him whether he drank during the week (he didn't), whether he thought about alcohol or drinking at any other time (he didn't) and a couple of other questions to try to determine whether he could be coming alcohol dependent but, to me, it sounded more likely to be a lack of self-control more than anything else (he was also one of those young people who simply didn't feel comfortable in a social situation without a drink in his hand) ... I then suggested a couple of tricks he could use to slow his drinking down and asked him if he had spoken to anyone else about this 'problem'. He then told me what his father had suggested to him when he had asked for advice - his answer blew me away!

"Dad said the best thing I could do was to make sure that I only had $100 in my pocket when I went out and to stop drinking when I spent that!"

Now I don't know what my face looked like but his mate's face was a picture! Before I could say anything (and I have to be honest, I didn't quite know what to say!), his mate blurted out "But that could be four bottles of vodka!" I'm sure that father had the best of intentions when he gave his son advice (and isn't it great that he went to his Dad for help with this?) but had he really thought it through and worked out how much alcohol he was actually recommending?

I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago when I discussed the bizarre phenomenon of parents hosting post-formal events who include on the invitation that those young people attending are able to bring up to four cans to drink at the event. As I said at the time ... "Do the parents hosting this event realize how much alcohol that actually is?" Even if each can (or bottle) was the equivalent of one standard drink (which it rarely is), that is still four standard drinks ... The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking recommends that "for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion" - and that's for adults! No number of drinks is recommended for those under 18-years, with the guidelines stating that "not drinking alcohol is the safest option."

Once again, I realize that 'not drinking alcohol' is not realistic for all young people, but this idea that four drinks is an appropriate (and safe) number for parents to provide to their teens is frightening. It is equally as concerning when you hear that there are people who believe that stopping drinking when you're spent $100 on alcohol is somehow promoting safer use!

When I discussed this last, I had recently surveyed some Year 10-12 students and asked them some simple questions about the last time they drank alcohol - e.g., who provided the alcohol, how much they provided, what type of alcohol was it, and how much they drank? The results clearly showed that amongst those parents who did provide alcohol to their teens, there appeared to be a poor understanding of how much they were providing and their teen was consuming, as well as the potential harm associated with such behaviour.

When you read some of the responses from the students, the sheer amount provided is staggering and clearly illustrates that some parents simply don't understand how much alcohol is in the can or bottle that they hand over to their child ...
  • "My Dad gives me a 6-pack of beer to take with me. I've been given that since the end of Year 10. They don't want me to drink spirits like my mates." (Year 12 male)
  • "I have three Smirnoff Double Blacks, sometimes 4 depending on what kind of party it is and whether my parents know the people who are hosting it." (Year 11 female)
  • "Usually 4 bourbon and cola UDLs. My parents have said that if they catch me drinking straight spirits then that'll stop but they've been giving me this much since the end of Year 10." (Year 11 male)
  • "Two Smirnoff Double Blacks. I told my Mum that all my friends drink vodka and that I think that's dangerous and I am able to better control my drinking with these drinks and not get into trouble." (Year 10 female)
  • "Four beers and never anymore. Mum and Dad have said they don't want me to drink spirits and have said that beer is safer. Some weeks I start off with a couple of shots of vodka with my mates just to get the night going but that's about it." (Year 10 male)

Let's break down just how much alcohol some of these teens were actually being provided ...
  • A 6-pack of beer is going to be around 8.2 standard drinks (full-strength - 1.2 per can), around 6 (mid-strength - 1 per can) and 4.2 standard drinks (light - around 0.7 per can). Of course this varies depending on brands (cans and bottles can vary slightly but not too much usually) but realistically that's a lot of alcohol
  • The number of standard drinks in bourbon and cola UDL cans vary depending on whether they are the 'normal strength' or 'black label' variety. Four of these cans can amount to anywhere from 4.8 to 6 standard drinks for cheaper brands, up to 7.6 for the higher strength and more expensive ones
  • Four Smirnoff Double Blacks (which continues to be the most popular drink amongst young women) results in them consuming 7.6 standard drinks – more than a third of a bottle of vodka!

I firmly believe that most parents who are providing their teens alcohol to take to parties and gatherings are doing so for what they believe are the 'right reasons'. I hear it all the time from parents I meet - "I give it to them because they're going to get it from somewhere and I'd much rather they get it from me - at least I know what they're drinking."

These are parents who truly love their kids - I don't for a minute think they are intentionally trying to put their kids into harm's way. In fact, I think it's just the opposite - they're trying to protect their child. I'm sure that was the case with the father I mentioned earlier - his son had approached him for help and he gave him the best advice he could ...

You can see from the student responses provided that a common theme was that their parents didn't want them to drink spirits. I think that is still the case - parents, for the most part, are very aware that groups of young people downing bottles of vodka, bourbon or rum is extremely risky. The theory, therefore, is providing them with beer or pre-mixed drinks could reduce the risk of them going down that path. Unfortunately, when they do this, they don't seem to have any idea as to how much alcohol they are actually providing their teens - at least, I hope that is the case. For, as I have said in the past, if there is any parent who truly believes that they're keeping their child safer by providing them with the equivalent of well over a third of a bottle of spirits to take to a party or gathering (because that's what a 6-pack of beer or 4 Smirnoff Double Blacks actually is) we really have a problem!   

Saturday, 25 March 2017

My cousin, heroin and how his death shaped how I work with young people today

One of the questions I am most often asked by students, teachers and parents alike is why I got into this area and why I am so passionate about the topic. There are really two parts to the answer - the first, fairly boring and uninteresting and the second, deeply personal ... 

The boring part is simply that I fell into it - there was no grand plan and I certainly never saw myself as ending up working in the alcohol and other drug field. Ask anyone I went to school (or teachers college or university) with  and they would say I was most probably the last person they would imagine would end up in that area. I trained as a primary school teacher, taught for a number of years and then left, moving through a number of jobs until finally ending up working at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW. Schools would occasionally call the Centre and ask for a researcher to give a presentation to students and, not surprisingly, no-one was interested. One day, someone suggested I do it ... and that's how it all started ...

For the first few years it was simply something I did - it certainly wasn't a passion. In one of my previous jobs I had developed drug education resources so I knew the literature. 'One-off' presentations by outside speakers were not effective, with the classroom teacher being the best person to deliver drug education. Don't get me wrong, I loved working with young people again, but I didn't necessarily believe that I was making much of a difference - I didn't think I could ... That all changed in the year that my family discovered that my cousin David was using heroin ...

You often read about 'troubled' young people – that definitely described David. Red-haired, freckled and slightly overweight, he had always been self-conscious and really didn't know where he fitted in the world. My extended family, including David, all lived in the UK (my parents emigrating to Australia when I was 10) and so when they discovered that he was using heroin in 2000 they immediately asked if I would travel home to try and assist him to get onto some sort of drug treatment program. At that time he was 27-years-old.

Understandably, the whole family, but particularly my aunt (his mother), was devastated when David's heroin use was discovered. She came from a generation that simply did not understand illicit drug use. Although she had heard of heroin, it was something that characters in a movie or a television soap opera used, definitely not her son. When I flew to the UK it was as much to support her as it was to assist David to find a suitable program. She had so many questions and did not know where to go for the answers. She had done all the right things – she had gone to a counsellor, she had looked for a local parent support group – but she was confused and felt terribly alone. She was living in a different world to that of David, and regardless of the phenomenal love they had for each other, the chasm that was between them in terms of drug knowledge and experience was proving extremely problematic. When I arrived, my first priority was to stop my aunt from continuing to go to David's dealer to buy the heroin for him, as she innocently believed that, if she got caught, she wouldn't get into trouble because the drug wasn't for her. She was only helping her son - how could she get into trouble for that?

David and I immediately bonded. My family had moved to Australia when I was 10 and, although I had met him a number of times on previous visits, I really didn't know him at all. He always had problems in the years that I got to know him but, regardless of the issues, I found him to be a wonderful, caring human being. He was fascinated with what I did for a living and was always asking me questions about a whole range of substances. All of us had been completely unaware of his extensive drug use history. He had been using drugs for years, had tried almost everything and had even become involved in organised crime and trafficking. Like most drug users, however, he had no desire to hurt himself as a result of his drug use and although his behaviour could be extremely self-destructive, he was keen to find out as much as he could about the 'story' behind a range of drugs so that things would not go wrong. He told me over and over again that he would have loved to have been given the opportunity to hear some of the information I was sharing with him when he was younger. When I asked him what was wrong with the drug education he did receive from school and the like, one thing he said particularly resonated with me - "They kept telling me what they thought I should know instead of what I actually wanted to know ..."

From that day on I started to change how I present to young people, particularly in terms of the messaging I developed. It's no wonder that young people don't listen to us when it comes to this area, so much of the information we provide is designed to shock and scare. Drug education is about so much more than information provision, but it is a part of it - we need to make sure what we are providing them is credible and useful. We rarely, if ever, ask teens what they want to know in this area, instead focussing on trying to ensure that they never go near drugs. When I started to go into schools and ask students what information they would like, the overwhelming response was how to look after each other. Most of them drink or take drugs to have a 'good time', they certainly don't have any desire to hurt themselves or anyone else. What did they need to do if something went wrong? If we give them information like that, it still lets them know about the risks and hopefully illustrates that 'no use' is the best and safest option, it's just provided in a way that is more palatable to young people. When I started to change the messaging, the response from students changed dramatically ...

David died from a heroin overdose in 2007. He was 34-years-old. My cousin was a great success story in so many ways. Although he had had relapses he had found real happiness in the last year or two of his life. He had met someone and the last time I saw him he told me his life had never been so together. Six months before he died he had saved enough money to travel overseas with the girl he cared so much about and his life appeared to be heading in the right direction. We will most probably never really know what went wrong but regardless of what happened I know he is in a better place.

When I wrote my book in 2009 I dedicated it to David and his mother, my Aunty Pat (who sadly passed away last year). Both had been looking for answers to a whole range of questions about drugs for a long time. I don't think my aunt ever really got the answers she so desperately wanted and needed - I don't think any parent who loses their child ever does - but I did often say to her that it was my time with David that truly shaped what I do today. It certainly didn't stop her hurting (she never recovered from his death) but she truly appreciated that David's story and even his death had resulted in something positive ...