Saturday, 15 July 2017

Schoolies: Should I be worried and should I try to stop them going?

Schoolies Week (or 'Leavers' as it is called in WA) has been around in one form or another for a long time. When I finished high school I can remember a range of things that some of my classmates did in the days or week following the last day of exams. We may not have travelled across the country or overseas, but there has always been some type of 'letting off of steam' at this time. These 'celebrations' undertaken once high school has finally ended (whatever form they may come in), have always been regarded as a distinct marker of the transition from childhood to adulthood. I hate the term but Schoolies' events are now regarded by many school leavers as a 'rite of passage' ...

One of the main reasons for this is the commercialisation of Schoolies Week, particularly over the past couple of decades. There is big money to be made here and there are plenty of people ready to take advantage of a group of young people with money to burn. There are a number of companies that deal only with Schoolies events and they promote these events very aggressively. You only need to watch MTV a couple of times to understand the increasing social pressure on young people leaving school to attend Schoolies Week celebrations in one form or another. Community and media interest has also grown and you can pretty well guarantee that every year crews of TV reporters will venture up to the Gold Coast (and other spots around the country) to try to capture the most sensational footage they possibly can. Without fail they usually manage to find some young people who agree to be interviewed on national television and talk about their alcohol (or even better, drug) fuelled week at Schoolies, thus reinforcing many parents' belief that it is an event that is out of control and one without any merit. Add social media (and some young people's stupidity) to the mix and you can certainly see why so many parents worry ...

Every year I get emails from both parents and young people on this topic. Teens asking for tips on how to convince their parents they should be able to go (to see my response to that question - have a quick look at my entry on my Real Deal on Drugs blog for young people), while others are from Mums and Dads (usually Mums!) who are absolutely terrified about letting their son or daughter go to the event, requesting advice on what they should do. They want their teen to have a great time with their friends at this important time in their lives, aware that they are young adults and they can't protect them forever, but are still very worried about what they've seen and heard about the Schoolies phenomenon.

One of the best things about all the attention is that the promoters of Schoolies' events have been forced to 'up the ante' in terms of organisation and must now do their very best to provide a safe environment as possible for the young people attending their event. But that can be difficult when the whole idea behind Schoolies is to give young people who have been studying for the past twelve years the opportunity to 'let off steam'. So what do we know about what happens at these events?

There have been a number of studies examining the Schoolies phenomenon and, sadly, their findings have only added to parental concern. A South Australian study of Schoolies attendees (Hutton et al, 2015) found that for many, alcohol was their major focus when it came to planning. They reported spending most of their preparation time deciding the type of alcohol they would consume, how they would purchase alcohol before attending the event and making sure they had suf´Čücient money to last across the days they were away. This is supported by other studies that looked at how much they drank when they were at the event. A WA study looking at 'Leavers 2009' on Rottnest Island (Lam et al 2014), found males drank an average of 18 standard drinks per day (that's the equivalent of just under a bottle of spirits) whilst away, and females consumed an average of 13! These are staggering numbers and not surprisingly, a large majority reported experiencing at least one adverse outcome such as hangover, vomiting, blackout, or unprotected sex ...

That said, over the years I have attended a number of Schoolies Week celebrations (I wrote a blog entry a couple of years ago about my wonderful experience at the SA 'Schoolies Festival' held in Victor Harbour - a great event put on by Encounter Youth), and although there are always incidents, usually linked to excessive alcohol consumption, most young people are well behaved and reasonably sensible. Saying that, it is important to remember why they are there – their intent is to let their hair down and that is exactly what they do, but the majority are pretty responsible and most importantly they all try to look after each other.

There is great social pressure on young people attending Schoolies to behave in a certain way. The media, in particular, does a great job of convincing young people that teenagers going to Schoolies will drink to excess and as a result, behave badly and this is the type of behaviour expected of them. Unfortunately, many of them try to live up to it (as you can see by the research findings) and find themselves failing badly.

It is important to remember that trying to prevent your son or daughter from attending this type of event could damage the relationship you have with them. Young people attending Schoolies are not in their early teens, they are usually very close to the legal drinking age or in some cases, have already turned 18 years of age. That is where many of the problems lie. If they have recently had their eighteenth birthday that can often mean that they want to celebrate in a big way and as a result their younger friends get carried along in the undertow. Young people wanting to attend these events are at the age where they are going to have make decisions on their own and trying to prevent them from doing so is not going to be helpful and will result in conflict.

Regardless of that, you are still the parent and you are still allowed to voice your concerns about what they are doing and the potential risks they may encounter. That part of being a parent is never going to stop and you wouldn't be doing your job if you didn't do it.

My advice is to take a moment and sit down with your child and talk through the concerns you have. Then after you have finished, give them the opportunity to let you know how they intend to deal with the potential problems you have raised. What many parents discover during conversations like this is that we have a generation of young people to be proud of, with many of them doing their very best to look after themselves and their friends. Young people of today definitely don't know it all, but they do try to reduce the risk of something going wrong the best way they can.

Most importantly, if they do go you need to make sure you repeat the same mantra that you should be saying to them every time they leave the house:

"You can call me anytime, anywhere. If something goes wrong and you need me – I'll be there"
Not surprisingly, there are many young people who decide to leave Schoolies' events early. They run out of money, the weather is bad and they find themselves stuck in a hotel room (or tent) for a couple of days, they get bored, or the event just simply doesn't live up to the hype. When I tell Year 12s to lower their expectations around Schoolies and say to them that some young people leave early, you can see that they don't believe me, but I get at least a couple of emails every year from teens who write and just say 'you were right!'
Discuss 'outs' with them. Let them know that you are willing to play the 'mean parent' so that they are able to 'save face' should they want to leave for any reason. If they should find themselves in a situation where they are not getting along with their friends (as much as many teens believe Schoolies will bring their group even closer together, it is surprising how many close friends are torn apart when they find themselves living together for four or five days!), or they have had a bad experience, they need to know that you will be there to bail them out if they need you ... Now, forking out the money for a quick airfare home from Byron Bay is not going to be cheap but if your child is suffering and you can do it, you need to ... That doesn't mean the money doesn't get paid back to you at some time in the future but when they make the call, you want them home ...
All parents want is for their teen to come home safely. Although many Schoolies are 18 and now legally an adult, they are still your child. Keeping a positive dialogue happening throughout the whole Schoolies' process, highlighting the potential risks and providing ways of reducing these without being judgemental, is most probably the best way to begin the next stage of your parent-child relationship.
If you are a parent of a Year 12 student who is going to a Schoolies' event, I have developed a Checklist for Students, as well as an Information for Parents fact sheet that may be helpful when it comes to planning and discussions. They are both available on the Schoolies' page on the DARTA website.
References:
Hutton, A.,Cusack, L., Zannettino, L., Shaefer, S., Verdonk, N., & Arbon, P. (2015). What are school leavers' priorities for festival preparation? Australian Journal of Primary Health 21, 249–253.
Lam, T., Liang, W., Chikritzhs, T., & Allsop, S. (2014). Alcohol and other drug use at school leavers' celebrations. Journal of Public Health 36, 408-416.

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