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Saturday, 22 October 2016

One of those teen parties where everything goes right: One Mum's story she was desperate to share

I'm getting a little tired of talking about teenage parties and gatherings where things go wrong and I end up criticising parental behaviour that not only adversely affects their own child but other peoples' children as well. There are so many parties put on every weekend that go well - no dramas, no problems - just a bunch of wonderful young people getting together and having a great time and it's about time that I did my bit to acknowledge and celebrate these events.

I received an email from a Mum named Carol a few weeks ago who desperately wanted to share her experience with organising and hosting a teen party for her daughter's 15th birthday, not because it all went horribly wrong but because it went so well! It's taken a couple of weeks to get this written as we've spoken on the phone a couple of times since I received her message in an effort to try to pin down a couple of key things that she thinks led to the success. Here is Carol's original email ...

I have been reading your blog for the past couple of years and have read with great interest all the advice you have provided for parents around teenage parties and alcohol. My daughter, Hannah, was only 13 when I started to read your articles and I was amazed to read about some of the parenting behaviour that you described, particularly around not meeting the parents when they dropped the sons or daughters off at sleepovers or parties. When you came to my daughter's school my husband and I attended the parent session that you ran and it was after listening to you then that we sat down and had a big talk about how we were going to deal with this issue.

Fast forward two years and we made the decision to hold a 15th birthday party at our home for Hannah. She is a very social young lady and was desperate for us to let her have her friends over and show them a good time. She has been to many parties this year but she knows our rules and we always call the host parents, take her there and pick her up (often ending up picking up a number of her friends at the same time). She doesn't like the rules but we have promised her that they will be adjusted over time and we will reward good behaviour (just like you keep saying) so the moment there are no real dramas. It was also made clear to Hannah that if we were to have a party at our home then it would be held under our rules. She would be involved in the making of the rules and if she felt that the rules would ruin the party or embarrass her in any way then she could pull the plug at any time.

I cannot even begin to tell you how proud I was of Hannah and her 30 wonderful friends that came to our house last Saturday night! There were absolutely no issues whatsoever. We had no young people turn up to our home intoxicated, in fact, over 20 of the teens were walked to the door by at least one of their parents. To the best of our knowledge there was no alcohol consumed during the whole event and the kids looked like they had a great time. There were no gatecrashers, no noise complaints from neighbours and there was absolutely no damage (there wasn't even a broken glass!). The party started at 7.30pm and finished at 11.00pm , with most of the kids being picked up by a parent, with many of them once again actually coming to the door, and those that weren't we knew exactly who did pick them up and where they were going.  

I need to make it clear that these aren't a bunch of 'goody two shoes' who never do anything wrong. One of the girls who attended had recently found herself in trouble at a party and ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning. Alcohol is already a part of some of these teens' lives but last Saturday they had a great time without it. My husband and I are so proud of them we could just bust! If you would like to share this on your blog I would be so very happy. We were really worried about putting on the party because we had heard all the horror stories but I think our story shows that if you put the effort in (and we did work very hard to get this right) you certainly reap the rewards!

Our kids are great and it is incredibly important to remember that there are hundreds of teenage parties and gatherings held every weekend that go off without a hitch - no problems at all! But as Carol said, you have to work hard to get it right - a successful and safe teenage party doesn't just happen. With that in mind I made contact with her to find out from her what she thought were the most important things she did that led to the party being safe, alcohol-free and still be seen as a great night by her daughter and her friends ... We've gone backwards and forwards on this over the past fortnight but here are the 5 tips she believes were the key to her success (there are a couple here that I think are great original ideas and good on her and Dale, her husband, for being so innovative):

  • Make sure your child is involved in the making of the rules and the organisation of the party. This doesn't mean that they make the rules but Hannah had been to some parties and she had a good idea of what worked and what didn't. There were some things that were totally non-negotiable and she was told that at the beginning, but in every other area we were willing to listen. Having her help organise the party was great too as she could see how much work it took and, once again, she knew what worked and what didn't. She certainly felt an ownership of the party and a great deal of pride at the end of the night about how well it went and that was extremely valuable.
  • Have a strict limit on number invited, RSVP only and no 'plus-ones'. Our greatest battle with Hannah was on how many could be invited - she originally wanted 100! I didn't think she even knew that many people but it was all about 'plus ones', with her girlfriends wanting to bring another person, usually an older boy. This was a non-negotiable rule - 30 invitees was our limit and to be quite honest I don't know how any parent could deal with anymore than that. Formal invitations were handed to people - no information was to be delivered via social media - and I had to receive a formal RSVP back before putting them on the guest list.
  • RSVPs have to include a contact number for one or both of the parents on the night of the party. This proved to be difficult to get for a couple of the young people attending and we did have two boys who tried to provide fake numbers (we rang every contact number when we got the RSVP to check that we had what we wanted but did it under the guise of thanking the Mum or Dad who answered for letting their child come and to briefly introduce ourselves). In the end we got a genuine number for all 30 of them and that made us feel so much more secure should something have gone wrong and we needed to make contact quickly with a parent.
  • Invite parents to a 'drop in and say hello' event at the house when they drop their child off at the party. We had no idea how this would go and whether anyone would take us up on this but we had an amazing response, both on the night and in the week after. We've never seen anyone else do it but had often thought when we dropped Hannah off at a party that it would be nice to meet some of the other parents and maybe even offer to assist the hosts if they looked like they needed it. We included a brief invitation to 'Drop in and say hello to Dale and Carol' on the actual hard-copy formal invitation to the party and mentioned it again when we called to check the mobile number that had been provided. We set a room aside (away from where the kids were) and allocated 30 minutes at the beginning of the party where we would 'meet and greet' any parent who wanted to come in and say hello ... We were really surprised how many took us up on the offer, most of them thanking us for giving them the opportunity to meet other parents. No-one stayed for longer than about 15 mins, although a couple of Mums did ask if we needed help with anything, offering to hang around if we did, but all were gone at the end of the 30 mins. 
  • Make it clear that no-one will be leaving the party without an adult picking them up. We were very conscious of the issue of unaccompanied teens leaving parties as we have picked up Hannah and watched many 14 and 15 year-olds wandering the streets at the end of the night, not a parent in sight. After the fights around how many were allowed to be invited, making it clear that no-one would be able to leave without an adult picking them up was our next greatest battle with our daughter. This was also the most difficult thing to organise - I don't think we got it perfectly right but we were pretty damn close! In the end, we left this with Hannah to organise, asking her to collect the names, together with a contact number, of the adults who would be collecting each of the 30 invitees. We went through this with her in the days before the party and if there were any names that didn't look right we checked on them with a phone call. That list was used at the end of the night to ensure that each of them was picked up by the adult who's name they provided. We did have a few parents who texted their child to pick them up and didn't come to the door, but in those cases we just rang the number we had to make sure it was really them and then sent them on their way. We also had two parents who used an Uber to pick up their child which really surprised us. In both cases, however, the parent rang us up as the car approached to let us know what was happening.    

Carol and Dale are amazing people! They went to great lengths to hold a wonderful party for their daughter but also make sure she and her friends were as safe as possible. I hope the parents of Hannah's friends appreciate their efforts.

It is important to acknowledge that Carol doesn't believe that she is going to be able to use all of these tips for future parties - as her daughter and her peers get older, she's going to have to relax some of the rules, trust them to do the right thing and allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. She certainly doesn't expect that many parents are going to be walking their 16 or 17 year-old down to her front door when she holds a party in a couple of years time, but for a 15th birthday party, this couple have done an incredible job and have every right to be proud of themselves, as well as their daughter and her friends. I really love a couple of the tips that Carol put together - i.e., ensuring the RSVP includes a contact number for one or both of the parents on the night of the party really provides the host parents with much greater peace of mind should anything go wrong and I think the 'drop in and say hello' event for parents is an inspired idea! If you've had similar successful events and want to share your experiences with others, please send your thoughts and ideas through to me - I'd love to hear them and pass them onto others ...

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Mixed sleepovers: What are parents thinking?

I'm not sure whether it's just the end of the year and I'm starting to get tired but I seem to be doing a fair bit of 'parent-bashing' at the moment ... I hope that regular readers of my blogs know that I think most of you guys are amazing! It's not easy being a parent - there are lots of challenges and, as I always say, there is no 'rule book' and so there's lots of 'trial and error' involved with the whole process. That said, over the past couple of months I have heard about some examples of parental behaviour, particularly around parties and gatherings, that just makes things so much more difficult for all you guys who are trying to do the right thing  ... case in point - mixed sleepovers!

In the past month I have been approached by parents at two different schools who have recently struggled with their teens over this issue and have no idea how to progress with the problem. Interestingly, both parents asked me to be extremely careful how I raised the topic as they were fearful that if I provided too much detail about their particular incident then they would be able to be identified and their children could suffer as a result. So with that in mind, I'm going to be fairly vague about details. In both cases, however, their teen was 15 years-old - one male and the other a Year 10 girl. The situations were very similar, both parents have fairly strict rules and boundaries around alcohol and almost always make sure they call the house where the party, gathering or whatever is being held and find out a little bit more about what will be happening. Recently their child had been asked to a 'gathering', with their teens making it very clear it was not a party - just a small group of close friends getting together on a Saturday night. They assured their parents there was to be no alcohol and, by the way, they also wanted to sleepover ... Although none of them felt really comfortable about the whole 'sleepover' thing, they agreed to it as long as they got some answers from the parents hosting the event to make sure that alcohol wasn't going to be part of the night. They called the hosts and asked the usual questions around supervision, alcohol, drop-off and pick-up time the next day and the like - received satisfactory answers and, as a result, agreed to let their children go ...

Both found out later (and in very different ways) that, in fact, this wasn't your typical 15 year-old sleepover. Yes, it was only a (comparatively) small group of teens attending but it was a mixed group - around 10-15 young men and young women in each of the cases - and in both there was little to no adult supervision, even though the parents had been assured that there would be when they had called and asked a specific question. Alcohol was snuck into one of the parties by some of those attending and the other had a range of alcoholic drinks provided by the hosts, completely contradicting what they had told parents over the phone when they had made enquiries. Boys and girls shared beds in some cases and were completely left to their own devices. What in heavens were the host parents thinking?

With hormones racing during this stage of adolescence, combined with alcohol and no supervision, it is a miracle that something terrible didn't happen (and most frighteningly it could have and we simply don't know about it) ... and all while their parents were at home believing that they were in a safe and secure environment!

With so many of these kind of issues, I always come back to what would have happened if schools and teachers acted in the same way? Can you imagine the outcry if a group of Year 10s went off to a school camp and the teachers just let a co-ed group of students go and sleep wherever they wanted? The number of hoops that teachers have to go through to organise a school camp or retreat is ridiculous, but rightly so - you want your kids to be safe. Ensuring the right numbers of male and female staff are present, that there is adequate supervision provided at all times and the facilities are safe and secure - the list goes on and on - and there's no alcohol added to the mix there! How a parent in their right mind could possibly think that holding a mixed sleepover for a group of 15 year-olds in their home is appropriate is beyond me! How do you control it and most importantly, why would you ever do it?

The thing that has made this so much more difficult for both of the families that I met is that they simply have no idea how to respond as far raising their concerns with the host parents. Both found out well after the sleepover was held (as I said in very different circumstances) and feel as though they would have had no problems confronting them immediately after the event but now too much time has gone past, i.e., "Nothing happened - what's your problem?" They're also extremely worried how their response will impact upon how their teen is viewed in their friendship group. If it all comes out and gets nasty, will their child be isolated or bullied for 'telling all'? One of the Mums also admitted that she was concerned about the effect this could have on her place in the parent group at the school. Apparently, the host mother of her daughter's party is extremely influential and powerful - although she wanted to be the 'whistle-blower', would it really be worth it in the long-term? Would it actually change anything?

What is the most frightening about this is that it now adds another layer to parental concern around teenage parties and gatherings. If a parent wants to make sure they do their 'due diligence' when it comes to checking up about what will be happening at the parties their child hopes to attend on a Saturday night, there are already so many questions that need to be asked. I think it's truly bizarre that if your 14-15 year-old child wants to stay over at a friend's house you now need to ask whether the host parents are planning a mixed sleepover or not! Unbelievable!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Picking your teen up from a party by text: What position does that put the parents hosting the event in?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a very dear friend of mine who had contacted me about a party she had hosted for her 15 year-old daughter and her absolute shock that not one parent had contacted her beforehand to find out anything about the event. Adding insult to injury, she couldn't believe that the girls attending were simply dropped off at the end of the driveway (no-one bothered to walk their daughter to the house and introduce themselves to her and her partner) and then picked up by text when the party finished. That blog entry got a huge reaction, with many readers writing to me that they had had a similar experience, totally gobsmacked that so many parents appeared to have absolutely no interest in who would be looking after their child on a Saturday night, where they would be going and what they were actually planning to do with them when they got there!

One part of the story really resonated with another friend of mine and he got in contact with me and asked me to share his experience around a party he held for his 15 year-old daughter, Bella.

I have known Travis (not his real name) and his wife (Michelle) for a long time - we used to party together many years ago and, after having a couple of beautiful daughters, he has been regularly attended my parent sessions for the past 10 years. Over that time we've often talked about the upcoming challenges that he may face bring up adolescent daughters but he was truly shocked after hosting his first teenage party. He's an avid reader of my blogs and has collected a range of adolescent parenting books and so when it came to organising the event he did everything right. He certainly wasn't surprised (although a little disappointed) that he had very few parents contact him or his wife directly to find out about the party, but as he said, he knew many of the Mums and Dads of his daughter's friends and they knew him so he attributed this to the fact that there was an element of trust there, i.e., they knew that their child would be well looked after by Travis and his wife. But it was the end of the night that just blew him away and I'll let you read what happened in his own words ...

"All had gone so well. We had made it very clear to Bella that there would be no alcohol allowed, anyone who tried to smuggle alcohol in or appeared to be even slightly intoxicated would have their parents contacted and we would ask them to be picked up immediately (a condition of attending was providing us with a parent's mobile number so that would be easy to enforce), and we had no problems at all. The girls seemed to have a great time. Then at 10.45pm, 15 minutes before the party was ending, everyone's phone started to go off and the girls started to make a move for the front door. When we asked them where they were going, every girl, without exception, told us that their parent was outside to pick them up. We looked outside and there was indeed a fleet of cars outside, interestingly, none in the actual driveway (which was empty - what was that about?). When we asked the girls to tell their parents to come in and say hello you would have almost thought we had asked them to kill their grandmother ... 

We live on a fairly dark street - there are street lamps but it's not well-lit. We couldn't see in the cars and we honestly had no idea who was in them. We could have possibly identified a couple of cars with parents we knew reasonably well but we couldn't have been sure. Michelle and I had a quick chat and just felt like we couldn't in all good conscience let this group of 35 girls spill out onto our street and get into cars with people we had no way of identifying. 

Michelle blocked the door and I then proceeded to walk each girl, or group of girls if they said they were to be picked up by one parent together, to the cars. I was extremely polite to the first couple of parents I met, introducing myself and saying to them that they should have come in and said hello and that we would have liked to meet out daughter's friend's parents, but some of them were so rude, almost grunting at me, that that stopped pretty quickly. Some of the parents I knew well were totally surprised when they saw me at their car window and when I asked them whether they really expected me to just send their daughter out onto the street without really knowing who was picking them up, you could see that this was something they simply had never thought about ...

What was really scary though was that when I took 5 of the girls to the car picking them up, there were no parents there. One group of 3 girls wanted to get into a car with two young men in their early 20s (there were no P-plates so that's how old I assumed they were). They told me that one of them was one of the girl's brothers but when I called their parents (thank god I had collected mobiles), I found out that they were planning to go to another party and their families knew nothing about it. Absolutely terrifying! The other two girls admitted to me that were being picked up by older boyfriends as I was walking them out, both telling me that they had their parents' permission. When I checked, once again, totally untrue!"

Travis is a great Dad and I can tell you he has been really traumatised by this event. As he said to me, he doesn't want to even think about what could have happened if he had let those 5 girls go off to god knows where ... If one of those girls had been sexually assaulted later that night or the car crammed with two young men and three 15 year-olds from the party had crashed and someone had been killed he would never have been able to live with himself. Since the party Travis has received quite a deal of flak from some of the parents of the girls who attended his daughter's birthday claiming that 'shaming' them they way he did was inappropriate. His daughter has also been bullied as a result of his actions but, as he says, he couldn't care less what they think about him and she's a strong and resilient young woman and they've talked it through and she seems to totally get why he did what he did ...

I get that it's often late on a Saturday night when you have to pick your son or daughter up from a party or gathering. You could be in your pyjamas, you don't look your best and you're certainly in no mood to socialise, but picking up your teen from a party by text puts the hosting parents into a terribly difficult situation. They do have a 'duty of care' and looking out their window or front door and seeing a fleet of cars parked on the street and asking them to blindly accept that the people inside those vehicles are the people the teens about to leave the party say they are is simply not fair. It doesn't take much to walk to a door or even to the front garden if you don't want to get close (or you're frightened you will 'shame' your teen), just so the hosting parents can see that it is an adult picking them up and that they will be safe. But just as importantly, wouldn't it just be manners to say a face-to-face 'thank you' to the family for looking after your child for the night?

Am I for one minute suggesting that you walk to the door for every party that your teen attends during their teen years? Absolutely not! Of course it's going to change when they get older but when they're 14 or 15, if you're sitting in your car and texting them to come outside - shame on you!

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.