Saturday, 20 August 2016

Why don't parents make the call to find out what is happening at a teen party? If they do, what should they ask?

A friend of mine recently contacted me to let me know that her Year 10 child had really enjoyed the talk I had given her. This wonderful mother had been 'building me up' for years and, finally, her daughter was at the age when she was going to hear what all the excitement was about! Not surprisingly, her teen's expectations were high but according to her mum her 15 year-old came home more than happy with what she had heard and the family had a great conversation about the talk and the messages presented. Unfortunately the next part of the conversation was not so positive ...

She and I have spoken a number of times about the importance of parental monitoring and knowing where your child is, who they're with and when they'll be home. She and her partner have attended a number of my parent sessions and I have warned her about the change in parent behaviour she was likely to see when children hit those teen years and started to be invited to 'gatherings'. Recently she held a party for her daughter and saw for herself what I had been saying was true. Not one of the parents of the teens who were invited made an effort to contact her beforehand to find out anything about the event. Compounding her frustration (and disbelief) was that almost all of the young people who attended were simply dropped off at the end of the driveway (no-one came to the door to hand-over their 15 year-old daughter to the people who would be looking after their child for the evening) and then, to top it all off, at the end of the night the vast majority of the girls were picked up by way of text!

I've dealt with this topic many times before and I accept that contacting a parent you don't know and asking them questions about a party they are holding is not going to be an easy task, but that's what parenting is all about – a whole pile of not very easy tasks! I also understand that making that call is not going to make you popular with your child but parenting is not a popularity contest - you're not there to be liked, you're a parent! You can guarantee that your child will not want you to contact the parents holding the party they have been invited to, but remember one of the golden rules of parenting that I recently discussed - 'if your child says you can't do something, that means you must!' If you want to make an informed decision when it comes to your child attending a party or not, you are going to have to bite the bullet and make the call ...

Over the years I have met a number of parents who have lost their children. Although I have been directly involved in far fewer deaths in recent years, a growing number of Mums and Dads have reached out to me due to issues around their daughters and sexual assaults that have taken place whilst intoxicated at parties. So many times when you talk to these people their grief is compounded by their belief that they didn't do more to find out about the party or gathering their child was attending.

So why don't parents make these calls? When I've asked parents this question, I pretty well always get the same answers:
  • "I didn't want to embarrass my child"
  • "She's a teenager, I had to start trusting her sometime"
  • "Nobody else calls the house - I didn't want to be 'that' kind of parent"
  • "I couldn't deal with the arguments - it was just too difficult to get the number to call from my child and I didn't want them to be left out"
  • "I trust my child and his friends - they're good kids"

Essentially it boils down to four things - potential embarrassment (of child and possibly self), trust issues, how they will be perceived by other parents (and their children) and 'it was just too hard'. Now I'm sure that they all sound like great reasons at the time and if nothing goes wrong you can then pat yourself on the back and say you did all you needed to do. However, if the night goes 'pear-shaped' and a tragedy occurs I can guarantee you will never forgive yourself. Look at all of those 'reasons' for not making a call carefully and I'm pretty sure you'd agree that not one of them is important enough to justify compromising a child's health and safety.

So what do you say to the parents hosting the event and how do you start the conversation and not sound like one of those parents you always promised yourself you would never be? None of the information below is new (I have discussed this issue many times before) but it seems like a good time to remind parents once again.

Most importantly, when you contact a parent to ask them about their party make sure you plan what you are going to say beforehand. Write down the questions you want to ask and make sure they are asked in a way that is not confrontational and accusatory. Some of the ways you could approach the subject when you make the call could include the following:
  • My son has just started going to parties and I'm still trying to negotiate my way through setting some ground rules. I'm just calling to find out how you’re dealing with the alcohol issue.
  • Thank you so much for inviting my daughter to the party. We have some basic rules around parties and alcohol that we have developed and we just want to find out some information about what will be happening on the night.
  • I know it can be very difficult to host a party and I really do appreciate that you are offering your home to the young people. We're considering holding an event in the future, can you let me know what you're doing about adult supervision and alcohol use?
Of course, their response to this introductory statement will make all the difference on what happens next, i.e., if you're met with a "I don't understand why you're calling" or "But don't you trust your child?" or something as equally insulting, you should simply thank them for taking your call, put the phone down and make a quick note to yourself - 'Well, they won't be going there!'

As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, there are a minimum of 5 questions that I believe need to be asked by parents when it comes to teen parties and they have to do with supervision, alcohol, security and start and finish times. These can be adjusted to match your own values and expectations but here are my thoughts:
  • Will there be adult supervision? Does this mean actual supervision or will there just be adults in the house?
  • Who will those adults be?
  • What will you be doing about alcohol?
  • What type of security are you planning?
  • What time is the party starting and finishing?
In addition, there are a whole range of other questions that you could ask and if you have an existing relationship with the hosts I would strongly advise that you ask them, if only to ensure that they have thought all possible scenarios through. However, if you do not know the parents they could take offence that a complete stranger has even considered asking them such questions. These include things such as:
  • What have you got planned to deal with uninvited guests?
  • Have you registered your party with the local police?
  • What will you do if you discover underage drinking?
  • Have you got plans in case things get out of control?
Always remember that not every parent is going to have the same views as you on this issue and if they do have a different viewpoint, this phone call is definitely not the time for you to give them a lecture on what you believe is the right way to bring up a child. Thank them for their time, wish them luck for the evening and get off the phone. Getting into a dispute about the right way to hold a teenage party is not necessary. You are highly unlikely to change their opinion on the subject and the whole experience will only leave you angry and frustrated. Putting the phone down and walking away is the best thing to do. Then thank your lucky stars that you did the right thing and have now prevented your child from getting into what you perceive as a high risk situation. As a parent you can only do what you think is right for your child. How other parents raise their children is their business and it really is not your place to become involved in their parenting decisions.

Most importantly, when you've made the decision that they can go to the party and they actually attend, 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 this 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!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

When your teen does something wrong, remember the mantra 'They're missing a piece of their brain!'

During the week I met a Year 11 girl who wanted to apologise to me for something that had happened to her only a few weeks after I had presented to her and her classmates last year. She had gone to a small gathering with a group of friends, including her boyfriend (who had also heard me speak at another school), was planning on drinking but certainly not getting drunk, and things just went pear-shaped. She ended up being taken to hospital after vomiting for a number of hours, being placed on life-support and was now totally mortified after causing her friends, boyfriend and family so much distress due to her actions. So why did she want to apologise to me? I am paraphrasing but this is essentially what she said:

"I have no idea why I didn't listen to you. I loved your talk and I listened to everything you said. You told us all the things we should do if we were planning on drinking alcohol, all the things to keep us safer and I didn't do any of them. In fact, I almost did the exact opposite of what you said! You told us to have a fistful of food before we went to the party, I purposely ate nothing all day. You said we should have a glass of water to start the night, I had a shot of vodka. I have had a whole year to think about why I ignored what you said and I just don't understand it. If I'd have died that night (and the doctors told me that I almost did), and you came back to the school and found out what had happened, I'm sure you would have thought that we don't listen to you and that's not true - I just wanted to say sorry ..."

We had quite a long conversation about the evening and what happened as a result of the decisions she made that night (can I tell you, thank god for her amazing boyfriend - he undoubtedly saved her life) but it was obvious that she wanted more than just to make an apology, she wanted an explanation as to why she had made such bad choices. She simply couldn't get her head around the fact that she had done something so stupid ... During my Year 11 talk, which she had just heard, I had talked about brain development and the fact that teens have not yet fully developed their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with reasoned thinking and judgement. I asked her what she thought of that part of the presentation and could she see how it could relate to the choices she had made that night? Yes, she had made some dumb decisions but she shouldn't keep beating herself up about it. She had learned some valuable lessons from the experience and I can pretty well guarantee you that she won't do it again, but why had she done it? Put simply, she was a teenager and she was 'missing a piece of her brain'!

Strictly speaking, of course, teens are not actually 'missing' a piece of their brain, it's just that there are some important areas have not yet fully developed. Development in the brain occurs in a back to front pattern, with the prefrontal cortex being the last area to fully develop, for females around the age of 21-22 years and for males much later (around 25-26 years at least, but recent evidence suggests that some development may continue until possibly even 35!). This prefrontal area is the part of the brain that adults primarily use when making decisions, i.e., we use reasoning and judgement and balance up the 'pros' and 'cons' before we do things. With this section not yet fully developed, teens have to rely on another area when processing information and making choices - the amygdala (the 'emotional' part of the brain). This means they are more inclined to respond to situations with 'gut reactions', rather than think through possible consequences, i.e., there is a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. They jump into things, often well aware of the consequences (let's be clear here - the vast majority of teens are completely aware of the risks associated with drinking to excess, it's not like they don't know the risks), it's just that they don't think it will happen to them. Almost all of the decisions they make are based on the simple premise - 'if it feels good, I'll do it!'

Teens will do dumb things, that's a part of being a teenager! Of course, there's the issue of personal responsibility and when their actions affect other people (or endanger themselves), you can't simply ignore bad or dangerous behaviour and wipe it off by saying that it's due to their adolescent brain and their inability to think through consequences adequately. As the old saying goes - 'Do the crime and pay the fine!' When your teen breaks the rules, there have to be consequences. But it is important for parents (and their children) to understand why this behaviour takes place and so much of what they do and the choices they make during adolescence is due to their developing brain. Towards the end of my Year 11 presentation I always ask the students to try to think of something they have done in the past fortnight that literally five minutes after they had done it they thought, why did I do that? Their faces are always a picture - big smiles and sometimes laughter clearly shows that they can all think of something they did that just made no sense. Why did they do it? It's simple - 'They're missing a piece of their brain!'

If you are the parent of an adolescent, or you have that to look forward to in the coming years, here is one of the most simple tips I can suggest to help you get through that time without going completely insane and blaming yourself for everything that is bound to go awry!

When your child is standing in front of you, having done something so wrong and so completely out of character and you feel like you're a failure as a parent and they're certainly a failure as a child, before you say anything to them, simply turn to the wall, close your eyes and repeat this mantra - 'They're missing a piece of their brain, they're missing a piece of their brain, ...' You repeat that sentence at least five times before turning back to face them and have to start dealing with whatever it is that they have done and by the time you do, I guarantee things will look at least a little brighter!

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Should you be automatically responding to your child's 'call for help' via text during the school day? How could this affect their future resilience?

Last year I posted a Facebook entry about an incident at a school I had recently visited ... it went something like this: 

Just have to share ... Went to a school recently and met with the Year 10 Co-ordinator who appeared very flustered. It was obvious that something had upset her. When I asked her if she was okay she told me about a phone call she had just received and it totally floored me ... Apparently she had given one of her Year 10s a detention and within minutes the girl's mother called her to request if she could do the detention for her!!! Can you believe it? What is wrong with some of these parents?

At the time I was completely unaware of how often this actually goes on in schools. Of course, this is an extreme case, a mother actually asking to do her daughter's detention for her is highly unusual (although according to principals and teachers across the country it certainly happens more than you would think!), but parents responding to their child's calls for help via text during the school day is not.

From what I can tell, it goes something like this ... something happens in the classroom (e.g., a teacher tells a student off, a child gets sent to the principal's office for a punishment, there is some sort of argument or disagreement between two or more students, they get a bad mark on an assignment), the child then manages to send a text through to their parent briefly describing the incident from their perspective, and then the parent immediately responds to the 'call for help' by either calling the school or sending an email to the teacher involved, usually demanding that something be done to rectify the situation or ask that no further action be taken until they are present. A school recently did a quick audit of how much time their teachers spent responding to these sort of incidents, either by email, face-to-face meetings or phone calls, and they estimated that it was averaging almost 5 hours a week! Imagine adding 5 hours to anybody's workload - it's frightening!

But even more importantly, what long-term impact could this 'instant parent response' to a 'call for help' via text have on the child? As far as I'm aware there is no research in this specific area (i.e., responding to text messages) as yet but there is certainly growing evidence that this type of parenting (often referred to as 'helicopter parenting', or the even more extreme 'lawnmower parenting') certainly has a negative impact on a child's future 'resilience'.  

Let's make it very clear - there is no way to 'inoculate' your child against potential alcohol and other drug use. As much as we would like to think there is some 'silver bullet' to prevent our young people from taking part in risky behaviour, the reality is that adolescents are almost 'wired' to not think through consequences, act impulsively and respond with 'gut reactions'. We can give them all the information about risks, provide them with strategies to look after themselves and their friends but realistically the best thing we can do to try to keep them as safe as possible through adolescence and beyond is to build their 'resilience'.

One of the most often quoted definitions of resilience is " … the inherent and nurtured capacity of individuals to deal with life's stresses in ways that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives." Some young people are naturally resilient and are able to handle almost anything that life throws at them, whilst others need some help. Over the past 20 years or so, schools have dramatically changed their practices, with most now having specific structures in place designed to build students' resilience - most of them embedded in the pastoral care and well-being areas. The wonderful Andrew Fuller (who has been working with school communities for many years promoting these practices) describes resilience as "the fine art of being able to bungee jump through life. The pitfalls are still there but is as if you have an elasticized rope around your middle that helps you to bounce back from hard times."

At many of the schools I visit, particularly those I have had a long working relationship with, I meet unbelievably committed people who work incredibly hard to ensure that each and every one of the students at their school feels valued and special and that no-one 'slips through the cracks'. We know that if children are supported in that way and that they feel 'connected', they build resilience. It's not going to solve all their problems but it's sure going to help! So when I hear of parents who are doing this kind of thing it just makes my blood boil!

Young people are going to have to face a range of problems at school and elsewhere, particularly during adolescence. They're not always going to get on with all their teachers, many will do the wrong thing and get punished and they're going to have fights and disagreements with friends and other students. We all had the same issues and, you know what, we had to deal with them! We didn't have a mobile on hand to send a quick text to our parents to say "come and fix my problem for me" - we had to work our way through whatever was happening and, even though it didn't feel like it at the time, we most probably learned a valuable lesson as a result. Parents who almost automatically respond to their child's text messages, attempting to solve the problems they're experiencing at school for them are running the very real risk of damaging their future resilience.

Kids need to struggle occasionally, they need to experience disappointment and failure and they need to learn how to respond appropriately when things don't go their way. If they have a parent that intervenes every time something goes wrong how are they ever going to learn how to deal with the problems that will inevitably occur later in life? How resilient can they possibly be?

So am I saying you should ignore your child's calls for help? Of course not, if your teen is struggling and things are not going well at school, whether it be with a teacher or another student, you need to be supportive and act accordingly. But should you be responding immediately to a text message? Absolutely not! Give them the opportunity to deal with the problem themselves. Although this can be difficult, keep remembering that we survived our teens without a mobile phone and a direct 'lifeline' to our parents. They will too ...

If you do get a text (and realistically you should be educating your child that sending a text from school should only ever be done in an emergency - clearly defining what an emergency is - and if you're regularly texting your son or daughter at school, stop that immediately, that's just tragic!), the best thing to do (if it is not an emergency) is to text them back with something like "We will deal with this when you get home". This practice of responding to a text by immediately contacting the school or teacher without getting the full story, giving the child an opportunity to deal with the problem themselves or, in many cases, simply allowing some time for things to calm down and the child to think it through, is at the very least ridiculous, but at worst incredibly dangerous ...

US research examining the impact of 'helicopter parenting' (and let me assure you, responding to text messages in this way is actually far more likely to be classified as 'lawnmower parenting', i.e., not simply 'hovering' over a child but rather, trying to remove all barriers and problems before they even encounter them) suggests that once they leave school, young people parented in this way are far more likely to drop-out of university and find it difficult to function effectively in the workforce. Put simply, they don't know how to 'stand on their own two feet' and deal with the real world.

A parent's natural instinct is to protect their child and a 'call for help' from school via a text message is going to be difficult to ignore, but we now know that the most important thing we can do to keep our kids as safe as possible is to build their resilience. Making sure they have the ability to 'bounce back' from whatever problem they may face in the future is vital. Parents who try to 'fix' each and every issue their child experiences at school instead of letting them try to deal with it themselves are likely to have an adverse effect on this resilience. Of course you support them, and if you need to get involved, throw yourself in feet first, but automatically responding to a text is not the way to go ...

If you have been doing this, it's going to take a little time to wean both you and your teen off the 'mobile lifeline' and it's not going to be easy. Sit down and have a discussion with you son or daughter about texting you during a school day (i.e., it should only be done in an emergency, and establish what constitutes an emergency? Forgetting your lunch isn't!). Then talk through how you plan to deal with any issues they may experience during the school day, making sure that they understand that you're not going to ignore them, it's just better that before you act, they're discussed face-to-face with them so you can get all the facts, and your response is not just based on a few words sent in a text message. It's going to be hard, particularly for you 'lawnmower parents' out there (and you know who you are!) but next time your mobile buzzes, check the text, and if it's not an emergency (and it most probably won't be!), take a breath and wait until you have that face-to-face discussion with your child before sending off an email or making that call to the school or teacher! I can assure you that it'll be well worth it in the long-term ...

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Is it ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs?

I totally get why many parents of primary school aged children choose not to attend my parent sessions. When you look at your 10 year-old son or daughter the last thing you are thinking about at that stage of their life is the possibility of them going to teenage parties and gatherings and being exposed to underage drinking or, heaven forbid, at risk of dabbling with other drugs. It's clear that most parents of younger children simply don't believe that this is an important issue at this stage of their parenting experience and they'll wait until their child gets closer to the age of attending teenage parties and possibly starting to drink before trying to access information on the topic of alcohol and other drugs.

So is this a good way of dealing with the issue and when do I recommend that you should start talking to your kids about drugs? Now I've dealt with this issue a number of times over the years but over the past couple of weeks I've had a number of parents who have asked me for my thoughts on whether it is ever too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs. In my opinion, the answer is simple - no, it is never too early - although it is important that what you say and how you say it is age-appropriate.

As I've said many times before, I believe that you should start talking to your child about drugs the minute you start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we have, there is a drug that can fix it. Think about it for a moment – if you are depressed, you take a pill, want to lose weight or can't get an erection, you take a pill – we live in a 'pill-popping' world, where there is a medication for almost every condition imaginable. We want a 'quick-fix' and pharmaceutical companies are only too pleased to provide them to us. We now start medicating our children from a very early age (far earlier than our parents ever did) and, as a result, train them to be very effective drug users not long after they are born. You only have to look at the huge range of 'baby-specific' over-the-counter (OTC) medications now available to see that this is a booming market and one that pharmaceutical companies are targeting very aggressively.

Whether they be pharmaceutical, legal or illegal, our children should be made aware of the risks associated with alcohol and other drug use. When it comes to pharmaceutical drugs or OTC medications, children need to be made particularly aware of the importance of appropriate use. In the first few years of primary school drug education lessons focus on this area and do it extremely well - in fact, this is most probably the most effective drug education provided in schools. Teachers at this stage don't talk about drugs being 'bad', instead they discuss that drugs can help people when used appropriately and it is the misuse of drugs that actually cause the problems. The message is always the same - these drugs come in packaging with directions and it is important that you always read and follow these to make sure that you are using them as safely as possible.

Unfortunately, many parents do not take the time to talk with their children about medicines, seemingly forgetting that they are drugs too. In the age of the 5, 7 or 10 minute consultation with a GP, we no longer have the time to ask what the drug is that they have prescribed and even though pharmacists will often give us some basic instructions to accompany the drugs we are given, because we have been given the product by a doctor most of us don't even question how safe or how dangerous it might be. We simply take it – no questions asked.

Over-the-counter medications are used in the same way. The last time your child (particularly if they are a little older) complained of a headache or a pain of some description, what was the first thing you said to them? I can almost guarantee that many of you told them to go and take a pill of some description. I bet that you didn't ask them why they had a headache or suggest a non-pharmaceutical option – you went for the quick fix - you went for the option that pharmaceutical companies have been extremely successful at selling us. It has got to the point that using a drug to solve a problem has become second nature.

We're also living in a very unique time in regards to the medicinal use of a range of illicit drugs. Most would be well aware of the push across the world to legalize the use of cannabis (or at the very least, cannabis products) for medicinal purposes, with Victoria being the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce legislation in this area. There is growing evidence that MDMA (ecstasy) could be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and there are a number of trials running in the US in that area. At the same time there are calls for a range of hallucinogens (particularly psilocybin found in 'magic mushrooms') to be investigated further for the treatment of a range of conditions including depression and pain management. This is not going to go away and really challenges the simplistic 'drugs are bad' message that some try to push onto young people.

So if that is the case and drug use, of some form or another, has become the norm – it is vital that parents discuss drugs from a very young age and, at the same time, try to avoid simplistic messages and warnings (i.e., drugs are bad) and rather discuss concepts as 'use' and 'misuse'.

The truth is that most illicit drugs can be used in a positive way. Heroin is an extremely effective painkiller and even amphetamines can be used to treat a range of medical conditions (narcolepsy, obesity and ADHD). That is not to say that these drugs are safe and that there are safe ways to use them. All drugs, no matter what they are (even if prescribed by a doctor), have a degree of risk associated with their use and we need to make that perfectly clear to our children. If we can communicate these risks to them about legally available products, such as drugs we obtain from a doctor or headache tablets we get from the supermarket, we have a much better chance of getting quality messages about illegal drugs (even those that may now be used for medicinal purposes) through to them effectively when they are a little older.

So am I advocating that you sit down and have the big 'drug talk' with your three-year-old? Of course not! I was recently in The Netherlands and met with some experts in the area of drug education who were talking about some research that they had conducted that suggested if you give too much drug-specific information, too early that you could run the risk of stimulating interest in those substances, particularly in more vulnerable young people. So it is vital that these conversations are 'natural', not forced, and they certainly don't need to be drug-specific (i.e., you don't have to sit down and talk about cannabis with a 10 year-old).

When parents of very young children ask me what these conversations should look like, I suggest they start by doing as something as simple as taking the time to show and then read the directions contained on the packaging before they next administer a medication to their child. This is such a simple thing but it sends such an important message to the child about the importance of following instructions when it comes to these products. Explain to your child that these directions are vital as medicines, like any drug, can be extremely dangerous when used inappropriately. Another great way of parents providing positive messages around drugs is to ensure that the next time you take your child to your GP and a prescription is issued, take a couple of minutes before you leave to ask the doctor to explain to both of you what the drug does and how it should be used. If he or she simply rips the script off their pad, hands it to you and then you walk out the door, your son or daughter is missing out on a valuable lesson in regards to 'respecting' a drug. What your GP has prescribed is a potentially dangerous substance if not used as directed, your child needs to understand that and 'respect' the drug and the possible risks associated with its use. Learn that about medicines and hopefully it will set positive foundations about other drugs in the future ...

The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes alcohol and other drugs, is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures. Make sure you speak to them about the range of drugs available, with an emphasis on those that they are most likely to come into contact with at their particular stage of development. For the very young, including primary school aged children, most of the conversations you will have will be around prescription or over-the-counter medications. It may also be useful at this time to talk to them about how you use drugs, whether they be drugs from a doctor or alcohol and tobacco.

Always look for opportunities in your day-to-day life to discuss the topic. If your child overhears news stories of the day or watches television programs or movies that touch on the topic of drugs or drug use, if it feels right, use that time to have a discussion and see what they already know and what they may want to know. But always remember that it is important that you never push the subject and make sure that the discussion is age appropriate. There are certain drugs you simply don't need to raise with very young children (e.g., having a talk with a 10 year-old about an 'ice bust' that you've seen on the TV news is most probably not needed unless they initiate the discussion, and even then I'd keep it quite general unless you're living in a particular area where it is a real problem). If your child makes it clear that he or she doesn't want to go there at that particular time and there is not a crisis that has to be dealt with, respect their wishes and try again later. That's what's so great about the casual discussions around medicines, they're natural and don't need to be forced and, if handled correctly, do not feel like lectures ...

Saturday, 23 July 2016

If your child has ever said "That's not fair!" ... they're usually right!

One of the special qualities young people have is an innate sense of fairness, particularly when it comes to how they are dealt with by adults. Make clear your rules and expectations, treat them with respect and if they then do the wrong thing and you come down on them, they usually wear it on the chin and accept whatever consequence and/or punishment that comes their way. I was reminded of this during the week when I was at a school speaking to a particularly lively group of Year 11 girls and I had two young ladies in the front row who just couldn't help themselves - I was presenting some pretty heavy material, telling stories relating to that material or giving the group important tips and strategies about how to stay as safe as possible and they kept on chatting. Admittedly they were always discussing what I was saying but regardless, I have a very clear rule - when I speak, they listen - that's just basic manners. When I begin my talk I always outline my rules and make it clear that if they don't follow my rules, there are consequences ... I addressed the issue a number of times and eventually told them that I would have to move them if it didn't stop. This was a good group of girls and it's fairly humiliating being pulled up like that in front of your whole class and I would have completely understood if they walked away after the talk, mumbling to themselves, not thinking of me too highly. Instead, one of them stayed after the talk with another friend wanting to ask me a question. When I told her that I didn't like having to pull her up in front of the class her response was priceless - "But I broke your rules and was doing the wrong thing - I can see why you did it! No problems!"

Of course, teaching and parenting are very different things but there are some basic principles that are effective in both areas. One of those is around establishing rules and boundaries. Ask your teen who their favourite teacher is and I can pretty well guarantee that it's not the one that tries to be their best friend. It's the one that starts the year off by making clear their expectations, outlining the rules that operate in their classroom and letting each and every student know why those rules exist. They're also the one that cracks down on any misbehaviour quickly, fairly and appropriately, treating all in the class with great respect. Parents need to do the same thing - rules and boundaries need to be established, consequences need to be made clear but it is vital that these are seen as 'fair' by your child!

If your teen has ever said "That's not fair!" (and I bet they have many times) have a quick think back and try to remember what it was about. I can pretty well guarantee that it was in response to a decision that you had to make 'on the run'. They had just misbehaved or done something wrong and it was related to something that you weren't prepared for, i.e., rules and consequences hadn't already been established around that particular behaviour. If you hand out a consequence or punishment for something that has never been discussed before, of course they're going to say it's not fair - particularly if that punishment is viewed as severe in their eyes - they haven't been told about that rule or that punishment. As I said, it's most probably not fair! Now I'm sure some of you are saying that it's not possible for you to be prepared for everything a teen could possibly do wrong and have rules and consequences for each and every potential scenario and, of course, you're right. But you can have some general rules established around your family values and expectations (i.e., in the basic areas of honesty, trust and respect at the very least), making them aware that if they let you down in any of these area there certainly will be consequences.

The other area where young people are often completely justified in their "That's not fair!" response is when the rules haven't been adjusted as they have gotten older. One of the most important things for parents to remember about rules (if you want them to be effective) is that they must be age-appropriate and they must change over time. The rules a parent establishes around parties for their 15 year-old must change - try to keep the same ones all the way through until 18 and you are going to have lots of trouble! I'm not saying you let them do what they want when they turn 16, but I would suggest sitting down with your teen regularly (at least once every six months) and having a discussion about their behaviour in this area. If they've been doing the right thing, reward them and adapt the rules accordingly - do that and it's going to make everyone's life just a little easier.

As regular readers would know I've been conducting a survey at some of the schools I visit across the country, asking Year 10s and 11s to answer a brief questionnaire which covers a number of issues, one of them being around breaking rules and what students believe are appropriate punishments. I'll be putting together a couple of blog entries in the next couple of weeks highlighting some of the findings of the survey but in the meantime I thought I'd include a few of the answers students provided when they were asked the following question - "If you broke a rule your parent had set around parties and alcohol, what do you think an appropriate punishment would be?"
  • "Grounding with no electronics beside computer use for homework" (Year 10, female)
  • "Take things off me, phone, PlayStation, also grounded and not allowed to play sport or go out but especially not go out with friends anywhere" (Year 11, male)
  • "Taking away my privileges so I could appreciate them more and respect the terms and conditions of those privileges" (Year 11, female)
  • "Not being allowed to go to similar events for a few months, depending on the severity of the breaking of the rule" (Year 11, male)
  • "Grounded for at least 2 weeks. No phone, no money" (Year 10, female)
  • "Tighter requirements before going out so that parents can ensure the party is safe" (Year 10, male)
  • "Not allow me to go to parties, or the parties with certain friends that influenced me" (Year 11, female)
In the last few schools I've conducted this survey I added an extra question straight after this one. It's all well and good asking what an "appropriate" punishment would be, but did they think that what they suggested was actually "fair"? Although this is included as a 'Yes'/'No' question, many of the students who have answered it have added a sentence or two usually stating that the punishment very much depended on the 'crime'. What was this rule that they had broken? One Year 11 girl also added "It so depends on whether I knew about the rule and fully understood it." Once again, that innate sense of fairness - if they are given rules and boundaries and it's made quite clear what will happen if they break those rules, they're not going to necessarily like what happens next but they're certainly less likely to turn around and say that it's not fair!