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Schoolies week is notorious. It has a very bad reputation for young people being out of control and can end in disaster – and sometimes it has ended in some very unfortunate events. How do parents prepare for schoolies week? What can you do to ensure the safety of your adolescents?

The first thing to understand, is that risk taking behaviours are hard wired into the brain chemistry and development of the adolescent brain. This isn’t something you can control or ‘culture’ out of your teens. They will be fully aware of the risks they face when they drink, try drugs, have sex or drive too fast, but they lack the control to stop themselves. To have an impact on how they behave this schoolies week, it will come down to the work you have put in along the way. Kids need to be able to be independent and this is a time in their life where the world opens up to them: They have transport, money and friends. But allowing lots of unsupervised time in groups is asking for trouble.

The latest research into the neuroscience of adolescents shows that the other thing their brains are wired for is attention. Teenage behaviour changes dramatically with an audience. This is due to the dopamine reward circuitry in their brains. When in the company of their peers, they are far more likely to take risks – and this is not good news for schoolies week!

So what do you do? Talk to your kids. The more engaged you are with who they are and what they’re doing, the more ‘buy in’ you’ll get to be able to talk to them about their risky behaviour. In the 2011 report on tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter and illicit substance use among Australian secondary school students, around 6.4 per cent of this group drank more than four drinks on one day in the previous seven days. However, while celebrating schoolies week, over 70 per cent of male school leavers and 60 per cent of females report getting drunk on most or all days or nights. It is during these drinking binges during schoolies week that disaster often strikes.

In order to thrive, adolescents need parental involvement in the form of support, engagement, opportunities and limits. You can explain to your kids that their biology works against them when they are in a group situation and that their brain rewards them if they ‘perform’ – and this impairs their judgment. Teach them to notice their own behaviour, take time to pause, look at what they are doing and then appraise whether there could be a negative outcome. In particular, ask your kids to focus on thinking twice around drink driving, drug use or unprotected sex – all of which can end in disaster. Let them know you respect them and want them to enjoy the important celebration, but that you want it to be the beginning of something wonderful – not terrible.

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