By Matthew Porter, Head of Wellbeing at Waverley College
Having a tipsy teen stumble into the house in the small hours might seem like a rite of passage for you as a parent, but the truth is Australia’s strong drinking culture, paired with pressure to conform at parties, can introduce youth to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
As tempting as it may be, having a 4am heart-to-heart or grounding them until they’re 40, are unlikely to build trust or open communication, and those are both key ingredients to successfully navigating the adolescent social scene. Instead of dictating what not to do, arm them with knowledge and work together to develop concrete strategies to support good choices.
First, the facts
By age 17, 94.3 per cent of young Australians have used alcohol. Some 28 per cent of alcohol supplied to underage drinkers comes from parents or friends at parties and at home. This grates against research that tells us alcohol is best avoided until age 18, preferably until age 25, to allow the brain to fully develop.
Research also shows that binge drinking is on the rise. In addition to physical effects, binge drinking often leads to risky behaviour and poor decision-making, which have their own negative consequences.
Now, the tactics
Realistically, it is hard (but not impossible) for teens to completely avoid booze, so aim to delay alcohol use as long as possible. The best strategy is to help them develop a healthy relationship with alcohol so they can make better decisions about limiting or avoiding it. Talking is a good first step, but if they’re prone to grunts and eye-rolls, skip to the practical.
Matthew Porter, Head of Wellbeing at Waverley College.
First, be a good role model. Some parents may find it hard to discourage kids from drinking if drinking culture influenced their own youth, but you can lead by example by avoiding real-life re-enactments of The Hangover. If you were a boozehound, you may wish to reveal your less glamorous side to discourage them from alcohol misuse.
Secondly, encourage a gradual approach. Many 18-year-olds 'turn on the tap' when drinking becomes legal, which is binge territory. Start with small, controlled amounts of drinking in a safe environment; this also gives you an idea of how they act under the influence.
So your teen wants to party
I have questions. You should have these questions too.
1. “Who, and how many are attending? How were they invited to the party?”
Do you know the other guests? In a good way (trustworthy friends) or a bad way (troublemaking mates)? The invitation method matters—social media means the message can spread quickly and if it's open house, any Corey Worthington could be there. Mo' partygoers = mo' problems.
2. “What are the parents’ names and phone numbers? Will they be there to supervise?”
Speak to the host's parents about how they'll monitor the presence of alcohol. If your teen's close friends are going, unite with their parents and set expectations around behaviour. It's good practice to meet the parents at the door when you drop off your teen to ensure they're really there.
3. “While I expect there will be no alcohol, how will you respond if it is offered?”
Talk through some scenarios and have them practice a few responses to refuse or deflect offers.
Listen: How do you talk to your teens about boozing responsibly? (Post continues after audio.)
4. “What is consent?”
An awkward conversation topic, but more awkward if your teen gets this wrong. Steer the conversation around peer pressure, sexting, age of consent, sexual consent, getting into a vehicle, etc.
5. "What happens if things get out of hand?"
Address alcohol-fuelled violence by talking through how they and their mates should respond to provocation, and when to leave. Help them improve emotional awareness and regulation in themselves and others.
6. “Where is the party and when am I dropping and collecting you?”
Being a late-night chauffeur for your teen may not be a top career choice, but the safest option is to collect them—no sleepovers at big parties. If you know other parents well you can run a carpool so you're only the designated driver every few parties.
Agree on a text alert symbol or phrase in case your teen needs to leave. Your teen needs to know who to contact in an emergency without judgement or lectures. If they find themselves in a scary situation, you want them to call you.
When your teen brings the party to yours
Hate to go hard-line, but if the party is at yours, read up on relevant laws, including host responsibilities and legal repercussions. Did you know adults who supply alcohol to minors cop an $1,100 fine per child?
Set expectations of appropriate behaviour before you agree to host, and have a plan for what happens if a guest steps out of line. Co-monitor invitations with your teen and keep details off social media.
Register the party with local police, who may increase patrols in your area. If gatecrashers do turn up, they will respond quickly. If things get out of control, ensure your teen knows it's okay to call an ambulance. Many won’t call for fear of parents, police or cost, so reassure them a medical emergency requires an ambulance.
Above all, remember these guidelines exist to support fun—and no one's having fun if a friend has passed out from alcohol poisoning. Teens want to explore their independence, but some mistakes may have life-changing consequences for young partygoers.
Top 10 parent attitudinal statements
The following statements were put together by the Waverley College PCTA as a guide for handling teen partygoers. You might like to create your own list with some other parents in your area.
1. “It is a non-negotiable that you will be dropped off and picked up.”
2. “Hosting a teenage party where alcohol is available is illegal.”
3. “Host parents and additional parents are essential if a party is to be safe.”
4. “I have a right to call and talk to other parents.”
5. “Research shows that sleepovers provide the main opportunity for underage drinking.”
6. “I expect that parents are not drinking alcohol during teenage parties.”
7. “I expect you to be ready to leave when I arrive to get you.”
8. “You are able to attend the party but you will not be sleeping over.”
9. “I expect parents to be present at parties.”
10. “I am happy to negotiate a pick-up time based on: Year 7: 7pm / Year 8: 8pm / Year 9: 9pm / Year 10: 10pm / Year 11: 11pm / Year 12: 12pm."
Matthew Porter is the Director of Wellbeing at Waverley College, an all-boys Catholic School in the Edmund Rice Tradition, with over 100 years’ history as a school that liberates the potential of students from all backgrounds in its Pre-School, Junior School and Senior School. waverley.nsw.edu.au