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“Should I buy a breathalyzer to check-up on my teen?”

As part of my presentation to Year 12 students I cover the issue of drink driving, including the process of random breath testing (RBT) and how long a young driver should wait to get behind the wheel after drinking. I often get asked by students whether I think they should buy a breathalyzer to check whether they’re over the limit, just in case! As I always say, as far as young drivers are concerned, if you even have the slightest doubt and think you should test yourself – don’t drive – it’s just not worth the risk. This is not perfect technology (particularly some of the devices available on-line) and because a P-plater has to have a BAC of 0.00, well, just a little bit of inaccuracy could change their life. No young driver wants a drink driving record.

But what about parents using these devices to check-up on their teen? Could they be useful in that way? I recently received a message from Steve, a father wanting to know my opinion on this area. Here is an edited version of what he asked:

“My wife and I have been wondering whether buying a breathalyzer would be a good way of dealing with an issue we’re having with one of our children at the moment. Our 15-year-old son has been going out most Saturdays with his friends into the city or to a friend’s house then returning at 6 or 7pm. We know that he was drinking alcohol with some older friends earlier in the year and we managed to get him to see a counsellor to help him (and us) deal with that problem.  Recently he returned from his day out with friends and we think his breath appeared to smell faintly of alcohol but neither of us were completely sure. Do you think using a breathalyzer would help us?”

I think parents have to be very wary about using this type of device to check-up on their teen. It may seem like a great idea at the time but could very easily backfire and lead to a complete breakdown in the parent-child relationship if it isn’t thought through extremely carefully. Trust is so important in a parent-child relationship and it goes both ways. Not only is it important that a parent trusts a teen to do the right thing, it’s also vital that the child believes they can trust their parent in the same way. Some of the most distressed young people I meet are those who’ve discovered their parents went through their bedroom or accessed their phone or computer. In almost all these cases the parent did indeed find something they shouldn’t have (e.g., evidence of drug use) but that was irrelevant as far as the teen was concerned – their trust had been violated. When I’ve pointed out to them that their parents had most likely done what they’d done because they suspected they were lying (which they usually were) and now couldn’t trust them, that was all too much. The truth is that mistrust breeds mistrust. This is why situations where trust is broken have to be dealt with quickly and fairly as soon as they happen – leave them to fester and it can become a pattern of behaviour that can damage your relationship forever.

An online article by Chris Hudson suggests some simple steps parents should take when a teen violates their trust. I’ve used his eight headings from the article and added my own thoughts where appropriate and they are as follows:

  • have realistic expectations – as I’ve written many times before, you can’t trust an adolescent! Your teen is bound to disappoint you at some point by either lying to you or omitting or stretching the truth to ensure they get what they want. That said, you have to trust your child. It’s vital that at some stage in their teens you trust them to tell you the truth about where they’re going and who they’re with – you just have to be realistic and not over-react when they inevitably let you down
  • don’t take it personally – this can be difficult to do but stay calm and don’t see a teen’s bad choice as your personal failure. Unfortunately this type of response usually leads to over reactions and angry outbursts and tends to “create distrust rather than foster trust.” This doesn’t mean you should ignore what they’ve done and how they’ve let you down – of course, you need to take it seriously. However, as Hudson writes “a serious response is different to an angry or hostile reaction”
  • don’t despair – when it all goes wrong and you feel like they’ve let you down try to avoid the big statements like “I don’t think I can ever trust you again!” That’s how you may feel at that moment but remember a breach of trust during adolescence is normal. They’re not a bad kid and you’re certainly not a bad parent – that’s just what teens do. Remember, you’re applying a whole pile of rules and boundaries to keep them as safe as possible and they’re going to prevent them doing what they want. They’re not going to like that very much and, as a result, they’re likely to do whatever they can to get around those barriers and that’s not unusual
  • ignore the melodrama – I love this one! When found out, many teens are likely to respond by lashing out and attacking their parent, full of moral outrage. How did you find out about their behaviour? Did you breach their trust? Don’t you realize you’re going to destroy the relationship you have with them by doing this? Don’t get distracted by this behaviour and stick to your script (hopefully you’ve planned your ‘assault’ carefully and have the relevant facts at hand). Let them know how you feel and express your concerns clearly
  • explain the impact – parents underestimate the impact they have by simply telling their teen they can no longer trust them or they have broken their trust. Hudson writes “Often just hearing such a comment will be the most significant consequence of all.”
  • look for recognition – this is most probably the most challenging for all concerned. Hudson suggests that “parents should give their teen the chance to demonstrate they understand the impact of what has happened.” As a result, parents are able to determine how aware their teen is of what they did and the implications of their actions. Parents should also consider allowing their teen to come up with a possible consequence, i.e., how do they think they’re going to be able to earn your trust again?
  • reasonable consequences – whatever consequences are doled out, they must be fair and ‘match the crime’. I agree with Hudson when he says that the “temporary removal of a privilege is the most common, and effective consequence for violations of trust.” If they’re not fair (and teens have an innate sense of fairness) or they drag on for too long (grounding for long periods of time doesn’t work and when it comes down to it, who are you really punishing?), your child will simply forget what they did and focus on resenting you and how unfair the whole situation is, rather than learning about the value and importance of trust
  • provide a way back – no matter how let down you are, your teen must always know you still see them as someone who is capable of being trusted. Whatever consequences you decide upon, they need to know that you want to trust them and they’ll be given the opportunity to win back the trust they’ve lost due to their behaviour

What was my advice to Steve about the breathalyzer? This is an edited down version of the email message I sent back to him:

“I’d be wary of using these kinds of things unless you really need to! Firstly, what will you do if he gets a positive result – what then? I’d imagine trying to keep him locked in the house isn’t going to work to well and will only cause more damage to your relationship. 
In the first place, I’d recommend you have the big ‘trust’ discussion with your son, making a big deal about trusting him to do the right thing when he goes out on a Saturday, making sure you let him know how disappointed you’d be if he broke that trust. If you find out that he is breaking your rules (and your trust) around drinking, you’ll need to take it to the next level. He now needs to earn back your trust, so new rules and boundaries have to be made, making it clear to him that to earn your trust back he must prove he’s doing the ‘right thing’. It’s at this stage when something like a breathalyzer could be used if you really felt it was necessary (although I’d suggest there are so many other more ‘positive’ ways forward before you get to this stage, e.g., instead of him making his own way home, you pick him up).
I know what I’m about to say sounds like you’d be ‘caving in’ but realistically if there are not obvious signs of drinking and he continues to come home at 6 or 7pm you’re doing so much better than so many parents I hear from. If he is drinking any alcohol, he’s obviously not drinking much (of course, it would be great if there was no alcohol) and that’s how you want it to stay but I think bringing in a breathalyzer at this point is risky. He’s coming home (so many parents I speak to have teens climbing out of window and disappearing for the weekend!! Terrifying!) – you want that to keep happening! Of course, be vigilant but I’d recommend you keep him close and don’t do something that could cause the situation to escalate!”

When it comes to trust, parents need to remember that as soon as it is violated, the situation must be dealt with immediately. If you have rules in place about underage drinking and you find out your teen has been lying about drinking at a party, trust has been broken. You allowed them to go to that event and trusted them to follow the rules. Deal with the incident immediately – making sure the consequences are fair, age-appropriate and they match the crime. At the same time, they also need to know that they are able to earn your trust back. You need to be able to get back to the stage where you can trust them to do the ‘right thing’ and not fret every time they leave the house and they need to know that you do in fact trust them. If you let this incident go, however, mistrust builds and becomes a part of your relationship and that will make every Saturday night extremely difficult for all concerned!

Hudson, C. (2014). When parents can’t trust teenagers. Understanding Teenagers, http://understandingteenagers.com.au/blog/when-parents-cant-trust-teenagers/

Published: August 2018

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