Risky parties and gatherings: What can a parent say to keep their teen as protected as possible?

Earlier this year I was contacted by a parent who was concerned about an event that his son was going to attend. As with many of the emails I receive about concern regarding events, this one had to do with a post-formal party. As anyone who reads my blog regularly knows, these are events I feel very strongly about and, as I always say, so often the parents who put them on are often completely unaware of the potential risks and the almost impossible position they put other parents into when they make the rules they do. The parent's email read as follows:

"After listening to you speak my wife and I are now struggling with how to deal with our 17 year-old son attending a post-formal party he has been invited to ... We have great problems with the party and its rules around alcohol consumption (the parents hosting have specified those wanting to drink may bring no more than 4 drinks with a note from their parent!). Our son is a non-drinker but of course wants to attend. 18th birthday parties are just about to begin (with similar rules no doubt) and even though we won't allow attendance at every 18th for study reasons the floodgates will be opening and non-attendance at friends' parties is not an option.  At this stage, resistance seems pointless and anti-social.  We aren't willing to make our responsible son suffer the humiliation of non-attendance in a battle against a culture that is so off track. Please, how do you think we should respond to this?  What advice do we give to our son and how do we give it?" 

First off, before anything else - no more than 4 drinks??? Do the parents hosting this event realize how much alcohol that actually is? If one of the girls invited (who could be as young as 16-years-old) brings four Smirnoff Double Blacks (the most popular drink amongst this age group) that means they will be consuming 7.6 standard drinks – more than a third of a bottle of vodka! The Australian drinking guidelines recommends that "for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion" - and that's for adults! No number of drinks is recommended for those under 18 years of age, with the guidelines stating that "not drinking alcohol is the safest option."

But let's get back to the question the parent is posing ... how can you best deal with keeping your teen as safe as possible when they are attending events that you know are potentially risky? Regardless of their age, this is an issue many parents face each and every weekend …

As much as many parents would love to keep their teen locked in their bedroom to keep them safe and protected, you've got to let them out occasionally and it is incredibly important for them to go to parties and gatherings if that's what they want to do (always remembering that there are many teens who simply aren't interested in this type of activity and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that!). These events are where many teens learn to socialise in a different way to the way they do at school, just like we did when we were there age. I believe that these are important events for them to attend and if they need to go (i.e., it is obviously important for them in terms of where they fit in their social group), then if you can find a way to allow them, you should. Now that doesn't mean you simply throw your hands up in the air and let them do whatever they want, whenever they wish … it just means that you may need to compromise a little. For example, if you do not feel comfortable about a party but they have made it extremely clear that they need to attend, say something like "I don't feel comfortable with this but I can see how important it is to you. You can go but I'll be dropping you off and picking you up and you'll be there for two hours!" What you have done is put caveats around their attendance. They still get to go but you have made the event at least somewhat safer ...

That said, if you find out that your 14-year-old daughter wants to attend a party where there will be 18-year-old young men drinking, it is entirely appropriate for you to turn around and tell them they're not going. There is no way you can ensure your child's safety at such an event and realistically 'no' is the only option. I'm not saying it is always going to be easy but if you feel they could be in potential danger then it's your responsibility to act and do what you feel is necessary. In the final year of high school it gets more difficult, particularly in regards to 18th birthday parties and of course, pre- and post-formal events.

So if you've got to that point where you believe you can no longer prevent your teen from attending what you believe could be a risky party or gathering (as the parent said "resistance seems pointless and anti-social"), what advice should you be giving and how do you start the conversation?

I believe the best way to have the talk is to firstly find a good time for all concerned (according to research findings, late at night, not early in the morning is the time of the day when they are most receptive – I always used to say over dinner but apparently that's not always the best time!) and then sit down with your teen and tell them about your concerns. Ask them to give you 5 minutes without them interrupting and then you will give them an opportunity to do just the same. Use this time to tell them clearly why you think the party is risky? Make sure you don't make value judgments about their friends and their friends' parents, just clearly outline why you are worried about the event. End your little speech by stating that regardless of all of that, you love them and you want them to be happy and have fun with their friends – they can go but you want them to now tell you why you shouldn't be worried … 

In my experience that is the best way to frame it – give them the opportunity (without you interrupting or asking any questions) to explain how they (and their friends) are going to look after themselves. Most of the parents that I have spoken to who have used this strategy have told me that they have been pleasantly surprised by the answer their teen provides … If nothing else, it encourages your teen to really think through exactly what could go wrong and what they would do in an emergency. Once they've given their answer, end the conversation by talking through a couple of things that may contribute to keeping them just a little safer at events that could be potentially dangerous. Some of these could include the following:
  • Give them an 'out' – make sure they know that if they don't want to go to an event they're invited to, you're happy to play the bad guy and do a performance in front of their friends (you'd be surprised how many young people actually don't want to go to some of the events they get invited to or only want to go for a short period of time)
  • Decide on a code word or the like just in case they want to leave but want to save face – they can then call you or send a text secretly and then 5 minutes later you call them (when they're now in front of everyone) and tell them that they have to come home for whatever reason
  • Make sure they understand that they have your permission to call an ambulance if anything goes wrong. They need to call for help and then call you straight afterwards – they have your 100% support in this area
  • Make it clear to them that they can call you at anytime and you will be available on the other end of the phone to pick them up, give advice or whatever. If they're going to call anyone for help, you want it to be you. They need to understand that there will be no judgment made when they call and no questions will be asked ... then! There may be lots of questions the next day - but at the time they call, you won't ask any!
As a parent, you've always got to look for those opportunities to 'allow' your child to do something - it's all well and good to try to protect your child by preventing them taking part in certain activities but at some point you do have to let go ... Don't get me wrong, as I've already said, I'm not talking about letting your 14 or 15 year-old wander off to goodness knows where and of course, if you don't want them to do something, you need to say 'no' and then explain clearly why you have made that decision! But particularly during that final year of high school it is important to look for opportunities, not only to allow them to prove to you that they are now young adults who are better able to look after themselves, but also to have quality conversations about safety and clearly outline to you why you shouldn't be as worried as you are.

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