Desire to help teens palpable

Julie Williamson.
Julie Williamson.

They are topics that strike fear in the heart of any parent: sexting, suicide and teens watching pornography. Pam Jones looks at some of the information and support available to help parents navigate the teenage years.

She hoped people would come, but you never know, do you.

Slowly, sometimes a little bit shyly, parents, grandparents and caregivers entered the Dunstan High School hall on Wednesday night to get more ideas on how to keep their children safe.

They had come to the "Navigating the Teenage Years" forum organised by Alexandra counsellor Julie Williamson. She was relieved people had made the effort.

"I’m just so glad that more than 10 people came. You never know how these things are going to go."

But the appetite for knowledge and advice shown by the more than 150 people who attended was clear and they soaked up the presentations from the guest speakers and  panel.

Some had lost family members to suicide. Others were visibly upset when asking how to help their children or grandchildren, who were going through hard times.

But all were on the same page in their determination to support their teenagers when the going gets tough. It takes a village to raise a child, the presenters reminded them. Forums like this showed the power of community.

Risk factors for teens such as alcohol or drug use do not usually occur in isolation.Photo: Getty...
Risk factors for teens such as alcohol or drug use do not usually occur in isolation.Photo: Getty Images

Mrs Williamson said the aim of the evening was to show how much support there was for families "struggling with their teenagers at home".

"That was the idea of the night, just to bring all the community services together and make people aware of how much help is available within a small community like Alexandra."

But the support spreads wider than that.

Many of the organisations represented at the meeting operate at a regional or national level and those attending were reminded it was OK to ask for help.

Otago Suicide Prevention Trust member Ian Kerrisk said it was important to talk about suicide, and no longer treat it as a taboo subject.

It was vital to bring family, whanau, schools and young people together,  develop resilience in young people and let families know where to go if they needed help. He praised the Central Otago community for emphasising  that support was available.

"Nationally the suicide rate is very high. We need to do something and here we are doing something ... We need people who are struggling to know they can talk to someone and be listened to ... if they need help they can approach someone."

International researcher Annette Beautrais was one of two guest speakers at the evening and talked about facts and myths about teenage suicide and at-risk behaviours in young people.

Risk factors included alcohol and drug use, but these did not usually occur in isolation; if a teen exhibited one at-risk behaviour they would probably be taking part in others. If a teen was sexually active, for example, they were more likely to  be also consuming alcohol or using drugs, or be at risk of drink-driving.

Young men continued to be a particularly at-risk group and it was vital to reach them. Families and communities could help them develop skills to deal with anger,  recognise their emotions and  form closer relationships.

If a young person was distressed, it was important to intervene early. This could prevent problems getting worse, Prof Beautrais said.

Adolescence was now recognised as lasting until the brain had finished developing, at about the age of 26, and family structures continued to evolve, highlighting the importance of focusing on the influence of individuals, family, community and society on teens, Prof Beautrais said.

A panel including police, medical and mental health representatives and members of the anti-cyber bullying group Sticks ’n Stones  also answered questions from the floor.

One person attending asked how  teenagers could be helped in monitoring the amount of time they spent online.Alexandra youth officer Constable Tamah Alley said it was important to start "early" and "small".

As well as rules such as "no phones in the bedroom after you’ve gone to bed" and "no phones at the dinner table", families could set aside other device-free times when spending time time together or chores were being done, Const Alley said.


Risky teen behaviours

• Behaviours that contribute to injury and violence, e.g. drinking and driving, not wearing seatbelts, carrying weapons

• Sexual behaviours that lead to unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases

• Alcohol or drug use

• Tobacco use Unhealthy dietary behaviours

• Inadequate physical activity

— Source: Prof Annette Beautrais


What do teenagers want?

Prof Annette Beautrais says teenagers are looking for the answers to three questions. —

The question of identity: Who am I?

The question of autonomy/power: What is my unique contribution?  Do I matter? 

The question of affinity and belonging: Where do I belong and to whom? Does anybody care?


What can parents do?

• Go to your teenagers

Go to their school, their sports games, extra-curricular activities, their community events.

• Create conversations

About anything: school, likes, interests, rules and relationships.

• Be as available as you can for crucial conversations

Be ready to talk — at the right time, in the right place — about the tough issues.

• Be real

Apologise if you make a mistake. Know your boundaries and limitations. Keep your promises.


Where to get help

, Lifeline: 0800 543-354 (available 24/7)
, Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828-865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
, Youthline: 0800 376-633
, Kidsline: 0800 543-754 (available 24/7)
, Whatsup: 0800 942-8787 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)
, Depression helpline: 0800 111-757 (available 24/7)
, Samaritans: 0800 726-666 If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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