Friday, 15 January 2016

Parenting, the 'age of entitlement' and alcohol: 3 simple things that will keep your teen safer

As I've said time and time again, I really don't know how parents do it ... I am just finishing putting together my presentations for 2016 and looking at the available evidence around parenting and alcohol and other drug use. It's no surprise that parents are confused when there are so many theories out there about what is best practice.

Before you even start considering the alcohol and other drug issue - let's just look at what we know about effective parenting. There are websites, courses and books on 'positive parenting', 'attachment parenting', 'natural parenting' and 'slow parenting', programs like 'Taking Children Seriously' and then all types of warnings about 'overparenting' and the different type of parent you can become if you're not careful. There's been lots of discussion about 'helicopter parenting' for some time now but did you know there is now such a thing as 'lawnmower parenting' (mums and dads who attempt to clear all possible obstacles in the path of their child)? There's also 'underparenting', aka 'free-range parenting' where failing is seen as the new succeeding! Different animals are also used to describe particular practices, with the most famous being the 'tiger parents', but there are also 'jellyfish parents' and in response to the more aggressive tigers, there are now books promoting 'dolphin parenting'!

We also now apparently live in the 'age of entitlement'. It's difficult to establish when this phrase started being used, although there are a couple of books published in the mid 1990s that incorporated it into their titles. It made headlines in this country when the then Treasurer, Joe Hockey called for the end to the age of entitlement in his 2014 infamous budget speech, but it is in studies examining Generation Y or 'Millennials' (those born in the 80s through to the early 2000s) that you really see the concept start to be discussed in detail.  Research has found that this generation apparently has a "very inflated sense of self" leading to "unrealistic expectations" and "a sense of entitlement."

Experts believe that this entitlement was ingrained in the formative years and appears to stem from the 'self-esteem movement' that blasted onto the scene in the early 70s. The whole idea was that if we are able to boost young people's self esteem that will not only help them do well and be successful in the future, but also protect them from taking part in potentially risky activities. Certainly, even when I started in the drug education field, so many of the programs we wrote were rooted in the self-esteem philosophy - the belief being that if they felt good about themselves, then they would be more likely to resist peer pressure and less likely to use drugs. It kind of makes sense but when these programs were evaluated many years later, yes, the kids felt good about themselves but they also felt really good about taking drugs - not the intended consequence!

Of course you need to tell you're children how wonderful they are - "You're great, you're special," - are important words but they also need to know when they've done something wrong. They also need to know that some people are more 'special' than others (i.e., not everyone can get first place and receive a medal) and some people are going to be more popular than others (you're not going to be invited to every party) and that's the way life is! Unfortunately, the 'self-esteem movement' and the resulting 'age of entitlement' don't really allow for those possibilities and that can cause problems ...

So what to do around alcohol in this complicated world (we'll look at other drugs another time)? Here are four facts we know about alcohol and young people that end up confusing the hell out of parents:
  • 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!

There are no easy answers here and every parent has to make their own decision about how to deal with this very complex issue. You can read all the books in the world and do every parenting course available but it'll really come down to your child and the relationship you have with them that will determine what parenting strategies you use at that time. As I'm told by so many mums and dads, 'what works with one will not necessarily work with the others'. That said, the evidence is pretty clear that the most effective style of parenting, in a general sense, is 'authoritative parenting' - put simply, 'rules, consequences bound in unconditional love'. Those rules and consequences will be different for each family and most likely, for each child in that family, but nevertheless they need to be there.

But without a doubt, when it comes to alcohol there are just three simple things that every parent can do to keep their teen safer and they are as follows:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home
I've repeated these points many times as research has clearly shown that age-appropriate monitoring by parents plays such a huge role in keeping their teens safe, particularly where alcohol is concerned. At a time when parents are often accused of 'overparenting', I am sure some fear being criticised for asking these type of questions of their children (or wanting to find out more about what will be happening if they are to be in the care of other parents). We also have teens who do seriously believe it is their 'right' to go to parties and they needn't answer to their parents about such matters, thus leading to a great deal of conflict and resulting problems in the home. Getting the balance right early is the key - set the foundations when they are in primary school (or younger) and it'll be so much easier when they hit adolescence ...

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