June 2010

Recently the New York Times published an article with this provocative title, although they were focusing more on grad parties than underage teens experimenting with alcohol.

Most of my readers know that I’m parenting a 14-year old boy.  Unfortunately, alcohol seems to have become a significant part of his peer group’s entertainment, and I’m in an ongoing struggle to keep him from indulging in this behaviour.

Teenage drinking is nothing new.

As an article published by the New York Times in 2006 reminds us that teenagers have been drinking alcohol for centuries and adults have been trying to limit that consumption for nearly as long.

My own concern is compounded by the knowledge that addiction is a hereditary affliction that runs down both sides of our family tree.  The concern that has been growing within the medical community re: underage alcohol consumption is increasingly a neurobiological one.

Trying to figure out how to navigate this time of my teen’s life is an ongoing exploration of what’s happening in his social circle, what’s happening in our community, what the latest research is telling me and what my common sense and experience is guiding me to do as a parent.

And what the research is telling me is that turning a blind eye to the occasional alcohol infused teen party could be setting the stage for my son, and his peers to damage their brains irreparably, or paving the way to addictive behaviour that may be difficult, if not impossible to reverse.

Do you think that by offering a young teen an occasional drink in the home that you’re teaching them how to drink responsibly?  I have to admit, I used to think that way, but I’ve changed my mind.  There are ongoing studies being done on this, but the conclusion of all the studies I’ve found is that those who start drinking earlier in life, have a higher chance of developing alcohol problems later in life.

That does make sense to me, but another study had delivered findings that are a bit shocking.  Researchers are claiming that early exposure to alcohol can lead to poor judgment later in life.   Ok, so the study was done with rats, but it’s a finding that is worth giving some consideration to when looking at the long term impact of early drinking behavior.

There are many community initiatives coming together throughout North America to put the brakes on underage drinking.  Everything I’ve read indicates that involving the youth from the inception of any program ensures success.

I had a conversation with child and family therapist, Alyson Jones on this topic:

Laura: I’m curious Alyson, does alcohol abuse amongst young teens (under the age of 17) show up as an issue very often in your practice?

Alyson: Yes it does, very much so.  By the time they’re 17 it’s not so much the issue – other issues have shown up by then.  Children as young as in grade 7 and 8 seem to be experimenting with alcohol these days.  It’s not unusual for kids to be experimenting with alcohol, what’s distressing is how young they’re beginning the experimentation.

And the younger children start drinking, the more likely they are to develop addiction issues.

Laura: What do you think is leading to this trend towards younger children experimenting with alcohol?

Alyson: Well, even our generation started experimenting with alcohol quite young, but there does seem to be a trend towards so much beginning at a younger age.  Kids are getting cell phones in elementary school, and they’re getting Facebook pages in grade 6.   What we’re doing is pushing our kids towards sophistication too early.  We’re confusing sophistication with maturity.

Laura: So how do we reverse this trend?

Alyson: Well, that’s a big picture piece.  We need to keep our children close as much as possible.  We have to understand what maturity is, and appreciate that social acceptance is different from maturity.  Communication is key.  Guide them through choices, let them know you believe in their ability to make good choices, and that you believe in their ability to clean things up if they’ve made a mess too.  You want them to come back and keep talking with you.

Laura: Some parents think that by hosting parties in their homes, allowing underage teens to drink a bit in a controlled environment that they’ll teach them responsible drinking habits.  What do you say to that?

Alyson: There are different schools of thought on that.  Some parents think that way, and then others say absolutely not, that’s just never going to happen.  But we have to be really careful, if we want to be leaders as parents, it’s natural for kids to want something to push up against.  So we need to set limits.  If they think that your house is the one that they can go drink at, they’re not really going to be respecting you as a leader.

There are rites of passage, and they are going to go out and experiment, but you want your kids to know that they can reach out to you no matter what.  There might be that trip in the wee hours to go out and retrieve your kid, and then you have a talk about it the next day.  That is distressing, but there can be a lot of constructive things that come from that as well.  There are lessons to be learned from the consequences.

Alcohol is an interesting one, because teens are watching their parents relationship with alcohol as well.  What is being modeled?  Moderation?

Laura: Exactly, you want to show them what you want them to grow into.  Moderation and not driving after drinking.

Alyson: And one of the best things to keeping teens away from experimentation with alcohol is having rich family lives and activities that they’re engaged in.

Additional Resources:

Stop Underage Drinking – A portal of U.S. Federal Resources and Articles

Community How To Guides on Underage Drinking Prevention

Wellsphere has a webpage with numerous links to articles on this topic of underage drinking.

So much has been written about the adolescent’s brain development and this HBO article and brief video on brain development and substance abuse are worth reviewing.

The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking

Teenage Drinking Diaries

NOTE:  Shortly after posting this blog, I logged onto the Vancouver Sun to read about a 16 year old teen who has suffered a head injury after falling off a car in the parking lot of our neighborhood high school parking lot on Friday night.  Alcohol is believed to have been a contributing factor.  http://www.bc.rcmp.ca/ViewPage.action?siteNodeId=50&languageId=1&contentId=15317



Alyson Jones and I were interviewed this week on Caroline McGillvray’s Sexy In Vancity Radio Show.  You can listen to the podcast by clicking here.

A few days before our show, I came across this very funny  Ted talk about a mom having ‘the’ talk with her 8 year old daughter.

I’ve been struggling with my emotions this week.

The week started with a funeral for a member of our extended family, attended by hundreds of mourners paying their respects to the family. The father of two teenage boys, he had passed suddenly from a heart attack.   Funerals are always challenging, but this one really cracked me wide open, leaving me feeling emotionally vulnerable.

Then I had an intense series of email exchanges with the father of my son.  We were in disagreement about a decision I’d made which he thought had broken an agreement that I didn’t know we’d made.

We argued for days about assumptions, agreements and integrity.  Was I out of integrity spontaneously getting our son’s ear pierced?   The father thought he had made an agreement with our teen about it being a reward he was going to provide towards the end of the summer, for good behavior.  Our son didn’t think he’d made an agreement.  I didn’t think I’d made an agreement.  But the exploration of the issues raised had me reflecting further on assumptions, agreements and integrity.

Then I hosted an Authentic Leadership CircleÔ and had three last minute no-shows.  I pay for the venue and arrange for catering for these events.  Having several confirmed attendees cancel at the last minute or simply not show up was upsetting.  I found myself again questioning assumptions, agreements and integrity.

When I googled “assumptions, agreements, integrity” I landed on The Four Agreements, written by don Miguel Ruiz.

The Four Agreements are:

1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

It has been awhile since I read Ruiz’s book, and I realized I’d forgotten how profound I had originally found them when I adopted them as a practice several years ago.   I’ve always found the first and the fourth agreement relatively easy to align with from a personal perspective, but I trip up on two and three.

Gary van Warmerdam, who studied for over 15 years with Ruiz, writes, “people who decide to adopt the Four Agreements and create love and happiness in their life Spiritual Warriors. It is Spiritual because it is about living your Life. It is also referred to as a war because you are challenging the old fear based beliefs in your mind. It will take more than a week and a half to break free of fear, the tyranny of the inner judge, and old emotional habits. There will be some battles lost along the way, but that is of minor concern in the longer term strategy of creating happiness in your life.”

This week challenged many of my old fear based beliefs, many of them about separation and loss, and my deep wound of ‘not being good enough’, and ‘doing it wrong’.  As a result, I went into reaction, self judgement, disappointment and anger.

Gary defines Integrity this way: the quality or state of being complete, undivided: spiritual, or aesthetic wholeness: organic unity: completeness.

He goes on to say that when we live from a place of integrity, we don’t doubt ourselves.

Please take the time to read his article on this topic.

I resonate deeply with this….

“When we are acting from our Integrity, what we could call our authentic self, we don’t try. We don’t have a need to try. We just take action. We don’t concern ourselves with whether what we are doing is the right thing. We also don’t have a need to justify or defend what we are doing to anybody. This includes ourselves. The action comes from the heart and is with love, that is how we know it is true. It also comes with humility because we are acting on behalf of love and not for ourselves or a sense of righteousness. Emotional Integrity Words don’t corrupt this authenticity with chatter in the mind.”

From a Parenting as a Leadership perspective, I want to instill these four agreements into my son’s ‘tool kit’ of life.  We’re constantly working on the first one, but until this week, I’d been neglecting to incorporate the other three on a more conscious level.

I’m still in process with my emotions around some of the issues that arose this week, so I don’t have any further insights to share quite yet.

I’d welcome your insights and reflections, and I’ll revisit this topic as I return to including these agreements as part of my daily practice.

My son has been experiencing quite a few life changes the past couple of months.  On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale he’s not quite off the scale, but he’s certainly in the ‘risk of illness’ range.  A change of schools, an unprovoked physical attack, a new second home with his dad that includes a new second family, and then an unexpected and tragic death in the extended family.

It’s no wonder he was down with an illness last week and was a bit emotionally unstable this week.

My son has a pretty good capacity for resilience, but we still go through some tough times when there’s transitions to navigate.

I spoke with Alyson Jones about transitions and resilience this week, and this is what she had to say on the subject:

Alyson:  Resiliency is one of my favourite topics.  In both my parenting and in my practice, I’m always looking at building resiliency.  Transitions are always an opportunity to adapt, to accept losses, to adapt to the new.   Transition is always an end and a beginning and resiliency is about accepting the ending.

I think it’s one of the foundations of maturity.

Laura:  That makes a lot of sense to me.   But what I’m wondering is how some people seem to have a natural resilience, and others resist.  ….and I’m wondering why?

Alyson:  I can tell you why.  There are people who have a natural ability to bounce back, but those who are more sensitive tend to struggle more.  Sensitivity can bring in a lot of capacity, but it can also bring in a lot of distress.  I’m not just talking emotional sensitivity either, I’m also referring to physical sensitivity.  If you feel pain more, you’ll protect yourself more.  Sometimes you don’t develop the resiliency as quickly.  It’s not to say that others are insensitive, it’s just that some people are highly sensitive.  For them, and for parenting children who are sensitive, there needs to be awareness that developing resiliency is going to be a struggle, but it’s so important.

One of the things I’ve observed is that parents often try to protect their children during transitions and in some way try to take on the pain to protect the child.  The parent sees the child’s vulnerability or senses it, or feels guilt, or badly about the transition but sometimes they actually rob the child of developing the ability to bounce back.

I call it the ‘bounce back factor’.    Resiliency is the bounce back factor.

Life is sometimes difficult.  Sometimes life is hard.  But developing resiliency can help children and teens get through both the small transitions, and the larger ones like changing schools, a family divorce or a family death.

All of these things are opportunities and we as parents need to allow our children, in a supportive environment, to feel what they need to feel, to grieve what they need to grieve, and then to move forward and adapt.

Laura:  So what are some of the tools that we as parents can place in our children’s path to assist them in developing resiliency at various stages in their growth?  I’ve loved and cared for children, family members and the children of friends, who were so overly sensitive as small children that they were hysterical with any shift that took place.  How do you support children when they are that sensitive, to adapt, without just giving in and staying home all of the time?

Alyson:  Once you’ve identified that level of sensitivity, it’s critical to constantly be giving the child the message that they can do this, they can handle it.  In fact, anytime they do bounce back, it needs to be pointed out to them.  We need to be aware of this, we don’t want to throw them into constant distress by putting them into new situations every day, but we do need to choose some things that we help them get through.

Unfortunately what all to often happens is that parents are aware of this vulnerability, so they have their own anxiety around it, so they may unconsciously, or even consciously be giving their children the message that they can’t handle transitions.

Laura:  I’ve witnessed this, even experienced this when caring for highly sensitive children that a sort of adult contraction takes place in anticipation of the meltdown.

Alyson: You have to be prepared to the meltdown, hold your own, have good sea legs, and give the message to the child, “I know you can do this, I know you can get through this”.

If you’re giving the child the message that they can’t handle transitions, or you set up a life that avoids them, they aren’t going to develop the resiliency they need.

An example from my own parenting experience is:  my son is a very sensitive child and my husband and I knew that he was going to have to have some of these experiences to learn how to handle challenging situations and transitions.  One we chose to guide him into was skiing.  And oh boy, he didn’t really want to go, the first time we went he just wanted to play in the snowbank.  Skiing is a risky sport, but resiliency doesn’t come without risk.

Parents can’t always take every risk for their children, sometimes they have to let them fall.  So literally, when I think about the skiing, my son fell a lot of times, but now he knows he can handle it.

Now I can use the example of skiing throughout his entire life.

We believe in you, in your ability, even when things don’t always turn out well.  That’s the message parents need to be giving their children.

The earlier we start these messages the better.  And the higher the sensitivity the higher the defense mechanism, because it really does hurt more.  These are the children that deeply need their resiliency.

Sometimes we make things a little too easy for our children, and then they don’t feel that they’ve earned the reward of coming through a challenge.

Laura:  So how do we support our kids when we see them going into avoidance.  It’s one of the things I observe with my son, is that sometimes he’ll just hunker down in his cave and it’s obvious he doesn’t want to deal with one more thing.

Alyson:  This is where the concept of Parenting As Leadership really comes in.  There are times when we have to lead them, and we don’t allow them the exits.

Now in saying that, we also need to make sure we give them some reflective, emergent time.  But if we decide that there’s something that’s really important, and we know it’s in their best interest, then we do have to, as parents, take the lead.

Increasingly kids are becoming school avoidant.  This is one of the areas where parents have to support their children in acknowledging the sense of overwhelm they may be experiencing, but helping them through the issues that they are avoiding.

I can handle it, is a good mantra to teach our kids.

Laura:  So that makes sense to me in some areas, but then there’s those situations, particularly when you’re dealing with teens when they just dig in their resistance and don’t want to budge.  Then what?

Alyson:  I know, it’s incredibly challenging.  It’s one thing when the kids are younger, but when they’re teenagers you can’t pick them up and carry them into the school.  It’s a dilemma.   You don’t want to get caught up in just consequences.  Sometimes you need help to work out aspects of the relationship to bring the parent back into the leadership position, particularly if it’s a pattern where the teen is exhibiting that they have taken all the power in the relationship.

Laura:  When the parent/teen relationship is deteriorating to the point where the teen is losing their resiliency and the parent has lost power in the relationship – then what?

Alyson:  Well, that’s a pretty discouraged teen and a discouraged parent.  This is a situation that requires intervention.  A kid that is that discouraged and dug in won’t care if they receive consequences.  It’s not a quick fix.  But if a teen can get back in touch with their resiliency they can shift, learn to manage their emotions and re-engage.