As teens, alcohol and summer collide, what parents can do?

"I couldn't do that, I'd never call my Mum!”

Drug and alcohol educator Paul Dillon has heard these words many times from the frontlines working with young people so inebriated that they are barely conscious. Even in such a state, many kids are afraid to turn to their parents for help.

The main reason a teen won’t turn to their parents in a crisis is shame and the fear of losing their parents’ approval and love. Credit:istock

They won’t even call their parents when their friends are in danger, he says, fearing they will get in trouble by association.

“The saddest things I have ever heard come from a young person's mouth was at the very first Schoolies Week I ever attended,” Dillon says. “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!"

Dillon, who travels across Australia working with young people to minimise the harm done by our most widespread recreational drug, says it is common for kids not to want paramedics or even hospital staff to notify their parents when they’re in trouble.

And, in his observation, girls are more reluctant than boys to involve their parents.

It’s not a call that any parent wants to receive, but I think we can all agree that not being called when your teen is in trouble would be so much worse.

So as teens, summer and alcohol collides, what can parents do to reduce the risk of things going horribly wrong?

First of all, don’t think that this doesn’t apply to your family because you raised your teen to be responsible so they would never drink underage or misuse alcohol. Sorry to be the once to break this to you, but the reason all these other kids won’t call their parents when they are in trouble is because their parents also believe that they are responsible and would never misuse alcohol.

Second, you might like to think that your child wouldn’t shut you out in their moment of greatest need. Don’t kids only behave like this when they have super strict sergeant major parents?

Dillon says it’s not about how strict you are. In fact, he has seen cases where the parents took a liberal approach to alcohol and the kids are still petrified of how mum and dad will respond to their drinking behaviour.

“I can think of at least two deaths that I have been involved with where the teens (both aged 15) had been provided alcohol by their parents to take to a party, things went terribly wrong and no-one would call for help for fear of getting into trouble,” says Dillon.

In his years of experience, Dillon has observed that the main reason a teen won’t turn to their parents in a crisis is shame and the fear of losing their parents’ approval and love.

Take a moment to let that sink in: these kids are so scared of losing their parents’ love and approval that they’re risking their lives — or their friends’ lives — over it.

Rightly or wrongly, these kids have gotten the idea that their parents love is conditional on their behaviour.

This perception may be entirely false. But in the heat the moment their perception is what matters.

Dillon’s says that the message of unconditional love needs to be expressed in practical terms for kids to understand it. Every time your child walks out the door on the way to a party, assure them that they can call you at any time, and you will come to help them. And crucially, that you will still love them.

None of this is to say that parents shouldn’t have rules and boundaries and there shouldn’t be consequences for poor behaviour. They absolutely should. But that is quite apart from unconditional love.

If we want our kids to turn to us for help, in the heat of the moment, and without hesitation, the best chance we have is for them to know with absolute certainty that no matter what they do, we will love them just as much as we did before.

Kasey Edwards is the author of the young adult series The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.

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