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Saturday, 6 May 2017

If teens really want to drink alcohol, they're going to find a way! It's just important to not make it easy for them ...

Recently after having given a Parent Information Evening I was contacted by a mother who wanted to say 'thank-you' for the talk. She also wanted to share something her 17-year-old niece (who had been babysitting) had said to her regarding the provision of alcohol. Here is an extract from the mother's message ...

" ... (she) asked us all about it and was really interested to hear about it. We mentioned about how it is imperative that parents don't give kids alcohol to take to parties etc. and she was adamant that she "would not recommend" we send our kids to parties without alcohol! I was taken aback but she said that in her experience if the kids didn't have alcohol and wanted to drink they just get alcohol off other kids. I guess this is a real issue to consider ... I thought it was an interesting response."

I always find the 'if you don't give them the alcohol they'll get it from somewhere else' argument quite bewildering. Realistically, if your child wants to drink alcohol, no matter what you do they will find a way - but does that mean you should just throw your arms up in the air and give it to them? That's certainly the response that your teen will want and, unfortunately, all too often that's what happens in many families. Some parents believe that if they give them the alcohol that somehow this makes it 'safer' than if they get it from somewhere else ... Alcohol is alcohol, it doesn't matter if you give it to them, they get it from a friend or they buy it themselves - it's still the same product! Now, if you feel comfortable providing them alcohol and it's what you want to do, that is totally your business and no-one can tell you to do otherwise - but if you don't think it's the 'right-thing' to do then you should never be forced into doing it simply because your teen threatens you ....

Sometimes I get the whole 'drink spiking' argument thrown at me, i.e., if you provide the cans or bottles, at least you know that the drink hasn't been interfered with in some way. Have you seen how teen parties operate when alcohol is around? Are they realistically going to carry the two bottles around with them for the whole night to ensure that the two drinks you gave them are going to be 'safe'? Of course not! Another argument is based around the provision of low alcohol-content options. Give them low-alcohol beers, ciders or ready-to-drinks (RTDs) in an attempt to keep them away from more problematic spirits. Some young people have told me that if they are given these by their parents they simply trade or sell them onto younger groups and then purchase the drinks they actually prefer.

For many reading this I guarantee that your parents didn't want you to drink alcohol, wouldn't provide it for a party and so you found your own way around their rules and boundaries and did it anyway ... It's highly likely that your first drink of alcohol with friends was in a park, squatting behind a bush or tree drinking a 'box of wine'! It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience, there wasn't a great deal of alcohol available and all in all, it was pretty scary.

I believe that young people of today are much smarter than we were when it comes to finding new and inventive ways of drinking alcohol, particularly in a party or gathering setting ... as I always say, it would appear that very few of them want to drink in a park if they can possibly help it, preferring instead to drink with their friends at someone's home! To illustrate just how clever some of these kids are getting I just thought I'd share a couple of the more inventive ways they are now smuggling alcohol into a party setting. Here are just a few:
  • hip flasks - these have always been around but have become the latest fashion accessory for some young women and can be bought online from many websites. I'm talking to 14-year-old girls who own one of these and this appears to be the number one way alcohol is snuck into sleepovers ...
  • 'a present room' - when your teen requests a special room at the party for presents - be wary! Amongst the wrapped presents they have been given there could be 'liquid gifts' ... The teen usually ensures that this is a room that is made 'out-of-bounds' from everyone apart from those they want to take in themselves so that they can share with them what has been so generously given. A number of parents have contacted me to let me know about this ingenious strategy, most of them totally bamboozled as to how some of the partygoers were becoming intoxicated until stumbling upon the drinking that was going on in the 'present room'
  • fruit injected with alcohol - this is a really clever one (apparently it's all the rage at sporting events, with men in their 20s injecting oranges with vodka to avoid alcohol restrictions at cricket games and the like!), with grapes being the preferred fruit for 15 and 16-year-old parties (but teens have told me that they have seen watermelon, strawberries and even nectarines used). And you thought your teen was on a health kick when they asked for a fruit platter at their birthday party!
  • a range of devices bought online - some of these are truly bizarre. You can now buy tampons that are hollow inside that hold one standard drink, a hairbrush which has been designed to carry liquid, as well as a range of other products usually worn under clothing that can be used to conceal alcohol. The most outrageous of these devices are the range of bras that can be purchased, where each cup can be used to hold a reasonable amount of whatever drink the wearer desires (apparently, usually vodka!)! These also come with a 'tap' to ensure easy access to their drink of choice ...
But my personal favourite story about creative ways of attempting to get alcohol into a party (and how the elaborate plan was foiled) is as follows ... Here is an edited version of an email that Martine, a mother of a 16-year-old daughter, wrote to me over the Christmas break ...

"Matilda was desperate for a 16th birthday party and since she hadn't ever had a party at our house we decided to go for it. We pulled out all the stops and wanted to make sure it was as special as possible. At the same time we made it very clear to her that there would be no alcohol. Some of her friends had had parties and parents had permitted BYO and had tried to control it. None of them worked out well, with one ending up with the police shutting it down. She didn't like it and we certainly had a couple of tantrums but as the night grew closer she seemed to accept our decision."

"On the Friday before the party (Matilda was at school) we had a company come to the house to erect the marquee and as they were putting in the pegs into the garden they hit a bottle of vodka buried beneath the ground. After the first bottle (and a couple of cans) were found we decided to do a thorough investigation. It took us a while but we ended up finding an absolute treasure trove - bottles of vodka and bourbon, UDL cans and an assortment of other bits and pieces! We decided to say nothing to Matilda and simply watch what happened on the night ... Watching those teens desperately digging through that garden searching for their alcohol almost made up for the huge disappointment we felt in Matilda! Nothing was said on the night and I truly believe that most of the kids had a great time (we believe it was a core group of about 6 kids who knew about what was going on - at least they were the ones that were obviously distressed!). What surprised me was how organised these kids had been - one bottle in the dirt or a couple of cans hidden in the bushes maybe, but hundreds of dollars worth of alcohol carefully buried? They're certainly far more clever than we ever were!" 

As I said, teens will find a way if that's what they want to do - we did and so will they!

If you don't believe that giving them alcohol is the right thing to do - make it clear that you don't want them to drink before a certain age and that you won't be giving it to them. Let them know that if they decide to break your rules and drink and you catch them then there will be consequences. Will this mean that they won't break the rules and they'll do everything you want them to? Of course not, for many young people there will come a time when they will decide to experiment with friends, no matter what you say or however strong your relationship, but I can guarantee you that if they do choose to drink, for the most part they are likely to be a lot more careful with how much they consume because you have made it clear as to what will happen if they get caught!

We know through research that when you provide alcohol to teens the only message they get from that is 'my parents give me alcohol' - they certainly don't get any messages about safer or responsible use. Of course, at some point you have to trust your child to 'do the right thing' - at 17 many parents start changing rules (no matter what their values) because it is 'the year of the 18th' but at 15 or 16 I find it hard to believe that anybody would think it would just be easier (and safer) just to send them off to a party with alcohol. It may sound like a good idea at the time but if it should go wrong and something terrible happens to your child - and remember, we lose one 14-17-year-old due to alcohol in this country every weekend - you will never forgive yourself ...

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About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.