As Festival Deaths Climb, How Do I Talk To My Teenagers About Drugs?

I have no idea how to be a parent.

I know what you’re thinking: none of us do, we’re all just winging it. And I get that. I get that this parenting thing didn’t come with a manual. But most people at least had some kind of half-decent role model of a parent they could learn a thing or two from. Not so much for me. I grew up in an abusive and dysfunctional home, was out on my own at 15, fumbled my way through to adulthood. I didn’t know what a good parent even looked like until at 21, I became pregnant with my first child and had to fast-track my way into becoming one.

Seventeen years and four children later, I’ve learned many things about being a parent. I’ve also discovered that raising teens and young adults in this generation is terrifying at worst; uncertain at best. And that as parents, we need to be fully aware of the culture of which they exist and not shy away from understanding and talking about the social issues they face; whether we believe it will affect our children directly, or not.

I have no idea what I'm doing. (Image: Getty)

This summer, five teenagers have died from taking illicit drugs at music festivals, setting off a raging debate over pill testing. I want to go about my life as if this doesn’t affect me. As if I’ve talked to my children about the potential dangers enough to know this issue won’t be a problem for me. To stand at a distance and take a moral high ground and think it’ll never happen to my family. But I can’t be naïve enough to believe that just because I’ve educated my children in the dangers of festival drugs, they will always make the safest choice. I can’t be naïve enough to believe they will never have to face this choice in their life; they will.

READ MORE: Coroner's Inquest To Investigate Music Festival Deaths

It’s easy to believe because I live in a remote location where my children have limited access to music festivals, that access to any or all illegal substances are limited too. But not when the statistics on rural communities show that methamphetamine use is 2.5 times higher among people living in remote areas compared to rates among those living in major cities, with the majority of users aged between 18–24 years old.

I can never be naive enough to believe my kids will always make the safest choice. (Image: Getty)

Though they may not be frequenting music festivals, teens and young adults in remote locations have just as many issues with illicit drugs, and we have to face the fact the culture has changed; no longer are we witnessing just a joint or two being passed around at a music festival, but now face a new generation of party drugs, hallucinogens, methamphetamines -- none of which are isolated to music festivals alone, all of which are more accessible than ever before.

My eldest turns 18 this year. Until now, I have had the final say in his life. But I now see him begin to strain for his freedom; to challenge my leadership, question my views, push for independence and his own sense of self. He is soon to make his own choices, free of permission from, or accountability to, his parents.

READ MORE: Dear Premier: You're Not Protecting Young Lives If You Look The Other Way On Pill Testing 

And I’m left to ask, as a parent, how do we keep our teens and young adult children safe? Have I done enough to educate him, to prepare him, to help him make the safest choices?

Have I done enough? (Image: Getty)

I don’t know if you can ever really answer that.

I do know the most important thing I’ve learned as a parent is communication is everything. We must be able to raise our children around a table of open discussion over any and every topic relevant to their lives; teaching them how to deconstruct a social issue, examine it, question it, analyse every angle of it to not make just an educated choice, but an intelligent one. To debate, and disagree, and guide them in the choices we feel best line up with our values, while allowing them to form conviction in their own beliefs and opinions.

READ MORE: The Facts: How Pill Testing Would Work In Australia

I have learned we cannot be afraid to talk about the hard things with our children; we cannot be afraid to openly share our own experiences and not pretend we’ve always done things right, or well, but allow them to view the full spectrum of our humanity so they can see we relate to their struggles on a more authentic level. We need to be the safe place for them to ask questions and share concerns and discuss all that’s happening in their lives and offer them a place of acceptance, not judgement.

As parents, we should be a safe harbour. (Image: Getty)

Because the thing is, should my children go to a festival, I would want to know if they are considering taking drugs. I want to be able to have an open conversation around this; to ask: what appeals to them about festival drugs, could they enjoy the festival as much without taking drugs, the ways they feel it will better their festival experience -- but, also -- what if it doesn’t better their experience, what if the drug is not safe, what if someone they know ends up dead from taking the drug, what if they end up dead, what other potential dangers could they see happening from taking festival drugs.

READ MORE: The Talk Parents Must Have With Their Kids 

I want my children to not just be handed down some Government-funded campaign about these issues, but to be woke; to have researched and discussed and debated enough information from both sides to know, in any situation, whether benefit outweighs risk, and choose accordingly. I have no guarantee they’ll always make the best choice. But at least I know I’ll have given them the best chance to.

We’re not always going to get everything right as parents; this I have learned too.

We aren’t the first generation of parents to face the issue of drugs, but we are the first to blaze a path into this new culture of illicit drug use. This means we’re still learning. This means the best thing we can do is stay open and talk to our children about these things; but just as importantly, listen. Understanding the full scope of the issues they face is paramount to forging the way ahead.

Starting the conversation is just as important as listening. (Image: Getty)

Pill testing will not increase illicit drug use; but nor will it cure the issue. In itself it will create a range of ethical dilemmas; yet in spite of the government’s call to action for greater education, the death toll continues to increase. Education alone isn’t enough. Pill testing is not a concrete solution. The conversations you have with your children hold more importance than either of these things ever will.

There is no easy way forward, and as a parent, I am caught in the middle of the ideal and the realistic. But something has to be done. And if the goal is to protect and preserve human life – the life of your child, the life of my child - then right now pill testing is the closest we’ve come to aligning the statistics with a solution.