Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pace LEAD Talk: Tips for Strengthening the Safety Net March 23, 2016

A few years ago when we were considering the mission of Pace LEAD, we came up with the image of the Safety Net. We want to be able to be there to catch our kids when and if they fall, to keep them safe from the dangers of potentially risky behaviors. 
 It’s helpful to think of this net as having multiple layers; the parts within ourselves, within our kids, between us and our spouses, between us and our kids, between our kids and their friends, etc.  I’m going to give you some quick tips for keeping all of the layers of the net strong. These tips are supported by research from the FCD website ( and confirmed by the Pace teens who are involved in PASS (Pace Academy Student Support) and have committed to abstaining from drugs and alcohol while at Pace.
These tips also come from my experiences as a psychologist working with teens for 25 years as well as my own experiences as a step-mother to a now 35 year old man and a mother to two Pace students…one of whom is a freshman at UGA, the other a sophomore at Pace. 
 When I went to my first Pace LEAD meeting, I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I felt like I was at my own intervention: a ritual designed to break through denial. Denial helps us keep scary information at bay: It also prevents us from the horrible feeling of panic.  

 So, please I urge you: the first tip is this:  Remain Calm.  Don’t leave this meeting tonight and interrogate your kid.  Perhaps do some meditation or yoga:  whatever helps get you re-centered.  The Serenity Prayer is a helpful: Grant me the Serenity to Accept the Things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference. 
 There is a LOT we can influence here. I promise, the more we face the truth and learn best practices, the more empowered we feel. 
 FYI, since that first Pace LEAD meeting five years ago, my panic has subsided significantly because I feel like what I’ve learned really helped me get through Cooper’s high school years. I am knocking on wood, knowing that I may be jinxing myself and there is no way to predict Schuyler’s actions over these next 2-1/2 years, but I feel better prepared having been through it. 
 Now, the first layer of the safety net is Within Your Child.  Our job to try to Increase His Resilience. 
 You’ve heard all about the teen brain and the under-developed pre-frontal cortex that is not good at thinking through consequences. So part of our job is to help strengthen that: and that means not rescuing them from the consequences of their actions. (In the world of Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called Enabling.)  It’s also about helping them delay gratification and work towards broader goals.
We also want to help our kids learn healthy ways to manage anxiety: going for a walk, listening to music, knitting, doing something physically active, unplugging. As hard as it is, it’s helpful to try to pull the kids off of their phones, just to allow them their brains to calm down.  Sleep, eating right, will all help your kid feel better and stronger psychologically. 
 And if your kid seems to be especially distressed lately, given the stress of recent events, take it seriously.  She may benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor about her feelings: this can be a great gift to give for your child.  Teens struggling with psychological issues or who don’t have great coping skills are at higher risk of abusing drugs or alcohol as a quick-fix way to feel better.    
   The next layer of the safety net is your kids’ social network. So, Know Get to Your Kids Friends. 
 Tune in to any shifts in their friendships, associations and activities.  Ask simple questions  (e.g., "How's so-and-so these days?") to uncover red flags. If your kid isn’t driving yet, offer to drive their friends around. It’s amazing how much you will learn about their friends eavesdropping on car conversations.  Show genuine interest in their friends, but don’t be intrusive about it.
 The next layer of the safety net is your own behavior. You are a potent Role Model. 
  (This lesson I have learned most clearly from listening to my teenage therapy clients over the years.  I have heard them describe in detail their parents’ drinking patterns and the devastating impact it has on them. I am not over-exaggerating here: it’s from the horses’ mouths…) 
Your kids are very tuned in and they are taking notes about the way you are handling alcohol.  Do some soul-searching about your relationship to alcohol as your kids are going through high school. They are watching closely. Talk to your spouse about the messages you may be conveying. 
 Do you crack open the wine bottle at 5:00 every day so you are buzzed every evening at dinner?
Does your spouse drink three mixed drinks at the restaurant and then get behind the wheel? 
 Using alcohol to cope with stress or needing booze to have a good time are all sending messages to your kids.  Kiersten from FCD described it well: if alcohol leads to a “shift in the dynamics” of the family—e.g. suddenly everyone is more jovial, or arguments flare up, or promises are made with no follow through…then the drinking has morphed from healthy to unhealthy. 
 Teens are highly sensitive to these shifting emotional dynamics, and the change can really be jarring for them.  At a deep level they feel abandoned (e.g. there are no adults in charge any more).  Also, if you are acting in ways that you wouldn’t want your kid to act, you risk losing your credibility with them.  Once your credibility is gone, you lose respect and trust…the very foundation upon which most kids base their decision not to drink! They are not going to care about “letting down their parents” if they neither respect nor trust you anymore.             
You also want to be careful about the way your high school party experiences are portrayed:  “Oh, your mom was a crazy partier in high school!” is very permission-giving, whether you think so or not. 
 To add to this idea, the most important connection in the safety net is the relationship between you and your kids. 
  It’s easy once the kids are in high school and starting to drive to just start acting like the nest is empty.  You see your kids less and some parents just start “phoning it in.”  (I think this is why the rates of alcohol use among the seniors at Pace was so high)
 But believe it or not, the research shows that many students do not drink alcohol or use other drugs because they do not want to disappoint their parents.  A positive relationship during this time is the best prevention for problems.   
 So how can you strengthen this connection?
1.     Create rituals of connection. For our family, these include walking the dogs each night, family meals, or just sitting around chatting in the evenings.  Do not let too many days go by without checking in about how they are doing.
2.     No phones at dinner table.  Family time is the opportunity to learn social skills, listening skills and other important life lessons.
3.     Beware of your own tendency to disconnect. We are all addicted to our phones and we need to model for our kids that the person in front of you is the most important person in the world.
4.     Trust until they prove otherwise.  As Mark Crawford recently noted: “Trust is the currency that buys freedom.” The more honest your child is, the more opportunities they should get to try things, even if they feel risky to you. This is how to prepare them for the world.
5.     When your kid has been out late, make sure they know that you or your spouse will be awake when they walk in the door. They will get a big hug and you will smell him and chat with him!  On the flip side, if he knows he can sneak in past curfew and his parents will be asleep, there are no consequences for making the wrong decision…    
  So, a bit more on parenting style. 
  Permissive parents tend to rescue their kids from the consequences of their actions because they don’t want their kids to feel bad.  They want to be their kid’s friend, not the “bad guy.”  This is usually out of a fear that their kid will rebel against any limits they set.  As well-intentioned as this approach may be, it appears that kids often perceive this as: “My parents don’t care.”  In fact, teens with permissive parents drink more and have worse consequences in college than parents with tighter reigns. 
 At the other extreme are the Overly Strict parents. 
 They may be psychologically intrusive, and this leads to a shutting down of communication.  Parents who say, “Don’t Argue With Me!” will end up with kids who may be obedient, but they may also be depressed. They are also likely to work on finding creative ways to lie to you and work around your rules because they no longer care about pleasing you.  Remember, a positive relationship is the key! 
 So what is the middle ground? 
 A more balanced approach is to:
*Set a few clear expectations with consequences.  You can state that you expect that they will NOT drink, and talk about what will happen if they do. 
*Explaining & enforcing rules helps kids feel safe! 
*Some arguing and conflict helps kids feel heard, and if they feel like the rules were actually a mutual collaboration, then they will have a greater respect for the rules because they have buy-in. 
*Start tight in 8th and 9th grade and then gradually loosen the reigns over the years as they demonstrate maturity and responsibility.
Another important way to shore up the safety net is to give your kid an OUT for drinking.  Remember, kids want limits.  Help them practice saying NO (these are called “resistance behaviors.”) “My parents would ground me for life,” “I have practice in the morning,” “No thanks, I’m on cold medicine.” There are many creative ways to get out of drinking situations. One encouraging fact we heard from the kids involved with PASS is that when they say no to drinking at a party, they DO NOT feel “peer pressure” to drink. Their friends are like, “That’s cool!”  (Isn’t that why we love these kids; they have nice manners and are respectful that way!) 
Discourages overnights because nothing good ever happens late at night.  Just come up with a curfew and explain that you’d like your kid sleeping in their own bed…
Also, get the “Find My iPhone” app and let your teen know that it’s on your phone. This way they are less likely to lie, knowing you can check their location remotely.  They should also have an Uber app on their phone as well, just in case they are in a situation where they need a ride and drinking has taken place.  While this may remove the incentive for Designated Drivers to stay sober, obviously safety is our first priority. 
Surprisingly, some kids actually request that their parents buy drug testing kits and breathalyzers.  Having these in the house gives them one more reason to say No. 
 Interestingly, based on the survey data, the number one place that kids drink is “at other kids’ houses.” Don’t make that be YOUR house. It’s just a good idea to not throw House parties. You are asking for trouble.  If kids end up drinking at your house, even if you didn’t knowingly supply the alcohol, you can be liable for bad things that happen after they leave your property. 
 There are so many fun things to do in Atlanta.
The Escape the Room )
Bowl at the Painted Pin (
The Ferris Wheel downtown (
There are so many creative activities that do not involve sitting around your house and potentially getting into risky behaviors. 
 But if you DO decide to brave it and throw a party, limit the guests and actually count them!  When you reach your max, send kids away.  (Mike Gannon recommended a max of TWO guests…) Be sure to check the back yard because teens often hide booze in the bushes the afternoon before the party.  Obviously do not provide alcohol and lock up your liquor.  You can get in major legal trouble for having drunk teens on your property.  Do the Random Pop-in; if they think Mom is going to poke her head in every so often it will keep the lid on the wildness. And by all means stay sober, awake & available.  If you are partying hard upstairs, then there are effectively no adults in the house.  The stakes are too high for you to be checked out. 

And another key part of the safety net is the relationship between you and the other parents.  I’m thrilled that the Pace directory now has our cell phone numbers in it! 
 I’ve used this a number of times to verify Schuyler’s stories about going to someone’s house when “his mom is definitely there” – only to call and find out the mom is definitely NOT there and had no idea her son was inviting friends over! These moms were so appreciative that I had reached out.  It can be incredibly re-assuring for all parents involved to have a parent ally during these evenings of teens moving from house to house as the night unfolds.  The kids need to know that you will be confirming their stories!  (And if any of your kids say they are headed to my house, PLEASE call me! 404-386-2945.)   If my child is having kids over, I WANT you to care enough to find out if I’m home… and if I’m NOT having kids over then you will want to be able double check your kids’ story.  And feel free to blame Pace LEAD.  (The biggest mistake we made as parents twenty years ago when we were ushering my step-son through his teen years was that we NEVER called other parents to corroborate his stories.  We only discovered years later that his friends’ parents were rarely home and there was major unsupervised partying going on. We learned our lesson the hard way.  Never again.) 
And the final layer of the safety net is your connection to Pace Academy.  We are so fortunate to be at a school with the kind of loving faculty and staff who truly want our kids to be healthy and happy.  If you or your kids are worried about a teenager’s substance use, you can make an anonymous referral through INSTEAD. This is a non-disciplinary committee of faculty who will reach out to that kid, and if need be, to the child’s parents. 
 Also, Pace LEAD needs your help to keep this program going. Our committee’s terms is up and we need new blood! We’d love for LEAD to host the very popular house parties next Fall, but it takes a village to make this happen. At the parties we explore the survey data and break into small group discussions to share advice, information and support. We have found that this approach is incredibly effective for educating parents and improving the cohesiveness of our wonderful community.  You can get involved on the Steering Committee, or host a house party for parents in your grade next year. You can also volunteer to help facilitate the house party discussions.  Don’t be intimidated by this!  We will train you and it’s not hard: it’s actually quite fun!  Please email if you want to get involved. Pace LEAD needs you to carry on this great tradition and to help keep the drug/alcohol use trends moving in a positive direction at Pace. We hope you join us!