What about a 17th birthday? How can parents make that event 'attractive' to teens and keep it alcohol-free?

Over the years, as secondary supply laws have been gradually introduced across the country, I've been asked by many parents how best to deal with hosting an 18th birthday and the alcohol issue. Secondary supply is when alcohol is provided to a person aged under 18 years. The issue facing parents hosting 18ths is that they could be breaking the law if a juvenile is found to be drinking on their property and they are believed to have supplied that alcohol. The big problem with an 18th celebration is that unlike any other birthday, there are likely to be just as many underage guests as there are adults and because it is an 18th it is far more likely that alcohol will be made available. Earlier this year I put together a blog entry on the topic and suggested some ways that parents could deal with this issue based on the experiences of parents I have met.

This week I received a call from Jolene, a mum who asked for my advice about a 17th birthday. The conversation went something like this:

I read your blog and have seen what you've said about 18th birthdays and ways to deal with the alcohol issue. After reading the piece I made the decision to hold my daughter's 18th at a licensed premises and hand over the responsibility of dealing with the whole underage drinking thing to the venue and the licensee. But that's next year … I am facing a bit of an issue with her 17th which is coming up in a couple of months. My daughter doesn't drink alcohol but she's in a group of friends where some do. It's not a large group, about 10 girls, but drinking is becoming a bigger part of socializing for some of them. My problem is that I have made it clear to my daughter that I cannot allow underage drinking to take place in our home and she is okay with that but she knows it is likely that no matter what she says or does, at least a couple of her friends are either going to try to sneak it in or preload beforehand. I don't want to embarrass her by coming down 'super-hard' on her and her friends and I know she doesn't want me to be worried the whole night. Birthday parties have always been a big deal for me - I don't do the 100 invitees and 'plus-one' events. They're small but fabulous! I love organising them and I want my daughter's 17th to be just as special as all the others we've had … but it's hard! Any advice?

Put simply, what Jolene really wanted to know was how could she hold a birthday event for her 17-year-old daughter that did not involve alcohol but still make it something that her friends would want to attend? It sounded like she had a great relationship with her teen and they'd had some really good discussions about the challenges they were both facing. The reality was that for some of the young women in her daughter's social group, the idea of going to a party without drinking alcohol was almost unthinkable. Jolene was not going to allow underage drinking in her home and so there was a bit of an impasse!

You may be asking what about 16th birthdays - how do you handle these events? Realistically, the majority of parents hosting events for a 16-year-old wouldn't even consider providing alcohol (although many will admittedly 'turn a blind eye') and to be quite honest, most young people I speak to rarely go to parties where alcohol is allowed at this age. They're far more likely to pre-load at 'pre's' or try to smuggle alcohol into events. Very few would expect a parent to actually provide or allow alcohol at these events. This seems to change at 17. They are now more likely to be in their final year of school and have friends who are of legal age - it becomes much more difficult ...

I've met many parents over the years who have wanted to hold a party (or some other event) for their teen that did not involve alcohol but still wanted to make sure that it was 'attractive' to their friends (i.e., they will want to come). I don't think there are any easy answers here but after talking to many parents (as well as young people), here are some things to consider that may help:
  • firstly, try to avoid this birthday if you can! No teen party is going to be easy and no matter what age your child is, it's going to be a lot of work. I take my hat off to any parent who hosts such an event but this birthday can be particularly problematic if your child's peer group are drinking (and sadly many of them are) and they play the "But you're the only one who does that" card. Thankfully most young people are much more interested in a 16th or 18th birthday so if you can get out of this one, that would be great! 
  • if this isn't going to happen and you're going to have to move ahead, most importantly, keep whatever you do to a small group (10 people at the most). If your child wants a larger event, tell them that this will happen for their 18th (or remind them that they got what they wanted last year or the year before). You want to keep this one as small and manageable as possible. If you want to avoid the alcohol issue, you're most probably going to have to make the event a bit more 'special' (more on that a little later) and that can involve spending a little more money. Have too many invitees and it becomes price-prohibitive
  • hold the event over lunchtime or early afternoon - this often proves to be the 'lifesaver' for most parents I have spoken to … If you can avoid an evening event you're far more likely to have success in preventing alcohol from becoming a part of it. Teens are more likely to drink when it's dark, with most young people I speak to believing that teens who drink during the day have a 'problem'. Of course, you're going to get exceptions but for the most part, events held during the day are less likely to involve alcohol. Surprisingly, many parents don't even suggest this as an option to their teen even though, in my experience, it works pretty well. Of course, holding a traditional 'party' at this time isn't going to work but if you're going to use this option you can create an event that can be quite unique and attractive to young people (even 17-year-olds!) 
  • make it special - if you want to avoid alcohol becoming part of whatever it is that you do, try to organise something no-one else in their friendship group has done. Take a group of your teen's friends to Gold Class, an afternoon of 'paint ball' or a visit to a theme park. Although many parents think this is something that only younger teens are interested in, in my conversations with both Year 11s and 12s this week, I didn't speak to one (male or female) who didn't think that this kind of event would be a good option for a 17th birthday. Their only condition was that whatever was planned had to be special, i.e., they hadn't done it before - it had to be novel and unique. Of course, this can be expensive but as I said, if you keep it small and don't invite too many people it's not going to cost much more than putting on a party on a Saturday night (and in many cases, will actually cost much less)
  • there is one major warning if you are considering doing a lunch or early afternoon event - do your best to avoid this becoming a 'pre' event. Ensure that whatever you do finishes early enough to prevent it leading straight into whatever party is going to be held later that evening. Realistically, some 'pre's' are now starting late on Saturday afternoon, i.e., some teens start preloading at 4 or 5pm! Make sure you finish whatever you are doing by 4pm at the latest and that everyone goes home at that time. You don't want them staying around and using your house as the venue that they all prepare for whatever is planned later that night (because you can guarantee that there will be something else going on that some of your guests will be planning to go to once yours is finished). That's why it's great to do whatever you're doing away from your home … and don't bring them back when it's finished!
  • if all else fails, hold the party at a licensed premises. As with an 18th, host parents who go down this path are able to hand over the issue of alcohol to the licensee. The venue has to deal with ensuring that no underage invitees have been drinking (i.e., they can't let intoxicated people, regardless of age, into the venue) and they have to make sure that those under the age of 18 don't drink alcohol while they are at the venue. The only problem here is that many venues are reluctant to hold events for this age group as they are unlikely to make much money (they're not selling alcohol) and they can be far more trouble than they're worth ... 
As I have already said, I take my hat off to any parent who hosts an event for their teen on a Saturday night. Parties and gatherings are incredibly important events, playing a vital role in an adolescent’s development as they provide opportunities for young people to learn personal and social skills they need as they become adults. The socializing that takes place at parties assists adolescents to strengthen existing friendships, make new ones, as well as to gain all-important peer acceptance. In addition, making sure teens are involved in hosting these events gives them the opportunity to learn the skills of planning and entertaining. Sadly, however, fewer parents are now willing to hold parties believing that the risks are too great and there are just too many things that can go wrong, particularly when alcohol is involved. In my experience though, when parents, together with their teens, do their planning and rules and boundaries are made clear the event is much more likely to run without too many problems ...

So what did Jolene end up doing? I received a message from her earlier this week thanking me for our discussion and to let me know what she had decided to do … Here is the message she sent me:

"Thanks again for your time the other day - it was very helpful. I just wanted to let you know that we ended up agreeing on the following for my daughter's 17th birthday celebration ... a 16-seater hummer to pick up all the kids from my place which will then transport them to a dinner venue. So the 'special' bit is the hummer because they've never been in one before! They'll all get dressed up so it will feel even more special. She's happy and so am I!"

What a great idea! I had suggested a lunch or a dinner at a really nice restaurant but Jolene had made it even more special with the addition of the hummer … I love the end of the message, "She's happy and so am I!" - you couldn't really ask for more! 

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