“Mr Dillon, I made a big mistake …” were the first words that came out of the young man’s mouth when he approached me after a Year 11 presentation a couple of weeks ago. He had waited until everyone else had left the room and then came up to me quite sheepishly. There’s so many issues around ‘duty of care’ and the like, that when someone starts a discussion like this I have to very quickly make it clear to the student that if they are going to tell me something that suggests they are at risk in some way, I have no choice, I have to tell someone at the school – I can’t keep it secret … Thank goodness it wasn’t that sort of story but certainly this young man had recently found himself in a very confronting situation and was looking for some advice from me about what to do next.
Without going into too much detail and slightly changing some of the aspects of the situation to protect his privacy, this young man had gone out with friends a couple of weeks before and had got terribly drunk. He kept repeating that he had no idea how he got that intoxicated – it certainly wasn’t intentional and he claimed (and I totally believed him) that he had never been in such a state before. He was eventually found and taken to the local police station. He had little memory of what happened leading up to being picked up but was later told that he was quite abusive and aggressive. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on … I’m paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:
“I’m grounded until December! That’s a really long time. I know I’ve done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I’m prepared to take my punishment but do you think there’s anything I can do to change my mum’s mind?”
If you could have seen this young man’s face it would honestly break your heart! He so knew that he had done the wrong thing – I haven’t gone into any great detail about what he did that night but it didn’t sound good and the phone call from the police must have been terrifying for the mother – and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn’t believe the punishment fitted the crime. I need to say that at all times he was incredibly respectful to his mother – he didn’t criticise her but wanted some advice on how to possibly ‘move her’ a little.
The following week I did a Parent Information Evening at the school and after acknowledging that the mother could be in the audience and ensuring that the story was altered to protect privacy, I shared the young man’s story. I really didn’t expect the mum to be there but right at the end of the evening a woman approached me and said she was the mother I had talked about! She was such a delightful woman and we had a long talk about what had happened (interestingly her son had actively encouraged her to attend my talk, even though I had not given any indication to him that I was going to mention the story or was going to cover anything that we had talked about) and she let me know what had happened since I had met her son. She had no idea about the conversation that her son and I had had but she informed me that his punishment had been renegotiated over the weekend …
If you’ve ever heard me speak to parents, one of my key messages is that the ‘tough love’ (or ‘authoritative’) style of parenting has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children, i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love. That’s easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out … trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you’ve got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken! Unfortunately, too many parents create the consequence ‘on the run’ – something happens and the punishment is created in anger and not well thought through. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by a young person that they have been ‘grounded for life!’ Really, you’ve got to look at that and think who are you really punishing there?
The key to finding ‘appropriate’ consequences (i.e., they are fair (they ‘fit the crime’), balanced (they impact on the young person but aren’t designed to ‘hurt’) and are able to be enforced) for breaking any rules is ensuring that they are developed at the same time as the rules. Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. When they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair – they may not like what will happen but it’s no great surprise!
Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child’s drunkenness?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. The key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger – you may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Give your child a punishment that can’t realistically be carried out and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place – they’re simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time.
The mother I met had been terribly let down by her son’s behaviour and she certainly wanted to make sure that he knew that it was totally unacceptable and must never happen again. Was grounding him for 8 months an appropriate punishment? Only she knows that and I have no right to judge what she does with her son. That said, she was ‘big enough’ to sit down with him and look at his punishment again, still making it clear that what he had done was wrong but also acknowledging that there is always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.