My teen is off to Schoolies (or Leavers): What should I be saying to them to keep me sane and them safe?

It's that time again and with Year 12 exams wrapping up across the country, I'm getting contacted by growing numbers of parents asking questions about Schoolies Week (or Schoolies Festival as it is known in SA or Leavers Week in WA). As some of you may have seen I found myself on the front page of the Gold Coast Bulletin last weekend, apparently calling for the Queensland event to be scaled back to three days instead of a week long party, bringing it in line with what happens in SA and WA. Let's make it clear, I wasn't 'calling' for anything … I was asked in a very lengthy interview what happened in other states and I told the jounalist. I was then asked did I believe the Gold Coast should follow suit and I replied that I didn't think it was a bad idea. It would make it more manageable, more affordable for young people and their parents, and the shorter the time, the more likely potentially risky behaviour would be reduced to some degree. That was it, I certainly didn't call for anything … a couple of sentences ending up a front page headline is quite frustrating!

So back to Schoolies and my views on the whole phenomenon? Firstly, I'm very excited because I have been invited to Gold Coast Schoolies next weekend. I'll be there next Sunday night and will be given a tour of the event by Safer Schoolies - really looking forward to that. I volunteered there a couple of times over 10 years ago, I usually spend at least one day in Byron over the period (as I'm usually working on the far north coast during that time) and, of course, regular readers of my blog know that I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the incredible 'Schoolies Festival' in Victor Harbour, SA a number of years agao and had one of the most wonderful nights of my professional life (I've said it before and I'll say it again, Encounter Youth continues to be an amazing organization that works so hard to make sure SA kids have a great time and are safe as possible).

Schoolies Week 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 weeks following the last day of exams. The majority of them were pretty harmless. I'm sure some were borderline illegal, while others were extremely dangerous and the rest just plain stupid. What I'm trying to say is that being involved in some sort of 'letting off steam' activity once school has finished is not a new phenomenon.

Since that time, and particularly over the past decade, Schoolies, as it has become known as, has become bigger and far more commercialised. One of the best things about all the attention Schoolies now receives is that promoters have now 'upped the ante' in terms of organisation and go 'above and beyond' to provide as safe an environment as possible (I'm really looking forward to seeing the changes that have occurred on the Gold Coast since I was there last). Although there have always been incidents (and sadly a number of tragic deaths), for the most part I have found young people to be 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!

So how is the best way for parents to deal with the whole Schoolies experience? I'm not going to discuss whether you should let them attend the event or not. Realistically, 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 most probably going to cause more harm than good. Regardless of that, you are still the parent and you are still entitled 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.

There is no simple 'template' for talking to a teen about to jet off to Schoolies, but my best advice is to find a good time for you, your partner and your teen to have a sit-down chat about your concerns and expectations. Most importantly, make sure you are fully prepared – write some notes down if you have to but it is vital that you make it clear that this is not a lecture, you're not going to pass judgement, you just want to chat and get some things off your chest. Your child needs to understand that while they are away having a great time, you're both going to be back at home, terrified the phone will ring at anytime informing you that something terrible has happened. Once that is made clear, I would suggest that you cover the following:
  • if you're worried, make sure they know that – explain your concerns, making clear to them that they may not be legitimate concerns in their eyes, but they need to hear them. Don't pass 'judgements' on their or their friends' behaviour (they'll instantly turn off) and be wary of spending too much time on "You could die if you do that ..." – most people don't and they are aware of that. What you want (and need) to get across is that all you want is for them to be safe and thousands of young people partying on the Gold Coast, in Byron Bay or Victor Harbour or Busselton for a week does not make for the safest environment – make that your message. We want you to have fun and enjoy yourself but we want you to come home safe ...
  • ask them "Tell me why I shouldn't be worried" (and use those actual words) – you can prompt them by then saying something like "What have you and your friends done or going to do to keep yourself as safe as possible?" but they must give you an answer. Put the ball in their court - have they thought through what they would do if something went wrong? Remember that this is likely to be one of the final opportunities to have a conversation like this. Use the Schoolies experience as a valuable tool to find out how your teen plans to look after themselves and those around them - you may never get the chance again! What many parents discover during conversations like this is that we should be really proud of our teens. Young people of today definitely don't know it all, but I really do believe that the majority of them do try to reduce the risk of something going wrong the best way they can 
  • discuss the law (don't lecture) but make sure they knows that they are likely to see more police at Schoolies' events than almost anywhere else - they will be everywhere. If you do something wrong, something that would likely just get you a warning on a Saturday night outside a party, there is every likelihood that you could get charged at these events. If your son or daughter is 18, they need to know that they are now no longer a juvenile - that means they will be charged as an adult - they don't want to come back from Schoolies with a criminal record
  • ask for contact numbers for at least two of their mates they are travelling with – this is a non-negotiable. Make it clear that you will only use this in an emergency should you not be able to reach them and that you're not going to be using these numbers to check-up on them. They need to understand that you have to have at least one other way of contacting them should something go wrong at home
  • the only other non-negotiable is they have to promise that they will call you at least once a day. Some parents ask for a text but after talking to many parents who have been through the Schoolies experience, it's their voice you need to hear. At the same time, you have to promise that you won't keep them on the phone when they make the call. This is not the time to ask them to share what's been going on in their lives – this is just an "I'm ok Mum – speak to you tomorrow!" or "I'm doing fine Dad - everything is great!" - that's all you need ...
  • finally, ensure that they know that if anything goes wrong, they can call you, anytime, and you will be there for him, no judgement and no questions asked (at that time). It doesn't matter what they have done, or what has happened, you love them unconditionally and you will be there for them. There may be consequences, but that's down the track, all that’s important is that they are safe and you love them. You want to know that if something goes amiss, they will make that call. You wouldn't believe how many parents get the phone call from
    their teen begging them to fly them home ASAP …
For additional information on 'all things Schoolies' I have developed a Student and Parent Checklist for Schoolies and they are available on the DARTA website. Finally, as many of you are aware, I also write a blog for young people where I answer their questions - you may want to look at one particular entry (most probably one of the most popular) that answers the question 'How can I convince my parents to let me go to Schoolies?' - it just shows you how I deal with this issue when working with adolescents.

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