A few Saturdays ago, my eight year-old daughter—let’s call her Dervish because she whirls—came huffing up to me as I sat with my morning coffee catching up on emails and paperwork that had risen on my desk like an angry blemish.
Have you ever turned a 'No' moment into 'Yes'?
A client reports: my son (he is sixteen) was offered alcohol by his friend’s parents at their house, last weekend. He told me he felt it would have been rude to decline – ha-ha. The friend’s parents believe that since kids are going to drink anyway, they are happy to have their kid and his friends drink in their home where the boys are safe. I guess that makes sense . . . “
On what planet?
Although I consider myself to be a pretty liberally-minded mom, I am shocked and dismayed at the cavalier attitude with which many parents treat their teenagers’ drinking adventures, mistaking enabling for responsibility.
Through the ages, adolescents have tried to get drunk, stay drunk, possibly not remember their drunkenness but rely on the accounts of other equally drunk teenagers to inscribe their experiences third-hand into the Big Book of Adolescent Alcoholic Exploits. Teenagers, begin drinking because they are curious, or to impress their peers, they think it’s a rite of passage and they feel immortal like characters from “Twilight.” They are, however, in the “twilight zone,” their brains dimmed with growing pains and hormones; that is precisely why their parents’ attitudes and behaviours are so crucial at this time.
Last summer, during a cottage holiday, a friend’s 16 year-old son decided to play a drinking game with a group of his buddies who had liberated several bottles of alcohol from their parents’ stash. This boy, I’ll call him Jimmy, was for all intents and purposes, “a good kid.” He did well at school and had lots of friends; he was helpful and respectful of curfews and other family rules. Jimmy was also a high school football player—6’3” and over 200 pounds—big. So big, it didn’t occur to him that something as weightless and clear as vodka, could bring him to his knees or lower. Jimmy downed fifteen vodka shots in a very short period of time. His parents had spoken to him about drinking, but he was on vacation, close to “home,” not driving anywhere and there were girls watching. He thought that because he was big, his body would withstand ingestion of a lot of alcohol. The worst that could happen was that he might become a little bit silly. This presumption was not to be. Jimmy passed out, then began to throw up to the point where he was choking on his own vomit. Thankfully, a loyal friend who had stayed behind with him knew enough to turn Jimmy on his side and ensure he kept breathing. That was, unfortunately, not the last time Jimmy nearly lost his life during this evening. Later, at the hospital, Jimmy’s body was shutting down. His stomach was pumped, he was put on an IV for fluids, unconscious for hours waking up to a worried family and self-mortification. The hospital staff recommended to the boy’s parents that they take photo’s even videos of the experience so he would realize how serious this issue is, how not funny it was and how close he came to dying. I personally know of two teenagers who died last year. One from freezing to death after passing out in a snow bank and one from falling over a guard rail as he stumbled home in a drunken stupor.
Alcohol works directly on the central nervous system and kills more male teenagers and young men than any other drug taken to affect mood and behavior (heroin, cocaine, marijuana). Teenagers are impetuous and disbelieving of their own mortality. This is a lethal combination. Parents who allow other people’s children to drink in their homes are not only irresponsibly risking the safety of those kids but could be setting themselves up for a lifetime of woes, both legal and emotional should someone get hurt or injured. Parents who laugh about their teenagers’ exploits should give their heads a massive shake and treat the subject with the gravity it deserves.
If you have family traditions, such as wine with dinner on weekend nights, and want to include your teenager, that is perfectly fine as long as it is explained and rules regarding drinking in general are communicated. But, setting parameters isn’t enough. Kids need to know in real and ugly terms that they can actually and easily lose their lives—just by one single bad drinking bout. Poisoning does not wait for their brains to catch up to its repercussions. It does not provide a second chance. It can act immediately and tragically.
If you have a teenager who does come home drunk, keep an eye on him of course to ensure that he doesn’t choke or isn’t in any other form of physical distress, but beyond that leave the child. If your son throws up all over the bathroom and then passes out, let him sleep there and wake up covered up in his own mistake. If your daughter is dirty and disheveled and completely unaware of her behaviour make sure she is safe and hydrated but don’t play nursemaid. Don’t cancel events the next day and don’t ease their hangover. Most children can learn a great deal from their mistakes with alcohol. Don’t “fix it” for them. They need to see the consequences of their drinking first-hand, not just hear about how “funny” it was from friends.
Whatever you do, please don’t turn a blind eye. Talk to your kids about how dangerous drinking in excess can be and teach them to stay with a friend who has had too much to drink. Teach them not to be afraid to call their friends parents or an ambulance if a friend has passed out from drinking. Don’t shy away from talking to your kids because doing so is unpleasant and don’t talk yourself into believing that “good kids” don’t drink. They do— – and it can be fatal.
I took my teenage children to see the documentary, “Bully." In the USA, much discussion ensued about whether or not kids under the age of eighteen should be allowed to see a film that depicts actual bully violence, uses foul language and is upsetting to behold. In Canada, common sense seems to have prevailed although at the screening we attended, the audience was comprised of primarily adults. Perhaps, this will change if and when the film goes into wide release. I hope so. While not comprehensive, this film goes a long way towards viscerally demonstrating exactly what bullying looks like and how it often tragically progresses—much the same way movies showing black lungs helped remove the glamour of smoking a few decades ago. Each family should be able to decide for themselves whether or not their kids should see the movie. I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under ten however—not so much due to content, but because younger kids are not used to slower moving films and may become fidgety.
Bullying is an ongoing crisis that has only escalated through the burgeoning use of electronics. In the last decade, both parents and children have been encouraged to be vigilant and act if they see signs of bullying. One of my concerns, however, is that many people have become over-fearful and watchful; when the boy cries wolf and the townsfolk keep running, he will continue to act out to the detriment of his own integrity, growth and development.
If a kid comes home and tells his parents that somebody in the playground grabbed the baseball cap off his head and threw it on the ground, is it reasonable for the parents to call the school and demand that the offending hat-grabber be prosecuted? This may not be the action of a bully, but the hijinks of an immature schoolmate. It’s annoying. It’s upsetting. But, may not be a case of bullying.
Bullying is defined as aggressive behaviour, verbal, physical or coercive, repeatedly directed towards specific victims. Bullies use force to make weaker people do their bidding. A gang is an example of “group bully.” A repeated character assassination on-line is an example of internet bullying. Continual poundings or threat of same on the playground is an example of physical bullying. Yes, teachers, children and parents must be aware of these actions and prepared to take their own should they observe or be subjects of bullying, but it is equally important that we be able to make the distinction between true bullying and teasing.
My parents always taught me to stick up for myself. They never told me not to come to them—in fact, they said that if anyone ever physically hurt me or threatened me, I should tell them immediately. Sometimes, I asked for advice on how to deal with a situation which they immediately provided in a “family meeting.” I had my share of unhappy moments, self-doubt, sadness, revenge fantasies, but I dealt with them and I dealt with the perpetrators using problem-solving skills I largely developed through trial and error. I came across an anonymous quote recently that reads, “The most honourable revenge is the one not taken.” How true, but when you’re a kid—how difficult.
It seems that because the awareness around bullying has become so much more prevalent these days, a growing number of hovering parents are not allowing their children to problem solve on their own or even brainstorm as a family. Parents are leaping in, running interference, calling schools more often to complain, telling their kids, “don’t worry, it’ll be okay. I’ll deal with it.” While this desire to protect and fix comes from a place of love and concern, it can be a real detriment to a child’s social competence.
Kids need to learn independence throughout childhood so that it doesn’t feel like a trait suddenly expected of them when they turn eighteen. As painful as it is for parents to see their children go through the tribulations of childhood, it is essential to allow them to go through them in the driver’s seat with no extra brake pedal on the instructor’s side. Kids who are encouraged to solve their own social problems will become more resilient adults with much greater self-esteem—something they will all need when embarking in the adult world. Knowing that you are there for them and will step in when true bullying occurs is important but Stepping in for them all the time actually steps on them, squashing their belief that they possess enough personal power to deal with any obstacles. Maybe this is why so many young adults in their twenties are floundering, suffering from anxiety and low self-regard.
That said, if a child is repeatedly attacked verbally or physically by anyone, zero tolerance for bullying must prevailed. It is cool to tell; it could also save a life.