Sunday, 3 November 2013

Would you ever consider hosting a teenage party? If so, is there anything you can do to keep it as safe as possible?

This week a letter was published in the UK's Guardian newspaper by 16 year old Lizzie Deane. The letter was written in response to the national coverage that a daughter of an owner of a centuries-old British stately home recently received after she issued an open apology for throwing an 18th birthday party for a friend, disturbing nearby residents who claim the music went on all night. Lizze's letter is printed under the title - Teenagers will have rowdy, drunken parties. So why not let them? Take a read - it's an interesting perspective and she certainly raises some valid points (although I challenge some of her 'universal statements' - "Teenagers get drunk" - some do, not all!) particularly around parents having more control when they're actually involved in the process ...

Letting a teenager have a party provides parents with leverage, more control over guests, timings and whatever else: it may be a risk but it's either that or waiting until you are "out" or, even better, "away".

My favourite section of the letter though is her observations around 'parental supervision' at parties - it's priceless!

If parents decide they want to "supervise" – and I have to say, it doesn't happen often – they tend to hide. No, cower. They slope off to the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine. As they quiver with fear, they try to let the soothing sounds of David Attenborough drown out the relentless beat below them. The brave among them may chance a scurry to the loo, but only the downright deranged dare to enter the throng – few escape with their lives, let alone their minds.

I get it - holding a party for teenagers, whether it be at your home or somewhere you have hired for the evening, is a huge responsibility. Most parents I meet would not even consider ever hosting a party for their adolescent child - the media coverage of parties and gatherings getting totally out of control and becoming an alcohol-fuelled orgy of violence and mayhem is enough to put any reasonably sane parent off ever staging such an event - but the reality is, someone has to! Most of us went to parties on Saturday nights and our kids need them as well, if for no other reason they provide valuable opportunities for young people to socialize in a different environment to that of school. If you are considering holding a teenage party remember that it can also be a great opportunity for you to strengthen your relationship with your child, get to know their friends and become more involved in their life.

Over the years I have worked with many promoters to help them run dance events at nightclubs or festivals. Although these people often get a lot of bad publicity, in my experience most of them work extremely hard to try to provide a safe environment for their clientele. They have no choice, they operate under a microscope with the media keen to pounce on them if they don’t do the right thing. They simply would not be allowed to run an event unless they followed some basic rules. This usually involves liquor licensing procedures, a whole range of safety rules involving fire and law enforcement requirements, as well as a whole pile of others including security and medical provision. Many of them do much more than the basic standards asked of them because they want to do the right thing and look after the people attending their events. 

Parents holding a party for teenagers need to think in a similar way. You are providing an environment for a group of young people to get together and have a good time. Things can go wrong. You need to think about all the possible risks and put things into place to make sure that the party is as safe as possible – for the people coming to the party, your neighbours and of course, you and your family. Of course there are no guarantees. No matter what safeguards you put into place there is always the possibility that something could go wrong. However, the greater the planning, the more likely it is that things will run smoothly. Like anything, put a little effort into the organization and it is likely to reap rewards in the long-term.

It is also extremely important to involve your child in the planning of the party. You can bet that they will have a long list of requirements for what makes a successful evening and together you will need to make many decisions about a wide range of issues, including the provision of alcohol. As much as it is important to have your child's input so that the party can be successful, it is also helpful for your child to be aware of all the planning and hard work that needs to be done to ensure that the night runs smoothly. They are then much more likely to appreciate the efforts that have been made by all involved and work co-operatively to resolve challenging issues. As much as your child will benefit from the socializing aspect of attending a party with their friends, they will also learn a great deal by helping in putting an event together.

Some of the decisions that should be made with your child include the following:

What food will be available? Food is incredibly important to have at any party, particularly if alcohol is going to be served. It slows down the amount of alcohol people drink but you need to be very careful about having too much salty food which could make people more thirsty and then likely to drink more. Your child is more likely to know what food is 'socially acceptable' to the current generation of young people and will be of great assistance here.

Will alcohol be allowed (if there are over 18s attending) or 'tolerated' (if not) and who will serve it if it is? This one is definitely going to be the tough one for most families. If you do make the decision to serve alcohol, how are you going to deal with the issue of your underage guests, remembering the legal issues around providing alcohol to minors? If a parent contacts you to ask you about alcohol are you prepared to defend your decision? Does your child understand the risks involved? Is there going to be a 'free-for-all', i.e., are people going to be able to bring their own and then get their own alcohol whenever they want or will there be someone serving alcohol, monitoring how much people are drinking?

If you decide on an alcohol-free party, how will you handle guests who turn up with alcohol? Once again, this will be a difficult one for parents and teenage children to negotiate. Your child will undoubtedly not want to be embarrassed by one of their parents taking alcohol off their friends if they arrive with a bottle. If a decision to make a party alcohol-free is made then a solution to this sort of problem needs to be negotiated carefully beforehand. Simply turning a guest away from the party is not a good option. You do not know whether the young person has been dropped off at your home by their parent and how they're getting home – maybe they are returning in a few hours. Sending them off into the night with a bottle of something is irresponsible and dangerous. Discuss this with your teenager and see if you can come up with some ideas for dealing with this problem together (I have to say that I am constantly amazed at some of the really thoughtful and considered ideas young people come up with around this issue). 

How will you handle gatecrashers? Gatecrashers are now a fact of life at teenage parties, particularly if you are providing alcohol. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and SMS messaging it doesn't take long for the word to get out that there is a party happening and that it is the place to be. Will you be handing out invitations to those people who you want to come or will you have a guest list? Will you be hiring security to manage the party or do you have a couple of burly relatives that can handle a difficult situation? What responsibility will your teenager have in looking after the door, particularly considering that they are more likely to know who was invited and who wasn't? 

What will you do in an emergency? The best planned parties could end up finding themselves trying to handle an emergency of some description. This does not have to be related to alcohol – when a group of people get together, no matter what their age, things can go wrong. Who will be the contact person whose responsibility it will be should something go wrong? Who will make the list of emergency numbers and where will it be kept? Discuss with your teenager the necessity to register your party with the local police and why it is so important. When you do register your party, make sure you do it together so that they can see and understand the process.

How will the guests be getting home and what time will the party be finishing? Unbelievably, this is one aspect of a hosting a teenage party that many parents forget about. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to police but it needs to be discussed with your child so that they understand the huge responsibility you have taken on. There is no way that you are able to know how each and every guest attending the party is getting home but if something happens to any of those young people when they leave your home, particularly if they have been drinking, it would be difficult to live with yourself. Stress the importance of having a strict finishing time for the party and advertise that time widely. This will ensure that as many parents as possible know the time and are aware that after that time their children will be asked to leave your home. Hopefully this will reduce the number of teenagers spilling out onto the street and into the parks and other public spaces in your local area after the party has finished.

Over the years I have had many parents eager to tell me their success stories when it comes to holding teenage parties. Most of these have involved the decision not to serve alcohol to those underage and not to tolerate any alcohol being brought into the event. Once that decision has been made and the young person has understood and accepted it, the night is usually successful and runs without incident (also, those whose only intent is to get as drunk as possible don't want to attend gatherings where they know alcohol rules will be policed).

I can definitely understand some of the arguments that some parents use when they agree to provide or tolerate alcohol at teenage parties, particularly if they are hosting events for those young people who are close to the legal drinking age. However, many of the arguments put forward simply don’t hold up under scrutiny. Possibly one of the most ridiculous is the one where parents say that they are simply providing a 'safe environment' in which their teenager can drink and that if they didn't their child would simply go off and drink somewhere else unsupervised. What absolute garbage!

If you want to provide your child alcohol in your home with a family meal or even at a family get together, that is your choice as a parent. But providing (or even tolerating or 'turning a blind eye' to) alcohol at a teenage party is very different.

There is no handbook on how to be the perfect parent, you can only do the best you can do at the time. The same is true when it comes to holding an incident-free teenage party. There are definitely some guidelines that you can follow, some of which have been already outlined. Without doubt the best thing you can do to reduce risk is to make the event alcohol-free. If you believe that this is not an option for your child and their stage of development, make sure you take every precaution to make the party as safe as possible for all concerned and don't be the parent that Lizzie so beautifully described - cowering "in the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine."

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