Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Risky business

At what point do you untie the apron strings and let a child make their own life-changing decisions?

When the life of a child is at stake, it is in all of us to react, to do whatever we can to protect that child.
But what if the child is 16 years old and involved in behaviour that is risking their life? How do parents keep their teenagers safe, when they are at a time in their life where “free will” is a powerful driving force?
Furthermore, what should the community do when we see other parents not protecting their child? Should we interfere or should we turn a blind eye?
I find myself asking this question almost every day.
It makes me angry when I see parents smoking in their car with children in the back seat. I get frustrated when I see parents taking their babies out into the sun without any protective clothing or hat on their head. And I shake my head in disbelief when I see unrestrained children in a car travelling at high speeds along the highway.


But then there’s the case of Queensland schoolgirl Jessica Watson.
At 16 years of age, she wants to break the record for the youngest person to sail solo around the world.
Yet on her test run to Sydney on September 9 her yacht collided with a 63,000 tonne cargo vessel.
It turns out she was asleep, and battling fatigue. It was only day two of her voyage.
The Maritime Safety Queensland report listed serious deficiencies in Jessica’s performance.
The report found she did not turn on a warning device that would have alerted her of a potential collision, she had not developed a fatigue management plan, and could not produce a clear, plotted plan (it was scribbled on paper with childish doodles on the side).
Surely this brush with death is enough for her parents to cancel the voyage, but they claim it proves she can handle such situations and come out of it alive.
At 16, you are not allowed to vote, drink alcohol or drive a car on an open licence, but Jessica has been given the green light to head out into the wide blue ocean by herself.
What if the unthinkable happened? I’m sure her parents would regret their choice to let her go, but would authorities feel any guilt for allowing a child to undertake clearly risky behaviour?



Even some of Australia’s most experienced sailors have cast doubts over her ability to complete a solo journey around the world.
Grant Wharington, the Sydney-to-Hobart winning skipper of Skandia, said she should set more realistic goals.
He was quoted as saying: “I met Jessica about a year ago and she impressed me as a very capable young girl. But I actually suggested she should try a couple of shorter solo passages first to get a taste for what it’s like, something like sailing from Mooloolaba to Tasmania and back, but she didn't want to listen.”
And there’s the rub.
Teens don’t want to listen. They are headstrong and believe they are indestructible.
In fact, research suggests that teens know very well that their behaviour is dangerous but they are hardwired to ignore what they have learnt.
Teenagers seek out risk-taking because the brain systems involved in decision-making mature at different times.
The section of the brain most involved in emotion and social interaction becomes very active during puberty, while the section most critical for regulating behaviour is still maturing into early adulthood.
This explains why teens are so susceptible to peer pressure and why education and prevention efforts designed to keep them from engaging in risk-taking behaviours such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs, unprotected sex or driving dangerously, don’t work very well.
I’m not suggesting we should stop educating teenagers about these dangers, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves.
Teenagers have a much harder time controlling their impulses and regulating their behaviour than adults do, so it’s up to parents, and the wider community, to provide more structure to regulate it for them.
This means focussing on ways to keep teens from getting into trouble, like the restrictions imposed on new drivers.
Parents need to impose their own rules to protect their children from harm, and there are a few ways to do this:
1. Talk to your child. Voice your fears about their risk-taking. Do all that you can to encourage your child to share information. If your child won’t talk to you, find a relative or friend who they can talk to instead.
2. Encourage your child to make sensible choices, by stressing the risks involved, rather than laying down the law or giving ultimatums. If they feel pressured into a corner, and feel that they can no longer make any decisions on their own, the behaviour may get worse. Let them make safe decisions such as changing their hair, getting piercings, and try to remain non judgmental. These things are not life-threatening and can be changed, but they allow a teen to develop their own sense of self.
3. Remind them that if their behaviour is illegal, then it could lead to arrest and prosecution.
4. Build your child’s self-esteem by focussing on the positive aspects of their life. Keep communication open and praise them regularly for good behaviour. If your child is in need of extrasupport, be sure to see your GP.
5. Stress to them that your love is unconditional and that even though you may be disappointed by their risk taking behaviour, you will always be there to support them.
Despite how “mature” Jessica Watson may be, at 16 years of age she cannot possibly possess the life skills and sailing expertise of many adult seamen or women, and embarking on a solo ocean voyage is the biggest risk to her life that she – and her parents – have ever taken.
I don’t think the risk is worth the world record accolade.

* Update (added October 2): Jessica fails to log her journey with either Coastguard or Volunteer Marine Rescue. Read more here.

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