Partying in parks, bushland and on beaches: Why are some teens moving back outside and how can you keep them safer?

Drinking in parks, bushland and on beaches is nothing new. Teens have been doing it for generations. Finding a place to experiment with alcohol, away from the watchful eyes of parents, has always set challenges for adolescents but 'where there's a will there's a way'. 

For many parents of today their first alcohol experience was likely to have involved a group of friends in a local park on a Saturday night. Although some may remember the thrill of being part of this 'adult experience' for the first time, most do not necessarily have fond memories of the evening. The setting was not the best and was likely to have been dark and uncomfortable, there was the constant fear of getting caught and what was being consumed was usually something cheap and nasty. The memory of this first experience could be one of the major reasons that some parents make the decision to provide alcohol to their teen to take to a party. They remember the very real dangers they faced that night and count their lucky stars they avoided a tragedy. They don't want their child to run the same risks and, as a result, we now have a generation of parents who are much more likely to provide alcohol than those of the past. It's important to note that teens also play on this fear often threatening their parents with that wonderful line "If you don't give me alcohol to take to the party I'll get my own and go and drink in a park!"

Prior to COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions many teens who drank alcohol to excess were more likely to do so either prior to, or whilst attending larger parties held across the country every Saturday night. No matter how much effort was made to prevent alcohol coming into these events, they were simply too large to monitor effectively. These were parties of 80-100 attendees (and sometimes 'plus-one', so around the 150 or more). Ask any parent who has ever hosted one of these events and they will tell you how surprised they were to find so many empty bottles and cans scattered around the back of their garden the next morning, many of them totally unaware of how much drinking was actually taking place. Don't get me wrong, teens were still drinking in parks and on beaches - ask any police officer or paramedic - but many would prefer to drink at a large event where they could get lost in the crowd, be comfortable and access alcohol with comparative ease.

When COVID hit, teen parties, like all social gatherings, disappeared. As restrictions were rolled back and young people were allowed to see each other again small groups of teens started to party in homes across the country. It didn't take them long to work out that when there were smaller numbers present they were able to be more easily monitored, i.e., it was much more difficult to drink to excess. As a result, they left the confines of the family home and moved back outside to different environments away from the prying eyes of parents. In my discussions with teens over the past couple of months almost all of them have talked about how much more likely they are to find groups of like-minded friends in parks or on beaches on a Saturday night then they were prior to the pandemic. I asked one Year 10 young woman to put her thoughts and concerns down in writing about the issue. Here is what she wrote:

"When restrictions ended we all wanted to catch-up with each other but there really wasn't anywhere to go. No-one wanted to have people over to their house and so we started to meet at a local park. I didn't enjoy it at first because there were always other groups there that we didn't know and there were a few fights and we heard a story about a girl who was sexually assaulted one night. When parties started happening again my group of friends went to a few of them but they're pretty boring now. Sometimes we find out where other groups of people are meeting up to drink and we go there. You do have to be careful though because sometimes you get there and gangs turn-up to cause trouble. We met someone who had his watch and his trainers stolen a couple of weeks ago ..." 

So should parents be concerned and is there anything you can do to reduce the risks of something going wrong if your teen is partying in parks, bushland or on beaches?

I have never been involved with an alcohol-related death of a teen who had been drinking in a park, they've all happened at parties where alcohol was either provided or condoned. I believe that when teens do drink in environments other than parties they are more likely to have their guard up and be aware that they don't have any safety net around to catch them should something go wrong. That said, these are certainly not 'safe' environments' and there are a few things that parents could do if they are aware that their teen is partying in a park, in bushland or on a beach. These provide no guarantees of safety but they can generate a useful discussion about some of the potential risks associated with this type of socialising:

  • decide on an 'out' word or phrase - this can be used in a text or a phone call should your child wants to be taken out of a situation - e.g., something's going down at the park that's making them uncomfortable. If they use the word you'll be there and take the blame for removing them
  • ask them to provide you with the name and number of their 'buddy' for the night - if you are unable to get hold of your teen for any reason you can contact the buddy (stressing that it would only be done if it was absolutely necessary)
  • stress the importance of sticking with their mates - things are far more likely to go wrong when they leave their group and are by themselves, particularly in these environments
  • ensure they don't carry large amounts of money or expensive gadgets or wear eye-catching clothing or trainers - have just enough money to cover what they need. Don't carry credit cards or anything that is likely to be attract attention
  • make sure they don't leave home without having their phone fully charged
  • ensure that wherever they are there must be phone coverage - it takes them a couple of seconds to check that there is coverage and if there isn't they should move somewhere else immediately. Being able to call for help should something go wrong is vital
  • ensure they have the Emergency+ app on their phone - at the very least this will be enable them to provide emergency services with details of where they are using the brand-new 'what3words' technology, This is as accurate as a GPS coordinate but is easier to say 
  • discuss 000 and make it clear you support them calling should they need to - "Call 000 and then call me" - always remember the slightest hesitation could lead to tragic consequences
There are some 'environmental-specific' risks that should also be discussed if your teen is choosing to socialise in this way. These include the following - parks (getting into trouble with the law (police can caution underage people for drinking in a public place), other groups of young people and gangs); bushland (difficulty accessing help if something goes wrong, accidents and falls, getting lost); and beaches (burns due to lighting of small fires, drownings). They're likely to brush these off when you raise them but if you are able to have a calm discussion about what could potentially go wrong you've certainly done your best.

Most importantly, every time your child leaves your house they need to hear you say "If you need me, I'll be there, anytime, anywhere - no questions asked!" It's important to say that there are bound to be lots of questions the next morning or at least some time after the incident but, even if you have to gaffe-tape your mouth shut on the way home from wherever, stay true to your word and have the discussion later. All you want to do at the time is to make sure they are safe. Hopefully you will never receive the call, but if you do, your child needs to know you'll be there for them.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What should parents say when their teen says "But it's not smoking" when they find out they're vaping?

Parents of Year 9s: Prepare yourself for a bumpy year when it comes to sleepovers, parties and gatherings

4 lines your teen is likely to throw at you when it comes to alcohol and parties and 4 responses to throw back!