by Paul Dillon (of DARTA)
There is something both exhilarating and scary about the freedom that comes with being a teenager. Some of the teens I chat with mention how much they love going out with friends, but feel conflicted about the peer pressure around sleepovers, parties and alcohol. While some see alcohol consumption as a ‘rite of passage’, others say they feel confident enough to go to a party without having to drink. Others still, avoid sleepover parties altogether, because they don’t like the general atmosphere at alcohol infused gatherings. In each of our homes we will have teens who fit into these categories. How can we prepare our children for High School parties and sleepovers, where drinking might be involved?
As both a parent of teens/YAs and a professional working with teens, Paul Dillon is my absolute go-to expert on drugs and alcohol. I have heard him speak many times. He is engaging and humorous and most of all, up to date with the latest facts and behaviours around teens in this area. I mentioned Paul in my post, ‘Parties and Alcohol – do parents have any influence on teens?‘ Paul has also contributed to my book. Here he talks with us about sleepovers and party culture.
If you’re a parent of a child in Year/Grade 9 (approx 14 years old), it is incredibly important to prepare yourself for the upcoming 12 months when it comes to sleepovers, parties and gatherings. Getting things right early can prevent lots of problems in the year (and years) ahead.
The party culture begins to build in Year 9, sometimes very quickly. Although most young people at this age will choose not to drink, alcohol starts to become a part of their socialising experience, usually at pre-parties, with a small but influential group regularly drinking. Some to excess. In addition, for those of you with daughters, some more mature Year 9 girls begin to get asked out by young men a couple of years older than them to be their plus 1 (partner to an event) – More on dating here. As a result, these very young women subsequently find themselves invited to Year 10, 11 and even Year 12 events where alcohol is far more likely to be available.
When I visit schools I so often hear something along the lines of,
“We’ve got some real issues with our Year 9 cohort” and “There’s some real partying going on in that group.”
It’s usually a small group who are involved, but they’re loud, obvious and everyone knows who they are. Some can make life pretty difficult for their peers.
Parents often find themselves blindsided by this almost ‘seismic shift’ in social activity and are completely unprepared for the pressure that is applied by their child (as well as other parents), to allow them to attend events on a Saturday evening. With the beginning of the new school year it’s the Year 9 parents, particularly those who have not yet started to experience the party issue, who have most probably got the most to gain from starting the year off right.
You may not think it will happen to your child, but it is important to take a little bit of time to clearly outline your expectations. Establish some rules and boundaries, when it comes to parties, sleepovers and alcohol.
The Developmental focus
The ‘middle years’ are a great time to become clear about some of the key issues this age group will face. Year/Grade 9 is the time often referred to as ‘middle adolescence’ – the time when the search for identity becomes a central concern. Teens start to pull away from their parents and their peer group becomes even more important. They’re maturing and growing up. Many are physically changing and beginning to look much older, particularly the girls.
Some parents find themselves in a really difficult place. They can see that their child is growing. On one hand, they need to let their teen start to make some of their own decisions and trust them ‘to do the right thing’. Parents also want to give their child the opportunity to create their own identity and establish where they fit in the world. But, on the other hand, they want to keep them as safe as possible during this potentially very tricky time. And that involves maintaining rules and boundaries.
But, the year of the sleepover party
For many, Year 9 is the year of the ‘sleepover’ (as well as the party or gathering). Instead of making the call to host parents and dropping their teen off at the home and then picking them up afterwards, parents begin to get increasing pressure (from their child, but also friends and family members) to loosen the rules a little and let their child fly a little more. Of course, you have to trust your teen at some point, but is Year 9 the time to do it, particularly when it comes to huge sleepovers, parties and alcohol? Far from it! (Collett’s comment – Not all sleepovers have to be off limits. i.e Those between a few close friends or family friends, where parents feel comfortable might be ok with you. Paul is talking about a specific context here.)
Paul’s tips on sleepovers and parties:
1. Don’t be bullied into making decisions.
Gather the information you need to make an informed decision, and if they tell you they need to know now – the answer is ‘no’. Take your time and get it right. If both parents are on the scene, make it clear that both of you make decisions around sleepovers and parties. Teens are extremely clever at setting up one parent against the other and it is vital that you display a ‘united front’ here. Make it clear by telling them – “Don’t come to me, don’t go to them – come to us!”
2. Know where your child is and who they are with.
No parent likes to hear this (and many refuse to believe it) but at this age some teens are likely to start lying about where they are planning on going. If you want to let it slide, that’s up to you, but you’ll never forgive yourself if something terrible happens. At this age you should still take your teen to where they’re going and pick them up. Don’t leave it up to someone else, if you can possibly help it.
3. Always call the host parents.
Speak to them and find out some basic information about supervision and whether alcohol will be provided or tolerated. Your teen is not going to like this and they’ll most probably tell you that you’re ruining their life – but that’s your job! If they tell you that they hate you – respond with,“But I love you …”
4. Create rules and consequences and stick to them.
If you haven’t done this already, the beginning of Year 9 is a great time to have a family discussion about the rules you have around parties and alcohol. The consequences of breaking those rules should also be clearly laid out and agreed to by your child. They can’t say they’re unfair later if they’ve agreed to them. Most importantly, if you don’t follow through, should a rule be broken, it makes it all the more difficult to set boundaries the next time The first time you buckle and let something slip, you will lose your credibility and your rules will become totally ineffective. (Collett’s note – all is not lost however. It will just take a little longer for your teen to learn that you will follow through on boundaries broken. And you may be tested for a while.)
5. If they don’t like the rules, they’re most probably perfect.
But remember, reward good behaviour and modify the rules as they get older to make sure they’re age appropriate (see ‘Choose your battles’ below).
6. If things start to get out of control, get help.
Too often parents leave it too long to seek help when things go wrong. If your teen is climbing out of the window on a Saturday night and not coming home, that is not normal behaviour. You can always start with the school counsellor, or even your GP, but make sure you talk to someone. Get professional advice if things start to get too difficult.
Choose your battles
With teens of this age, it is also incredibly important to ‘choose your battles’. You and your partner need to identify what your ‘non-negotiables’ are (i.e., those things you won’t compromise on) and spell them out clearly to your teen. They are often behaviours related to safety and wellbeing.
If you fight with your teen about everything, your life (and relationship with them) will become very difficult. If you let the things that really don’t matter (i.e. have nothing to do with personal safety and more to do with your personal disappointment, e.g., “You’re not going out dressed like that!”) slide once in a while, you’ll find yourself having a much easier time. Yet, if your 14-year-old wants to sleepover at someone’s house or go to a party and you don’t think that it will be safe, this is where you do stick to your guns, and the rules and boundaries do come into play. When you have made the decision that you’re not going to give your permission, say ‘no’, make it clear why you’re saying it and don’t back down!
One last thought
It’s not all about saying ‘no’ to everything. This is not about being strict or oppressive. Letting a 14 year old have a win occasionally can make family life so much more pleasant. If you want a warm and positive relationship with your teen, particularly in the middle years, you need to always be on the lookout for opportunities to allow your child to do something. If it looks safe and you feel comfortable – say ‘yes’! Wrapping them up in cotton wool and saying ‘no’ all the time is not healthy either.
Festivities can be so much fun, and parties provide opportunities for socialising and a little freedom for older teens. It is wonderful to be young! Encouragingly, it has been reported that teens today are making better choices with alcohol than previous generations. Yet I am often asked, “How much influence do parents have on teens, parties and alcohol consumption?”
A number of studies, in Australia, the US and the UK show more teens choosing not to drink, regardless of gender or socio- economic background. There are still some concerns in the UK where although teens appear to be drinking less than in the past. They are still getting drunk more often and consuming larger quantities of alcohol than many (but no all) of their European peers (see here and here.)
The effects of alcohol and binge drinking
Overall, although fewer teens are choosing to drink, those who do are binge drinking at dangerous levels. With parties come late nights. The resulting tiredness can also alter the ability to make healthy decisions, particularly when alcohol is added to the mix. Given the detrimental effects of alcohol on the developing brain and the numbing fog that comes with consuming alcohol, we need to continue to warn young people about its dangers. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, which can make it more likely for teenagers to make risky decisions. Half of sexual victimisation incidents involve alcohol. We still see far too many acts of abuse and harassment occur during alcohol- soaked gatherings. One of my go-to experts on teen drug and alcohol education is Paul Dillon, the founder of DARTA (Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia). Paul wrote this excerpt for my book on teens, parties and alcohol,
“Certainly I believe that this is a generation that really wants to look after others, most particularly their friends.
Girls are more likely to ask for information on how to look after their friends, particularly when they are drunk. But in my experience boys are just as likely to assist in an emergency and are more likely to do it by themselves. Girls tend to operate in ‘packs’ and as a result, no one necessarily takes the lead and that’s where things can go wrong.
Unfortunately, young men’s attitudes toward alcohol are a reflection of what we see in the general community. Even though they truely care about themselves and their friends, when alcohol is added to the equation, their value system can change and their attitudes, particularly toward young women who like to drink, can be frightening.”
Given these detrimental effects, we need to continue to support teens in this area.
Teens, Parties and Alcohol
What difference do parents make on alcohol consumption?
A factor we now understand is that parents are one of the main suppliers of alcohol to young teen drinkers. It comes from the mistaken belief that providing their younger teenager with alcohol will help their child to drink ‘more responsibly’. It is wrongly assumed that because they ‘under supervision’ teens will then make better drinking choices when going out. This actually has the opposite effect. These teens tend to drink higher quantities of alcohol when out. I am also constantly surprised by the amount of times I hear about parents hosting a party and offering to purchase alcohol, on behalf of their teen’s peers. FARE – the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education’s research found that, Australians continue to break the law and supply alcohol to underage drinkers. In the belief that there is little risk of detection or punishment.
“In Australia, almost 60 per cent of alcohol consumed by 12 to 17 year olds is supplied by adult friends, relatives or strangers, despite the fact that the provision of alcohol to young people under the age of 18 by someone other than their parent or guardian is in fact illegal in most Australian jurisdictions.”
The great news?
One of the game changers for the afore mentioned changes in teens alcohol consumption appears to be the reduction in parent supply. (See reports here and here). Many parents have also become aware of the risks of alcohol on the developing brain.
Modelling The place to start is by modelling healthy choices with alcohol ourselves. Openly talk about our family values and thoughts on underage drinking.
High school parties If your child is in high school (particularly around Year/Grade 9 in high school – 14 years old), it is a good time to start with discussions about alcohol at parties. Ask what they think they might do if offered a drink.
‘Safe outs’ Telling teens to ‘Just say no’ is very difficult for many to do in reality. Help them come up with scripts they could say, and come up with safe ‘outs’ for when they are in situations where drinking is involved. For example, they could make an excuse about having sport or work the next day and needing a clear head. Feign illness, hold the same drink all night, or volunteer to be the designated driver.
Code words It can be helpful for teenagers to have a “code” they can use with their parents. To be used use in a text or call, if they feel like things are getting out of hand. A word or emoji code that means, “Come and get me now, I need to be picked up”. This is something we’ve been talking to my own teens about for a long time. It gives teens a way to save face, so that if they feel like they need to leave they can do so.
Peer pressure Is and always has been a major factor in teens’ choices around alcohol. Positive peer pressure works too. So when teens hear about the negative effects of alcohol on their health and relationships, and that their generation is making better choices than ever with alcohol, they can (and do) make more informed decisions.
Share your own story I tell teens about the time I was offered alcohol at a party when I was 14. The alcohol was bought and supplied by the parent, who often wanted to be seen as ‘the cool mum’. The power imbalance was enormous in having an adult encourage the young girls to drink. I spent the party walking around with the same can in my hand, pretending I had just picked up a new one. During the course of the night I slowly disposed of the contents into the indoor pot plants. Ideas and stories help teens think of creative ways to stick with their values, but also not feel embarrassed. They help teens realise they are not alone in choosing not to drink.
Remain firm but kind Stick with your boundary and remind yourself that this isn’t just an arbitrary rule. This is a safety and development boundary, which you are carrying out because you love your teen – not because you are trying to spoil their fun. Yet, remain kind and courteous in your reminder of this alcohol and parties rule. If your teen attempts to negotiate, state the facts, briefly remind them why the boundary is in place and then politely remove yourself from the situation if it is becoming heated.
Parties in your home: The Role Of Parents
Parties are an area where parents often feel that they have to back off and let teenagers have freedom. This is not the case! If you are hosting a party in your home, it’s important to stay visible and present. It is neither acceptable to play the role of BFF and turn a blind eye, nor for your teen to say to you “stay out of sight”. Besides the fact that it’s your home, having a group of under aged young people under your roof becomes a duty of care issue. There are usually many other parents expecting a responsible adult to be in charge and supervising. Sitting up in your room is not supervising. Too many young people are put at risk of peer pressure and sexual pressure when there is not supervision in place. Of course, ‘stalking’ is not helpful, but there are lots of creative and non-invasive ways that parents can maintain a presence amongst the teens. Perhaps, cook the barbecue, be in and out clearing cups and plates, fill up chip bowls, do the dishes in the kitchen, change a light bulb 😉 .
Dropping Off At A Party
If you are dropping off your young teenager at party or ‘gathering’, don’t be afraid to go and meet the hosts. This is especially true if you don’t know them. If your teen is embarrassed, perhaps let them go in first and then come along quietly behind. (Not in secret – so still being upfront with your teen, but letting them know you will wait until they have gone in). Forming a relationship with other parents goes a long way towards making sure that we extend our village and look out for each other’s teens.
It is important that both parents, whether together or not, are on the same page in this area. This may take some compromising and discussion, but you need to remember your child’s safety is paramount!
Please support or encourage a parent, by sharing this article with them.
‘Wellbeing with Collett’: Teenage Drinking.