Saturday, 17 December 2016

Holidays, teenage parties and music festivals: Simple things parents can do to keep their child as safe as possible

None of what I'm going to talk about today is new - I've raised almost all of these issues many times before - but leading into the holidays it is important for parents to remember that this is a dangerous time. Every year we lose a number of our young people around the Christmas/New Year break due to alcohol and other drugs and almost all of them are completely preventable. We see a spike in alcohol-related drownings and alcohol poisonings, young people dying in car crashes where alcohol is involved increases and, of course, there is the inevitable rise in drug overdoses and, in some cases, deaths, increasingly linked to the use of ecstasy and other illicits at music festivals. It's hard to forget that we had six ecstasy-related deaths at music festivals over last year's holiday period ...

Our teens have just finished the school year and are keen to party, the weather is perfect and there is an expectation in this country that whatever we do, we need to do it in a big way! In addition, parents are tired ... they want a break as well, a break from constantly battling with their teen around maintaining rules and boundaries and a break from having to say 'no' all the time. I get it - it's exhausting and we certainly want our kids to have a good time but it is important that parents stay vigilant over this period and keep 'parenting'. No-one is saying that you should lock your child in their room over the Christmas break but it is a risky time and we all want to keep our kids as safe as possible.

There are three issues to consider here and no matter what age your child is, you're going to be facing at least one of these. If they're in their mid to late teens, you've got real problems, because you're likely to have to worry about all three of them and if you have a Year 9 child that is about to move into Year 10 - well, I can almost guarantee you're going to have to do an awful lot of work on the first two!
  • knowing where they are during the day
  • teenage parties and gatherings
  • music festivals

During the year I highlighted three simple rules for parents around teenage parties and I have adjusted them slightly here to fit all the issues I have mentioned above. These are as follows:
  • if your child you 'can't' do something, that means you 'must'!
  • you make the decision how they get to where they want to go and how they get home and taking them and picking them up yourself is always the safest option
  • find out as much as you can about where they want to go and don't just rely on your child for the info!

Knowing where they are during the day
In reality this is going to be almost impossible to do at all times but it is vital that you and your partner put effort into finding out as much as you can about what they're planning to do each day, where they're going and who they will be with, particularly if you're not going to be around for whatever reason. Most importantly, you need to know when they'll be home. The reason I mentioned the Year 9 group as particularly problematic is that for some reason this is the age group that parents start to believe they should be giving their teen greater independence, particularly over the holidays, and the 'where', 'who' and 'when' questions stop being asked.

During the day it is entirely appropriate to allow your teen to use public transport to get to and from where they want to go - but remember, you make that decision, not them. When you can, offer to drop them off to where they're going and, as stated above, picking them up yourself is always the safest option. The holidays can also provide a great opportunity for you to meet their friends and their friends' families. Offering to drive a group of young people to the beach or to the movies allows you to find out more about what is going on in your child's life and strengthens your relationship.

Teenage parties and gatherings
Many teens will be invited to a number of parties and gatherings over the next couple of months and, due to them not being held during the school year, parents often let their guard down and some of the rules and boundaries in this area get forgotten. Once again, it's those pesky parents of Year 9s that tend to be the culprits in this area ... 
If you do decide to let your child attend a gathering that they have been invited to, there is no way that you can be prepared for all of the possible scenarios that may occur. It is vital however, that you realize that things can go wrong and do your best to outline some possible strategies that could keep your child and their friends safe should they find themselves in potentially dangerous situations, e.g., if something goes wrong, call 000. It is extremely important to have this discussion with your child and, most importantly, let them know that no matter what happens they can contact you and you will be there for them, no matter what.
Here are 5 simple tips for parents around parties and gatherings - they're certainly not always going to be easy to do, but when it comes to a teen's safety they are vital:
  • Know where your child is and who they're with – to make absolutely sure, do your very best to take them to where they're going and pick them up. It's not going to be possible every time, I get that, but don't always leave it up to someone else to do!
  • Always call the parents who are hosting the party or gathering. Your teen is not going to like this but this is most probably the most important thing you can do to ensure safety. Speak to the parents and find out some basic information about supervision and whether alcohol will be provided or tolerated. You can then make an informed decision about whether to let your child attend or not.
  • Review your rules around parties and gatherings. The holidays and particularly the new year is a great time to sit down with your teen and go through the rules that exist around parties and, if appropriate, reward good behaviour. If they've been following the rules and you're happy with the way things are going, adjust them, i.e., change the curfew, adjust the method of picking them up. Rules must be age-appropriate and fair - review them regularly.
  • Make the consequences of breaking the rules clear and stick to them - you can almost guarantee they will push the boundaries at this time of year but just because it's the holidays doesn't mean they can't be punished if the break the rules. Ensure they understand all rules are made because you love them and want them to be safe.
  • If kids don't like the rules, then they're most probably perfect.  Remember teens need something to 'push' against. It's not about making them too restrictive and stopping them doing fun things - every rules should be about keeping them safer - if that's not what they're about, change them!

Music festivals
These events have become far more mainstream over the past decade and we are seeing increasing numbers of much younger people attending (I go to some schools where up to a third of the Year 10s are going to festivals - amazing!). The majority of these are held over the summer break and due to the disturbing number of deaths that occurred last year you can guarantee that there will unprecedented media attention focussed on any event held in the coming months. Adding to that there have been growing calls for the introduction of 'pill testing' or 'drug checking' at music festivals and advocates have been working through the year trying to get government support for such an initiative. This will only add to the media interest.

I have said many times that I do not believe that music festivals are appropriate for the vast majority of 15-and 16-year-olds to attend. Of course, every teen is different and I have received some amazing emails from young people challenging me (usually extremely respectfully) on my comments in this area. These young people are passionate about the music and the culture around it and are obviously very mature and most probably completely able to cope (and likely to thrive) in the festival environment. Many others are not. There is a drug culture associated with music festivals and for some 15-and 16-year-olds that can be difficult to deal with and can be extremely confronting.

If parents do choose to allow their teen to attend music festivals (and at a certain age it's going to be difficult to stop them) here are just a few things that they should consider discussing with them:
  • Ensure you voice your concerns and set rules and boundaries around behaviour. If you are concerned about drug use, let them know and tell them why you are worried. Keep the lines of communication open and let them know at every opportunity that they can come to you and talk about anything at anytime. Even though you may not know much about these drugs, take the opportunity to learn about them with your child. Be as honest as you can when you talk about drugs and don't exaggerate the facts to scare them - warning them that if they try 'this or that' they could die is most probably not going to ring true to most young people. Certainly there are risks and there have been deaths linked to the use of ecstasy and related drugs, but they are not the norm and parents have to be careful in focusing on only the more extreme potential harms.
  • Discuss and formulate an emergency plan. For example, if they are out and have no way of getting home let them know that they can catch a taxi and you will pay. If they call you in the middle of the night that you won't lose it, but will help. This does not mean that you are supporting bad behaviour or condoning drug use but it does demonstrate that you will be there if thing go wrong in their lives.
  • Ensure they know what to do in an emergency. Basic first aid skills, as well as simple information such as how to call 000, may help save a life.  Reinforce to your child that in a drug-related emergency that the ambulance officers do not have to call the police, unless the person is refusing to seek treatment or there is the risk of injury to them. Make sure they have the 'Emergency+' app on their phone.
  • More than ever this year, young people going to festivals need to know the legal consequences of taking drugs such as ecstasy. There will be a huge police presence at these events over summer and policing strategies such as drug detection dogs and roadside drug testing have resulted in more people from the dance culture being prosecuted for drug offences. Let your child know how being caught for using drugs will affect the rest of their lives.
  • Make it very clear where you stand about the use of illegal drugs. As much as you may believe your views do not matter to your child, research shows that parental influence is still a major factor in the decisions many young people make.

So there we are, a whole pile of suggestions for parents around parenting over the summer break. I say it all the time, but it's so important to keep saying it, you guys have the most difficult job in the world! There is no rule book and you can only do the best you can do at the time ... when you make a mistake in the parenting area (and you most probably have and will continue to for the rest of your life) and something goes wrong, don't beat yourself up about it! Pick yourself up, learn from your mistake and move on and hopefully don't do it again!

This is a wonderful time of the year and, not surprisingly, many young people (and their parents) want to let their hair down and have a good time. Inevitably, in some cases, things do go wrong and the best way that parents can ensure that their child is as safe as possible is to actively 'parent' and remember the three 'golden rules' when it comes to parenting and alcohol and other drugs:
  • know where your child is
  • know who they're with, and
  • know when they'll be home

Have a great and very safe Christmas and New Year and thank you to everyone who has read my blog entries through 2016 - it really is appreciated!

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