Please don’t tell my parents

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Embarrassment and shame can deter teenagers from contacting parents about drug and alcohol problems.
Embarrassment and shame can deter teenagers from contacting parents about drug and alcohol problems.

I’ve written many times about the importance of letting your child know that you are happy to be part of a plan if something should ever go amiss when they are out. Every time they leave your house they need to hear you say “If you need me, I’ll be there, anytime, anywhere – no questions asked!”

It’s important to say that there are bound to be lots of questions the next morning or at least some time after the incident but, even if you have to gaffe-tape your mouth shut on the way home from wherever, stay true to your word and have the discussion later.

All you want to do at the time is to make sure they are safe. Hopefully you will never receive the call, but if you do, your child needs to know you’ll be there for them.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been back on the road, travelling across the country speaking to young people. As always, I continue to be blown away by how incredible our kids are and the way they respond to the messages I deliver.

Due to their brain development, teens can find it very difficult to believe what happens to others could possibly happen to them. Many of them are certainly aware of the consequences of taking part in particular activities and most know that if their friend drinks to excess then bad things can happen, they just don’t believe it will happen to them when they drink.

That’s why I focus solely on talking about the impact of drinking and drugs on their friends when I speak to them – they just soak that up!

They all want to know how to look after their mates. That said, I continue to hear stories from students that terrify me about their reluctance to seek help because of fear around what they believe their parents would think or do if they found out they were drinking or taking drugs.

As often happens, a group of Year 10 girls approached me to thank me for the presentation I had just delivered. One of them was quite obviously distressed about the section dealing with alcohol poisoning and the importance of getting help.

I had provided four simple warning signs that could indicate a medical emergency, one of which is vomiting without waking up, and stress that they would be unable to look after someone who is in that state. Calling 000 immediately and getting medical assistance is imperative. This was what she told me …

The year before my visit (the girl was 14 at the time) she and a friend had gone out partying with her older brother and his mates and had got very drunk.

Her friend finally passed out in a bedroom and, although she tried to get some assistance, none of the older teens that were there were willing to help. She had the good sense to put her into the recovery position but almost immediately the friend started to vomit and kept on vomiting for a number of hours, all while completely unconscious!

Drunk herself, and very sleepy and also feeling unwell, she sat in front of her trying to make sure she kept breathing …

After listening to my talk she now realised that her friend’s life (and to some extent, her own) had been seriously at risk that night.

When I asked her why she didn’t call her parents to help her, I got the usual answer – “I couldn’t do that, I’d never call my Mum!” When asked why she didn’t call an ambulance, she replied “But wouldn’t they call my parents?”

The fear that their Mums or Dads may find out what has happened is so sad, and before anyone thinks that it is just the children who are more likely to have been set rules and boundaries in this area (i.e., they have more strict parents) who feel this way, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Make sure your child knows they can always call you when they're in trouble socialising.
Make sure your child knows they can always call you when they’re in trouble socialising.

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.

It is vital that you constantly remind your children how much you love them and that your love is unconditional. As a wise person once said ‘You will always love your child but you may not always like their behaviour’.

No matter what they have done, you will be there for them and you will keep loving them just as much.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t get angry, upset and disappointed sometimes, but making it clear that your rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love is so important and goes a long way to keeping them safer.

I’ve told this story many times over the years, but without a doubt 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.

Over the years I have tried to tease out why so many adolescents respond like this (emergency department workers and paramedics have told me that they often hear exactly the same thing – particularly from young women).

Is it because they are frightened about getting into trouble? Are they worried about the possible consequences or punishment they may be given by their parent? What is it that leads to young people making it extremely clear that they don’t want one of the people who loves them the most in the world around at such a traumatic time?

From my discussions with young people it is often due to embarrassment and shame. Many feel they have let their parents down and if they are aware enough to know what is happening to them (which is certainly not always the case), they know exactly how disappointed their parents are going to be.

I don’t think there really is any way of changing that because the truth of the matter is that you are going to be hurt and disappointed.

They have let you down and possibly even put their lives at risk but wouldn’t it be great if a young person felt secure enough in their relationship with you that they understood that your disappointment could never overshadow how much you loved them?

Taking the time to clearly outline what ‘unconditional love’ means to an adolescent is vital. Most young people know that their parents ‘love’ them (whatever that means) but they also need to clearly understand what that means in practical terms, particularly as they start to socialise and go to parties and gatherings.

Teens can find it really difficult to believe that, no matter what they have done, their parents would always want to be called the second they get into trouble. Of course, there will be consequences if they break rules, but all most parents really care about is making sure their child gets home safely and is in one piece. You need to make sure that your child knows that.

As I often say to Mums and Dads, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were the parent of a child who was picked up for whatever reason and asked by a paramedic or a police officer “Who should we call?” and they said, without flinching, “My Mum! My Dad! I want my parents!”