Parents, teens and trust: Can you trust a teen? Most probably not. Do you have to trust a teen? Absolutely!

Since presenting testimony at the Coronial Inquest into Music Festival Deaths I have been asked to do many media interviews, most of which I have knocked back. As I have got older I have become increasingly frustrated with the whole 'media process' of taking a 30-minute interview and editing it down to a couple of quick grabs that rarely capture the subtlety of the message you are trying to relay. That said, I wanted to highlight my concern that we are seeing growing numbers of younger Australians experimenting with ecstasy/MDMA and that many of them now regard it as a 'harmless' drug and, for the most part, hopefully that's what was covered.

Deborah Cornwall, a journalist I have worked with for many years, has written a comprehensive piece for today's Weekend Australian outlining details around three of the six deaths being investigated. It's a 'must-read' for any parent who has a child that attends festivals (or nightclubs and other nightlife events for that matter) and although it's certainly not an 'easy read', it's well worth a look. At the bottom of the story there's a breakout box where I have been quoted as saying, amongst other things, the following:

"Dillon says increasingly teenagers are starting to use MDMA at 15 - the same age they start experimenting with alcohol. "I have parents say to me, 'I trust my child.' I tell them, 'Well, you are a bloody idiot.' You can't trust an adolescent because they lie. They want to protect their boundaries and they want to protect their parents." 

I can almost guarantee that I'll get a bit of hate mail as a result of that quote. Whenever I talk about parents, teens and trust I have to prepare myself for an angry response. I'm certainly not going to back away from it but I do need to soften it a little. What I meant by that statement (and I'm pretty sure I would have said it in the interview but it was likely edited down due to limited space) is although you can't always trust a teen, at some point or another, you have to! I also believe that even though you do have to trust your child during adolescence, you just have to make sure it's not 'blind trust'.

In the article, Cornwall writes about the death of 19-year-old Callum Brosnan ...

"Like most of the other parents, Callum's mum and dad had no idea he used drugs. Cornelius Brosnan would later tell police he'd asked him once and been assured by Callum that he didn't … In reality, Callum had been a regular MDMA user since Year 9. His friends told police that in recent years he had developed a reputation for hitting it harder than anyone else in their group, taking five to 10 "pingers" every second weekend …"

Now, I am certainly not accusing Callum's father of 'bad parenting'. When it boils down to it, if the young man had turned around and told his Dad that he did use drugs, what could he have actually done about it? I met and spoke with a number of the parents after my testimony and they are all incredibly brave people simply trying to make some sense out of what happened. What this case highlights, however, is that simply believing that your child is always going to tell you the truth about what they are doing when they go to a party on a Saturday night or a festival over a weekend, no matter how great your relationship is, is potentially dangerous.

There have been many people who have challenged me over the years on this topic (some simply getting angry that I have suggested that their child would lie to them, while others, holding the belief that adolescents are no less trustworthy than adults) and even though I have tried to clarify my position many times, with that quote appearing in the paper, it may be wise to do so again ...

Firstly, I believe that our young people are amazing - they live in an increasingly complex world and the vast majority manage to navigate through the adolescent years without too many problems. I have worked with them for over 30 years and the current generation of teens constantly astound me when it comes to their resilience and ability to adapt to the huge changes that are occurring in the world today. Each week, across the country, I meet adolescents who are doing incredible things and, sadly, we do not talk about their achievements enough ...

Secondly, I suppose the best way of explaining my beliefs around parents, teens and trust is as follows:

Most young people will do the 'right thing' most of the time, however, all young people will do the 'wrong thing' at least some of the time

You can have the best relationship with your child - one that both you and your child values greatly - but when they are put into a situation where they have to make a decision, they weigh 'risk-reward' differently than adults. If a teen is put into a situation where they have to decide whether or not to tell their parents the truth about whether they are planning to drink alcohol at a party or not, or to take a couple of 'caps' at a festival on a Saturday afternoon, they have to 'balance' risk and reward. The risk is they would jeopardise their wonderful relationship with their parents if they lie and the potential reward is that they get to have a 'great time' with their friends ... As adults, we would look at these two options and would regard the risk as too great - the relationship is far more valuable than a few drinks or potentially dangerous illicit drugs. Adolescents, however, are more likely to see the reward as far more important, leading them to not always telling the truth. Does this mean they value the relationship with their parents any less? Of course not, it's just that their brain is pushing them to the reward - they "don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff"! It is also important to note that this reward is increased if they are around their peers - the more friends around them, the greater the reward. So in actual fact, adolescents are likely to be less trustworthy than adults simply because of this evolutionary feature ...

So should parents 'expect' their teens to lie? Absolutely not! If parents went through the teen years with that negative attitude they'd be driven mad. I don't believe you should 'expect' your child to lie, but you need to 'accept' that they will at some time. Does this undermine your relationship with your child? I don't believe that it does - it's simply being realistic and acknowledges that teens do not always make the best decisions, not because they're 'bad kids' (or you're a 'bad parent') but simply because they're going through a stage in their life when their brains are going through major changes and they also need to push against rules and boundaries to work out exactly where they fit in the world.

Without doubt, the better the relationship you have with your child, one in which your values, concerns and expectations are discussed, the more likely it is that they will be truthful and share what is happening in their life. Accepting (not expecting) that your teen is going through a stage of their life where they are not always able to make the best decisions and may lie to you ensures that you don't fall into the trap of blindly trusting them. I have met too many parents over the year who have totally believed that their relationship with their son or daughter was one built on respect and trust, only to find out too late that they had been lied to, sometimes for years. All too often they discovered this out when their teen had ended up in hospital, been sexually assaulted or in some cases, when they had died.

Put really bluntly, if your teen is going to music festivals, they are undoubtedly being exposed to illicit drug use. That doesn't necessarily mean they are using drugs like ecstasy/MDMA, but they are certainly mixing, or at the very least coming in contact with people who are. If your child is going to a festival and you ask them whether they are planning to use drugs or not, you have to trust that they will give you a truthful answer. What more can a parent do? I've written a number of pieces about things parents should discuss with their teens around music festivals and ecstasy/MDMA use - hopefully they can assist in starting a positive dialogue in this area ...

Of course, you should always think the best of your child - raise the bar and they are likely to lift themselves up to reach it! Trusting your teen to do the 'right thing' is vital in maintaining a positive relationship during adolescence. However, accepting that all teens will lie (or at the very least, stretch the truth a little) at some point or another and understanding why they may do this, even in the most trusting and open relationships, helps avoid blind trust and potential disappointment and tragedies ...

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