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Keeping your child safe once they leave school: “Tell me why I shouldn’t be worried”

I was recently asked to write an article for Connect, an online fortnightly publication for parents and teachers across the Sydney Catholic school system. Although it was the drug-related deaths at music festivals over the summer months that attracted most of the attention, sadly there were other young people that died as well. Over the Australia Day long weekend an 18-year-old young woman who had only just recently graduated from a Sydney Catholic College tragically passed away after reportedly taking the drug GHB. The girl’s father, spoke exclusively to the publication urging parents to warn their children that “just one silly mistake could be their last”. The article containing that interview is a ‘must-read’ for all parents. What haunted me the most in the story was the description of the father dropping his daughter off on that fateful night: “As she got out of the car, he told her to stay safe and she replied “I love you”. He drove off content, knowing she was “very sensible and had never given him reason to worry”.” She had left school – like so many parents, he most probably thought the most challenging times were over.

The piece they wanted from me was a response to this story, highlighting what I believed to be the takeaway message for parents. Here is what I wrote …

Sometimes after finishing a Parent Information Evening someone will approach me, thanking me for the talk and then say something along the lines of “… but my child has just finished school so I can finally take a breath – I got through!” They look so relieved and proud of themselves and their teen that I usually don’t have the heart to tell them that as far as alcohol and other drugs are concerned, things are likely to have only just begun!

Although many believe that alcohol and other drug use is ‘spiralling out of control’ amongst young Australians, research tells us that, for the most part, this is just not the case. In fact, we have more 12-17-year-old non-drinkers in our secondary schools than we have had since records began in the late 1990s. Cannabis use has risen slightly in the past few years but is almost half the rate that we saw 20 years ago. Use of all other illicit drugs, apart from ecstasy, is either declining or steady. Unfortunately, the use of ecstasy/MDMA has recently doubled amongst students, with 16% of 17-year-old young men now reporting lifetime use.

What is clear is that drug use is not the norm amongst school-based young people. Sadly, when they leave school, we know that they are more likely to drink to excess and the use of illicit drugs can ‘spike’ dramatically. There are many reasons for this – they come into contact with different social groups, are legally able to attend licensed premises and events, but most importantly, they have left the protection of school. As I often say to a group of Year 12 students, “You are about to enter the most dangerous years of your life – 18-21 for young women and 18-25 for young men!”

We can provide them with the best education and put laws into place in an effort to keep them as safe as possible, but the reality is that this is a period of their life when they will take risks. Unlike their school years, they are likely to have far more freedom and greater access to high-risk activities due to their age. The one positive thing for parents to keep in mind is that they now have more life experience and hopefully, if something does go wrong, they are more likely to know how to respond appropriately.

Enzo Congiu’s story of his daughter Marli’s death is heartbreaking. Having only graduated from high school months before, it highlights just how dangerous this period of a young person’s life can be. There are no easy answers but if your child, no matter how old they are, is going out for an evening, here are a few things that you can do to possibly keep them a little safer:

  • If you are concerned, let them know and tell them why. Scare tactics don’t work but ‘real-life’ stories can be helpful
    • talk about deaths when they occur – start a conversation
    • let them know at every opportunity that they can come to you and talk about anything at anytime
  • Let them know you are happy to be part of a plan if something goes amiss. If anything goes wrong with them or their friends, you will be there for them – no questions asked!
  • Discuss what to do in an emergency. Don’t leave this up to the school – play your part and if you don’t know what to do, take the opportunity to learn with your child. Basic first aid skills, as well as how and when to call 000, may help save a life

Finally, most probably the best piece of advice I can give you, particularly if they just shrug their shoulders and try to dismiss your concern, is to simply ask them “Tell me why I shouldn’t be worried.”

Don’t allow them to walk away and say “Oh Mum!” Insist on one or two simple reasons why you shouldn’t be concerned about where they’re going and what they’re doing. This puts the onus back on them to step back and hopefully think about what steps they have taken to keep themselves and their friends as safe as possible.

Published: May 2019

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