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During the week I was asked to give evidence at the NSW Coronial Inquest into Music Festival Deaths. Many of the parents of the young people that died over the summer months were present in the courtroom and I was fortunate enough to get to meet a couple of them. I can't even begin to imagine what they have been through and are continuing to deal with while listening to the testimony provided around the circumstances of their children's deaths. It truly must be heartbreaking ...
Some of what I said was reported in the media and it was interesting to see what different outlets highlighted. When everything you say is published in bite-sized pieces or 'grabs', there is a risk that the message is misinterpreted. Over the past few days some commentators have used extracts of my testimony and resulting media interviews to support their view that pill testing shouldn't be introduced and that the only way forward is to simply push the 'Just Say No' approach even harder. In response to this I would just like to make my views crystal clear on this incredibly complex issue. Here are some edited extracts of the 16-page written report that I prepared in response to a series of questions I was asked by the Coroner.
One of the key questions was "Do you support pill testing and believe it is useful in harm reduction?" - I answered it as follows:
"I totally support pill testing – I think it is important for potential users of drugs to have as much quality information about the drug they are considering using. It can also provide invaluable intelligence to public health authorities and law enforcement about current drug markets. Pill testing programs around the world (and there are a number of them – all run in very different ways) often have another benefit in that they are able to access a group of drug users who usually do not come into contact with health agencies, i.e., when the user gets their pill tested they get to speak to a health professional who does not only tell them about the contents of their pill but can also make them aware of the potential risks of using a drug like ecstasy.
One of the greatest problems around illicit drugs is that those who choose to use them do not know what they are taking. Drugs like ecstasy, popular at music festivals, are often manufactured with little, if any, 'quality control'. Sometimes that may result in particularly dangerous adulterants being present in the pills or powders that people use. Pill testing aims to provide those using illicit drugs with additional information about the substances they are considering using, thus reducing the potential harms associated with that drug use, i.e., if a particularly dangerous substance is identified in a pill or powder then the potential user may choose to make the decision not to take it ...
There is, however, one issue that concerns me. Pill testing allows the user to access more information about what it is that they are planning to use. Unfortunately, as far as some users are concerned, they believe that if you do know what you are taking, it is safe. It needs to be noted that this message is not one that is ever conveyed by pill testing services across the world. I have been fortunate enough to visit pill testing services in The Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland and in all of those countries, no-one is ever told that the drug they have had tested is 'safe' … Pill testing is not a simple and straightforward strategy that can just be implemented without thinking through all of the potential consequences. As far as some young people are concerned, regardless of what experts in the field are stressing, if a substance is tested and it is found to contain MDMA, they believe it is safe. If the strategy was to be introduced (in whatever format – on-site or off-site), targeted education campaigns highlighting what pill testing actually is and isn't, would need to be developed … (in addition) … the messaging that is developed and disseminated needs to be thought through extremely carefully. Over the years, there have been many examples of messages actually having unintended adverse consequences, e.g., "One of the greatest risks associated with taking a pill is that you don't know what you're taking" has now lead to the belief that if you do know what is in it (e.g., pharmaceutical or OTC medication, or a pill has been tested), then it is 'safe'."
The final item I was asked to provide was "any comment that you consider to be within your area of expertise that you believe is relevant to the Coroner's inquest". My answer was as follows:
"Regardless of what is put into place, we are going to continue to see drug-related deaths at festivals. We can try to ensure that people are well-educated about the risks (physical, psychological and social) associated with drug use, do our best to ensure that illicit substances do not come into the event (but at the same time ensuring that we do not maximise harm by being too heavy-handed) and, most importantly, provide an environment that is as safe as possible but festivalgoers are going to make their own decisions about whether or not they choose to use substances.
Of course, every drug-related death that occurs at dance events and other nightlife venues is a tragedy, but they are extremely rare. From a festivalgoer's perspective the risk of dying after taking ecstasy/MDMA or any other drug is extremely low. Every weekend tens of thousands of young people across the country take a pill or capsule and 'party' and return home safely. I am often asked by young people why one person died after taking a drug and their friends who all took the same thing experienced no problems at all. My answer may seem pat but it is honest. Realistically, most deaths (but certainly not all) come down to two simple words – 'bad luck'.
This Coronial Inquest provides us the with the opportunity to identify (and hopefully implement) best-practice when it comes to keeping young people safer at music festivals. In my opinion, Australia was once a world leader in this area. With the refusal of government to consider the introduction of pill testing programs (in whatever format), together with a more aggressive approach to policing these events (e.g., greater police presence and the use of drug detection dogs) we now fall behind a number of other countries …"
I've been around for a long time now. Back in 1995 when a 15-year-old Sydney schoolgirl died after taking ecstasy there was understandable community outrage and calls for governments to get tougher on drug use, particularly around dance events. There were claims made that schools were "teaching young people how to use drugs safely" and as a result, programs were shutdown, resources recalled and destroyed, as well as some agencies threatened with defunding. At the same time, policing was increased and for the first time, mass media campaigns specifically targeting ecstasy use were rolled out. I couldn't tell you how many committees and expert panels I was on over the next few years that were set up to try to deal with the dance event and drug use issue … Since then there have been more media campaigns highlighting the risks associated with the use of ecstasy and other drugs, as well as a dramatic increase in policing. When I read some commentators call to get tougher, I wonder what more can they want? Do they really want to see members of the armed forces together with tanks at the front gates of a dance event? I'm sure we could start throwing more young drug users into juvenile justice centres or prisons if that's what they want but I'm not too sure how effective that would be and it all sounds great until it's your child that gets caught! Someone wrote yesterday that "we have allowed this soft approach to flourish" … Since 1995, what exactly do these people mean by this so-called "soft approach"?
Let's make it clear what approach we are currently taking ...
As a society, we can, and we do tell our young people that the use of all drugs, whether they be legal, illegal or pharmaceutical, is potentially dangerous.
Through school-based drug education programs, students are taught that there are a range of physical, psychological and social harms associated with all drug use. Not only are they provided information about the dangers of drugs and drug use, they are also taught about positive decision making, identifying support networks and peer refusal skills.
Young people are constantly warned that if they get caught with illegal drugs there are consequences.
At the same time, this current generation of young people are exposed to more policing than almost any other generation before them and have to deal with law enforcement strategies that simply weren't around when we were young, e.g., drug detection dogs and roadside drug testing.
Young people believed to be in possession of drugs can now be stopped, searched and even strip-searched based on a dog sitting in front of them, even though the available evidence suggests that these animals are wrong up to 70% of the time.
That is the so-called "soft approach". Really? How much more education can we provide and how much tougher can we get? All that is being done and young people are still dying.
I have no easy answer to this problem - I've been here before and I feel like we're going around in circles. All I want is to try to ensure that we keep our young people as safe as possible. We're never going to be able to prevent all drug-related deaths but what we're doing now is clearly not working. What we have implemented since 1995 has clearly not reduced drug use or drug-related harm in this area. Now that doesn't necessarily mean that we have to throw it all away, but we have to be willing to start to look at alternative strategies and ideas. No one initiative is going to be a 'silver bullet' and solve the problem and, sadly, this obsession with pill testing (by both sides of the debate) is holding us back from being open to other potential positive ways forward.
The most commonly used definition of a drug is "any substance (with the exception of food and water) which, when taken into the body, alters the body's function either physically and/or psychologically." Drugs can be legal, illegal or pharmaceutical and can be taken in a variety of ways, including "via inhalation, injection, smoking, ingestion, absorption via a patch on the skin, or dissolution under the tongue." Over the past 18 months I have been talking (and writing) about a number of substances that appear to be becoming increasingly popular with school-based young people - nitrous oxide ('nanging'), 'jungle juice' (or amyl nitrite), cannabis, and ecstasy/MDMA. With all of these, growing numbers of students are telling me that they (or at least, their friends) believe these drugs to be 'safe' or 'harmless' - two words that you don't ever want to hear young people use in relation to drugs. Now, before you start to panic and think that we have a major drug epidemic amongst Australian school students, it is important to acknowledge that according to the latest data, illicit drug use is relatively stable amongst this group. The two exceptions are ecstasy/MDMA (which has unfortunately doubled in use in recent years) and cannabis (which has begun to increase in popularity in recent years but is still at far lower levels than it was in the 90s). My great concern is that when anyone, but particularly the very young, start to believe that a drug is 'safe', that's when things begin to go horribly wrong ...
All drug use entails a certain degree of risk - whether it be heroin you purchase from a street dealer, alcohol you buy from your local bottle shop or a medication you have prescribed by your family doctor. Of course, there are some substances that are far more risky than others (e.g., some drugs have a far higher potential for overdose, some may be more problematic for particular people due to their genetics, while for others the risk increases depending on where and how you use it). When it comes to teens, however, the risks are increased due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, their brains are developing and although far more research has to be conducted in this area, studies suggest that drug use during this time is likely to have greater impacts. We certainly know a great deal about the importance of delaying alcohol use for as long as possible and how drinking at an early age can affect healthy brain development. Although the research is not so strong for other substances, preventing, or at best delaying, any drug use is advisable. Secondly, when adolescents are surrounded by their peers (in a 'hot' context) we know they are more likely to engage in more risky activity (i.e., take more of what they're using, take less precautions to keep themselves safer, etc). Finally, and in many cases, most importantly, they just simply don't have the life experience to know what to do if something goes wrong.
So why are we seeing growing numbers of teens believing that some of these drugs are 'harmless'? I believe there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, much of it has to do with the fact that we rarely, if ever, talk about drug use with them in an honest way. Sometimes we are so obsessed with 'scaring the pants of them' in an effort to prevent them from taking whatever that we greatly exaggerate the harms or tell them outright lies and then are surprised when they completely ignore us! Drugs can be scary enough - things can and do go wrong for many people who use them and there is absolutely no need to make things up … If you don't believe me, here are some statements about different substances that are commonly used to frighten teens (and their parents) that simply are not true (or at the very least greatly exaggerated):
Drug dealers hand out LSD-laced tattoos to school-children
Ecstasy is 'cut' with broken glass to tear the stomach lining to make the drug 'come-on' faster
You can get addicted to heroin (or ice) the first time you use it
Cannabis is 30 times stronger than it used to be
LSD is stored in spinal fluid for the rest of your life
MDMA (ecstasy) drains spinal fluid
Smoking ice leads to the drug 'recrystallizing' in the lungs, causing respiratory damage
Ecstasy makes holes in your brain
A drug called Progesterox used for sterilizing animals is used as a 'date rape drug'. It's used to ensure the victim doesn't conceive from the rape and leads to permanent sterilization
'Strawberry Quik', a form of ice that has been coloured by dealers is being given to school-children to get them hooked on methamphetamine
Ice gives users 'superhuman strength'
Most drugs used in drink spiking are odorless, tasteless and undetectable
Some of these may have some basis in truth (e.g., cannabis has increased in potency over the years - experts believe it has doubled (30 times stronger would be almost impossible); ice users can be far stronger but that is more likely to do with an adrenaline rush from the drug and they're far from 'superhuman'), some just don't make any sense at all (e.g., is there any substance at all, apart from possibly water, that you can't smell, taste or detect in some way?), while others are completely made-up (Progesterox isn't even a real drug!). We have very little credibility with young people to begin with ("What would you know, you're old!"), once they have figured out that we've lied to them about something drug-related, it's likely that they'll disregard all the information we've ever given them.
The second reason we're seeing teens' attitudes change is that we're doing a poor job of ensuring our young people have 'respect' for drugs. This respect starts in the home from a very early age and, as I've said many times before, I believe that parents should start talking to their child about drugs the minute they start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we have, there is a drug that can fix it. We now start medicating our children from a very early age (far earlier than our parents ever did) and, as a result, train them to be very effective drug users not long after they are born. Unfortunately, many parents do not take the time to talk with their children about medicines, seemingly forgetting that they are drugs too. In the age of the 5, 7 or 10 minute consultation with a GP, we no longer have the time to ask what the drug is that they have prescribed and even though pharmacists will often give us some basic instructions to accompany the drugs we are given, because we have been given the product by a doctor most of us don't even question how safe or how dangerous it might be. We simply take it – no questions asked. Where's the respect? Over-the-counter medications are used in the same way. We are likely to always go for the 'quick fix' - the option that pharmaceutical companies have been extremely successful at selling us. It has got to the point that using a drug to solve a problem has become second nature.
We're also living in a very unique time in regards to the medicinal use of a range of illicits. Cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy) and a range of hallucinogens are all now being used in various parts of the world to treat a range of medical conditions. This is not going to go away and really challenges the simplistic 'drugs are bad' message that some try to push onto young people. It is vital, therefore, that parents discuss drugs from a very young age and, at the same time, try to avoid simplistic messages and warnings (i.e., drugs are bad) and rather discuss concepts as 'use' and 'misuse'. If we can communicate risks to them associated with legally available products, such as prescription medication or headache tablets we get from the supermarket, we have a much better chance of getting quality messages about illegal drugs (even those that may now be used for medicinal purposes) through to them effectively when they are a little older.
So am I advocating that you sit down and have the big 'drug talk' with your three-year-old? Of course not! The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes drugs, is that it's not a five-minute 'talk' — it's about building an ongoing dialogue. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teenager matures. Make sure you speak to them about the range of drugs available, with an emphasis on those that they are most likely to come into contact with at their particular stage of development. For the very young, including primary school aged children, most of the conversations you will have will be around prescription or over-the-counter medications. It may also be useful at this time to talk to them about how you use drugs, whether they be medicines from a doctor or alcohol and/or tobacco. Most importantly, be a positive role model when it comes to your drug intake, whether that be caffeine, alcohol or prescription medicine. Talk about your use and the importance of acknowledging risk (e.g., have too many coffees in a row and you'll get the shakes).
We're never going to stop some young people from experimenting and using alcohol and other drugs, no matter what we do. We can, however, make sure they are well-informed and teach them the importance of 'respecting' any substance we put into our body. When I am speaking to a group of particularly 'at-risk' teens who are obviously engaging in drug use, often believing that what they are doing is completely safe, I tell them the following:
"If you are ever going to take anything, whether you swallow, snort or smoke it, before you do it, you must look at it carefully and think "This could hurt me" ... If you're not doing that each and every time, then you really shouldn't be doing it."
Just that brief hesitation and that quick acknowledgement that there is a risk involved could make a difference should something go wrong ...
A few weeks ago a woman (let's call her June) approached me after a Parent Information Evening. After thanking me for the talk she then proceeded to tell me about a birthday party she had recently hosted for her daughter. As she said, all went well with the actual event - it had been carefully planned, rules and boundaries put into place and the girls were well behaved and there was certainly no issue with alcohol - but June and her husband had been totally blindsided by the response of the parents of the invitees. We spoke at length and I have to say, some of the things she told me even surprised me! I then asked her if she would like to share her experience with readers of my blog. June's only concern was that she could be identified by other parents at the school and the possible ramifications that could have on her daughter, as well as her and her husband. With that in mind, names and some of the details of what happened have been altered.
"I've attended a couple of your parent nights and have been an avid reader of your blogs for a couple of years now, thinking I'd be prepared for anything my up and coming teenage daughter could throw at me. What I've discovered, however, is that it isn't my daughter and her friends that I should have been worried about – it's the parents! I've read your advice constantly telling us that is if we want to keep our kids safe we need to 'parent' and although I saw a couple of bizarre things during her time at primary school (conversations about 'wine time' and 'wine o'clock' as groups of Mums waited to pick-up children outside the gates always amazed me), I really thought the behaviour you often describe was not the norm. Well, have I been proven wrong! Our daughter, Sarah, is now in Year 9 (yes, the year you constantly warn us about) and there was great pressure for us to allow her to have a 14th birthday party. My husband, Sean, and I finally agreed to it, ensuring she understood that there would be a number of rules. There were only a couple of battles, with the main one being how many people she wanted to invite. She wanted 30, we said 10. We eventually compromised and agreed to 15. All the girls received an invite (with both our mobile numbers included) and we insisted on an RSVP, as well as a contact number for each of the invitees' parents. That's where things started to go a bit wobbly. It took a long time to get back the RSVPs and when we did, we had two parents write on the bottom of the invite that their daughters would be attending but they did not feel comfortable giving their mobile number out and refused to provide it. They were happy to let us look after their daughter for a night but didn't trust us with their contact number - we thought that was very strange. We did contemplate writing back and telling them that their child was 'uninvited' but were concerned about what impact that would have on our daughter. To be honest, we felt really trapped. I need to stress that we really knew none of these parents. Our daughter had only recently started at this school (we had had a problem with bullying at her previous one and one of the key reasons why we were allowing this party was to hopefully foster positive relationships with other girls) and have tried to be involved with the school and parent activities as much as we could. We've met some great people but only a couple who had children in the same year as our daughter. We were both really expecting to hear from every parent once the invitations went out, maybe a quick phone call to introduce themselves or even a text would have been nice, but we got nothing apart from signed RSVPs and, as I've already said, a couple of them refusing to let us have their mobile numbers. We were flabbergasted ... Sean was the more positive of the two of us, convinced that we would get to meet some of the Mums and Dads on the night. "People have got busy lives," he kept saying, "No-one's going to let their 14-year-old daughter go to someone's house without some kind of check. We'll hear something eventually." His view was that the invite had gone out a good month before the event so maybe they weren't even going to think about it until the actual night. But I have seen some of the stories you've written about in the past about parents not dropping their teens off at parties so my expectations were not as high. Once again, what actually happened was far worse. The party was to start at 7.00pm and finish at 10.00pm (another compromise - we wanted 6.00-9.00pm but Sarah had told us that finishing at 9 would be the equivalent of 'social suicide') and the girls started to arrive right on time. When we had the first knock on the door just before 7, Sean answered it only to discover a young girl standing alone on the step - there was no sign of a parent. When he asked her how she had got there, the girl replied that she had been dropped off on the corner (let me stress here that the girl had never been to our house before!). As he let her in, two more vehicles pulled up and more girls got out and the cars sped off. As my husband later said, what staggered him was that these parents were seeing young girls going into the house escorted by an older man (I was in another room) and thought nothing of it. When I've said this to friends, some of them have got quite defensive but realistically, these parents knew absolutely nothing about us. The most I got from a parent dropping a girl off was a smile and a wave as she pulled out of our driveway and I think I only got that because I happened to be at the front door at the time - it certainly didn't look like she was waiting there to see her daughter be ushered into the house. You've written before about teens being picked up by text and during the party Sean and I talked about what was likely to happen at 10.00pm. Maybe we'd have a couple of parents who might come to the door to collect their daughters but, to be honest, we weren't expecting too much. The girls were most likely going to get a text and then we would watch them leave our house and walk to the cars waiting outside. I wasn't going to be confrontational. I was extremely disappointed but I didn't have the energy to take on parents who obviously didn't have the same values as us. Once again, we got another shock. Not only did we not get parents come to the door (although give credit where credit is due, we did have at least four parents who were standing outside of their car waiting for the girls), three of the girls were picked up by Uber drivers. Some of these parents couldn't even be bothered to pick-up their 14-year-old daughters themselves, they got a ride-share app to do it for them. We've both been really affected by this experience. As I've said, we've talked about the night with some of our friends and most were really shocked by what happened. I get that people are busy and I can certainly see that as teens get older you've got to 'loosen the leash' a little (I'm not expecting to walk Sarah to the door at every party she gets invited to over the next few years) but if I don't know the hosts, I'll certainly be doing a little homework to ensure her safety. Since that night, she has only been invited to a couple of parties and gatherings (interestingly, only one of them hosted by one of the girls that came to her party) and we've made sure to make the call beforehand, as well as to take her and pick her up. Most host parents seem to be happy to hear from us, although one questioned why we were actually calling, saying to Sean "But wasn't all the information included on the invite?" Apart from the apparent lack of concern for their child's wellbeing, the one thing that Sean and I keep talking about is how trapped we felt and continue to feel in terms of responding to this … As well as keeping our daughter safe, the only other thing we want to ensure is that she won't find herself being bullied or socially excluded because of our parenting. There were a number of times when we wanted to say something to one of these parents - not to criticise their parenting (that's not our business) but to let them know that they were putting us into a difficult situation, e.g., we were not at all comfortable allowing a 14-year-old girl to get into an Uber at 10.00pm on a Saturday night. Is it better just to sit back and just look after your own and say nothing? Just writing this piece is a bit scary - what if one of Sarah's friend's parents reads it? One thing is for sure, we certainly won't be holding any other parties in the foreseeable future." So many parents, like June and her husband, try to do the 'right thing' in this area but it's never going to be easy. I'd love to talk to just one of the parents who dropped their daughter off that night, (remember, they knew nothing about June's family, their values and what was going to be happening that night), and get their side of the story. June and I have talked about this at length. These were great young girls from good families, these parents must have had their reasons for doing what they did - it would just be fascinating to know what they actually were!
I was recently asked to write an article for Connect, an online fortnightly publication for parents and teachers across the Sydney Catholic school system. Although it was the drug-related deaths at music festivals over the summer months that attracted most of the attention, sadly there were other young people that died as well. Over the Australia Day long weekend an 18-year-old young woman who had only just recently graduated from a Sydney Catholic College tragically passed away after reportedly taking the drug GHB. The girl's father, spoke exclusively to the publication urging parents to warn their children that "just one silly mistake could be their last". The article containing that interview is a 'must-read' for all parents. What haunted me the most in the story was the description of the father dropping his daughter off on that fateful night: "As she got out of the car, he told her to stay safe and she replied "I love you". He drove off content, knowing she was "very sensible and had never given him reason to worry"." She had left school - like so many parents, he most probably thought the most challenging times were over.
The piece they wanted from me was a response to this story, highlighting what I believed to be the takeaway message for parents. Here is what I wrote ...
Sometimes after finishing a Parent Information Evening someone will approach me, thanking me for the talk and then say something along the lines of "… but my child has just finished school so I can finally take a breath – I got through!" They look so relieved and proud of themselves and their teen that I usually don't have the heart to tell them that as far as alcohol and other drugs are concerned, things are likely to have only just begun!
Although many believe that alcohol and other drug use is 'spiralling out of control' amongst young Australians, research tells us that, for the most part, this is just not the case. In fact, we have more 12-17-year-old non-drinkers in our secondary schools than we have had since records began in the late 1990s. Cannabis use has risen slightly in the past few years but is almost half the rate that we saw 20 years ago. Use of all other illicit drugs, apart from ecstasy, is either declining or steady. Unfortunately, the use of ecstasy/MDMA has recently doubled amongst students, with 16% of 17-year-old young men now reporting lifetime use.
What is clear is that drug use is not the norm amongst school-based young people. Sadly, when they leave school, we know that they are more likely to drink to excess and the use of illicit drugs can 'spike' dramatically. There are many reasons for this - they come into contact with different social groups, are legally able to attend licensed premises and events, but most importantly, they have left the protection of school. As I often say to a group of Year 12 students, "You are about to enter the most dangerous years of your life – 18-21 for young women and 18-25 for young men!"
We can provide them with the best education and put laws into place in an effort to keep them as safe as possible, but the reality is that this is a period of their life when they will take risks. Unlike their school years, they are likely to have far more freedom and greater access to high-risk activities due to their age. The one positive thing for parents to keep in mind is that they now have more life experience and hopefully, if something does go wrong, they are more likely to know how to respond appropriately.
Enzo Congiu's story of his daughter Marli's death is heartbreaking. Having only graduated from high school months before, it highlights just how dangerous this period of a young person's life can be. There are no easy answers but if your child, no matter how old they are, is going out for an evening, here are a few things that you can do to possibly keep them a little safer:
If you are concerned, let them know and tell them why. Scare tactics don't work but 'real-life' stories can be helpful
talk about deaths when they occur – start a conversation
let them know at every opportunity that they can come to you and talk about anything at anytime
Let them know you are happy to be part of a plan if something goes amiss. If anything goes wrong with them or their friends, you will be there for them - no questions asked!
Discuss what to do in an emergency. Don't leave this up to the school – play your part and if you don't know what to do, take the opportunity to learn with your child. Basic first aid skills, as well as how and when to call 000, may help save a life
Finally, most probably the best piece of advice I can give you, particularly if they just shrug their shoulders and try to dismiss your concern, is to simply ask them "Tell me why I shouldn't be worried."
Don't allow them to walk away and say "Oh Mum!" Insist on one or two simple reasons why you shouldn't be concerned about where they're going and what they're doing. This puts the onus back on them to step back and hopefully think about what steps they have taken to keep themselves and their friends as safe as possible.
Can you imagine being a teenager in today's complex world? My teen years were particularly tough but I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to go through adolescence in this era of social media. Every image of them is scrutinised and judged by the world at large, as is all that they do and say. We may have done stupid things when we were young but, for most of us, there is no photographic evidence of any of it. Today, there is no room for a mistake or an error in judgment, as every activity is likely to be captured by some sort of electronic device and be available forever for people to examine, criticise and condemn. That's got to be tough ...
It's the same for parents. Talk to your own parents about what they did when you were young and most will certainly let you know that they didn't have any book or parent seminar to raise you and your siblings. They just got on with it … Today, however, there is far greater access to information on how to parent 'effectively' and you are expected to keep on top of it. Theories constantly change and you may read one book this year that tells you do one thing and then another the next that points you in a completely different direction! There's no two ways around it - parents have it tough and they're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't ... We constantly tell parents that they need to be involved in their child's life, to be interested in what they do, know their friends, where they're going and what they're doing, but at the same time we warn about the risk of 'overparenting'. Put simply, like their teens, there is great pressure on parents to be 'perfect'.
We live in a world where, for some reason, we love to highlight the negative. It's extremely rare to see a media story about young people doing great things. Ask any journalist, editor or producer and they will tell you that positive stories just don't attract attention - people just don't seem to be interested in 'good news'. If you have an article on the front page of a paper or run a story on the news about young people and increasing drug use, however, that'll pull the readers and/or viewers in. It's exactly the same with my blog - the pieces I write promoting 'good news' get far fewer 'hits' - so sad but absolutely true.
Yesterday I was in Brisbane and the front page of the Courier Mail was 'Qlds' Youth Crime Crisis: Kids in the Clink'. Now I have no idea if Queensland is experiencing a 'youth crime crisis' or not but this story, like so many others, feeds into the myth that today's young people are so much worse than every other generation of teenagers. Yes, there are problems but let's not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of our kids are wonderful and try to do the right thing.
When I got home, I turned on the TV and saw the promo for this week's 60 Minutes program which included the upcoming story on 'School Bully Parents'. Now anyone who has ever read anything I have written knows that I often highlight parental behaviour that staggers me but, as I always say, no-one can tell someone how to bring up their child. They are your own precious jewel and you have to make decisions what is best for you and your child. Where I draw the line is when someone makes decisions for their child that adversely affects other people and, most particularly, other parents' children. Without a doubt, there are some parents who are doing terrible things but, once again, there are so many others who are just trying to do their best to navigate through the incredibly complex world of parenting.
As I always say, parents can only do the best they can do at the time. I've used the following quote from a BBC article before but it is important to repeat - "You don’t have to be the perfect parent, whatever that is, just a good enough one. We are all human and, however many children we may have, we are all still learning what is the best way to parent each child, so be kind to yourself!" No-one is perfect and the increasing expectation to be the 'perfect parent' is unrealistic and dangerous - beating yourself up when you make mistakes helps no-one, least of all your child.
I really do see myself as one of the luckiest people in the world - I get to do what I love every day. Working with young people is so incredibly rewarding and I am constantly amazed by how they not only 'survive' in this increasingly complex world, they 'thrive'. Of course, there are those teens that do stupid things and get themselves and others into trouble but what annoys me is that we never talk about the flipside of the coin - those who do great things, not for the glory or attention, but simply because they can. It's the same for parents. I come across absolute horrors but, at the same time, each and every week I am contacted by, or meet wonderful Mums and Dads from across the country who are simply trying to do the best they can for their kids ...
In a world where every image is now put through a 'filter' and everything we do is judged and criticised by people we don't even know, there is an increased expectation to be 'perfect'. That's tough for everyone. Sometimes we just have to give ourselves a break and say we're not doing too badly. Ask any teacher in any school and they will tell you that, for the most part, we have wonderful kids and so many amazing parents - let's make sure we remember that ...
It's the Easter weekend and police will be out in force on the roads in an effort to prevent senseless tragedies from occurring. Random breath testing (RBT) units will be stationed on roads across the country and if you have a young driver at home and they are planning to go anywhere over the next few days, it is highly likely that they will be pulled over and breathalysed. For as much as it called 'random', in reality, very few P-platers mange to drive past an RBT unit and not get ushered into being tested.
Random breath testing was introduced across Australia in different jurisdictions during the 1980s (e.g., NSW in 1982, Tasmania in 1983 and Queensland and WA as late as 1988). Since then, trauma from fatal crashes involving alcohol has dropped, e.g., in NSW it has fallen from about 40% of all fatalities to the 2017 level of 15%. It's a strategy that works and, unlike speed cameras (which some people regard as a 'revenue raiser'), it has wide community support.
Most young people have had some experience with RBT before they start driving. They have either been in a car when their parent or other adult has been pulled over and breathalysed, or they have simply watched the program RBT (which by the way I recommend every parent should watch at least once with a child who is either just about to, or has begun driving). Young drivers have a general understanding of what is going to happen but nothing really ever prepares them for the first time they get pulled over and asked to blow or talk into that machine.
I have written previously about all the things that can cause an L- or P-plater to fail a breathalyser even if they haven't consumed alcohol, but there are also some other things that P-platers, in particular, should be aware of around being breathalysed and RBTs. Many of the things that are listed below are not necessarily written down in police manuals but they are based on my conversations with both young drivers and police officers about their experiences in this area over the years.
There are two ways you can be breathalysed. Firstly, an RBT unit where there will be a number of officers present, hand-held breathalysers and a 'booze bus'. The second way is more likely to happen to a P-plater than a full-licence holder (although it can happen to anyone, particularly if they are driving in a dangerous way) and that is being pulled over randomly by a police officer. P-platers, due to their inexperience, are viewed by police as being 'high-risk' drivers and, as a result, they are far more likely to get pulled over in this way and asked to provide a sample of their breath
Although police don't have to give a reason for pulling you over and conducting a breath test, when they do, it's usually because of something about you, your driving or your car that has attracted their attention. If you've broken the law, it makes perfect sense why you've been pulled over but in many cases, young people are quite surprised with what has led to them being breathalysed. Some of the reasons that have been given to them include having your headlights on high-beam or simply not having them on at all, going around a roundabout twice and the most likely one for young men, playing their music too loudly. Police have told me that they have pulled over P-platers because of the car they're driving ('hotted-up' vehicles and luxury brands like BMWs and Mercedes driven by P-platers are more likely to be targeted). Drivers who wear hoodies over their heads are highly likely to attract police attention and, most importantly, the positioning of a P-plate and whether it is damaged in anyway can also lead to a young driver being pulled over and breathalysed
If you are stopped, the only information that you are legally required to give an officer is your driver's licence which contains your name and address. That said, if they are just asking you about your night and the plans you have, just answer them - it'll be easier. If you decide to be difficult and not answer any further questions, you could be charged with an offence such as disobeying or contravening a police officer’s direction. It is so important to remember that an RBT should be a very quick process. Even if you are pulled over randomly and a few more questions are asked, you should be on your way in a matter of minutes. Be polite and respectful - it'll get you so far!
If you have not been drinking and fail the preliminary test, don't panic. The officer would have already asked you whether or not you had had anything to drink - if you told them you hadn't but got a positive test (particularly if it is a very low reading), they will most likely ask you to wait a few minutes and then submit another breath sample. Police are aware that there are many things that can cause a P-plater to fail a test. If you have been respectful and polite, they are likely to do their best to resolve the issue. I've met a couple of young women over the years who failed the test 4 or 5 times before finally passing
Don't have alcohol in your car. In most jurisdictions (although it can be extremely difficult to establish exactly what the law is in this area), if you are 17-years-old and driving, you are not allowed to have alcohol (opened or unopened) in your car. If you have someone who is 18 or over in the car with you, that should be fine but as a general rule, no matter what age you are, if a police officer sees alcohol in your car when you are pulled over, it is likely to change your RBT experience. They may ask a couple more questions about your night, where you've been or where you're going. My advice is that if you're carrying alcohol in the car, put it away. If you have a carton of something, put it into the boot and, when it comes to bottles, just put them into a bag of some sort and close it up.
Now that can be a lot for a P-plater to get through, so to summarise the 6 simple things that P-platers need to remember are as follows:
You are more likely to be pulled over randomly by a police officer and breathalysed than full-licence holders - this is because you are seen as more 'high-risk' due to your inexperience. Be prepared that this is likely to happen and it doesn't necessarily mean you have done anything wrong
Simple things can attract the attention of police and lead to you being randomly pulled over and breathalysed - playing loud music, not having your lights on, driving too slowly, wearing a hoodie over your head, etc. Try to be as bland as possible!
Check the condition of your P-plates and where they are placed - make sure they're not damaged or the colour is wearing off. Most importantly they must be able to be clearly seen. Stand next to your car and take 20 steps back - can you see the entire plate and lettering?
First impressions count - when an officer approaches the car window, have it wound down and be polite and respectful. Police are used to dealing with criminals and when a young person greets them in a positive way, it is likely to make such a difference as to what happens next
If you haven't been drinking and fail the preliminary test, don't panic. Police know that there are other things that can cause a P-plater to blow over 0. If you're polite and respectful, they'll do their best to try to work out what has happened
Don't have alcohol laying around in your car - if you're 17, that's likely to be illegal and even if you're 18, it attracts the attention of police if you get pulled over. If you're 18 or older, put it away - having a bottle of something rolling around the backseat of your car is not a good look!
There would be very few parents of teens who are not aware of 'pre's', i.e., smaller gatherings held at someone's home before the actual party or other event, (e.g., school formal, concert, music festival, etc) where young people meet to prepare for the night ahead. This usually (but not always) involves some sort of pre-loading on alcohol, particularly if they know that the event they are attending has security present or the parents hosting the party are known to be vigilant when it comes to underage drinking. Some of these events are actually hosted by parents who want to provide a 'safe space' for their child and their friends to drink alcohol. As I have said many times before, what you do with your child around alcohol is totally your business, but inviting other people's children to your home to drink without ensuring that is okay with their parents is shameful. I also question the idea of allowing your teen to have a few drinks and then sending them off to someone else's home for the host parents to look after for the evening ...
Pre's are now just a part of teenage life and they're not going to go away anytime soon. Thankfully most parents are now at least somewhat aware of their existence, although for some they still come as a shock and only find out about them when something goes wrong.
Janet is the mother of a 14-year-old girl, Sienna, and had no idea about pre's. She had been taking her daughter to parties for years and knew most of Sienna's friends' parents. In Year 7 and 8 most of the events her daughter was invited to started in the early evening and she had no problem dropping her off at a party at 6.00pm as that was not unusual. When Sienna was younger, Janet usually went and said hello to the host parents but that rarely happened now - she knew her daughter and her friends - she had no reason to believe anything was amiss. When she got a phone call three hours later from a mother she had never met telling her that she had found Sienna laying on her front lawn totally drunk, Janet was devastated. The mother was hosting a 15-year-old birthday party and Sienna, along with some of her friends, had turned up intoxicated. Janet later found out that her daughter had been attending pre's for some time. These were usually held at homes where the parents had gone out and these young girls were preloading and then moving onto parties, no-one any the wiser.
If your 14, 15 or 16-year-old asks to go to someone's house in the late afternoon or very early evening (before 6.00pm) on a Saturday night, the chances are that wherever they're headed, that's not the place they're going to end up at later that night. They're off to a 'pre' … Some parents question how they get from where they are dropped off to where they end up - does a 'cool Mum' or the Dad who wants to be his son's best friend take them? For most young people that I ask, the answer is nearly always the same - Uber! What amazes me here is that we have groups of teens as young as 14 travelling via this service every weekend when the actual Uber rules are quite clear - drivers are not permitted to drive anyone under 18 without them being accompanied by an adult. Here are the rules clearly stated on the Uber website:
"A rider must be at least 18 years of age to have an Uber account and request rides. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older on any ride. As a driver-partner in a city that doesn't allow minors to ride, you should decline the ride request if you believe the person requesting the ride is under 18. When picking up riders, if you feel they are underage, you may request they provide a driver's license or ID card for confirmation. If a rider is underage, please do not start the trip or allow them to ride."
Regardless, some parents continue to use this rideshare service as a parenting tool, choosing to let their teens travel to and from parties on the weekend by Uber rather than taking and/or picking them up themselves. It's no wonder then that sometimes things go very wrong ...
As already said, most parents are aware of pre's, however, over the past couple of months I have heard from a number of Mums and Dads who have had bad experiences with 'free's'. It doesn't take too much imagination to work out what a 'free' is - basically it means a 'free-house', i.e., a party where there are no parents present. Over the past couple of weeks I have collected some information from young people I have spoken to about these events, including definitions, how they're run (i.e., what happens, both the good and bad) and why they're so popular. Here are a couple of quotes that parents may find interesting:
"A free is a party or gathering where there are no parents. They've either gone away for the weekend or travelling overseas and they don't know the party is happening. But sometimes they're just staying at a hotel and know what's going on which is just mad because sometimes these parties get really out-of-control" "If we know there's a free on in the area, that's the party that everyone wants to go to. They're great if only people you know turn up but they can get really messed up if you get gate-crashers. That's when you see houses get wrecked and fights break out. Most of the time people who have a free at their house try to keep them quite quiet but that's really hard to do" "I've been to a couple of frees where the police have been called and they're really scary. As much as everyone says they like frees, most of us don't want to get into trouble and I've seen older guys do some really bad stuff to people's houses, particularly if they're really drunk" "The best frees are held at houses that are empty - either they've just been finished being built or people have just moved out. There are some areas where there are piles of houses being built and not many people live there yet - they're the real wild frees that everyone wants to go to" "Sometimes a free can just be a short gathering at someone's house early in the night - usually when parents have gone out for dinner or to the movies. You only have a few hours but you can then go out somewhere else later if you want" In my experience, when these events have been held at people's homes, the parents have either travelled overseas and left their teens (some as young as 14) by themselves for a period of weeks (or even months in one case), or in many other cases, simply gone out for the evening (some just for a few hours, e.g., to see a movie or go out for dinner, or go out to a party themselves, returning in the early hours of the next morning). Some of the parents who have contacted me have been blown away by what they have come home to and totally devastated by their teen's breach of trust. Here is an excerpt from an Facebook message I received from Greg, a father of two teens:
"My wife and I have two sons aged 15 and 16 and we have always made our expectations and rules clear. Up to a couple of weeks ago we had no reason to believe that we couldn't trust them. We went to a 6.30pm session of a movie at the local cinema and told them we would be back by no later than 10.00pm, as we would likely get something to eat afterwards. Both of them regularly attend parties (with either my wife or I taking them and picking them up) but they told us they were staying at home that night. When the movie finished at around 9.00pm we changed our mind about grabbing a meal and went straight home. When we turned into our street there were teenagers everywhere. When we realized that they were coming out of our home panic set in ... Our home was a mess and when we finally found our sons both of them broke down in tears. When the police had finally removed everyone from our home a couple of hours later we found out that our eldest son had organised a 'free' at our home for about 20 of his friends. When the youngest invited some of his mates, it went downhill from there ..."
Pre-parties, as well as free's, are increasingly becoming the norm across the country, with younger and younger teens attending such events. Parents already have their hands full trying to keep on top of what is happening at the teenage parties and gatherings that are held every weekend - pre's and free's make the whole monitoring thing far more difficult. That said, it is important that parents do their best to find out as much as they possibly can about what their teen is supposedly doing when they go out for the evening- it's not going to be easy and your child won't like you doing the checking but it'll be worth it if it keeps your child even just a bit safer on a Saturday night!
Without a doubt some of the most difficult conversations you're ever likely to have with your teen are going to start with them asking questions about your behaviour as an adolescent. Although these sometimes come out of nowhere, they usually arise when your child wants to do something you don't want them to do (i.e., rules and boundaries are set and they don't like them) or they have been caught doing something they shouldn't and there's been a consequence imposed. The questions may be relatively easy to deal with such as whether you got into trouble at school, or what you got up to at parties and whether you broke rules or not but, on the other hand, they may be really challenging and have to do with your sexual behaviour during that time of your life and/or your past alcohol and other drug use. Now, if you and your partner were absolute 'angels' and you never did anything wrong (and if that is the case, both of you are quite unique!), then you really don't have anything to worry about, but for most parents this is a conversation that you will have at some point or another and it is vital that you are prepared.
This is a question I get asked regularly by parents and I usually respond by asking them one simple question - "What kind of relationship do you want with your child?" Most want one that is based on open and honest communication and, if that is the case, I believe you need to tell the truth in this area. It's how you 'handle' that honesty that makes all the difference ...
I wrote about this issue a number of years ago when a study was released that examined what effect parents telling their children about their past substance use had on the young person's beliefs and behaviours around drugs. At the time, the research received a great deal of international media attention and most of that pushed the line that admitting to past drug use was counterproductive, i.e., there was the potential that in telling your child that you had used drugs it could 'normalise' use and "downplay" the negative consequences of using illicit substances. As is so often the case, you often have to ignore the headlines and go to the actual journal article to find out what the researchers actually said, because when you read it is very clear that there are many limitations to this study. The major one is that the parent-child communication was not observed, the findings are based on self-report data provided by the child and there was no information collected on the context of the conversation, i.e., what, when and how it was said. The paper also stated that some messages provided by parents "may be helpful and others may be harmful".
Firstly, it is important to remember that most parents do not have a problem answering this question as most people have never experimented with illegal drugs. The one illicit drug that is most likely to be used by Australian parents is cannabis, but that still is only a third of the population. That means that most Australians (two thirds of them) have not used the drug. For those that may have experimented or used regularly for a period of time, however, this is a question that many dread their child asking. When it is asked, essentially parents have one of three choices – they can tell the truth, they can avoid the question and hope it goes away or they can lie through their teeth! It really is a dilemma and one for which there is no simple answer.
Every parent will need to deal with this question in their own way. Each family is unique and there are so many different ways of handling this problem and the outcome will be different each time, depending on so many factors. In my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs I told the story of Nicole and Peter who decided to deal with the issue in their own way:
Nicole is a mother of three and back in the late 1980s and early 90s was a big party girl. Together with her then boyfriend, now husband, Peter, she was amongst the first generation of regular ecstasy users who attended large dance parties and inner city nightclubs. Her drug of choice at that time was ecstasy, but she also used a variety of other drugs including cannabis, speed and LSD. Her eldest daughter, Hannah, is now 15-years-old and is getting to the age where she is beginning to ask questions about her parents' partying years. Nicole is now facing the dilemma of how to talk to her teenage daughter about her drug use during a significant period of her and her husband's life. Should she tell the truth, avoid the subject or simply lie and say that it never happened?
"This was always at the back of my mind, even during the early days of my drug use," Nicole told me. "What was I going to tell my children when the time came when they asked me about my past?"
She decided to lie. In fact she has become extremely 'hardline' when it comes to the messages that she gives to her children about drugs. As far as Nicole is concerned, drugs are extremely dangerous and she wants her children not to use them.
"If I found out that Hannah was experimenting with any drug I would be horrified. I know it sounds hypocritical, particularly with my history, but as I've got older I've really become more and more worried about my children and drugs. Maybe it's because I know so much more about them and the risks involved with their use. I simply don't want my children to use."
The effect that this has had on Hannah is interesting. A bright girl who is doing very well at school she told me that illegal drugs are not a part of her life, although she has just got into the party scene and drinks alcohol occasionally – something her mother frowns on.
"I would never talk about drugs with Mum and Dad," she told me. "Mum has made it clear about how she feels and often talks about people she knew who took drugs that got into real trouble. I can't even imagine what she would do if I did try drugs and she ever found out."
Unfortunately Nicole's attitude towards drugs appears to have caused a real barrier in terms of communication between her and her daughter.
"I have a friend who I think has a problem with drinking," confessed Hannah. "She drinks every weekend and I do worry about her. I'd love to be able to talk to Mum about it but I wouldn't dare. I couldn't trust her to keep it secret and not tell my friend's mum. In so many other ways I have a great relationship with Mum but I wouldn't even try to talk to her about this – she would just over-react and hit the roof."
What is difficult to fathom out with Nicole and Peter is that when asked about their drug use and the experiences they had during that time they both talk about it in a very positive way. Her justification for lying to her daughter is that she wanted to scare her and if she had told her the truth it would have simply made the drug too attractive.
Nicole and Peter are not alone in this type of major turnaround. There are many parents who did experiment and had 'positive' drug experiences and then when they have children of their own and they start to get older their memories of their own drug use fade and they become very 'anti-drug'. My concern is what would happen if Hannah ever found out the truth about her parents' past? The breakdown of trust here could be devastating for this close-knit family.
With that in mind, what should parents say when they are asked about their past drug use?
As already said, I believe that honesty is the best policy. If you did experiment with cannabis (and you actually inhaled) in your teen years or at uni, or maybe even tried something stronger and you're thinking that sharing your experiences will help drive home a 'don't do drugs' message, i.e., a "I'm your mate. I know where you are and I've been there myself" bonding-with-your-kid approach, that's not likely to be helpful. Neither is making a declaration one day that you popped an ecstasy pill in 1993. If you're asked a direct question by your child, however, I believe that you should answer it honestly. We know that by far one of the most important elements of a positive parent-child relationship is honesty and trust. When you ask your child a question about something that they have done you would like them to answer it truthfully. If that's the case, doesn't your child deserve the same respect? Interestingly, the lead author of the research paper discussed above, A/Prof Jennifer Kam, was quoted as saying "Parents may not want to voluntarily share their past drug use with their early adolescent children, but we are not suggesting that they outright lie to their kids."
So if you have used illicit drugs what should you say? How should you handle that honesty? The most important thing to remember here is that you think carefully about what you want to say beforehand - use the conversation as a 'teachable moment' - what message do you want your teen to take away?
To my mind the most important thing to focus on in your answer is why you stopped using (if you're still using illicit drugs there are a whole pile of other issues that need to be talked about another time!). If you think about it, the reasons you give to your teen about why you stopped are so important and say so much about the 'real' risks associated with drug use. It's also an honest and real approach and young people, in my experience, really appreciate that. Some responses could include the following:
"I used cannabis once or twice and it just made me feel really sick. Some of my friends really liked it but it just wasn't me – I didn't enjoy smoking and I made the decision not to do it again."
"Cannabis was a big part of my life for a couple of years. I used almost every week until I finally realized that I wasn't doing anything else. I only hung out with other cannabis users and I lost contact with other friends. Although it was fun at the beginning it certainly wasn't at the end."
"Drugs can be fun. I certainly had a good time for a while but the bad experiences started to outweigh the good and I just got bored with the whole thing."
"I stopped smoking when a very close friend of mine got busted. He got caught smoking a bong in a park and found himself at a police station. It wasn't until that happened that I really realized that cannabis was illegal and you could really get into trouble if you got caught. It just wasn't worth the risk."
"I stopped using when I met your mum. She thought drugs was for losers and forced me to make a decision – it was her or the dope. I chose your mum!"
Once you've told them why you stopped (and I would avoid going into further details about your drug use if at all possible - you can certainly end up down a rabbit hole if you don't know when to stop, so don't over-share!), you then need to make clear how you feel about them using drugs and why you have those views. Remember that the answer you give is just a part of an ongoing conversation that you will have with your child on this topic - answer the question and then move on.
If you don't want them to experiment, this is the time to reinforce that and outline your expectations, as well as your family rules, in the area. If you did experiment and you don't want them to do the same thing, that's perfectly ok. You're not being a hypocrite, you're now an adult with a child you want to protect. If they turn around to you and say "Well you did it, I'm going to as well ...", it is important that you tell them that as a parent you now see the world from a different perspective (if that is actually the case) and if you do discover they are breaking your rules, there will be consequences. Don't feel guilty about that - you want to keep your child safe.
Once you've told them why you stopped (and I would avoid going into further details about your drug use if at all possible - you can certainly end up down a rabbit hole if you don't know when to stop, so don't over-share!), you then need to make clear how you feel about them using drugs and why you have those views. Remember that the answer you give is just a part of an ongoing conversation that you will have with your child on this topic - answer the question and then move on. If you don't want them to experiment, this is the time to reinforce that and outline your expectations, as well as your family rules, in the area. If you did experiment and you don't want them to do the same thing, that's perfectly ok. You're not being a hypocrite, you're now an adult with a child you want to protect. If they turn around to you and say "Well you did it, I'm going to as well ...", it is important that you tell them that as a parent you now see the world from a different perspective (if that is actually the case) and if you do discover they are breaking your rules, there will be consequences.
For many of those people who did experiment with illicit substances during their youth the experience was overwhelmingly positive. That's the truth - I know we don't like admitting it but for many that is the case. If you did try drugs and had a horrible time, that's great - you can be totally honest with your child. But to turn around and say to your child I regret my drug use during my teens, when in fact you had a pretty good time, is not only dishonest but potentially dangerous. Most people stop taking drugs for a reason - using that as a basis for your answer to your child is likely to be the most effective response to this difficult question.
All parents want an honest and open relationship with their child. If, god forbid, something should ever go wrong and a child needs help with an alcohol or other drug problem, every parent hopes that they are the first port of call for their child when it comes to help and advice. However, if you're not honest with them, why in heavens would they ever be honest with you?
Kam, J. & Middleton, A. (2013). The associations between parents' references to their own past substance use and youth's substance-use beliefs and behaviors: A Comparison of Latino and European American Youth. Human Communication Research, 39. 10.1111/hcre.12001.
The 2017 Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug Survey (ASSAD) report was recently released. This presents information on the use of tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter drugs (for non-medicinal purposes), and other substances in school students aged 12 to 17 in Australia. Around 20,000 students from public, Catholic and independent schools from across the country participated in the survey and it provides a great insight into what is currently happening in relation to alcohol and other drug use and school-based young people.
There are lots of positives in this report, particularly in regards to tobacco and alcohol. Fewer students are smoking and, those who do, smoke fewer cigarettes. The number of 12-17-year-olds who reported never drinking alcohol increased once again to more than one third (34%), up from only one in ten in 1999. Students were asked to select the most appropriate description of their drinking behaviour, with around 70% seeing themselves as 'non-drinkers'. Not surprisingly, the proportion was lower among older than younger students but, even so, 63% of 15-year-olds classified themselves in this way, as did more than one third (37%) of 17-year-olds.
One finding did surprise me, however, with 43% of current drinkers (those who drank in the previous week) reporting that the source of their last alcoholic drink was their parents. This was by far the most common source with 'friend' being the next most likely (25%), 'someone else bought' (12%), siblings (8%) and 7% reporting that they took it from home. Between 2002 and 2011 we saw a steady decline in reported parental supply of alcohol according to the ASSAD survey, but since then we have seen it increasing, now at its highest level for many years. At a time when parents are far more aware of the importance of delaying their child's first drink of alcohol for as long as possible, why are we seeing growing numbers making the decision to provide alcohol to their teen?
It does need to be made clear that the report does not make clear in what context those current drinkers were consuming alcohol, i.e., parents, particularly of the younger teens, could have been providing a drink with a meal in a family context. It also doesn't provide information on how much alcohol was provided or consumed. Nevertheless, to see this increase over the past few years is of concern and illustrates the dilemma many parents face in this area.
Firstly, there are no 'rights' or 'wrongs' as far as parenting around this issue is concerned. That said, some parental behaviour is truly bizarre in my opinion, but as I've said many times before, no-one can tell you how to raise your child and as long as you believe what you are doing is right and you feel comfortable with your decision, then go for it! The most important thing is that you make your rules around alcohol and parties based on the best possible information you can find and that you are not bullied into doing something based on what another parent says or what your child tells you other people do ... Most importantly never impose your beliefs in this area onto other parents. If you believe giving your teen a glass of wine at a family function is appropriate, that's fine - but don't ridicule others at the event for making the decision not to allow the same behaviour.
I've spoken about this many times before but I think it's worth noting again that parents have it really tough when it comes to navigating through this complex issue. The evidence is confusing to say the least, with four basic messages acknowledged as important for parents to consider:
Delay, delay, delay - try to delay their first drink of alcohol for as long as possible
If a teen is to drink, ensure their first drink of alcohol is with you in a controlled environment
If a teen believes their parent approves of teen drinking they're more likely to drink
If teens obtain alcohol from sources other than their parents, they're more likely to drink in a risky way
What we are telling parents, therefore, is that you should never give a young person alcohol (due to impact on brain development), but, in fact, you have to give it to them (in your home preferably) before they drink it anywhere else. If you do give it to them, however, this could indicate that you approve of their drinking leading to potential drinking problems in the future. In addition, you certainly don't want them to get alcohol from other sources when they go to a party or gathering as the research says that if they do they're at greater risk! One statement seems to contradict the next and it ends up being totally confusing!
In addition, a piece of Australian research released early last year provided two extra messages that 'muddy the waters' even more. They are as follows:
Parental supply of alcohol provides no benefit or protective effect
Parental supply is associated with increased risk of other supply, i.e., give them alcohol and they are likely to drink more from other sources
I would hope that most of the parents who make the decision to provide their child alcohol are doing it for the 'right reasons', i.e., to teach them 'responsible drinking' and/or to protect them. They are doing what they're doing because they believe it what is right for their child and that is the best anyone can do ...
It is important to note, however, that the notion of 'teaching a child to drink responsibly' really makes little sense. Teens learn from you and start modelling your behaviour from a very early age, so whether you drink with them, around them or even away from them they will be watching. You certainly don't need to sit there with them and 'teach' them how to drink in a responsible way - they've been picking up how you and your partner (and the rest of your family and friends) drink alcohol for years. Other research has found that transplanting the so-called 'Mediterranean Model' (providing a little bit of alcohol with a meal in the home) across to an Australian context is not protective. In fact, drinking (even small amounts) with your son or daughter is instead likely to send them the message that you condone and support their drinking at an early age, as a result, the positive messages you wanted to get across are often lost.
Delaying your child's first drink for as long as possible is still the best message for parents as the research is clear that the younger the child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a range of problems, including dependence later in life. Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will have future problems, particularly dependence or addiction.
With all of that in mind, I believe the best way forward for any parent is to 'follow your heart' - I know that sounds so corny but it really is the best answer. I'm hoping that's what the growing number of parents who are providing their teens with alcohol are doing and they're not simply bowing to pressure from their child. If you truly believe that allowing your teen to have a drink at home in a controlled setting is appropriate for your family situation and that they will get something positive from that experience, that's what you should do. My only suggestion is that if you do, try and delay it for as long as possible and at the same time, ensure rules and boundaries are discussed and established around alcohol and parties.
One thing is clear and that is simply providing your teen with alcohol, no matter how controlled, is not protective. You've got to decide what works for your family but if you think that giving your child two drinks to take to a party is going to somehow protect them from drinking in a risky manner that night or anytime in the future, that is not only naïve but dangerous …
Mattick, R. P., Clare, P. J., Aiken, A., Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Najman, J., Slade, T., Bruno, R., McBride, N., Kypri, K., Vogl, L., & Degenhardt, L. (2018). Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms, and alcohol use disorder symptoms: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, published Online January 25, 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2468-2667(17)30240-2.
As much as I go on about how amazing our kids are today (as I always say, I am fortunate enough to get to meet incredible young people doing unbelievable things every day), I have to say I also come in contact with some pretty impressive parents as well. Mums and Dads from across the country who work so hard to ensure their teen is safe, happy and loved. It continues to blow me away just how many people can show-up at a Parent Information Evening, particularly this year, with numbers averaging well over 200 each night. This could be due to the drug-related deaths of those young people at music festivals over the summer period, but nevertheless, we live in a busy world and most families are 'time-poor' - to turn-up and listen to a talk after a day at work and/or looking after a family is a huge commitment. Of course, there are always going to be those scary ones who want to be the 'cool parent' and try to be their child's best friend and, unfortunately, those are likely to be the ones that make your life far more difficult. These are the parents who provide alcohol to other people's children, put on parties and tolerate alcohol (but tell those who call to do a check that none will be allowed) and agree to host a 'safe space' for teens to do whatever they're not allowed to do anywhere else …
My favourite line from a parent ever (and I have heard it many times over the years) is usually said after I have finished delivering a presentation outlining what research has found to be 'best practice' in terms of the provision of alcohol to a teen … They usually start with how much they enjoyed the talk and how interesting they found a particular part but inevitably end with "But if I did all that my child wouldn't like me very much!" It's a response that continues to surprise and baffle me. Your teen is certainly meant to love you, but realistically they're not necessarily going to like you very much. Your job is to apply rules and boundaries to keep them as safe as possible, most of which they're highly likely to resent and push against and that is not going to result in you winning any popularity contests as far as your teen is concerned.
I don't have children but have thoroughly enjoyed watching my brother and his amazing wife parent my two wonderful nephews and niece. As much as you can see all the hard work it takes to bring up three children in this complicated world (and boy, you can see it gets tough sometimes), you can also see the great pleasure both of them get from such simple experiences they share with them. My brother is currently lovingly navigating his 14-year-old through the world of 80s' music - each new band and song that is introduced bonding them a little closer. To watch my incredible sister-in-law simply reading a book to my niece is an absolute joy … But both of them realize and accept that you can't just do the 'fun part' of parenting, you have to do it all! As a result, it's highly probable that you're not going to be liked ...
No-one wants conflict and, in the short-term, letting your teen rule the roost and allowing them to get what they want may seem easier. But inevitably that approach is highly likely to backfire, with research finding that 'permissive parenting', i.e., where there is lots of love but few rules, is far less protective than 'authoritative parenting' where rules, boundaries and unconditional love are in play. In my experience there are two aspects of parenting that are particularly difficult - saying 'no' and allowing your child to fail.
The most important words you will ever say to your child are 'I love you', followed closely by 'no'! 'No' is such a powerful word and, when used correctly, teaches a child so much in terms of boundaries and acceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, it can often be used as a punishment and that is why although a child should hear the word regularly, they should also clearly understand why it has been said (i.e., it should almost always be used to keep them safer in some way or another, if it isn't, its use should be reassessed). Saying 'no' won't make you popular but, put bluntly, parenting isn't a popularity contest - when you need to say it, say it!
Without a doubt, one of the hardest parts of parenting has to be allowing your child to fail. Sometimes parents think this relates purely to academic results but it is much broader than that, covering sporting achievements, everyday activities and, most importantly, failure around 'fitting in'. Too often we now see Mums and Dads completing homework tasks to ensure a good mark, pressuring sports coaches to give their child the best position on the field or allowing their teen to do something they don't feel entirely comfortable with (e.g., drinking alcohol at a party) for fear that if they don't they won't fit in. We all need to experience failure - if we don't, how are we ever going to feel the thrill of success?
In recent times, we've seen great pressure put on schools to make sure everyone gets a ribbon at the school athletics carnival (I even went to a school where no one came first at their event, instead everyone came second!) and sporting teams give everyone a prize at the end of the year. One parent recently told me that they now have to include a prize at every stage of the 'pass the parcel' game, because children got upset when they took a sheet of paper and received nothing. Bizarre! Not surprisingly, we're now starting to see the dangers of a culture where everyone wins. As research psychologist, Dr Peggy Drexler wrote - "We may think that rewarding every child will make them feel good -- and it may, for a moment. But it may also make them feel that they are entitled to praise and recognition for merely existing. And that does no one any favours."
One of my greatest concerns is that we now have some parents who invite every one of their child's classmates to a party, fearful that if they don't, their little darling won't be invited somewhere. This is dangerous and sets young people with a very distorted view of the world. I believe one of the most important lessons you can ever teach your child is the following:
"You can't be good at everything, only one person can 'win' and you can't be friends with everyone and that's ok!"
To watch a child 'suffer' must be agonising for any parent (having your child telling you that they haven't been invited to a party and wanting to know why must be heartbreaking) and your first instinct is always going to be to try to prevent it from happening. Ensuring they are resilient and teaching them from an early age that it's ok to 'fail' is so important. All they can do is their best and you love them, no matter what. It was tough for us as kids, I know it was for me, and in this era of social media it has to be so much more difficult, but in my experience most of our kids are not only surviving, they're thriving! In most of those cases, it's usually because a parent has been a parent and has put the effort in and has not just done the 'fun part'. It's not going to be easy but it'll be worth it in the end …