Sunday, 31 May 2015

The importance of simply taking the time to answer a teen's question and the lasting impact it can have

I've been working with young people for over 30 years now and as I always say, it is my passion. I truly love what I do! I often get asked what I think is the most important thing people can do to keep our kids as safe as possible, regardless of whether you're their parent, their teacher or another significant adult in their life ... It's a tough question but when it comes to parenting I have been quoting Laurence Steinberg in my Parent Information Evenings this year when he says:

"The single most important thing parents can do to raise healthy, happy and successful kids is to practice authoritative parenting"

Put really simply, that means establish rules and consequences, stick to them and wrap them all up in a great big parcel of love! Evidence shows that authoritative parenting not only delays, but can in fact prevent, early drinking and illicit drug use. I believe that it is also vital that parents keep talking to their teens and try to maintain an open and honest dialogue about the topic of alcohol and other drugs. For those of us who are not parents, but who are fortunate to have contact with young people, this is an area in which we can really make a difference if we get it right!

I get to speak to tens of thousands of young people every year and, although it isn't always possible, I try to make myself as available to them as possible. They can speak to me after my presentations and ask any questions they may have and they are also encouraged to send me an email if they feel uncomfortable speaking to me face-to-face. As well as receiving emails. it always staggers me how many text messages I get from students asking me questions (goodness knows where they get my mobile number from!), usually very late on Saturday night or in the early hours of Sunday morning (as you can imagine, some of these are really out there!). As many of you know I also have a blog specifically developed for young people ('The Real Deal on Drugs') where they are able to ask me questions they may come up with after I have left the school ...

I recently found out just how important answering a young person's question can be and the lasting impact simply responding can have ... I visited a school and one of the health teachers came up to me while I was having lunch and introduced himself. Apparently he had heard me speak at his school when he was in Year 12 and after the talk had sent through an email to me asking a question. What had apparently made such an impression on him was that I had replied, that the answer I had given him was useful and I had done it quickly ... What really choked me up was when he said that the fact that my response was one of the reasons he became a health teacher! "I still remember how excited I was that you took the time to send me an email back" he told me and he went on to say that he believed that the impact that my taking a little time to respond to his question had on his life at that time was one of the reasons he eventually decided to teach. It was a very special moment!

This morning I searched my computer and found the original email he sent me, as well as the two that followed (it really pays to have a folder called 'Nice Emails'!). I have edited them slightly to remove any identifying information ...

"hi you recently came to our school and gave a talk on alcohol and other drugs. I am currently trying to tell my girlfriend that bread does NOT absorb alcohol. She does not believe me so i am emailing you to prove her wrong:):):) please send me a email saying that bread doesn't absorb alcohol because the effects of alcohol are in the brain and not your stomach.
thanks" 
I then responded with the following:
"Thanks for the email. I would like to assure your girlfriend that bread does not help sober a drunk person up! If you have become drunk it is because the alcohol has reached and affected your brain. No matter how much bread you eat that is not going to reverese that effect. Eating bread whilst drunk can be dangerous. Even at the best of times bread can be difficult to chew and digest - when you're drunk this can prove fatal.
Hope that clears that up!"
I then received this wonderful email (hence why it was to be found in the 'Nice Emails' folder):
"thanks mate... your awesome and your talk was awesome... i like the fact that you cleared up all the myths and talked to us about being able to drink responibly and im really happy that you didnt do one of the 'dont do alcohol' talk.. thanks a lot mate ..."

A simple paragraph that had taken me a couple of minutes, if that, to write had apparently made a huge impact on this young man's life! So what does the research say in this area?

Building young people's so-called 'resilience' is vital and it is most probably best defined as "the inherent and nurtured capacity of individuals to deal with life's stresses in ways that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives." One of the factors that has been identified to enhance resilience in young people is having a warm, positive relationship with an adult, whether he or she be a parent, teacher or whoever. I've talked previously about the impact that an adult simply knowing and using a teen's name can have on their self-esteem and how they see themselves, the same can be said for simply responding to a question they may have. If an adolescent actually regards you highly enough to take the time to ask you a question about something, surely it is worth the energy to doing your best to answer them to the best of your ability. 

We live in a very complex world and we all have very busy lives. It is so easy to brush off young people's questions with a pat answer, or tell them we'll talk to them later, no matter who we are or what our relationship with them may be. What makes it so much more difficult in the alcohol and other drug area is that so many of the questions likely to be asked are not simple and many of them are confronting, but regardless, it is so important that we do our best to take a little time to answer them to the best of our ability. Always remember that for a teen to ask you anything in this area (as with sex and other controversial topics), they must think something of your opinion - you are in a privileged position and it is a valuable opportunity that should not be wasted. You may not always know the answer but simply taking the time to listen to a teen's question in this complex area, making them feel valued and important by an adult even for a moment or two and then responding the best you can (even saying that you don't know the answer but will do your best to find out or "let's find out together") can really make a difference!

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