Saturday, 13 September 2014

'Schoolies (or Leavers) Week': How should parents prepare?

It's that time again and with Year 12 exams only weeks away and the end of the year approaching, I'm starting to get asked more questions about Schoolies Week (or Leavers Week as it is known in WA). This week I'm off to Perth where I will be presenting at a forum being run by SDERA for parents on how to prepare for Leavers Week. They, like Queensland, are in a very different situation to other jurisdictions in that their Year 12s are a year younger than those in other states resulting in the majority of the young people travelling to celebrations being underage! When I visited a Queensland school earlier this year and asked how many of them would be 18, only one put their hand up, another 60 would be 17, but the remaining 25 were only 16 years old - a frighteningly young class of Year 12s - you can only imagine what their parents think about the whole experience!

So what are my views on the whole phenomenon? Firstly, I need to say that I have attended Gold Coast Schoolies' events a couple of times over the years, I usually spend at least one day in Byron over the period (as I'm usually working on the far north coast during that time) and, of course, regular readers of my blog know that I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the incredible 'Schoolies Festival' in Victor Harbour, SA last year and had one of the most wonderful nights of my professional life (I've said it before and I'll say it again, you have to love that wonderful organisation Encounter Youth - they work so hard to make sure those kids have a great time and are safe as possible!).

Schoolies Week has been around in one form or another for a long time. When I finished high school I can remember a range of things that some of my classmates did in the weeks following the last day of exams, the majority of them were pretty harmless, while some were illegal, others extremely dangerous and the rest just plain stupid, Being involved in some sort of 'letting off steam' activity once school has finished is not a new phenomenon.

Since that time, and particularly over the past decade, Schoolies Week, as it has become known as, has become bigger and far more commercialised (there are an awful lot of businesses that have been created and continue to survive solely around Schoolies). As a result there is increasing social pressure on young people leaving school to attend Schoolies Week celebrations in one form or another. Community interest has risen also and you can pretty well guarantee that every year crews of TV reporters will venture up to the Gold Coast to try to capture the most sensational footage they possibly can. Without fail they usually manage to find some young people who agree to be interviewed on national television and talk about their alcohol- (or even better, drug) fuelled week at Schoolies, thus reinforcing many parent’s belief that it is an event that is out of control and one without any merit.

One of the best things about all the attention is that the promoters of Schoolies' events have been forced to ‘up the ante’ in terms of organisation and must now do their very best to provide a safe environment as possible for the young people attending their event. As already said, I have attended a number of Schoolies Week celebrations over the years and although there have always been incidents, usually linked to excessive alcohol consumption, on the most part I have found the young people to be well behaved and reasonably sensible. Saying that, it is important to remember why they are there – their intent is to let their hair down and that is exactly what they do!

So how is the best way for parents to deal with the whole Schoolies experience? If you feel uncomfortable with letting them go, should you try to stop them?
 
It is important to remember that trying to prevent your son or daughter from attending this type of event could damage the relationship you have with them. Young people attending Schoolies are not in their early teens, they are usually very close to the legal drinking age or in some cases, just turned 18 years of age (as I said though, this can be very different in both WA and Queensland). That is where many of the problems lie. If they have already turned 18 that can often mean that they want to celebrate in a big way and as a result their younger friends get carried along in the undertow. Young people wanting to attend these events are at the age where they are going to have make decisions on their own and trying to prevent them from doing so is most probably going to cause more harm than good.

Regardless of that, you are still the parent and you are still allowed to voice your concerns about what they are doing and the potential risks they may encounter. That part of being a parent is never going to stop and you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t do it. I also am of the belief that if you don't feel comfortable with the whole Schoolies concept you certainly shouldn't be financing it! This is not an event that comes up suddenly, if they want to go, then really they should have to save up and pay for it - not only does this involve them 'planning ahead' but it also means that it is their money they are playing with. Be an idiot and damage property and you will lose your bond - I can't tell you how many parents I've met who have lost thousands (and I mean thousands) of dollars in bond money when they stupidly agreed to fund the holiday ...

My most important advice, however, is to take a moment and sit down with your child and talk through the concerns you have, whatever they may be. Then after you have finished, give them the opportunity to let you know how they intend to deal with the potential problems you have raised. Remember that this is most likely to be one of the very last opportunities you will ever have to have a conversation like this - use the Schoolies experience as a valuable tool to find out how your child plans to look after themselves and those around them - you may never get the chance again! What many parents discover during conversations like this is that we have a generation of young people to be proud of, with many of them doing their very best to look after themselves and their friends. Young people of today definitely don’t know it all, but I really do believe that the majority of them do try to reduce the risk of something going wrong the best way they can.

Always remember to end any conversation like this by letting your child know that they can call you at anytime and you will be there for them. One of the saddest things I have ever heard come from a young person’s mouth was at the very first Schoolies Week I ever attended.

A young girl, heavily intoxicated and having difficulty breathing, had been brought to the medical tent. She was only just conscious and had been found alone in the street. When she was asked if there was someone we could call to be with her, her response was a very timid "Not my mum!" 

We didn’t get a name of a friend or a relative, we were simply told not to call her mother. That sentence would break almost every mother's heart. I know that my mum would be devastated if she thought that I would ever say it.

Every time you have a conversation with your child involving risky behaviour it needs to end with a reinforcement of the message that you can be called at anytime and you will be there (even Schoolies!). It doesn't matter what they have done, you love them unconditionally and you will be there for them. There may be consequences, but that's down the track, all that’s important is that they are safe and you love them.

For additional information on 'all things Schoolies' I have developed a Student and Parent Checklist for Schoolies and they are available on the DARTA website. Finally, as many of you are aware, I also write a blog for young people where I answer their questions - you may want to look at one particular entry (most probably the most popular) that answers the question 'How can I convince my parents to let me go to Schoolies?' - it just shows you how I deal with this issue when working with adolescents.

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