Friday, 15 December 2017

Parenting, parties and the Christmas holidays: If you have a 14 or 15-year-old, hold on tight - it could be a bumpy ride!

If you speak to teachers, particularly Year Co-ordinators who follow a cohort of students through high school, they will often tell you that they see the biggest change occur in the young people when they return to school after the Christmas holiday period between Years 9 and 10. Sometimes it can be a year earlier or even a year later, but it nearly always seems to occur when the students have returned from that extended summer break. Now you could argue that this is simply due to the length of time the students are away from school but in my experience this behavioural change often appears to be due to a change in parenting that occurs over those summer months, particularly in regards to those young people aged around 14 and 15.

The summer break (both before and after the Christmas and New Year holidays) is a time when there are usually lots of parties or gatherings and parents are bombarded by requests to attend this or that event. It's the most social time of the year, for both teens and their parents, and everyone wants to let their hair down just a little. The holidays are also long - very long! Many teens have almost 8 weeks away from school, that's a time where you have to maintain your daily schedule (particularly difficult if both parents are working), keep your family running as usual and also ensure your kids are occupied and safe. They're going to want to catch up with friends, go to the movies, travel to the beach or whatever and, at the same time, you have to keep doing what you would usually do if they weren't on a break and maintain a healthy level of parental monitoring and control ... It's not surprising that at this time of the year some parents find this all just a little bit too difficult and let their guard down, letting some things 'slip through to the keeper'. Things that you wouldn't normally allow to happen are permitted and then you've set a precedent and it all goes downhill from there!

I've written about the unique issues that I believe parents of Year 9s face many times. Those aged 14-15 years are going through that really interesting time called 'middle adolescence' and they are going to push as many boundaries and rules as they can to try to get want they want. They're also going to be relentless in their efforts - begging and pleading, threatening, slamming doors, telling you that you're a bad parent, "you're the only one that does that!" and that they hate you - and in normal circumstances you're often able to stand your ground, but it would appear that the summer break is where this age group can often find the crack in their parents' resolve!

A great example of this is how many 14-15 year-olds manage to get permission from their parents to travel into the city they live and watch the NYE fireworks! Groups of unbelievably young people making their way into the city, usually by public transport, and then wandering the streets (often drinking alcohol) - truly bizarre! What is a parent thinking? I don't know if any of these people have actually been into a city on NYE but it's certainly not the place for a group of 14 and 15-year-olds to travel unsupervised. Last year I had a mother contact me to ask me what I thought about her 15-year-old daughter's request to travel into Perth to watch the fireworks there - she didn't want her to go but she seemed to be the only parent who had a problem with it and was she simply being overprotective, as one of the other mothers had suggested? All I did when she called me was to ask her whether she felt comfortable with her daughter taking part in such an activity and if she didn't, why not? She was adamant that she didn't and essentially her reason was 'safety' - she didn't feel that it was a 'safe' thing for someone of her daughter's age to do. I then asked her why then was she was even considering it? The answer was simple - her daughter would not let up - the begging and pleading and the constant barrage of "you're the only one" was just too much. As she said to me - "At least when she's at school I have some relief during the day, when she's on holidays I can't get away from it!"

As I've said many times before the key to good parenting is not all about saying 'no', it's more about looking for those opportunities where you can say 'yes' and allow them to do something. 'No' remains one of the most important words you will ever say to your teen (most probably the fourth most important, just behind the three little words "I love you") but if you overuse it or don't use it properly, you're going to have great conflict and your relationship with your child will suffer. Of course you have to have rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences if your child breaks those rules but you can't simply lock them up in their room and wrap them up in cotton wool in an effort to keep them as safe as possible. They're going to have to do things you don't want them to do and then make mistakes and do the wrong thing, that's how they learn, that's how we learnt. You just don't want those mistakes to be potentially life threatening ... Am I for one second suggesting that you should even consider allowing a 14 or 15-year-old wander into the city to watch the NYE fireworks? Of course not, this is incredibly dangerous and to my mind this has the word 'no' all over it!

Without any doubt your teen is going to 'try it on' over the summer break, particularly that group who are going through that wonderful stage of 'middle adolescence' (parents of Year 9s, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean!). They're getting older and they're going to want more independence and if there's ever a time you're going to let them get away with just a little more than in the past it's during the school holidays - the long school holidays! You'll be tired and they'll be relentless in their efforts to get what they want. It's a very strong parent who is able to maintain their resolve throughout this time - most give in, at least a little! Remember, look for opportunities over the summer break to say 'yes' - identify activities or events that you may now feel a little more comfortable with, particularly things that they may have previously requested that you said 'no' to in the past, e.g., going to the movies with friends by themselves, catching a train to the beach, etc. Make sure you still have your rules and boundaries around these and maintain your standards but 'allowing' them to do new, more adult things will help keep your relationship just a little more healthy when you have to say 'no' to the big ones which are bound to raise their ugly head!

Most importantly, remember that once you have let your guard down and allowed them to do something, it is extremely hard to go back. At 14 or 15 they may think they're now adults but they have very little, if any, life experience and when put into adult situations and things go wrong they simply have no idea what to do. The vast majority of the deaths I have been involved with in schools over the years have involved this age group - young people who did not have any clue how to respond when things didn't go as planned. Of course you've got to let them grow up and have experiences that are potentially risky, but at 14 and 15 (and even 16 in most cases), these should be controlled as much as possible. If you're going to 'give in' a little over the break (and no-one can blame you - it's a long time to maintain your resolve), choose carefully - you don't want to paint yourself into a corner for the year and years ahead ...

Friday, 8 December 2017

"But that's what happens when you get drunk": Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about 'consent'

This year I have met, or heard from, more young women who have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk than ever before. I have written about this topic many times, often highlighting stories that young women have sent me via email or have bravely chosen to divulge after hearing me speak. Sexual assault is a crime and, as I say to all students, if I am told about a crime I cannot keep it a secret - but to be quite honest, if they're going to approach me and tell me their story, they're usually ready to go the next step. Sadly, however, we know most never report what has happened to them. When I have asked girls why they choose not to say anything, it's always the same story - "But that's what happens when you get drunk, it's just part of the alcohol experience!"

Earlier this year I had a girl approach me and tell me that she had been assaulted when drunk. The school was well aware of what had happened and the crime had been reported, mainly due to the incident being photographed and the images subsequently circulated via social media. She was 15-years-old. I asked how she was feeling and if things were getting better and she told me that she had no memory of the night at all. It was then that I saw this beautiful young woman literally 'melt' in front of me - her face dropped and her whole body started shaking. She started to cry and said that she had only just found out that someone had 'tagged' her name on one of the photos. "My children will be able to see those photos and maybe even my grandchildren - they will never go away ..." she said. Absolutely heartbreaking ...

Many of the sexual assault cases I have been told about recently often also involve the sharing of videos or images of the actual assault via social media. Frighteningly, in most of these cases, it is young women who appear to be more likely to share these ... When I first heard this I found it extremely hard to believe, why in heavens would girls want to do this? But at one school I visited this year it was what the principal told me about the parents response to this issue that really floored me ... When the parents of the girls who had been caught sharing videos of a sexual assault were told what their children had done, instead of being shocked and expressing concern about the young woman who had been assaulted, they apparently defended their daughters' actions, telling the principal "She was a slut, she went to the room with the boys!" and "What did she expect, she's always getting drunk!"

It is extremely difficult to determine rates of sexual assault and most of the data we have are estimates based on police reports, national survey samples and hospital admissions. In the US, it has been estimated that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life and 18% have been raped. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 18% of women and around 5% of men have ever experienced sexual violence. So where does alcohol fit into the picture? Well, as with other violent crimes, around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drunk alcohol. Similarly, half of all sexual assault victims reported drinking alcohol at the time of the assault ... Research shows that alcohol consumption by both the perpetrator and victim tends to co-occur (i.e., it is rarely only the victim drinking). This is not a surprise, as drinking tends to occur in social situations (e.g., parties or bars) but trying to disentangle so-called 'drunken sex' from sexual assault has proven to be difficult and could be another reason why many young women do not come forward and report this crime.

With the #metoo campaign continuing to encourage more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, it is a perfect time for parents to take this opportunity to discuss this issue with their children. Most importantly, our young people need to have a greater understanding of what 'consent' means (and that they can't legally give it until they are a certain age) and the difficulties around negotiating consent when they or their partner has been drinking ... If you haven't already had this discussion and you know (or even think) your child could be drinking on a Saturday night, it's a talk you have to have! I'm sure even thinking that your teen could be having sex must be pretty confronting, let alone having to talk about it with them but sticking your head in the sand about this isn't going to help anyone ...

In recent years there have been an increasing number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of what consent means. An often used definition is as follows: "Consent is informed, and is freely and actively given. Consent is communicated through mutually understood words which indicate willingness by all of the involved parties to engage in sexual activity." One American college campaign uses four distinct headings to describe the term:
  • clear - consent is active - silence is not consent
  • coherent - people impaired by drugs or alcohol or are asleep or unconscious cannot consent
  • consistent - consent is never given under pressure
  • ongoing - consent must be granted every time
On top of all of this, of course, is the legal age of consent. Depending on where you live in Australia, you must be either 16 or 17 years of age (SA and Queensland being the two states where you must be a year older) before you can legally give permission to have sex. Until they reach that age, even though they may agree to have sex with someone, that person can still be charged with sexual assault.

Negotiating consensual sexual activity can be difficult for sober adults in long-term relationships! It's a potential minefield for drunk teens at a party - when you mix 'raging hormones', alcohol and an adolescent brain, it's a recipe for disaster so it's important to arm our teens with as much information as possible ... This is not going to be an easy conversation to have but it boils down to three simple points that all young people need to understand:
  • 'no means no'
  • if  someone is drunk they are unable to give consent, and
  • sex or sexual contact without consent is a crime and needs to be reported 
In recent years, we have seen a real shift in the messages that are disseminated around alcohol-related sexual assault. Where once the message targeted potential victims, i.e., 'Don't get drunk', 'Don't lose control' – we are now far more likely to target the potential perpetrator, shifting the onus away from the person avoiding assault or turning down an advance, to promoting the idea of 'enthusiastic consent'. As one female academic wrote in an article I recently read - "When kids are little, we don't teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to hit." When it comes to sexual assault, we shouldn't have to teach young women how to avoid being assaulted, instead, let's make sure we have a society where it is not acceptable for men to commit that crime ...

With that in mind, in addition to beginning a positive dialogue about consent with their teen, I believe parents should also consider the following to help ensure their child has positive and healthy attitudes and values in this area:
Parents of young men
  • as well as being taught that it is not acceptable to have sex or sexual contact with someone who is too drunk to consent, they also need to be empowered to not sit back and ignore other young men who commit the crime or even joke about such behaviour. That could be their sister, their girlfriend or someone else they care about that is being assaulted or spoken about
  • ensure they have positive male role models, particularly around drinking and attitudes towards women. Research shows that young men who are brought up in homes where traditional gender beliefs are present and hostility towards women is regarded as acceptable are more likely to commit this crime
  • watch what you say – off-the-cuff comments (e.g., "Look what she's wearing?", "What does she expect when she's drunk") reinforce negative attitudes towards women and a victim blaming culture
  • provide advice on how to protect themselves – as already discussed, talk through how consent can be negotiated, but very importantly, alert them to the risks of being alone with a drunk girl and the possibility of them being accused of inappropriate behaviour
Parents of young women
  • it is vital that young women look after and support each other. 'Victim blaming' and so-called 'slut-shaming' is not acceptable and is a form of bullying that is extremely damaging
  • as with the young men, watch what you say – be wary of reinforcing shaming culture
  • make others aware when they say 'the wrong thing'. Don't just let this behaviour slip by unaddressed – make it clear that it's not okay to say those things
  • discuss simple safety strategies for young women when they are socializing, these could include the following: looking after your mates – stick together and don't let friends go off on their own or leave them behind; adapt the 'designated driver' model driver for situations when no-one is driving, simply making sure there is at least one sober person in the group at all times, just in case'; and encourage young women to discuss expectations of friends - i.e., when should a friend step in and help and when is it inappropriate
This is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. We are currently in the midst of a cultural change in regards to what is regarded as acceptable behaviour and what is not - but we have an awfully long way to go yet ... We must make sure that we are raising young men who know that it is unacceptable (and illegal) to have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent and empower them to stand up to those who think that behaviour is okay. At the same time, however, it is vital that we ensure our young women look after and support each other. Victim blaming is one of the most destructive forms of bullying and, in my experience, is rife in our schools. Sadly, this is often supported by parents and the only way we're going to ever really achieve change is if we take a long hard look at our own behaviour and what we say and do ...

References:
Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P., Clinton, M., & McAuslan, P. (2001). Alcohol and sexual assault. Alcohol Research and Health 25, 43-51
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2017). 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS): Key findings http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4906.0~2016~Main%20Features~Key%20Findings~1 accessed 11 November, 2017.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

It's important to say 'no' to your teen, but at the same time, always look for opportunities to say 'yes'!

'No' is one of the most important words you can say to your child. It's a tiny word, but for many people, particularly parents, it can prove incredibly difficult to say. There are books dedicated to the word and its importance, written from a business perspective, in regards to relationships and personal development, as well as the role it plays in parenting. Many of us avoid using the word because we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else, or believing that saying it will somehow change how others view us. Research has found that many parents avoid battles with their children, because they feel that if they say 'no' to them, they will stop loving them. Interestingly, little children seem to have no issues with the word, in fact, toddlers (i.e., the 'terrible twos') tend to scream it constantly! It seems, however, that as we grow up many of us learn to become 'people pleasers' and, as a result, 'no' seems to drop out of our vocabulary.

Without a doubt, parents of today who try to tow the line in this area have it particularly tough. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, those who adopt a more permissive parenting style (i.e., less likely to have rules and boundaries and more likely to 'buckle' and say "yes" to their child) put far more pressure on those parents who appear to be more strict. A couple of years ago I told the story of a mother who came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and burst into tears. When I went to console her she smiled and said "I'm not upset and nothing bad has happened, it's just that after hearing you I finally feel okay about saying 'no' to my daughter! It's just such a huge relief!"

She had been facing great pressure from other parents to 'loosen up' (as so many others I meet say they have) and give her daughter a little more space. There was a party coming up and it was to be hosted by the same parents who had put on an earlier event that had got out of hand and she did not want her daughter to attend. She had been convinced by others that to say 'no' and not let her 15-year-old go was tantamount to child abuse and, although it went against everything she felt was right, she was willing to follow the other parents. My talk had really resonated with this woman and she felt empowered to finally follow her heart and tell her daughter that she would not be attending - she just didn't feel comfortable letting her go!

In addition to this growing 'peer pressure', a new parenting style has been receiving growing attention in recent years - 'yes parenting'. This is aimed far more at parents of young children and is described by one of its key spokespeople, Bea Marshall in the following way:

"Yes Parenting finds positive, playful and gentle ways to respond to children, without the habitual use of the word No. By saying Yes to our children's individual needs, preferences, and interests we reduce conflict and increase closeness. Moving away from saying no builds trust and transforms our relationships with our kids."

A number of years ago there was a belief amongst some parenting experts that saying 'no' could somehow 'damage' a child. I remember going to an information session where the speaker presented some very dodgy research that suggested that using the word could somehow stifle a child's creativity! If you're just going to say 'no' to everything and not explain why you're doing the things you do, of course that isn't going to be helpful, but the word 'no' is one of the most important words that a parent can use if it's used appropriately.

Parents need to remember the following rationale behind saying 'no', as well as be absolutely clear about what may happen next and how best to respond ...
  • adolescence is a time when young people work out where they fit in the world. It is also a time where they are more likely to take risks
  • parents need to set limits for teens to push against, as well as to keep them safe as possible
  • 'no' provides limits and sets boundaries
  • you cannot control how your child feels about these limits or how they react to them so don't even bother to try
  • you are only able to control yourself and your behaviour
  • remember that the only reason you have rules is because you love them - make that clear and then walk away

No child likes being told that they can't do or have something they want. This gets worse when they become adolescents as in their minds they are now far more grown up and should be able to take part in adult activity that they observe all around them. Parties or gatherings are where they learn how to socialize and it is no surprise that some teens want to take part in this activity as most adults do, i.e., with alcohol. As I keep saying, I am a strong believer that if your child wants to attend a social event, whether it be a sleepover, party or gathering, if you can find a way to let them go (i.e., apply caveats to try to ensure they are as safe as possible), then you should let them. However, if you have a 14-year-old daughter who wants to attend a party where there will be 18-year-old young men drinking alcohol, that's a 'no'! Most parents who have a problem with saying 'no' talk of their dread as to how their child may react, i.e., screaming, name-calling, throwing things or the like. Others just give up and end up saying 'yes' because of the constant badgering, with their teen following them around begging and pleading or cleverly setting up one parent against another.

As I have already said, just saying 'no' for the sake of it is just as damaging as letting your teen run off and do whatever they want. As Laurence Steinberg says in his book Age of Opportunity, parents should "gradually relinquish control and try to permit - rather than protect - when you can." Every opportunity you get to allow them to extend themselves a little, which you believe to be as safe as possible, and doesn't compromise your values and beliefs, grab it with both hands! Always remember, for every 'no' you say, you're going to lose a few points as far as your teen is concerned, but if you say 'yes' you can be sure you'll earn yourself at least a few extra credits! Now before anyone says that parenting isn't about 'point-scoring', I couldn't agree more, but I haven't met a Mum or Dad who doesn't say that it sure helps ...

It's worth remembering that as far as alcohol and parties are concerned, there are a few certainties when it comes to saying 'no' to your teen - these are as follows: 
  • they're not going to like it
  • you're in for a fight, or at the very least the 'cold shoulder' for a while
  • you will be accused of being the 'worst parent ever'
  • they're going to go behind your back and try to find someone else to say 'yes'
  • no matter what they say, they still love you!

And of course, there are going to be some teens who will just go off and try to do it anyway - that's where parental monitoring comes in! If they break the rules you have set, there must be consequences. But remember to 'pick your battles' - don't fly off the handle at every little mistake your child makes. Of course, if they do something wrong, they need to know you won't tolerate bad behaviour but make sure the 'time suits the crime' ...

Most teens who hear 'no' from their parents won't like it very much. They're likely to respond in an emotional way and, as a result, it won't be very pleasant around the house for a day or two. There are cases, however, where it gets much worse - adolescents running away to a party on a Saturday night and not returning home, physical violence and a range of other unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviour. It is vital that parents understand that if this sort of behaviour occurs they should seek professional help as soon as they possibly can. Don't try to deal with this by yourself.

Friday, 17 November 2017

"You're grounded for life!": Why 'grounding' doesn't usually work and the importance of making sure the 'time fits the crime'!

A few years ago I wrote a blog entry about a young man who approached me after my talk with his first words being "Mr Dillon, I made a big mistake ..." This young man had gone out with friends a few weeks before and had got terribly drunk. He had not intended to get that intoxicated and he claimed that he had never been in such a state before. He was eventually found and taken to the local police station. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"
As I said at the time, if you could have seen this young man's face it would have broken your heart! He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - I haven't gone into any great detail about what he did that night but it didn't sound good and the phone call from the police must have been terrifying for the mother - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime.
One of my key messages is that the 'tough love' (or 'authoritative') style of parenting has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children, i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken!
Unfortunately, grounding continues to be one of the most often-used consequences by parents even though evidence would suggest that it is one of the least effective. One of the main reasons it doesn't work particularly well is that grounding is usually blurted out 'on the run' - something happens, tempers flare and the response is created in anger and not well thought through. If you want consequences to work, they must be able to be enforced. Grounding your child for long (or even short) periods of time is just going to make your life tougher and, in my experience, most parents 'give in' pretty quickly and as a result, lose all their credibility as far as rules and boundaries are concerned. It's also important to acknowledge that when parents respond in this way (i.e., telling them they're grounded), they are usually focused on 'winning' the fight (i.e., making it clear to their child that they are the boss) rather than actually teaching their child to do the right thing. Although it can seem like a perfectly appropriate response at the time (particularly when you are angry or hurt), trying to show your child that you are in control and that you are the 'winner' sets up a power struggle that is not healthy.
Every parent has to make their own decisions around how they choose to discipline their children. Working out what you want to achieve from the 'discipline techniques' you use is important. Do you want to 'punish' your child or do you want them to learn something as a result of the consequences you impose?  In an online article, Sarah Holbome writes how consequences should be used as 'teachable moments' whenever possible ... 
"The word "discipline" comes from the word "disciple", which means, "to teach". Therefore, discipline should not be seen as "punishment", but rather as a teachable moment. Essentially, when you discipline your child you are teaching him or her; you are teaching right from wrong, what is acceptable behaviour, and what is unacceptable behaviour. Punishment treats the person as wrong and focuses on what has happened in the past, but discipline treats the act as wrong and focuses on the future and what can be done differently. The goal is for your child to eventually become self-disciplined (demonstrating acceptable behaviour without needing your help and reminders)."
I recently spoke to a Mum and Dad who are currently struggling with their Year 10 son who has been 'pushing all their buttons'. These were great parents who obviously love their son. He sounds like a great kid but he's been sneaking out of the house without their knowledge on a Saturday night and was recently found almost unconscious in a shopping centre car park after drinking too much. When I asked the mother how she responded to leaving the house without permission, you could hear the frustration in her voice when she said the following:
"Nothing seems to have an effect. The only thing that worked, when we could actually see that it made a difference, was when we took him to the barber and we cut off his long hair!"
Punishment and consequences are very different things and if you want to ensure your teen learns a lesson after doing the 'wrong thing' it is important to ensure that you know the difference. Cutting her son's precious locks off was a punishment and I can almost guarantee that the 'difference' she saw in her son's face as they were being lopped off was in no way related to a positive 'teachable moment'. The mother did it to show she was in control and that she was boss. She was hurt - that is absolutely understandable. He was angry and resentful. The punishment may result in him never sneaking out of the house again, it may not, but if this 'power-based' response is regularly used it has the potential to cause great damage to the parent-child relationship.
So am I suggesting that grounding never be used? Of course not, if used appropriately, grounding can be a very effective consequence. It just needs to be thought-through and planned. 
Consequences need to be fair (they 'fit the crime'), balanced (they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt') and, as already stated, able to be enforced. The key to finding 'appropriate' consequences for breaking rules is ensuring that they are developed at the same time as those rules. Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. When they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise! So the best way to use grounding is to introduce it as a potential consequence when rules around parties and alcohol are discussed. This could be done in the following way:
"You know our rules around alcohol at parties. We trust you to follow them. If we discover, however, that you have broken these rules then you will not be attending the next party you are invited to."
Here's the rule and here is the consequence if you break that rule. They can't say they didn't know what was going to happen! It's fair, balanced and enforceable ...
Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. If you want to do this in the most effective way, trying to ensure they actually 'learn' something from what you choose to impose, rather then simply punish them and potentially build resentment and damage your relationship, consider the following four simple steps:
  • Wait: Never decide and administer consequences in anger. You or your child are likely to say something you will regret and nothing positive will come of it. Wait until things have calmed down and you and your teen have a clear head.
  • Talk and then listen: When the time comes to talk to your child, start by telling them that whatever they do, you will always love them. You may not like their behaviour but nothing they do will change the fact you love them. Then tell them why you are upset or angry and then give them the opportunity to explain their behaviour. It is important to acknowledge that in many cases teens will not provide any justification for what they have done. At other times, they may try to shift the blame onto others or simply not accept that what they did was wrong. Just listen ...
  • Discuss how that behaviour can improve: Once they have had their say, give them the opportunity to come up with ways that things could be done differently in the future. How are they going to change this behaviour so that they don't find themselves in this position again? This may even involve you agreeing to consider renegotiating rules and boundaries in the future if they can prove that they can be trusted and their behaviour improves.
  • Let them know the consequences: It is important to ensure that whatever consequence is used it should be connected to the misbehaviour in some way. If they get an allowance and they have spent money on alcohol, it is entirely appropriate for you to reduce the amount you give them for a period of time. When they don't come home at the agreed time, reduce their curfew by half an hour. If you decide to remove a privilege that they have earned in the past, it is also important that they are aware that this can be earned back if behaviour changes.
The key is to never develop and discuss consequences in anger - that's why grounding is so often ineffective - it's nearly always doled out when tempers are flared. You may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Give your child a consequence that can't realistically be carried out and followed-through by you and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place. They're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time. Most importantly, even though most would not like admitting to it, grounding is used by parents to show their child who is boss. Something's happened, they feel like they're not in control and they lash out with something like "You're grounded for ... a month!" The time period means nothing, it wasn't thought through and it's usually completely ineffective ...

Reference
Holbome, S. (2016). Why does "You're grounded!" never seem to work? April 5, Youth Service Bureau, article accessed 16 November, 2017, http://ysb.net/youre-grounded-never-seem-work/

Saturday, 11 November 2017

'Old-fashioned parenting': What does that really mean and why is the term now increasingly being used as an insult?

This week a dear friend of mine attended one of my parent sessions. Jo has heard me speak many times over the past 18 years but her reaction to this talk was very different than it had been in the past. She and her husband are currently raising their 15-year-old grandson (having had him since he was a baby) and although they've been through the adolescent years before with their children (many years ago), they're now going through it all again – this time feeling far more pressure than before. When I finished my presentation she turned to others in the audience, took a great big sigh and said "I'm so pleased I came tonight, I am constantly being told that I am being 'old-fashioned' when it comes to my parenting – I now feel like I actually may be doing the right thing!"

We had a bit of a chat about what she thought 'old-fashioned parenting' actually meant and in what context the term was being used. Jo's response reflected what I am hearing across the country from parents who attend my talks. Not surprisingly, teens are likely to use the phrase, particularly when their parents are restricting them in some way (I'm sure we can all remember a time that we threw a line at our parents like "You don't know what it’s like nowadays … "). But when the term is used by adults to criticise or judge someone else's parenting choices, often around alcohol and partying, that's when I find it quite offensive. As some Mums and Dads have said to me recently, try to enforce some boundaries or rules around parties and alcohol and, heaven forbid, roll out some consequences if those rules aren't actually followed and you can find yourself being criticised by all and sundry. "Loosen up a little", "Don’t be an old fuddy-duddy", "We live in a different time now" or even "Do you really want to be the same as your parents?" are just some of the statements people have shared with me that have been thrown at them when they have tried to put their preferred parenting strategies into place …

It is important to make it clear at this point that there is a big difference between the 'family' and 'parenting'. Our understanding of what makes up a family today is very different to what it was even 20 years ago. Where once the 'average family' was portrayed as Mum, Dad, two kids (usually white and middle class) and a dog, all wrapped up nicely in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, it is now accepted (by most but certainly not all) that families can come in many forms. But regardless of whether a child is brought up in what was regarded as the 'traditional family', or a blended family with step-parents and siblings, a single Mum, a single Dad, two Mums or two Dads, or a mixture of all of the above, what we know about parenting and what is most likely to work remains the same ...

Earlier this year I received an email from Rochelle, a mother who had attended one of my Parent Information Evenings that touches on a similar issue (she even used the term ‘old-fashioned’ at one point), this time regarding how she saw her own parenting style. Here is an edited version of her message:

"My parents (and most particularly my father) were very old-fashioned when it came to parenting and there was little love in our home. The rules we lived under were extremely restrictive and my sisters and I weren't allowed to do anything. I would never have been able to go to parties when I was in my teens and I dread to think what would have happened if they had ever caught me drinking. From a positive perspective, I didn't start drinking alcohol until my 19th birthday, unfortunately when I started, I didn't stop and ended up having a significant alcohol problem all the way through my 20s, culminating in a stint in rehab in my early 30s. I always promised myself that I would be different than my parents – I wouldn't wish that 'type of parenting on anyone.  But after coming to your talk and hearing that rules and boundaries being so important I am totally confused ... If I do have rules, how do I make sure that my children don't grow up with the same terrible attitude towards drinking that I developed …"

I think Rochelle's story highlights the conflict that many people face around parenting, particularly if they have strong and painful memories of their own adolescence. In a recent blog I talked about how we have recently seen a move away from more 'adult-centred' parenting, that was more the norm in previous generations, to a style that is more 'child-centred'. So does old-fashioned parenting have to mean that it was 'adult-centred'? I don't think it does and after talking to many parents right across the country, it would appear that so many of our parents actually 'got it right'!

Four types of parenting styles have been identified, each defined along two axes – strictness ('parental control') and warmth ('parental support'):
  • authoritarian (strictness but not warmth)
  • authoritative (strictness and warmth)
  • indulgent (warmth but not strictness)
  • neglectful (neither warmth nor strictness)
Parental control reflects how children's behaviours are managed, e.g., how family rules are developed and enforced, parental knowledge and monitoring of their child's activities, etc. Parental support refers to parental affectionate qualities and is associated with characteristics like warmth, acceptance, and involvement. I've talked a lot recently about indulgent parents and those that come under the neglectful banner are in essence almost abusive, so let's put those to one side for the purposes of this piece. What I'd like to do is take a bit of time to tease out the first two and try to establish the key difference between them because that's where I think some parents of today are getting confused.

Authoritarian parenting is often referred to as 'top-down' parenting. These parents make rules and expect that their children will follow them without exception. Children are not usually given the reasons for the rules and there is little room for any negotiation. Authoritarian parents are far more likely to use punishments instead of consequences. To clarify, consequences are the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads to positive choices. On the other hand, punishments are about causing pain and suffering and usually aren't logical or natural (i.e., they don't 'fit the crime').
Authoritative parents also have rules that children are expected to follow, and the consequences of breaking those rules are made clear, however, all rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love. Rules and boundaries are set because you love them and want to protect them. This is sometimes referred to as 'tough love' parenting. These parents are more likely to tell children the reasons for the rules and involve them in the rule-making process to some extent. Changes to the rules are made over time, usually as a reward for good behaviour and an acknowledgement that they are growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.  Authoritative parents tend to use consequences instead of punishments and use positive consequences to reinforce good behaviours.

What I say in my talks (and what Rochelle would have heard) is that research has shown that the most protective parenting style, particularly in terms of future drinking behaviour, is authoritative parenting, i.e., rules and consequences bound in unconditional love. Unfortunately, as soon as I mention rules and boundaries I think many people (including Rochelle) confuse this style with the more 'top-down' approach, i.e., authoritarian parenting. The most important part of her email is when she says "there was little love in our home". One of the most important keys to good parenting is unconditional love. Put the rules in place, make sure there are fair and age-appropriate consequences but make sure this is all wrapped up in a great big package of love ... Yes, there were lots of 'restrictive' rules in Rochelle's home as she was growing up and she rebelled as soon as she was able to and developed a range of problems as a result. But was it the rules that caused the issues or was it how they were implemented? When there is no warmth or love in a home and no understanding of why rules exist (i.e., because you love them and you want them to be safe), it is no real surprise that problems arise in the future.

No matter how you handle the issue of alcohol and partying, your teen will continue to do things to test and push you to your very limits (that's their job!) and you will need to hold fast and try to maintain your boundaries and adjust them when needed (that's your job!). But remember when they do something terrible and let you down (and almost everyone of them will at some time or another) and you're tempted to explode and say something you may later regret, always remember that it's their behaviour at that time that you don't like but you will always love them - no matter what they do!

Certainly, the adult-centred parenting of the past is not effective, particularly in regards to promoting healthy attitudes around alcohol and partying, with many young people rebelling against it at the time or developing problems in the future as a result of their experience as a teen, as Rochelle's story clearly illustrates. As much as some people would love to categorise anyone who has rules and boundaries in this area and enforces them as 'old-fashioned', often using the term in a derogatory way, I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of parenting if it is (or was) based on love. For many of us who were very clearly told in our teens that alcohol was a 'no-go', that we would be dropped off and picked up from the parties we went to on a Saturday night and that if we broke the rules there would be consequences, we were also told (or shown) that this was all being done because our parents loved us ... If that's old-fashioned parenting, bring it on! We didn't necessarily like the rules and many of us regularly broke them but deep down we knew they were there to keep us safe and if we didn't know it then, we certainly gained a appreciation of it later in life.

When I told Jo that I was going to use her comment as a subject for a blog entry, she told me about a recent discussion she had had with her daughter where she had voiced her concerns about once again taking on the parenting role of a teen so much later in life. In response her daughter had told her mother that she wanted her "to raise him (her son, Jo's grandson) just like you raised us" ... as Jo said, "I couldn't have got it all so terribly wrong, I must have done something right!" I told Jo to wear the term 'old-fashioned parent' as a badge of honour - she and her husband obviously love their grandson very much. They may not get a lot of appreciation for their efforts now but the future will see them hopefully reap the rewards!