If you give your teen two drinks to take to a party, is that all they're likely to drink? A group of 16-year-olds tell it from their perspective ...

Last week I got into a fairly heated discussion with some Year 11 students at a school I was visiting about a blog entry I had written about parents providing alcohol to teens to take to a party. Apparently when one of them had asked their parents to give them a couple of bottles to take to a friend's gathering (as they had a number of times before), they were told they were not going to be given any alcohol. They were then shown what I had written and told something along the lines of "Paul Dillon said ..." Now, as I've said many times before, I don't believe anyone can tell a parent what to do with their child in this area - you've got to make the decision for yourself. But when you've made that decision, whatever it is, own it! Firstly, to change your rules (i.e., provide alcohol for parties and then stop doing so for no real reason - this young man had not done anything wrong) is unfair and will undoubtedly lead to conflict. But most importantly, from my perspective, to put it all on me is totally inappropriate. By all means, use what you may have recently learnt to update how you parent and let them know where (or who) you got that information from, but too often I hear from parents who are so worried about being 'disliked' that they are unwilling to own the tough decisions ... 'Blaming' someone else for your decision is not appropriate and ends up undermining your authority!

Understandably, these students were not impressed! Considering what had gone down, they were incredibly respectful and polite. They could have gone on the attack but instead they just wanted to express their frustration and make it very clear to me that what I had written had affected their lives. The article they were referring to was one in which I discussed new Australian research that found that proving alcohol to young people is not protective and the best option for parents is 'delay, delay, delay'. The section that riled these students up was the claim the researchers made that "parental supply is associated with increased risk of other supply, not the reverse", i.e., if you give them alcohol, they're more likely to go and find more! They were adamant that in their case, this was simply not true - what they were given is what they drank, no more, no less!

Now I can only go by my experience over the years and what I have been told by teens about their drinking behaviour and when these research findings were released I wanted to shout the results from the rooftops! Finally we had some hard evidence that this idea of giving a 15-year-old a couple of drinks will result in them only drinking that much and could actually be 'protective' in the long-term was not true. Of course, there are always going to be some young people who do the 'right thing' and only drink what is provided but, we're dealing with teenagers and developing brains - even though they may have the best of intentions, bad decisions are likely to be made when surrounded by their peers in a party environment ... So when this group of five 16-year-olds (three young men and two young women) wanted to challenge me (and the research findings) I grabbed the opportunity to find out what they thought about this issue and what was actually happening amongst their peers.

As far as they were concerned, there were a few key points they believed that parents needed to be made aware of in terms of parental provision of alcohol. After I had taken those on board and agreed with them on most of what they said, I raised other issues and asked them to think about themselves and their peers and tell me their thoughts. To their credit they were incredibly honest and were willing to accept almost all of what I said ... I told them that I would be writing another article on the topic based on our discussion and wanted to come up with a series of key statements that they believed could assist parents to make a decision about whether or not to provide alcohol to their teen. Here are those statements, placed in order of importance according to those five young people:
  • All young people are different and trying to come up with rules for teenagers as a group is unfair and is not going to work.  They felt strongly that they were often lumped into a group with kids who they felt 'did the wrong thing' and, as a consequence, their social lives were affected. A number of them felt that rules within one family could be different in some cases, with one boy believing that he and his older brother should have dramatically different rules. His brother drank to get drunk, whereas he only drank a little to socialize - the rules his parents imposed should reflect that 
  • If parents want teenagers to develop into responsible adults, they need to trust them to do the right thing, particularly around alcohol.  They talked a lot about trust and how important it was that their parents trust them to make good choices. When I asked them whether they had ever lied to their parents about anything to do with alcohol and parties, it took a while but eventually all five of them said that they had ... Did they think they would lie again? All of them said they most probably would, mainly to protect their parents from knowing something that could upset them ...
  • When parents do provide alcohol to teens to take to a party, some of them only drink what has been given to them, others do not. They were willing to accept that many of their friends certainly did drink far more than their parents had provided but this did not happen all of the time. It apparently depended on a range of things, including what type of party they were going to, if the teen was going to have to go home after the party or not and what other alcohol was available
  • Some young people intend only to drink what has been given to them but when put into a social situation with peers can end up drinking far more. This was most probably the one statement I had difficulty getting them to agree with because all of them, particularly the young man who had initiated the conversation, insisted that they had never drunk more than had been provided. After a lot of discussion, all of them finally agreed that they had actually drunk more at least once, with a couple of them admitting to becoming quite ill as a result. The important thing they wanted to highlight was that this was not their intention (i.e., they had not meant to break their parents' trust) but it had to do with where they were and the social pressure of being around peers who were having a good time drinking more ... One girl also admitted that if she drank the two drinks she was given too quickly, she was much more likely to drink more due to her feeling a little more disinhibited
  • In some cases, when parents provide low-alcohol drinks to their children, these are traded to younger teens and stronger alternatives are obtained, usually bottles of spirits.  The young men wanted to make it clear that when parents insisted on providing low-alcohol beers to 16-year-olds, they were rarely, if ever actually drunk. The girls said that it was a similar story for young women with low-alcohol pre-mixed spirits. Amongst those groups of teens who drank spirits, alcohol provided by parents was usually on-sold or traded to younger partygoers
The one thing I could not get agreement on was around the 'messages' that teenagers were likely to pick-up from their parents should they decide to provide them with alcohol. As far as these young people were concerned, the message they would be getting was that their parents trusted them enough to give them a couple of drinks. The problem was that they all admitted that they had broken that trust at some time or another and were likely to do it again. As much as trust is incredibly important in a parent-teen relationship, so is safety. Research evidence suggests that when we follow-up teens who are given alcohol by their parents the only real message that they takeaway from the experience is 'my parents gave me alcohol'. They don't report that it made for a more trusting relationship with their parent or that it taught them to drink more responsibly.

Most importantly, when these five young people were asked what other information their parents had ever given them when the alcohol was handed over to them on a Saturday night, there was almost no response. Most agreed that one or both of their parents had probably said something like "Be careful" or "Now you know that we trust you" as they got out of the car or left the house, alcohol in hand, but not one of them could remember an actual example of that type of conversation. All of these teens had, at one time or another, been provided alcohol by their parent and not one of them could think of one safety message that had ever been discussed ...

At some point you are going to have to trust your teen to do the 'right thing' around alcohol, but are you actually able to trust them to always make good choices and not make mistakes - of course not! Trust is vital in a positive parent-teen relationship but when it comes to your child's safety, it's not just that simple ...

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