Sunday, 6 October 2013

How can you help your teen get out of situations and have them still 'save face'?

This morning I received an email from a mum who just wanted to share that her daughter had called her last night from a party and asked to be picked up. What the mother was so excited about was that this was the first time her rebellious daughter had ever done this, and what was particularly pleasing was that she had used the pre-organized word they had decided on to get her to come and pick her up. I call these 'pre-organized words' 'outs', a word, a name or a phrase that a young person can say (or text) to their parent to help them get out of an uncomfortable situation without their friends knowing and as a result they manage to 'save face'. I've been talking about 'outs' for years and encourage parents to have the 'outs' discussion nice and early (around 12 or 13 at the latest). This mother had contacted me earlier this year and at the time wanted some practical advice around how to deal with her troublesome teen - this was one of tips I suggested and according to her email today, she didn't think there was much chance that it would ever be used. Last night she was proven wrong! 

At one time or another we all need assistance dealing with social pressure. Even as adults we occasionally ask people to help us in this area. Have you ever had a friend call you on your mobile to help you out of a social situation that you didn’t know how to get of? Some parents actually use their children as excuses to get out of doing things. Have you ever heard yourself say any of these?

  • "I’d love to but I've got to pick up the kids."
  • "That sounds great but we've got the kids' sport on Saturday morning."
  • "Jane's got music practice on Thursday evening, otherwise I would have loved to."

Rather than simply turning around and saying that we would rather not do something, we often use excuses, developed over time, to use as an 'out'. Teenagers sometimes need these 'outs' as well, particularly when attempting to deal with social pressure.

The adolescent years are all about learning where you fit in the world and young people quickly work out what will get you accepted within a peer group and what will find you out on your ear. Going to parties and drinking alcohol is simply a part of what some teenagers do every weekend and those young people who decide that it is not for them often have to suffer the consequences.

Travelling around the country over the years I have met many young people who have developed strategies to deal with this. Some of these strategies have been extremely sophisticated and show a wisdom way beyond their years. For the most part, however, the majority of the strategies that adolescents develop to help them in this area are fairly simple and straightforward, but nevertheless, are still extremely successful.

Here are just a selection of some of the 'outs' that I have collected from teenagers over the years. Not all of them are great but they cover a range of different ways of saying 'no', including excuses (often using information they have picked up in drug education lessons at school) and delaying or putting off the situation.

  • "I am allergic to alcohol."
  • "The medication I’m on at the moment doesn’t mix well with alcohol."
  • "I'd love to smoke but I have an uncle with a mental health problem." (a very popular one for getting out of smoking cannabis.)
  • "I got really drunk last week and I’m trying to have a few weeks off."
  • "Dad found out I was drinking last weekend and I'll be grounded if I get caught again."
  • "We've got a big game next week and I'm trying to be prepared as possible."
  • "Mum's picking me up this evening and she always checks my breath when I get in the car."

It is important to remember that not all teenagers need an out. Some young people are simply strong and confident enough to simply 'say no', if that is indeed what they want to do. We can provide young people skills in how to 'say no' but for many this can be extremely difficult to put into practice, particularly in regards to alcohol use, and it is important that they have some other sort of strategy in place to assist them when they find themselves in difficult situations.
 
Of course, many other young people need help in this area. Even though school-based drug education provides young people the opportunity to discuss and develop such skills and strategies, a parent who has a good relationship with his or child may be able to do it far more effectively. Realistically, how can a student discuss 'outs' in the classroom without letting everyone else what their strategy is going to be? It just doesn't work, this is something that has to be done in the home.
 
You may have noticed that out of the ten statements listed above, five of them involve a relative of some sort. It would appear that many young people are using their parents as an out in some instances, so it makes great sense to sit down and ask them if you can help them with this in some way. Not all teenagers are going to respond positively to this conversation, although many parents are surprised when they offer assistance in this area at the reaction they do receive.
 
The best way to do this is to find the right time to approach your child. Unfortunately, so many parents make the decision to talk about alcohol or other drug issues at a crisis time (i.e., when something goes wrong) and you couldn't really pick a worse time if you tried. Conversations in the car can be very positive (they can't get away and they don’t have to look at you!) but wherever the discussion takes place, find a time where it is just you and your teenager and there is no likelihood of an interruption.
 
Ask your child if they have ever been in a situation with their friends which they found difficult or uncomfortable. Offer them an example from your life, making it clear that adults experience this problem as well as teenagers. Talk about peer and social pressure and maybe discuss some of the things that you do to help you through difficult situations. Offer them your help in coming up with practical strategies to assist them in these situations. If now is not the 'right time', let them know that they can come to you at any time and you will try and help them. Working together to come up with an out strategy has worked for many parents and their teenage children.
 
In my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs I told the story of Anita, a mother of a Year 12 girl named Halle. After one of my presentations she approached me to discuss a strategy that the two of them had devised to help the young woman when she found herself in a situation in which she felt uncomfortable.
 
The two had a code word that they had developed when Halle was fifteen. This word was to be used by the teenager in either a text message, a phone call or a conversation whenever she wanted to be taken out of a situation. For example, if Halle was at a party and she wanted to come home but didn’t feel confident enough to tell her friends she wanted to leave of her own accord, she would simply text her mother a message which contained the code word. Anita would wait a few minutes and then call her daughter to say there was an emergency and that she would need to pick her up straight away. Anita took the fall and was made out to be the ‘bad guy’ and Halle retained her place in her social group.
 
The year after my book was published I met Halle at a university presentation. She introduced herself and told me that her mother had bought my book and identified herself and her daughter in the story. The reason she approached me after my talk was to let me know that she was still using the code word with her mother years later at university!
 
This sort of strategy works extremely well in families with great communication and trust. It has to be used sparingly though, young people are not stupid and if Halle had overused the code word, it wouldn’t have been long before her friends realized what was going on. The mother and daughter obviously had  a wonderful relationship and working together to develop a strategy like this could only have contributed to strengthen that bond. 

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