Saturday, 14 October 2017

Parental monitoring: Getting it right for your family - your kids, your decisions!

I was speaking to a teacher recently who had just returned from maternity leave. I have known Cherie for years and it was wonderful to see her so happy (although still a little tired), with motherhood being everything she had expected and so much more ... When I saw her last year she was elbow-deep in baby books, trying to absorb everything she could about how to get the whole 'parenting thing' right and while we were talking I asked her if there was one book or other resource that she had found most useful when it came to what went down in real-life. Cherie's answer didn't really surprise me but it was so succinct and 'real', I asked if I could use it to highlight a key issue I think all parents need to remember regardless of their child's age ...

"My head was practically exploding with all the advice that I was given or read about being a good parent. In the end, my husband and I took it all, tried to absorb what we thought was useful and would work for us and then did the best that we could at the time. I would love to say that we followed all the 'rules' but some of them simply wouldn't have worked for us. We wouldn't have survived!"

Trying to sort through all the different parenting theories and 'what works?' and 'what doesn't?', particularly when it comes to keeping your kids safe is incredibly difficult. Over time, views have changed and we must never forget that what seemed to work well for one child may not necessarily work for another. As I always say, there is no rule book here and you can only do the best you can do at any particular point in time ... Cherie's response was perfect - she and her partner tried to access as much good quality information as possible, identified what they thought would work for them and then applied it to their family the best they could. You can't get much better than that ... In a perfect world where they had access to an endless supply of family support, nannies, time and energy, perhaps they would have done things differently but few parents have those luxuries so they did the best with what they had!

With that in mind, what's the best advice I can come up with in terms of keeping your teen as safe as possible when it comes to alcohol and other drugs?

We certainly know that there are a number of things that parents can do that are supported by research evidence that, at the very least will delay, but may also even prevent early alcohol and other drug use. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to drink to excess and/or use other drugs.

Without doubt, however, 'parental monitoring' is vital. So what exactly do we mean by 'parental monitoring' and how does this work when we don't live in a perfect world? Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what is going on in their child's life —what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are, we say they are monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:
  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen's behaviour - what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there 'follow-through'?
Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, parental monitoring not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies.  Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent's alcohol and other drug use.

It is important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child's life to match their stage of development, but that doesn't mean they hit 15 or 16 years of age and you throw your hands in the air and say "now it's up to you!" Appropriate levels of monitoring still needs to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information. A crucial element of monitoring is 'parental knowledge'. Parental knowledge refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not.

But how you do this with your child is your decision - every parent will monitor their teen in a different way, with most parents ending up monitoring each of their children slightly differently. Simply asking a child where they are going and who they will be with may not actually result in a truthful response and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. But only you can work out how you do this within your family and you have to 'own' whatever decision you make. Don't try to 'blame' others for your parenting decisions. No one should be making you do something you don't want to do as far as parenting is concerned. If you believe you have to 'up' the monitoring of your teen (for whatever reason), then own that and let them know that it's what you want to do - don't blame me, the school or anybody else! Your kids, your decisions! You have to work out what works for you and for your child - no-one else can do that for you ... no 'parenting expert', not your sister-in-law or best friend, not even your own parents - your kids, your decisions!

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It is a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they are often told that their adolescent children do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their teen's behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence. What 'ongoing parenting' means for your family, however, is for you to decide.

As Cherie and her partner discovered, there is so much information out there around effective parenting and what to do and not to do ... If you tried to follow every bit of advice you were given or read about you'd be driven insane - you can only do the best you can do at any point in time! Sadly, regardless of your best efforts, I can almost guarantee that if you do attempt to monitor your teen effectively they're going to 'hate' you, at least for a little while, but doing your best to know where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years ... Sometimes this will work out wonderfully, while at other times you'll feel like a terrible failure - that's parenting for you ... I guarantee, however, that if you do the best you can do in this area, based on good quality information, but at the same time, be true to yourself and your values, they'll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it!

Friday, 29 September 2017

How should parents respond to 'emotional blackmail'? "If you don't give me alcohol, I'll get it from somewhere else and drink in a park!"

If you look at the latest secondary school student data, parents continue to be the most common source of alcohol amongst young people, with 37.9% of current drinkers aged 12-17 years reporting this to be the case. Friends (22%) and 'someone else' (19%) were the next most likely responses, with siblings (8.7%) and 'took it from home' (4.7%) being the least likely sources.

As I always say, what you do with your teen around drinking is completely your business and if you believe that providing them with alcohol is the right thing to do, whatever your reason, then all power to you! There are many parents who believe that giving their child a glass of alcohol with a meal in a family environment is the best way to teach 'responsible drinking'. The available evidence in this area does not necessarily support that view, but if that's what you believe and it feels right for your family - go for it! When it comes to giving a teen alcohol to take to a party on a Saturday night I believe there are far fewer parents who actually feel comfortable doing this ... regardless, many still do. Once again, it's your choice what you do here. As long as you don't impose your beliefs onto other parents, or criticise other families for having different values in this area, it is you who has to live with your decision and only you can judge whether your teen is able to handle adult behaviour like drinking in social settings.

So why do so many parents who don't want to give their teen a couple of drinks to take to a party end up actually doing it? Well, I believe in many cases it is simply a matter of 'emotional blackmail'.

I am constantly meeting parents who have been told by their teens that they are too strict as far as alcohol and parties are concerned and that if the rules don't change they will go behind their backs and find alcohol themselves and go and drink it in a dangerous place like a park, or that their inflexibility will result in them not going to them if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, as we move closer to the summer months and the number of parties and gatherings that adolescents start to be invited to increases, this type of emotional blackmail really starts to raise its ugly head! It's typically Year 10s (but I'm hearing it more and more from parents of Year 9s) and these clever teens are all trying their best to manipulate their poor parents by threatening them with the terrible things that could happen to them if they don't get what they want, i.e., permission to drink and/or for their parents to provide the alcohol to them.

I've shared the following email before but it's certainly worth re-visiting. It's from a mother who was grappling with this exact issue ...

"Our son has been to parties where 15- and 16-year-olds were drinking. He always told us that he didn’t drink and that he keeps an eye on his friends. We have always picked him up from the parties and never smelt any alcohol on him ... Last weekend my son said to me that his friend has told his parents that he had been drinking and they said they want him to come to them if he gets himself into trouble. Our son said that he wouldn't be able to come to us because we are so strict and inflexible and won't allow him to drink and he knows that there will be consequences should we catch him drinking. Now I am at a complete loss how to respond to this because we certainly want him to know that he can come to us with problems but how can we uphold our rules without him totally rebelling?"

When a parent finds themselves in this situation I suggest they try to answer the following questions as honestly as they can. Once they have they usually are able to work out what to do next ...
  • What exactly is your child asking you for? The young man above is asking for a couple of things - he is certainly asking for more flexibility around the rules around alcohol and parties and is most probably asking for permission to drink when he attends these events
  • Do you feel comfortable with allowing that to happen? This is where you have to 'follow your heart'. Do you feel ok with easing the rules a little around parties and do you feel comfortable with giving him permission to drink alcohol at 16? No-one can answer that question but you and your partner - no-one!
  • If you don't feel comfortable, why not? This is incredibly important to think through and actually be able to articulate clearly. It really doesn't matter what the reasons are, as long as you have them clearly laid out (maybe even written down) and you can explain them to others (not just your child) should you be asked - not that you have to justify your parenting decisions to others, but it's always useful to have them on hand, just in case
  • Have you explained your reasons clearly to your child? I always say in my presentations to parents that really the only reason you ever have to give to your child is "because I love you!", but really that's the answer you give when they don't like the rules you've laid out and you don't want to enter into a screaming match with them! When you are explaining the rules you certainly should be making it very clear why you've made the rules you have - simply saying "because I said so ..." is just not going to cut it!
  • Are you being inflexible? This is a really difficult one for some parents - a 15- or 16-year-old is growing up and there does need to be some flexibility with rules. That doesn't mean you cave-in and give them what they want, basically you start to reward good behaviour ... If they have been going to parties regularly for 12 months and things have been going well, sit down with them and say something like ... "You've been wonderful. We're so proud of the way you've been behaving at parties, it's time to take another look at our rules". This is where curfews come in so handy, give them an extra 30 mins before you pick them up from a party. Never be frightened of asking them what changes they would like to the rules and see which of those you're happy to go with ...
  • Most importantly, do you really believe that your child would actually do what they are threatening? Realistically, the kids that are going to get into real trouble here are not the ones who are going to ask their parents for permission to do this - they'll just go and do it behind their backs! If they're talking to you and asking for rule changes, that can be a really good sign. Don't ever believe that all that great work you've done over the past 15 or so years with your child is now worthless. If you have a positive relationship with your child (you've been an authoritative parent - rules, consequences bound in unconditional love), that's not going to change because of something like this. They may not like you very much but they'll still love you. However, if you are being inflexible and not listening to your teen's concerns things could go pear-shaped - but as I said before, that doesn't mean you give them what they want, it just means you may have to do a better job of explaining your actions!
Always remember that the one thing that most adolescents are brilliant at is the art of manipulation. Once again, I have told the following story before - it's about a mother who was being manipulated by her 15-year-old daughter to such an extent that it was almost abuse ...

The mother wanted my advice regarding her daughter, parties and the provision of alcohol. Her daughter had told her that all her friends drank alcohol, their parents provided this without question and that all of the parties she attended alcohol was at the very least tolerated and sometimes even provided. She also told her mother that she believed that they had a great relationship - she could tell her everything and she did, nothing was kept hidden, unlike other girls and their mothers she knew. Unfortunately for the girl, her mother did not feel comfortable about giving her alcohol to take to these parties and this was causing heated discussion at home. The daughter then informed the mother that if alcohol was not provided then she would have to resort to finding it elsewhere and going behind her back. This, she threatened, would mean the end of their open relationship.

When questioned the mother had not spoken to any of her daughter's friends' parents. She had not called one parent who had hosted a party her daughter had attended. Every bit of information she was using to make decisions was based on what her daughter told her. This 15-year-old had successfully 'siloed' her mother, ensuring that she spoke to no-one and found out nothing about what was really going on - she was feeding her the information she wanted her to hear. To top it off, she then threatened (there is no other word for it) her mother and told her that their 'wonderful' relationship would be jeopardised if she didn't get want she wanted. As I said to the mother at the time, this is not a positive relationship and some work needed to be done pretty quickly to fix it before it gets completely out of control.

I'm pretty sure we all used emotional blackmail to get what we wanted from our parents when we were teenagers (my mother still goes on at me about the grey Levi jeans that I had to have when I was 15 and how I told her that I would be totally ostracised from my entire year group if I didn't have them - the fear of social exclusion continues to work wonders with parents!). Today's teens are no different and, like us, they certainly know how to pull at Mum's or Dad's heartstrings.

Every parent has to make their own decision on how to move forward when their child resorts to this type of manipulation but the bottom line for me is always - whatever the decision, make sure you follow your heart and ensure you can live with the consequences should something go wrong. I have met too many parents who were bullied into making decisions and changing rules that they were not comfortable with and then either losing their child in tragic circumstances or finding themselves with a 15-year-old daughter who had been sexually assaulted or being called to a hospital after their 16-year-old son had been admitted due to alcohol poisoning or been a victim of violence. No matter what anyone tells you, giving them permission to drink or providing them the alcohol does not protect them from things going wrong!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Having problems with your teen and alcohol or other drugs? Three 'must-do's' that may help you get through ...

Hardly a week goes by without me receiving an email or a phone call from a parent who is having a problem dealing with their son or daughter and their alcohol or other drug use. Some of these mums and dads put on as brave a face as possible when they speak to me, while others are terribly distraught, some even breaking down in tears, desperate to find a solution to the problems they are facing with their child. This week I had four parents call me in just one day, all of whom were struggling with very different issues, but all telling me that they felt they really had no idea where to go to get help or advice.

Now I need to emphasise that I am not a trained counsellor or health professional, and I make sure I make that clear to anyone who calls me for advice in this area. I'm also not a parent so it is impossible for me to imagine what these people are going through. When I am approached by these people I see my role more as one of referral, trying to direct them to the correct services, agencies, as well as health professionals who may be able to assist them with their problem. There are usually three pieces of advice, however, that I do give them, three simple 'must-do's' that any parent struggling with a teen and their alcohol and other drug use can and should do to help them get through this extremely difficult time. They are as follows:
  • Make sure you and your partner are okay before you do anything else. By the time these parents speak to me the vast majority are a complete mess! They have been struggling to deal with what has been going on in their home for some time and the whole family is suffering. Marriages are sometimes at breaking point and if there are other children (particularly younger siblings) they too can be terribly affected. Let's be clear here, if you're a mess then there is no way that you're going to be able to help your teen. Don't be afraid to get professional help - so many are afraid to do this, believing that it somehow means they have 'failed' as parents - nothing could be further from the truth. You can go to your GP and ask for a referral to a health professional who specialises in this area (yes, they do exist!) or if you feel comfortable speaking to counsellor at the school your child attends, they may also be able to assist. Whoever you speak to, you need to use the opportunity to talk through what you are going through and possibly even get some strategies on how to communicate with your son or daughter more effectively. It is vital however that this is all about you - it is not about fixing your child's problem - this is all about making sure you are ok! You can worry about your child's issue once this is done ...
  • Before you react to anything, walk away and count to 10! Without doubt, every parent I speak to talks about the clashes they have with their teen and often the reason they took the step to contact me is that these are escalating. These clashes are usually due to the child not doing something that was expected of them or flagrantly breaking a rule and then the parent reacting. If you want one simple thing that will almost automatically reduce the suffering in the home it is never, ever react immediately. You're angry, they've been found out and their back is against the wall - it's not going to end well. I'm well aware that this simple strategy does not go towards solving the alcohol and other drug issue you have with your teen but it does make life more bearable! When something happens, walk away - count to 10, make a quick call to a friend and vent, scrawl out swear words on a piece of paper for a couple of minutes - and then come back to them and express your concerns. Once the old pattern of reacting straight away is broken, you have a better chance of dealing with the issue in a more positive way (and you'll feel less stressed!)
  • Remember that you're the adult and they're the child - one of the lines I hear constantly from parents is "But they won't even meet me halfway ...". A key to good parenting in this area is the setting of clear boundaries and rules and making sure consequences are in place should they break those rules. That said, young people are still going to push against those boundaries and you will need to punish them accordingly - that's a normal parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, there are teens who are going to ignore rules altogether and no matter what you do, they're simply not going to tow the line. Now this is not the norm and if your child is acting out in a major way you may need to change the way you approach your relationship. Instead of keeping insisting that they at least meet you halfway, you may have to go 'over halfway', reach over and grab them and then pull them back! So much of this has to do with parents realizing that you're not going to have total control over their teen's behaviour, no matter what you do ... Now I'm not saying you do this the first time they do the wrong thing, but if you obviously have a problem and you fear losing them - you have to change tack! What I'm talking about here is essentially a change in attitude - no matter how mature they may think they are, you are dealing with an adolescent who doesn't have a fully developed brain. They aren't able to think through things rationally and everything is based on a 'gut reaction'. Remembering this when you are trying to talk to a difficult teen is not going to solve the problem but it may at least lower your frustration level.
If you do have a child who you believe is having issues with alcohol and other drugs you need to remember that you are not alone. You also need someone to talk to about it. If you have a family member or friend that you believe is appropriate - go for it - but in my experience, so often parents who go down this route end up feeling even more frustrated when the person they trusted ends up telling them not to worry and that 'it's just a stage they're going through'!

If you do need to talk through what is going on in your family and you want a non-judgemental ear to listen I advise parents to contact a wonderful organisation called Family Drug Support (FDS). FDS was formed in 1997 by Tony Trimingham who lost his son to a heroin overdose. It is a caring, non-religious and non-judgemental organisation primarily made up of volunteers who have experienced first-hand the trauma and chaos of having family members with drug issues. They have a Support Line for parents that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - 1300 368 186.

As already said, the most important thing parents need to do is to make sure they're ok before they do anything else. This can involve getting professional help or simply having a great family or friend support network around them when things get tough. Remember, you're no good to your child if you're not coping well - when you feel good (or at least better) you're going to be able to deal with this type of issue much more positively and effectively ...

Friday, 8 September 2017

Is providing 'fake' alcohol a good way of trying to help your teen deal with 'peer pressure' at parties?

Over the years I've been contacted by a number of parents who have wanted my opinion on providing 'fake' alcohol to teens attending  parties or gatherings. Last week I received the following Facebook message from a mother asking the same question:

"I am just wondering what your view is on the idea of teens (15-year-old) 'pretending' to drink at a party by filling vodka cruiser bottles with cordial or soft drink?"

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived in a world where we didn't have to assist a 15-year-old to 'fit in' by providing fake alcohol? The sad thing is that this 'peer pressure' (although I believe it is far more likely to be a much more insidious 'social pressure') is also a reality for many Australian adults. As I've said many times before, I don't drink alcohol and I can think of many times over the years where it was just easier for me to grab a glass or bottle and walk around a party or other event and pretend that I was drinking. Having to deal with the party's host or people serving alcohol constantly asking me why I wasn't drinking can get really annoying. I'm sure some of the drinkers reading this will say, well why didn't you just grab a soft drink or water? Without doubt, there are many situations where that works but I can tell you that there are others (e.g., a wedding) where holding a mineral water (particularly when you are about to toast the happy couple) is seen as totally unacceptable by some! At the last wedding I went to, when I declined the offer of a glass of champagne from a waiter and asked for a mineral water instead, I remember a guy looking at me and saying loudly "I don't trust anyone who doesn't drink alcohol!" When I told a radio 'shock jock' who was interviewing me that I didn't drink alcohol (after he had specifically asked me a question about my drinking behaviour), he told me that that was "un-Australian"! I have no idea what that really means but it's kind of sad ...

So in the context of that culture where drinking is perceived as the 'norm', how do our young people cope with that social pressure? If you look at the evidence there are certainly growing numbers of teens who are choosing not to drink alcohol. As I've said before, I believe that one of the reasons for this is that many drinking groups now actually 'embrace' non-drinkers. They see them as valuable members of their social group. These are the guys or girls that look after the drinkers and become the designated drivers and, as a result, being identified as the non-drinker in the group does not necessarily mean the 'social suicide' that it once did. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and there are certainly groups of young people who drink alcohol who reject those who don't ... I am sure this happens amongst both genders, but in my experience it is the girls who are likely to face the greatest pressure here ...

When I wrote my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs, I interviewed a mother who was really struggling to help her daughter maintain her position in a friendship group. The following story didn't end up making the final cut of the book but it perfectly illustrates the challenges that some young people face in this area:

An elite athlete, Alison was in Year 12 and represented Australia in her chosen sport. She was on the way to gaining a place at the AIS and had made the decision not to drink alcohol from an early age, prepared to sacrifice partying to make sure she achieved her dream. She had a great group of friends that she had had since primary school but recently each of them had started to drink alcohol when they went to parties. Even so, there were no problems as they all understood why she didn't drink and totally supported her decision.

Unfortunately, their attitude started to change at the beginning of Year 12 with Alison starting to get great pressure to join in with the drinking behaviour. In fact, according to Beth (her mother), she was going to lose her friends if she didn't agree to partake ... Beth was desperate to try to find a way to help her deal with the pressure she was getting to conform and keep her friends but, at the same time, not compromise her values ...

Beth finally came up with the idea of buying bottles of premixed spirits (e.g., Bacardi Breezers), emptying them out and then filling them with up with lemon squash. She would recap them (and even went to the extent of going to a factory to get them capped professionally!) and her daughter would take two of these to take to a party. According to Beth, the plan had worked and Alison was able to carry off the charade and keep her position in the social group.

I can remember having a long talk with Beth about the major issues she had with this strategy. She certainly didn't feel comfortable doing it and she had a huge problem understanding why a group of so-called 'friends' (many of whom she knew well) would suddenly put this kind of pressure on her daughter. But knowing how important being accepted by your peer group was at this age, she was willing to do anything to help. She was also extremely worried about what would happen if her daughter was found out. What if someone else had a sip and found out that it wasn't really alcohol? That was surely going to result in a far worse outcome - how would young women feel about a friend lying to them and bringing fake alcohol to a party? Interestingly, she told me that she had even experimented with a couple of spices (as well as Aromatic Bitters and even vinegar) to try and get a taste that could possibly resemble something similar to alcohol should a bottle fall into the wrong hands ... I don't think she had great success in that area!

So is providing fake alcohol a good strategy and are there any problems associated with assisting your teen in this way?

As I've already said, many non-drinking adults can think of a time when they have pretended to drink alcohol in social settings to help avoid annoying questions or comments or simply just 'fit-in'. For many it can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, I don't think it works as well for teens. There are just too many things that can go wrong, particularly when they are very young (around that 15-year-old age).

Firstly, there are all the legal issues to consider. In almost every Australian state and territory (apart from SA), it is illegal for a parent to host a party at their home and allow other parents' teens to drink alcohol on their property. The only way they can do it is if they get those teens' parents to give them permission to do so ... How do you handle that with fake alcohol? If a parent was hosting a 'dry' event and caught your child with the fake alcohol you had provided them, how does your teen deal with that and think of the position you're putting the host parent when they're totally unaware of what is really happening. Should you be telling host parents that the alcohol your child is drinking is fake? If your child is refused entry to a party by security I'm sure you're not going to be happy about it, but how would they know better? Even worse, if your 15-year-old was caught with alcohol in a public place, they could be charged and given an alcohol caution. How does your child cope with a complex situation like that? Do they just sit back and accept the charge or do they 'out' themselves in front of their friends and tell the truth?

Beth's concern about being caught out by their peers is another real issue here ... It only takes one person to realize that your teen is lying about what they're drinking and it can get really ugly, very quickly! If your child has a social group where drinking is that important that they feel they need to take fake alcohol to fit in, I can't imagine the reaction they would get if their lie was caught out ... To be quite honest, I don't think it's worth the risk!

But most importantly, I believe you really run the risk of normalising alcohol in their social group even more if you utilise this strategy. Assisting your teen to 'cave in' and fit the supposed norm may seem like a good idea in the short-term when they are really struggling in this area, but it is not going to help them in the long-run. What could be far more useful is helping your teen come up with a realistic 'out' that assists them to say 'no' to drinking alcohol but ensures they still 'save face'. I've written about 'outs' before but here are a few that I have picked up from teens over the years that have actually worked:
  • "I am allergic to alcohol"
  • "The medication I'm on at the moment doesn't mix well with alcohol"
  • "Dad found out I was drinking last weekend and I'll be grounded if I get caught again"
  • "Mum's picking me up and she always checks my breath when I get in the car"
So how did I respond to the Facebook message I received last week? Well, it's short and sweet and was as follows:

"I certainly do know of teens (and their parents) who use this strategy, although I have to say, I don't hear about it nearly as much as I once did (increasingly non-drinkers are becoming more socially acceptable and so the pressure seems to be lifting for many, but certainly not all, young people). My worry about doing it with such young teens (15-year-olds) is that it normalises alcohol in their social group even more ... that said, if it works for your family and your teen is under such great pressure that you need to resort to this, well, anything to keep them safer ..."

I also told her that I'd be writing a blog entry on the topic ... Most importantly though, it doesn't really matter what I (or anybody else for that matter) believes, as I said, if a strategy works for you and your family, well, anything to keep them safer! Just remember to consider all your options and not just a short-term fix, particularly at the age of 15. You have years of adolescence ahead, a long-term strategy may take a little more thought and effort but it is likely to be far more effective ...

Saturday, 2 September 2017

If you even think your teen may be going into a situation where there is alcohol, try to arm them with information to keep them and others safe!

The story of Nicole Emily Bicknell's death after consuming an enormous amount of alcohol at her 18th birthday party in 2014 raised a whole pile of issues around young people, alcohol and celebrating. The inquest into her death was held earlier this year but it was only last week that WA's Deputy State Coroner handed down her verdict of "death by misadventure". The night in question is described in graphic detail in this article from The West Australian newspaper and is deeply disturbing and, although it was found that alcohol intoxication alone caused the death, it is obvious that if those around her on the night had responded in a different way, the outcome could have been different. Nevertheless, the Coroner's recommendation was that, as a result of the death, alcohol education be provided to every secondary school student in the state (something that I'm pretty sure is already done, at least to some extent), particularly around the physiology of alcohol toxicity.

I posted the story on my Facebook page and, not surprisingly, it received quite a reaction ... It has been shared more than 100 times and has had almost 20,000 views! Many people have also posted comments. If you look at some of these, many parents obviously took the time to direct the story to their teens. One mother even used the story to congratulate her daughter on 'doing the right thing', potentially averting a similar situation:
  • "even though she wasn't as intoxicated as this young woman, you did the right thing at the party by keeping that girl moving and calling the ambulance"
The one comment that I found particularly interesting, however, was the following (not surprisingly from a teacher):
  • "Why is it always left up to schools? There are already programs running. I sat with my daughter and watched a very graphic film made in WA about binge drinking that she had to analyse for homework. As a teacher I think parents need to also educate their own children. The party was not held at school!! Very sad for all concerned"
Of course, schools play an extremely important role in educating young people around alcohol and other drugs, but shouldn't parents play a part in keeping their teens safe? As the woman said - "The party was not held at school!!" ... Schools can provide all the information in the world to teens about the dangers of alcohol but there has to come a point where parents have to take some responsibility, particularly if they know they're sending their teen off to a potentially risky environment like a teenage party ... This is not just about simply warning them of the potential dangers, it's about giving them practical advice and strategies on how to look after their friends and themselves should something go wrong ...

I've presented to students from 10 schools in the past fortnight, speaking to Year 10s, 11s and 12s. When I see Year 10s (average age - 15 years), along with other messages, I show them how to look after a drunk friend and what to do in an emergency. At every one of those sessions there was a sizeable number of young men and women who had had to already deal with a drunk friend, some of them doing this multiple times. Rarely, if ever, was an adult present when this was happening. Many of them had also had to look after a drunk vomiting friend at some point. With few exceptions, most had absolutely no idea what they were doing. These are not situations that any 15-year-old should have to deal with by themselves but so many do, weekend after weekend, right across the country ... When you ask them what they do in these situations, the response is often terrifying ... As with Nicole's death, many of these young people simply put their friends to bed 'to sleep it off', some of them hiding their intoxicated friends from parents, frightened of possible repercussions. It truly is a miracle that we don't see more fatalities than we do.

What continues to frustrate me is that those parents who make the decision to provide alcohol to their teens to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night simply hand over the bottles, drop them off at someone's house and don't even consider providing them with one skerrick of safety information should something go wrong ... Now I know some parents will say that this is the school's responsibility and that doesn't this get taught in health education classes? Maybe it does, but if you're handing over a couple of bottles or cans to your teen, wouldn't sharing some good quality information on what they should do if something went wrong be advisable when you do?

When I first started delivering the type of presentations I do now, I based them on interviews I conducted with hundreds of young people across the country. I wanted to find out what information they wanted, not what I thought they needed and I didn't want to rehash things that were already covered in health and drug education lessons. Overwhelmingly, what they wanted was advice on how to look after their friends. When pushed on whether they were interested in being provided information to help themselves, not surprisingly, it became quite clear that they really didn't believe any of these 'bad things' would happen to them. Talking about what would happen to their friends was the key. So what is it that they really want to know? Without a doubt, the three questions that teens want answers to are as follows:
When I speak to students, I do my best to provide answers, as well as simple strategies that could help them in potentially dangerous situations (I have linked some of my answers from my blog for young people, as well as a fact sheet from my website, if you are interested). Most schools attempt to provide similar messages. But wouldn't it be great if parents took some responsibility for providing this information to their teens, particularly if they're actually giving them the alcohol to drink at a teenage party or gathering? When you ask a 15-year-old girl how she knew what to do after she has just told you that she has recently spent 4-5 hours looking after a drunk, vomiting friend (and you have to ask where were her parents or any other adult?) and she says her 'maternal instincts' kicked-in - it's deeply disturbing. The young woman had absolutely no idea what she was doing, never contemplated calling an adult to help her and instead, just hoped that her 'instincts' would get her and her friend through ... A simple 5-minute discussion from a parent about how to look after someone who is vomiting could save a life - that's all it could take!

Then there are all the questions about calling 000 and how much the ambulance costs, who will pay and will the ambulance or hospital call parents? I've already provided this information before but here's some simple advice on how to best deal with the topic and some of the key points to cover:
  • Download the 'Emergency +' app from the App Store and acquaint yourself with its key features. This is a fantastic tool that everyone who owns a smartphone should have - when opened it provides all the key emergency numbers, as well as activating your GPS, providing not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address 
  • If your child has a smartphone, sit down as a family and ensure that everyone  puts the app onto their phone - this provides a great opportunity to talk about 000 and its services and when everyone does it, it helps to emphasise the importance of the service. If they don't own a smartphone, make sure they see all family members are loading it onto their phone 
  • If they have a mobile - make sure 000 is listed in their address book under 'Emergency'. Once again, talk about 000 and its services
  • Ensure that they know that 000 can be accessed even if the phone does not have any credit or the phone is locked, i.e., you can pick up anyone's mobile and call 000 even if it locked. Show them that when the keypad is locked the option for 'emergency call' is always there
  • Talk through what will happen when they call regarding a medical emergency (read through the DARTA fact sheet on the topic for full details) but the most important points include who they will be talking to (an emergency operator and then the ambulance operator - many teens are completely unaware that they will be talking to two people) and what information they will be asked for (location, mobile number and what is the problem)
  • Make sure they know that it is not them (or you) that pays for an ambulance if they make the call - it is the person being transported! A real barrier to teens calling for help for a friend is that they are frightened there will received a bill for the ambulance
  • If you have ambulance cover, make sure they know that - if you live in Queensland or Tasmania they should be told that their ambulance costs are covered
  • Most importantly, ensure that they know that they have your complete support should they ever have to call an ambulance. I would suggest the following - "If you need an ambulance, you call one straight away. I totally support you. Then you call me - straight afterwards"
Sitting down with your teen and talking through some possible scenarios that may occur at a teenage party around alcohol is not ever going to be easy. They'll try to dismiss you, telling you that they don't do those sort of things, or accuse you of not knowing what you're talking about, but it is vital that you persist. One possible way in is to talk about your own experiences and what went wrong when you were young and how you handled it ... Speaking honestly about how you looked after a drunk friend (warts and all), acknowledging that you may not have done everything correctly, could be really useful and lead to a great discussion about keeping friends as safe as possible. And if you don't know all the answers or what to do, try to find out together ... use this as a valuable 'connecting' opportunity with your teen.

Without question, if your child is going out anywhere on a Saturday night, you must have a discussion about 000 - I've said that so many times. But if they're going to a party or gathering and you even think they, or their friends, may come into contact with alcohol, try to arm with them some simple strategies that could help them deal with a potentially life-or-death situation. At the very least, let them know as they're stepping out of your car or walking out the front door that if they need you, for whatever reason, you'll be there for them, no questions asked! You do not want your 15 or 16-year-old son or daughter having to deal with something as frightening as a drunk friend who could potentially choke to death on their own vomit by themselves. They need to know that you'll be there for them to either provide advice or support them in whatever way they need ...

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Drugs aren't everywhere, not everybody's doing them and not all teens get drunk: The 'rite of passage' myth!

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece on research that found alcohol use had declined amongst young Australians. Although many readers welcomed the figures and saw them as a reason to celebrate our teens, sadly, some people refused to believe what they read. You only have to look at some of the comments on my Facebook feed to see that there are those who are never going to accept that some teens are going to make healthier choices. Some simply thought the researchers got it wrong and the data was inaccurate whereas others chose to believe that teens were using illicit drugs instead (even though the research does not support this). Here are just some of the comments:
  • "I don't know where you get your figures from and I doubt the accuracy of them"
  • "I find that a little hard to believe when you drive around on a Saturday night in the Hills Area particularly where there is a party involving 14-17 year olds ..."
  • "Drugs. Cheap, easy to get.....I could go on. Any other reason is just simply being deluded"
  • "Because they all pop pingers and snort coke instead"
  • "Its easier to get drugs"
I also received a 'harsh' message from one mother who believed strongly drinking alcohol (and experimenting with illicit drugs) was simply a 'rite of passage' for young people and so-called research findings that said anything different was ridiculous. Here is just one cleaned-up section of the message (and I mean cleaned-up - this was a rant with a lot of swear words!):

"Drinking alcohol is just what teens do, they always have and they always will. It's a rite of passage. Most of them will also try drugs as well. Drugs are everywhere (more now then ever before) and the peer pressure to drink and take drugs was around when I was a teen and it's still there for my kids."

The one part of this message that riled me was the old chestnut - 'It's a rite of passage'. You see this used in so many statements around teen behaviour, particularly by parents who want to try and explain away potentially risky behaviour their child may be involved in by implying that it's just something that 'everyone' does at this time in their life and there's nothing they can do about it. Going to Schoolies' events is now often referred to as a 'rite of passage', as is attendance at post-formal events for senior school students. If you look at the term, it is defined as "a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person's change of status upon any of several highly important occasions, as at the onset of puberty or upon entry into marriage or into a clan." Now by that definition you can sort of see how a Schoolies' event can 'fit' - i.e., an event that marks the transition from high school to the big wide world, but drinking alcohol or experimenting with illicit drugs? Undoubtedly, drinking alcohol and/or experimenting with illicit drugs is a part of adolescence for some young people but can it really be regarded as a 'rite of passage'?

No-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that drinking and drug use doesn't happen. When it comes to alcohol in particular – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their teens. However, the same cannot be said for illegal drugs, particularly when we're talking about teenagers. Most school-based young people have never tried illegal drugs, they have no interest in these substances and they never will. Study after study after study confirms this, yet try and get this fact reported in the media and you hit a brick wall.

Interestingly, you often hit that very same brick wall when you speak to the teenagers themselves. Years ago, I had just finished a school presentation, with one of the final slides revealing the percentage of young people who have not tried illicit drugs. One student's response to the low number was particularly interesting ...

"Max was a Year 11 student and an outspoken critical thinker. Instead of whispering to the person next to him about his doubts regarding the figure he stood up and argued his case. "I find those figures very hard to believe," he said. "Everybody I know uses drugs. That slide just doesn't ring true – where did you find those people who you surveyed?"
After informing him and the rest of the group how the data was collected I decided to challenge him. "So everybody you know uses drugs?" I said. "You're in a room full of over 100 of your peers – are you saying that every one of these young people in this room uses drugs?" "No, of course not," he replied. "I don't mean people at school, I mean the people I know out of school. They all use drugs." I then wanted to know what drugs he was talking about and he informed me that cannabis was the drug of choice for 'everybody'.
"Give me a number," I asked him. "I want an actual number of the people that you know for a fact use cannabis. You have seen these people smoke the drug, not simply heard about it, or believe it to be true – you know for a fact. Work it out and give me the number."
It took Max quite a while to respond and for a while I thought my test was going to backfire, but he was an intelligent and thoughtful young man and was taking my challenge seriously. When he finally did give his answer it confirmed my belief that although he believed a considerable proportion (well, actually all of them) smoked cannabis, this was not the case.
"Five," he said!

I love this story! I included it in my 2009 book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs and used to tell it at every school I visited and it always got a great reception. Of course, there are many young people who know far more than 5 others who have drank alcohol or taken drugs, but I have yet to meet any student who can honestly say that 'everybody' they know does it! Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that, even amongst young people, that most people have used drugs and that all drink. When you take a few moments to challenge that perception you can get some really interesting results.

There are two words that I really dislike that we tend to overuse when talking about alcohol and drugs – 'all' and 'everybody'. If you just spend a couple of moments to think about it you know that statements like "everybody does it" and "all teenagers go through that stage" just don't make sense. Even if everyone you knew did 'do it' when you were younger (and I don’t believe that that is the case), that was your group and, like it or not, your friends may not have been the norm! 'Everybody' doesn't do it and not 'all' teenagers go through that stage – these generalizations need to be challenged and unfortunately we don't do that enough.

Let's not forget that not all young people are the same, this is particularly true when it comes to attitudes and values around alcohol and other drugs. Even when it comes to alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not one homogenous group. Teens can be broken down into three key categories, two of which we rarely acknowledge:
  • the first is the loudest and the most obvious, those who drink and often drink to excess. Evidence would suggest that this group is getting smaller but unfortunately are consuming at riskier levels than in the past and drinking at a younger age 
  • the next group comprises those who attempt to drink 'responsibly'. They don't drink regularly and when they do they usually consume a small amount. This does not mean there are no risks involved in their drinking behaviour, but we do need to acknowledge that these young people are trying to do 'the right thing' 
  • finally we have the abstainers. According to the data, this is a growing group but one we rarely speak about; in fact we often completely ignore them, making them feel even more alienated than many of them already feel within their peer group.
While putting together my book I asked young people I came in contact with to feel free to write to me with their thoughts on the topic of teens and alcohol and other drug use. I used many of these comments but recently found this one that got cut in the final edit ...

"As a 16-year-old, I am constantly frustrated by accusations and generalisations of teenagers. Apparently, we are all alcoholic junkies who spend our time vandalising, watching TV, and terrorising the "innocent, helpless, adult citizens" of our suburbs. I have long hair and a beard, which makes people's reactions to me even more obvious ... I don't steal, and I follow a lifestyle of being 'straight edge', which means I avoid alcohol and drugs ... Although this lifestyle is not for everyone, it is an example of what at least one teenager is like. I'm sick of the image of a "teenager" as being lazy and out of control. If all teenagers represented the mainstream portrayal of an adolescent, then I ask, who is getting the high UAIs? I mean, if we, the adults of the future, are all lazy ragamuffins, then the future looks pretty bleak. A large portion of the people who criticise the kids of today, were criticised for many of the same reasons when they were teenagers. I know this has been an angry, biased, and not particularly well written comment, but thanks for the opportunity to voice my thoughts."

That's a powerful statement and really highlights the whole 'rite of passage' myth. Let's never forget that all young people are different. We need to acknowledge that many young people will drink alcohol at some time during their adolescence and some may experiment with one or more illegal drugs. However, that does not mean that we should throw our arms up in the air and declare drinking and drug use as simply a 'rite of passage' that all teens will go through. That's a cop-out and, I believe, an excuse for lazy parenting. Drugs aren't everywhere, not everybody's doing them and not all teens get drunk - that's an undisputable fact that all parents should hold onto ...

Saturday, 19 August 2017

'Pre-parties' and a 'tactical vomit' again! Can parents really provide a 'safe space' for young people to drink?

It's hard to believe that it was four years ago that I first wrote about the 'tactical vomit' phenomenon! If you were around at that time you may remember that I was asked by a Year 10 girl what I thought about the 'benefits' of a 'tactical vomit' ... now, as I said in that blog entry, maybe I had missed something when  I was a teenager but I had never heard of this. It took a little time and quite a few conversations with friends, colleagues and some young people to really get what she was talking about ... As I said then, there were certainly some people who had a vague idea of what she was referring to but almost everybody was surprised about the age of the girl who asked me about the practice.

For the uninitiated, here is a part of an email I received from another Year 10 girl who I asked to describe a 'tactical vomit' and how it was used by young people of her age:

"Before we go out to a party for the night we usually meet at someone else's house and have a few drinks beforehand. Sometimes someone drinks too much and it gets to a point that we know she won't be able to get into the party we're going to because she looks too drunk and the parents or security guards wouldn't let her in ... That's when we would have a tactical vomit - she would go into the toilet and stick her fingers down her throat or drink a glass of salty water to throw up and sober herself up. After a bit of time she'll feel a little better and we can go to the party and get in."

What we are essentially talking about here is 'self-stomach pumping'! As I said at the time, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In fact, there are a range of definitions describing the practice available on the web, with some websites actually providing advice on how to make yourself vomit. Now, if you're in your late teens or early 20s and surrounded by friends who may have a bit of life experience and you think that this might be a good idea for you, go for it! What continues to concern me is how young some of these teens are and, more importantly, where are the parents who are meant to be supervising them at these 'pre-party' events?

In the past couple of weeks I've been asked about a tactical vomit at least three times, all in the context of drinking too much at a 'pre-party' and then having to try to sober up to ensure that they could get into the 'real party' of the night. So what is it with these so-called 'pre's' and where are the parents who should be monitoring what these very young teens are doing?

I've discussed the 'pre's' phenomenon many times over the years. These began with the 'pre-formal' drinks that some parents host before school events (something I just can't understand - providing alcohol to young people, no matter how small an amount, and then sending them off to a school function where teachers have to supervise - it's so unfair to the staff and potentially, so dangerous!). Unfortunately, these aren't new and have been around for many years. What is new, however, is the whole idea of the 'pre-party'. Some of these are hosted by parents, where those attending are either provided, or bring their own alcohol and drink it before attending a potentially 'dry' party later on that evening. To the best of my knowledge, the parties where parents provide alcohol, or tolerate or 'turn a blind eye' to drinking, usually don't start until around 15-years-old. That said, there are certainly 'pre's' that 14-year-olds attend where alcohol is consumed. That's no surprise when you hear what some parents are doing at even younger ages ... I was recently told by a parent that her 11-year-old daughter was invited to a 'pre-sleepover', where the girls attending were provided with a mocktail at the door as they entered! Why would anyone host an event like this and why would you be giving a mocktail to an 11-year-old?

From what I've heard from young people about the 'pre's' they attend, some of the main features of these events are as follows:
  • they are usually quite small, comprising of just their close friendship group
  • the main purpose of many (but certainly not all) of these is to preload with alcohol before the main event of the night, particularly if it is a 'dry' event, i.e., security will be present and alcohol is not permitted
  • they are much more popular with girls than with young men, often because females often use them to get dressed and 'made-up' (sometimes changing into clothing that their parents would not necessarily deem appropriate)
  • some parents do allow alcohol to be consumed but that is certainly not always the case
  • although parents can sometimes be there, often a home will be chosen specifically because they won't be there. These events are held early and are short (a couple of hours at most), enabling teens to arrive, do what they need to do and leave - all in the time it can take for parents to see a movie or go out for dinner!
  • as they're held earlier in the evening (or in some cases, the late afternoon), teens are much more likely to be able to convince their parents to let them get to the house by themselves, thus avoiding any issues with meeting other parents and the like
I was talking to a Year 11 girl this week and when I asked her about 'pre's' and whether she went to them she said the following:

"I don't drink alcohol so there's no point to me going to them. Lots of my friends go and get drunk before the party but I don't bother anymore. When we were younger in Year 7 and 8, 'pre's' were all about getting dressed up, putting on make-up and getting ready, but now they're all about drinking."

When I asked one of her friends she was with about parent supervision at these events, she said she rarely saw parents when she attended:

"If someone is home, you don't really see them. They kind of leave us alone to do our thing. I've never been to a 'pre' where the parents have given alcohol to us but I don't think we've had to hide our drinking from them since we were in Year 9. They just know that it's safer for us to drink in their house than in the park." 

And there it is again ... that old chestnut, it's safer to let them drink in the home because "at least they're not drinking in a park!" Maybe I could agree with that statement if there was any sign at all of parental monitoring of the drinking that takes place at these events, but there clearly isn't any ... When 14- and 15-year-olds are getting so drunk at 'pre's' that they actually have to put their fingers down their throats and vomit in an effort to enable them to go to where they're planning to go next, you have to wonder if there any monitoring happening at all!

Now I am sure that there are some parents who truly believe that providing a 'safe space' for their teen to drink is entirely appropriate. If that is what you believe is right for your child and your family, all power to you! I have no problem with that at all, what you do with your child is your business. It's when a home is opened up for other parents' children that I have an issue, particularly for 15-year-olds. If you're going to hold a 'pre' at your home and you're going to allow other children to drink there, make sure everyone of their parents know about it. Monitoring your own child's drinking in a 'safe space' may not be that hard, trying to do the same for a group of teens may prove much more difficult!

I am now starting to believe that the 'pre's' are now becoming more dangerous events than the parties they precede. Anecdotally, parents certainly appear to be putting much more effort to ensuring the parties they put on in the home are as safe as possible. It takes a brave parent to host a teenage party and when time and energy are put into planning these events, most go off reasonably successfully. You don't see the same effort applied to the 'pre' and this is why we are increasingly seeing very young teens turning up at the door of a party incredibly intoxicated (i.e., 14-year-old girls too drunk to walk and boys of the same age throwing up on the front garden of a party as they fall out of a taxi). Where are the parents of these young people who are so at-risk? Did they bother to find out anything about the 'pre' that their child was going to? And what about the parents hosting the 'pre's' - did they see these teens before they left their house to make sure they were safe and well?

I'm certainly not saying that you shouldn't let your teen go to these events - please don't use what I say as a 'big stick' and say "Paul Dillon said ...". If your child wants to attend, you should try your best to let them - saying 'no' to them all the time is not going to make it easy for anyone. But do your due diligence and find out more about the events your son or daughter wants to attend on a Saturday night, not just the party but the 'pre-party' as well. Will there be parents actively supervising? Will alcohol be permitted or tolerated? How will they be getting from the 'pre' to the actual party? Based on the information you collect, you can then make a decision on whether they can go or not and what 'caveats' you need to place on their attendance to ensure their safety.

As I've said many times before, if a teen wants to drink, there is very little that any parent can do to stop that from happening. Were your parents able to stop you? That said, parents should make every effort to make it as difficult as humanly possible for them to access alcohol for as long they can. Hosting events for young teens to drink alcohol and then sending them off to someone else's home for the rest of the evening makes little sense and, is in fact, incredibly dangerous (and unbelievably unfair to the host parents of the next party). The concept of tactical vomiting is a great example of potentially dangerous behaviour associated with this idea of providing a 'safe space' for young people to drink.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Teen brains and getting them to do things: Why limiting the number of instructions and making messages clear is so important

We've long known that in the first few years of their lives a child's brain goes through a tremendous 'growth spurt' and, during this time, they learn so much. Almost in spite of you, they are able to pick up on every little thing that goes on around them and it is often difficult for parents to keep up with the constant changes that are taking place. The teen years, on the other hand, are not usually seen as a key time for positive changes! This is a time usually associated with risk-taking behaviour and few parents realize that even during this difficult period, adolescent brains are continuing to develop. In fact, if teens are given the opportunity, this can actually be, as neuroscientist, mother and author of the book The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen describes it, a "golden age for their brains!"

After the growth spurt that occurs around 10-13 years of age (a time when new neurons and synapses are being created, forming new pathways) the teen brain starts to 'prune' these pathways. The brain does not need to keep all that has been produced and so, with experience, the unused pathways are eliminated. This is often referred to as the 'use it or lose it' stage and actually leads to the adolescent brain becoming a "leaner, more efficient adult mental "machine.""

Although it may not always seem like it, the teen years are actually a time when the brain is learning at peak efficiency. In her book, Jensen highlights research that has found that one third of 13-17-year-olds actually "significantly raise their IQ" during this time of their life - there is indeed positive stuff happening! Unfortunately, there are other things that aren't functioning as well, including attention, self-discipline, task completion and emotions. These under-performing areas can often lead parents to feel incredibly frustrated, particularly when it comes to getting a teen to do anything, whether it be their homework, household chores or even just getting up to the dinner table ... To help parents in this area, Jensen suggests the mantra "one thing at a time" ...

"Try not to overwhelm your teenagers with instructions. Remember, although they look as though they can multitask, in truth they're not very good at it. Even just encouraging them to stop and think about what they need to do and when they need to do it will help increase blood flow to the areas of the brain involved in multitasking and slowly strengthen them. This goes for giving instructions and directions, too. Write them down for your teen in addition to giving them orally, and limit the instructions to one or two points, not three, four or five. You can also help your teen manage time and organize tasks by giving them calendars and suggesting they write down their daily schedules. By doing so on a regular basis, they train their own brains." 

Remember, you're trying to keep them using the pathways in the brain that you want them to keep. Giving your teen clear and simple instructions that are easy to understand strengthens those pathways. This idea is also incredibly important when it comes to setting limits and making rules.

I've referred to Robert MacKenzie's book, Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Teen a number of times recently. It's a great resource for parents, particularly for those who have that one child who just seems to love to 'push all your buttons' ... constantly! In one chapter of his book he provides some simple guidelines for giving a "clear, firm limit-setting message", none of which are particularly revolutionary, but a couple of them reinforce the notion of 'simple and clear':
  • keep the focus on behaviour - whatever you say should be about behaviour and not on attitude, feelings or worth of your teen
  • be specific and direct - what is it you want them to do (the fewer the words the better)?
  • use your normal voice - the tone of your voice can shift the focus away from behaviour onto feelings
  • specify the consequences for noncompliance - make it extremely clear about what will happen if they don't do as you ask
Using these tips, an example of a limit around attendance at a party or gathering or discussion around drinking alcohol could be as follows:

"I will be picking you up at 11.00pm. You need to be outside waiting at the letterbox at that time. If you are late you won't be going to a party next week." 

"You can go to the party but you know our rules around drinking - you are not allowed to drink alcohol. If you do drink, and we find out, you will not be allowed to go to the next party you want to go to."

The instructions are simple and can't be misinterpreted, (i.e., be at the letterbox at 11.00pm, you are not allowed to drink alcohol) and there aren't too many of them, ensuring the limit you have set is able to be managed effectively by the teen brain. Remember, giving instructions like this not only protects them from risky behaviour and potentially keeps them safer, it also 'trains their brain', reinforcing important neural pathways. The consequence of not following the request is also clear - all that remains is for you to follow-through should they not comply. What you don't want to do is to try to lay out limits in this area and make statements such as these:

"Now I want you home at a reasonable hour - I don't want to see you come home like you did last weekend. If you're too late I won't be happy and there'll be trouble." 

"You know how we feel about drinking. We would be terribly disappointed if we found out you had drunk alcohol at the party. Can you imagine what it would be like for us to get a phone call from a hospital saying that you had been brought in after drinking too much?" 

These are unclear and potentially confusing, leaving them open to interpretation. Who works out what "a reasonable hour" is, you or your teen? What does "too late" mean? You can guarantee their view on what time is suitable is dramatically different to yours. Do they actually know how you feel about drinking? As for potential consequences, "there'll be trouble" doesn't provide any real idea of what will actually happen should they come home late, and although telling your child you would be disappointed if they were caught drinking is important, it needs to be followed up with an unambiguous statement about what that behaviour will result in. Open-ended questions, such as asking them to see the situation from your perspective, are unlikely to be helpful when setting limits.

At the same time, parents also need to remember that much of a teen's response to the world is driven by emotion, not reason. This emotional response has huge consequences when it comes to asking them to follow rules and do other things that are asked of them, particularly when it comes to giving them instructions. During adolescence there is much less activity in the frontal lobes than there is for adults, making it harder for them to handle their emotions. This is why they can fly off the handle at the smallest thing and why so many parents suddenly start experiencing slamming doors, throwing things and screaming during the teen years.

This means, that as a parent, you've got to try to remove as much of the emotion out of your request as possible. Trying to throw a guilt-trip on a teen is not always going to work. I'm not saying you shouldn't tell them how you feel and how their behaviour has affected you and the rest of the family, but when it comes to the instruction you give them about limits and rules - remove the emotion! As MacKenzie suggests, you need to make it about the behaviour and not them ... You can almost guarantee that they will bring it back to them (remember the world, as well as the sun and all the stars revolve around them at this time in their life!), but if you limit the number of instructions you give them and make whatever it is that you want them do clear and simple, not only could it have a positive impact on their brain development, but it could make it all just a little easier for you ...

Jensen, F.E. & Ellis Nutt, A. (2015). The Teenage Brain. Harper Collins: New York.
MacKenzie, R.J. (2015). Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Teen. Harmony Books: New York.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Teen brains and driving: The one 'request' all parents should ask of P-platers

As the eldest of three sons, I was the first to get my driver's licence. After the initial shock that I actually passed my driving test the first time (I am a terrible driver - my father says I don't drive a car, I aim it!), Dad sat my brothers and I down and shared with us his one rule when it came to driving, i.e., he never wanted for one of us to be behind the wheel and the other two to be passengers in the car. His explanation was simple - young drivers aren't experienced and accidents happen, to have one of his sons in a car crash would be bad enough, to have all three in that vehicle would be devastating.

Over 4 decades later I cannot think of a time when the three of us have ever been in a car together with one of us driving! For some reason the discussion we had all  those years ago just stuck!

This rule certainly did not come about as a result of my Dad's extensive knowledge of research in the area (in fact, I doubt whether any really existed back then), it simply came out of his love for his kids and awareness that young drivers are more likely to make mistakes. In recent years we have seen so much research conducted in this area and when you look at what we know now my Dad was away ahead of his time!

When you look at the Australian statistics around young drivers, and particularly P-platers, it is no surprise that parents are concerned ...
  • 45% of all young injury deaths are due to road traffic crashes
  • almost half of all hospitalisations of young people are drivers, another quarter are passengers
  • young drivers (17-25 years) represent one-quarter of road deaths, but are only 10-15% of the licensed driver population
  • a 17-year-old with a P1 licence is 4 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a driver over 26 years
Most importantly, studies have now identified passengers and number of passengers as key factors associated with increased fatal crash risk for young drivers, with one US study's (Chen et al, 2000) results bound to cause great concern for any parent of a P-plater. As shown in the infographic above, compared to driving with no passengers, a 16- or 17-year-old driver's risk of death per mile:
  • increases 44% when carrying one passenger younger than 21
  • doubles (increases 102%) when carrying two passengers younger than 21
  • quadruples (rising 339%) when carrying three or more passengers younger than 21
Interestingly, having an older person in the car seems to have the reverse effect, decreasing the risk of death by 62 per cent when passengers aged 35 or older are present.

These findings mirror those tragic stories of groups of Australian teens being killed in car crashes involving P-platers. Too often these involve three or four young people being in the car when the accident happened. As a result of growing research, as well as in response to the deaths that have occurred, we have seen some countries, including Australia, impose restrictions on the number of peer passengers young drivers are permitted.

I can remember when NSW first introduced legislation limiting the number of passengers P-platers were allowed to have in their car. I fought it hard! In my dealings with young drivers, particularly around drink driving, I have always heavily promoted the concept of the 'designated driver' and believed then (and still do) that the vast majority of teens would never even consider driving home from a party after drinking. It is important to acknowledge that some studies have found that having passengers in a car can have positive effects on drivers, although these are reduced the younger they are. Passengers can help keep drivers alert, help them navigate, operate the radio or other communication devices such as mobile phones and even take over driving when necessary. Limiting the number of passengers P-platers were allowed to transport seemed incredibly unfair to me ... I then attended a conference in Geneva and heard about some research that changed everything ...

A Dutch study found that the older a driver gets their driving licence, the lower the initial risk (Vlakvled, 2004). You could have as many lessons as you wanted but the earlier you started driving, the more likely you were to have a crash. If you started driving after 21, with fewer lessons, your risk of a crash dropped and further reduced the older you got. There just seemed to be something about young drivers that put them more at risk. Experience certainly mattered (and that is why we are seeing many jurisdictions continue to increase the number of hours learner drivers must complete before getting their licence), with crash rates over time being lowest for those who got their licence at age 18 and highest for drivers licensed at ages 30–40 (i.e., if you got your licence early you were less likely to have a crash later in life), but why was there this initial 'high risk' time?

There is now growing evidence to suggest that this could be due to brain development. Recent research has found that between the ages of 18-19 and 21-22 there is a 10 per cent reduction in accident rates, even when driving experience is taken into account. Gender also appears to be a factor, with three times as many males being involved in crashes. When you look at this data and match it to what we know about adolescent brain development, it clearly matches up ...

We now know that the brain doesn't finish developing as early as we once thought, with females fully developed at around 21-22 years and males much later (at around 25-26 years at the earliest). When you look at the crash data, it's at that age when you start seeing rates of crashes and casualties/fatalities significantly decrease. Yes, they're becoming more experienced drivers but they're also getting a fully-developed brain.

We know that several parts of the brain are used when driving. These include:
  • frontal lobe – dealing with judgement and decision making 
  • parietal lobe – managing information from all the senses
  • occipital lobe - the visual cortex, interpreting visual information the driver receives
  • temporal lobe – dealing with sounds heard by the driver
  • cerebellum and other areas outside the cortex – controls muscle movement and balance
We know that the brain develops in a back to front pattern, with the frontal lobe the last to 'complete'. With that in mind, one recent study attempted to find out the impact of this development, particularly the prefrontal cortex (PFC), had on driving (Foy et al, 2016). The results were not necessarily surprising but incredibly important. They found that younger drivers had reduced PFC activity compared to older drivers and concluded that "the reduced activation in younger drivers may be related to prefrontal maturation which could contribute to the increased crash risk seen in this population."

What I found particularly interesting and important when it comes to messages for parents of P-platers is that this 'increased crash risk' was not necessarily due to less impulse control but insufficient perception and attention leading to driver error – i.e., driving had not yet become an "automatic task". Most of us as adults can relate to driving on 'auto-pilot' at some time or another, i.e., that time when you're driving along and all of a sudden realize that you're in the next suburb and you can't quite remember those three sets of traffic lights you must have gone through. As experienced drivers with fully-developed brains, we are able to drive on 'auto-pilot' and still react to sudden or unexpected events ... young drivers are unable to do this ...
I think we tend to believe that the multiple deaths that occur on the roads with P-platers behind the wheel are simply the result of passengers urging the driver to take greater risks, or being distracted by talking, movement or some other activity. Certainly, research has shown that 6 out of 10 young driver crashes are due to distraction of some kind, but it is now becoming more evident that brain development may also be playing a role in these tragic events. It doesn't necessarily have to be a group of 'lads' in a car that leads to an accident, having any same-age peers (no matter how responsible they may be) increases the risk of a crash because a P-plater does not have a fully-developed brain and driving has not yet become 'automatic' ...
By the time your son or daughter starts driving they are well and truly becoming young adults. If they are living in your home, they should still abide by your rules, but when it comes to driving, there is very little you can do to control what they do behind the wheel of a car once they leave your driveway. I reckon my Dad got it right, at least to some degree - he was thinking of his family and ensuring that if something went wrong he didn't lose all of us, what we know now is a little more complex ... For parents of P-platers I would recommend that you try to get them to agree to just one simple request when they start driving and that is as follows:
"Whenever possible, never drive with anymore than one passenger whilst on your P-plates"
Now I realize that this could be a hard-ask but it's certainly worth a try. When you look at the figures (and you can try showing them but realistically they're at an age where they just don't think it will happen to them!), trying to push them in this direction is well worth the effort. The vast majority of P-platers wouldn't even consider drink driving (their parents are more likely to do that than they are!) but they think nothing of having a couple of friends in the car and the evidence is clear that this is a significant risk ...

Chen, L., Baker, S., Braver, E., & Li, G. (2000). Carrying passengers as a risk factor for crashes fatal to 16- and 17-year-old drivers. JAMA 283, 1578-1582.
Foy, H.J., Runham, P. & Chapman, P. (2016). Prefrontal cortex activation and young driver behaviour: A fNIRS study. PLoS ONE 11
Vlakveld, W.P. (2004). New policy proposals for novice drivers in the Netherlands. Behavioural Research in Road Safety: Fourteenth Seminar, 194–204. 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The importance of having the 'alcohol and other drug talk': One mother's plea for others not to wait until it is too late

I can't imagine what it must be like for a parent to get a phone call from a hospital saying that their teen has been brought into the emergency department after drinking too much or having taken an illicit drug of some kind. To get a call like this when your daughter is only 13-years-old must even be more confronting! A few weeks ago I was contacted by a mother (let's call her Maria) who had recently received such a call. She asked whether I would consider sharing her story with other parents in the hope that, in doing so, she could possibly prevent others from going through the nightmare her and her husband had experienced. To protect Maria's daughter and other people involved, we have changed the names and slightly altered some of the events ...

"Our 13-year-old daughter (Sophie) had just started Year 8. She has always had lots of friends, most of whom we know very well. We also know most of their parents, a few of whom we even socialize with at school functions and the like. She had never asked to go to any large parties but she has been regularly going to sleepovers at her friends' homes since primary school. We have seen you present at Sophie's school a couple of times and we do all the things that you recommend - talking to the host parents and taking her and picking her up - so we weren't at all prepared for what happened a couple of weeks ago."

"My husband (Brett) had taken her to a sleepover (hosted by parents we know well) and when he got home we were all prepared for a quiet night. I had texted her at about 9.00pm to say goodnight and promptly received a text back and thought all was fine. Just after 11.00pm I received a call from the mother hosting the sleepover (Jessie) to tell me that she had just called an ambulance for Sophie. At the time all I heard was the word 'ambulance' and everything else became a blur - I remember hearing something about alcohol and vodka but at the time it simply didn't register. Brett took the phone and I remember very little about the conversation he had with her and the subsequent trip to the hospital ... When we finally got to see our little girl, she was in a hospital bed on life support, connected to tubes and a drip and drained of all colour. I have little recollection of the next few hours but I now know that it was 'touch-and-go' for quite some time. Sophie and her friends had managed to get their hands on a bottle of vodka (we believe via an older sister of one of the girls). They had played a drinking game (at 13!) that they had seen on social media (at 13!) and Sophie had drunk almost a third of the bottle in less than 30 minutes!"

"At the time (and in the days after) I was so angry with Jessie and what had happened at her home but since learning what actually happened, I realize that she had done her best. The whole drinking episode lasted less than an hour. The sleepover was actually well organized and monitored (she hadn't just left them to their own devices - she had been 'actively supervising' as you call it). If Jessie hadn't have checked in and found her when she did (some of the other girls actually tried to hide her when she had passed out) and immediately called an ambulance, Sophie may not be with us today."

"Over the past weeks my husband and I have come to realize that we had let our daughter down by simply not having the 'alcohol talk' with her. We had always planned to at some stage but Sophie is not one of the more well-developed and mature girls in her year and we thought we had more time. She had given us no reason for us to believe that things were changing - there were no new friends, no change in behaviour - so we just kept thinking that we would wait. Can I say to anyone reading this, don't wait! Have the alcohol and other drug conversation as early as you can. We don't know whether having that talk would have prevented this terrible thing from happening to our family but it may have done and I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone ..."  

As I said to Maria, I have no idea whether having the 'alcohol talk' with her daughter would have stopped her participating in a drinking game at a sleepover, so I don't think that she and her husband should beat themselves up over this, but I do agree that every parent should have this conversation sooner rather than later!

Unfortunately, most parents make the decision to talk to their child about drugs when a crisis situation occurs. This 'crisis' can be as serious as finding out that their child may actually be using drugs or drinking alcohol or as simple as when their child is invited to a teenage party for the first time. Trying to have a discussion about alcohol and other drug use at a time like this is unlikely to be a positive experience for either you or your child. Your teenager will feel uncomfortable at best, and threatened at worst, by this issue being raised at this time. As a result, you are likely to feel frustrated and angry at their response, leading to greater friction and a breakdown in the parent-child relationship.

It is important to remember that it is impossible for any relationship to exist without positive communication. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. Of course, there will need to be an opening conversation and that can be difficult but once you've broken the ice it will get easier. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures.

There are lots of opportunities for parents to introduce the issue of alcohol and other drugs to their children. Rather than setting aside a specific time in the day to sit down with your child and raise the topic, thus making the whole experience like a school lesson, parents should look for opportunities in everyday life to talk about the issue. Here are just a couple of tips to consider to help start the conversation or ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible:
  • Start the conversation in the car. There's no better place to discuss a difficult issue than when it's just you and your teen (or pre-teen) in a car - they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!
  • Start by talking about their peers and what they're doing. Young people can get very defensive when you ask them about their behaviour but they're often more than happy to talk about others. It can even be easier if you talk about classmates and not their friendship group - they're much more likely to tell you about those kids that they don't particularly like and what they think about their behaviour
  • Use what you see in the media to start the conversation. Unlike the talk in the car, this is best done in a family context. News stories, movies and TV programs, even popular music can contain alcohol and other drug themes – asking a simple question about something you've just seen or heard while watching TV and getting their views on it can plant a seed that you can use at a later date
  • Use your own alcohol use as a conversation starter. If you drink wine with the family meal or you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm when you go out socialising, take the opportunity at that time to quickly discuss the role alcohol plays in your life and the rules you follow when you drink, e.g., you never drink and drive. Ask them what rules do they think they will have when they get older and they choose to drink. What rules do they think would be important?
  • Don't try to cover everything in one talk. The first couple of chats (possibly even grunts from their end!) may just be about trying to find out what they're thinking about the issue and their level of exposure. Setting rules and boundaries at this time could be problematic. You should certainly clarify your expectations around their behaviour in this area if it is appropriate to do so, but try to discuss your values in a more general sense rather than explicitly laying down rules at this time

You may not believe you have much of an influence over your teenager but your children are going to learn an awful lot about your attitudes and beliefs towards alcohol and drug use from these type of conversations. They may not always be easy but they'll be well worth the effort! One more thing to remember is that all the starter conversations (those mentioned above) should be relatively low-key and informal if they are to be successful, however, when it comes down to the 'let's talk about rules' discussion, both parents should be there, if at all possible, and it should be conducted in a reasonably formal manner (we're not talking 'judge and jury' here but sitting down together, no distractions or other children present). Of course this isn't always easy, particularly in a split family, but if it can be done it illustrates a united front and if there are any negotiations that are to be made, everybody is on the same page.

Maria and I have had a couple of conversations about what she believes she and her husband could or should have said to Sophie if they had actually had the 'talk'. She admits that the issue of underage drinking had never been raised (as she said, she didn't believe there was any need to - there were no obvious warning signs that she may be even considering experimenting) and acknowledges a simple discussion about the role alcohol played in their family would have been useful. Talking about your values and the use and misuse of alcohol, as well as your expectations about how they will deal with alcohol in the future is important. The one thing, however, that she really regrets raising with Sophie is 'outs' - helping her to develop simple strategies should she find herself in a situation where she feels pressured to take part in potentially risky activities.

One word of warning though …. if your child does not wish to enter the conversation for whatever reason, do not push. Talking about difficult subjects like this can be embarrassing for an adolescent and any effort to make them can actually be counterproductive. Do and say what you can and then back off, making sure you leave the door open for them to come to you should they ever wish to discuss the issue and move on. At some point another opportunity will arise (even if unfortunately it ends up being due to a crisis of some kind), take a step back and wait for another opportunity to arise when you are able to start a positive dialogue. It will happen!