Friday, 20 October 2017

Is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old? Do parents use the 'extra half' to justify behaviour they don't feel comfortable with?

I am considering writing another book at the moment (it's been almost 8 years since the last one was published!) and so have been taking special note of the questions I am being asked by those attending my seminars. As regular readers would know, sometimes a particular question just comes right out and hits me between the eyes, screaming to be written up as a blog entry. Over the last couple of weeks, however, I have been noticing a particular way that questions have been asked by some of the parents after my talks that I find fascinating and I thought was worth discussing ...

Recently a mother came up to me after a Parent Information Evening and asked me the following question:

"My 15⅟₂-year-old daughter is going to parties and I know she is drinking. She knows our rules around this issue and we have never caught her with alcohol but we know it is happening. My husband and I don't like her going behind our backs and we're frightened other things are going to start being done and pushed underground if we don't do something quickly. She's 15⅟₂ and we're wondering whether it's time to relax the rules before she goes ahead and breaks them anyway ..."

That same night a couple asked me how to deal with their 16⅟₂-year-old son who was asking if he could start taking a couple of drinks to take to a party because 'everybody else does'. Last week a similar thing happened, again with two separate queries from parents both beginning their questions by referring to their teen not as 15 but as 15⅟₂! After the second mother asked her question I asked her why she had referred to her daughter as 15⅟₂ and not as a 15-year-old or a Year 10. She was a little taken aback at first and then replied by saying that 'she was almost 16' ... I then said that I didn't mean to be rude but when was her actual birthday? It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that her daughter wasn't even close to 15⅟₂, in fact, she had only recently had her 15th birthday! I then told her why I had asked the question and my recent observations in this area. We then had quite a lengthy talk about why she (and other parents) were using this 'extra half' when they talked about their teens. After the discussion we came to the conclusion that it often appears to be used by parents to justify one or both of the following:
  • changes to their parenting that they didn't necessarily feel comfortable with but felt they had been 'forced' or coerced into doing because of their child's behaviour
  • changes in their teen's behaviour that was beginning to cause concern but they felt powerless to control
I'm not a psychologist but I'm sure there's some other stuff going on there as well but for the purposes of this piece, let's stick to these. What is particularly interesting is that in my dealings with adolescents I can't recall any young person refer to themselves as 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂. I'm sure it's happened (and I am sure many parents reading this will say that their teens throw the extra six months at them all the time, particularly when they want to push set boundaries or rules) but in my experience, it's certainly not the norm. Lots of them may say "I'm almost 16" but adding the 'extra half' appears to be much more a parent thing ...

So is there a difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old (or a 16 and a 16⅟₂-year-old for that matter) and does that six months difference justify sacrificing your values around potentially dangerous teen behaviour?

Of course there can be a chasm of difference between a 15 and a 15⅟₂-year-old. During adolescence dramatic changes can occur overnight, let alone over a six-month period. This is why it is so important that as far as rules and boundaries are concerned they keep changing and are re-negotiated where appropriate. I believe, a good rule of thumb around parties and gatherings is to reassess the limits that have been set in this area at least once every six months, ensuring that you reward good behaviour. Remember, if you want your household to survive adolescence, rules for teenagers need to be fair and age-appropriate ... That said, there need to be rules! No 15 or 16-year-old is going to like having any restrictions put on them when it comes to their socialising but it is a parent's job to keep their teen safe, so there have to be boundaries put into place to help ensure things don't go wrong ...

Taking a closer look at the questions the parents were asking where they referred to their teens as either 15⅟₂ or 16⅟₂, it's clear that none of them felt at all comfortable with what was happening but they all felt totally powerless when it came to trying to stop what was going on. One of the couples had recently found alcohol in their Year 10 daughter's room and she had now admitted to regularly drinking at parties. Her response to them had been that now she had been caught she was going to continue to drink and there was nothing they could do about it. I asked them what they had done about the situation and they looked blankly at me and said 'nothing'! She was 15 (or 15⅟₂ as they said!), of course there are consequences a parent can impose for breaking rules at that age. It's not going to be easy, there could be some shouting and screaming and slamming of doors, but if nothing is done, you lose all your credibility and your teen is then going to walk all over you. More importantly, you'll be leaving them open to risks and dangers they simply don't have the capacity to comprehend or deal with at their age.

All the parents that I have mentioned above were feeling forced in some way to accept behaviour around alcohol from their teens that they did not feel comfortable with (i.e., they were threatened with "I'll go behind your back if you don't let me", "There is nothing you can do about it" and "Everybody else does"). I don't think one of them wanted me to turn around and say "Yes, let them do what they want" - all of them were desperate for someone to tell them to stand resolute and be a parent! Of course, rules need to change over time but when it comes to keeping your teen safe, these need to negotiated carefully and, as a parent, you should never feel forced into making changes you don't feel comfortable with ... If your teen's behaviour starts to become really challenging and you feel as if they are at real risk, get professional help, don't try to justify it by saying "Oh, they're getting older, they're 16⅟₂!" 

The most important thing you can do as a parent when it comes to alcohol, parties and gatherings and the like is stay true to yourself and your values. I have met too many parents over the years who have lost their children due to alcohol or other drug use - the vast majority being terrible accidents that should never have happened. When a parent loses a child after being forced or coerced into doing something they didn't feel comfortable with, however, it is particularly devastating. If you feel like it's time to relax your rules in this area, for whatever reason, go ahead and change them accordingly and own your decision. But never feel forced into making changes that don't feel right for you or your family - for as I always say to young people - 'If it doesn't feel right, it usually isn't!'

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 ...