Saturday, 20 February 2016

What if your teen wants to take alcohol to a party or gathering?

What do you say the first time your teen turns around and asks if they can take alcohol to a party they have been invited to? This is the situation a mother I met during the week had recently faced and she found herself really struggling with how to respond ...

Tina's son Adrian is 16 and has found it really difficult since he started at a new school two years ago to find a group of friends. Last week he was invited to his first teenage party and, although a bit worried about the whole 'party thing', she was also thrilled that this could be the beginning of him finally starting to 'fit in' ... Unfortunately straight after she said he could go, he threw her a curly one and asked if he could take alcohol. According to Adrian, everyone else was going to take a couple of drinks and he didn't want to be the only one who didn't. Tina certainly didn't feel comfortable giving her son alcohol to take to a party (and she made it clear to me, it was never going to happen!) but she also didn't want to ruin her son's social life ...

This is a difficult issue for many parents of teenagers, with some in our community believing that alcohol consumption is simply a 'rite of passage' into adulthood and that 'everyone will go through that stage' at some time or other. Community attitudes are certainly changing with more and more parents expressing concern about young people drinking at an early age, particularly in a party environment. As we learn more and more about the impact of alcohol on adolescent brain development and calls of 'delay, delay, delay' become louder and louder, growing numbers of parents simply don't feel comfortable providing even the smallest amount to their teens. Evidence shows that a liberal approach to underage drinking leads to an increased risk of a range of serious consequences including dependence, violence, sexual assault and even death.

Your child is bound to tell you that you are 'the only parent who won’t let them take alcohol' if you decide not to provide it and that 'you will shame them forever' and that they will be the laughing stock amongst their friends. Whatever your decision (and let's make it perfectly clear - it is your decision, no-one can tell you what to do with your child), you need to make sure you make it based on good quality information and not pressure from your child and their friends, and certainly not other parents trying to make you feel bad about your efforts to keep your child as safe as possible.

Sadly, whether or not to provide alcohol to your child to take to a party or gathering is going to be a major issue for many families at some time or another through that difficult period called adolescence. We are bombarded with messages from every direction about the important role alcohol plays in socialising, whether it be through advertising and marketing, or simply by watching a sporting event on the television, that it is not surprising that most young people believe you have to drink alcohol to have a good time.

There are no easy answers to this complex issue but here are some simple tips for parents to consider:
  • Communicate: Explain why you don't want them to take alcohol to parties. Tell them about the range of risks involved and your concerns about their physical, psychological and social health. They may not agree with your views on the matter but they need to understand why you have created the rules that exist in your home.
  • Don't be afraid to say 'no': Your child learns more from one word than almost any other – 'no'. Unfortunately too many parents fear that saying no to their child will make them unpopular and that their child won't like them - I've got news for you, you're a parent, they're not meant to like you! Remember, your child has lots of opportunities to make friends, they only have one set of parents.
  • Challenge ridiculous statements: If your child tells you that you are the 'only Mum who won't provide alcohol' - make sure you do not let this statement go unchallenged. Most parents do not support providing alcohol to take to underage parties. If your teenager insists that this is the truth, let them provide some proof. Give them a piece of paper and a pen and ask them to supply names and phone numbers of five parents who do provide alcohol. 
  • Talk to other parents: Make sure other parents know your views on the subject of supplying alcohol to teenagers who are underage. If you do not believe that it is appropriate to provide your child with alcohol for a party, you will be most probably be pleasantly surprised as to how many parents agree with your stance. If parents have differing viewpoints that is their right, but let them know your reasons and make it clear that you do not want your child to drink at this stage in their life.

Unfortunately for Tina her situation is a little more complicated ... her dilemma is compounded by the fear that her decision could jeopardise her son's relationship with his newly found group of friends. Many parents fear that saying 'no' to alcohol or parties (or any activities they feel are potentially dangerous for that matter) will result in their child not 'fitting in', but that's not what is happening here. As Tina said to me, "If this was a group of friends that I knew well and he had had for a while I wouldn't have even thought twice about saying 'no', but he's been so unhappy and so lonely at his new school, I really have had to try to work out how to stay true to my beliefs but not cause too much devastation!" ...

Sixteen is a tough age! At this time of their life, teens are desperately trying to gain (or maintain) acceptance from their peers and, at the same time, well and truly pulling away from their parents in an effort to create their own identity. Tina does need to handle this carefully - every parent wants their child to have friends and have a healthy social life - but it is still important to maintain rules and boundaries based on your family values. Let your guard down here once and you'll never get it back ... As I said to her, I certainly don't believe that 'everyone else' going to the party was going to be given alcohol by their parents but in this case I don't think challenging her son in that way is necessarily going to help. My advice consisted of a number of simple steps:
  • Sit down and ask what rules he would like around attending the party - i.e., how would he like to get there? What time did he want to be picked up? How would information about the party be obtained? I recommend that teens write down this 'wish-list' on a piece of paper - it makes it much more concrete for them ... Ask him to include his thoughts about alcohol ..
  • Ask him to indicate his Top 3 from the list - the ones that are most important to him. As much as taking alcohol may be up there - you can guarantee that you not calling the house beforehand, not walking him to the door, not meeting the parents, as well as a later pick-up time are going to be far more important to him in terms of saving face
  • Tell him what you want  - what is the most important thing for you? Once again, I would recommend you write it down - right next to his list. I can almost guarantee that the only thing you put down there is 'safety' - you want him home in one piece!
  • Tell him that you are not going to give him alcohol but you are willing to compromise on his Top 3 as long as they match what you want - his safety! It's important that he also knows that these rules will change over time and that you will reward good behaviour but you cannot provide alcohol - you just don't feel comfortable doing that ...

Adrian needed to understand that his mother was willing to compromise, she was not going to just stand there and say 'no' to everything. Yes, he could go to the party. Yes, she was willing to give a little on some rules, but alcohol was the 'line in the sand' - he needed to know there was no compromise there at this point in time. Rules need to be perceived as fair and they must be age-appropriate, that's why they must be updated regularly (every 3-6 months for a 16-17 year-old) but they need to be there, particularly during adolescence. I also suggested to Tina that if her son was open to the idea, they could come up with strategies to help him deal with questions about why he didn't bring alcohol so he could save face. This is likely to be a difficult ask for a 16 year-old young man and his mother but there may be another significant adult in the teen's life that could help him develop an 'out' that is socially acceptable and he would feel comfortable using ...

Is there any guarantee this strategy is going to work? Of course not, you're dealing with a teenager but at least you're giving it your best shot!

As teenagers mature, they certainly begin to regard themselves as young adults and want the freedoms (but often not the responsibilities) that go with adulthood. As I've already said, no-one can tell you how to bring up your children - you have to make those decisions yourself. That said, I still struggle to understand the argument that some parents throw at me of "I give my teen two drinks to a party because at least I know what they're drinking!" If you want to allow your child to drink in your home with you, go for it, but supplying alcohol to underage drinkers for consumption at a teenage party or  gathering is fraught with legal as well as personal dangers so, whatever your decision, make it carefully.

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