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How do you best handle the ‘alcohol issue’ at an 18th birthday?

The 18th birthday is now a far more important event than it once was. For many of us it was the 21st birthday that was the major celebration and our entry into true adulthood but that has now changed, with many teens in their last year of school insisting they need a ‘party to end all parties’ to mark this major milestone. It certainly makes sense in many ways – they are now officially ‘adults’, they can vote, drink alcohol legally and no longer be regarded as ‘underage’ … Unfortunately, any parent who decides to agree to an 18th birthday has to navigate through the ‘alcohol issue’ and try to work out how best to deal with a group of young people, some of whom are now legally able to drink alcohol (including their son or daughter) and other underage partygoers who are not.

When I’m asked by parents for advice in this area, I have to be honest and tell them that if they can possibly get out of holding such an event, that’s most probably the best option. Promising your son or daughter an even better 19th birthday party is a great way to go, but not surprisingly, the offer is rarely taken up. The major problem with this issue is that no parent wants to embarrass their teen and insist on rules and boundaries that apparently no-one else imposes, but there are some important legal issues to consider in this area.

We now have ‘secondary supply’ laws across all states and territories which means it is against the law to ‘provide’ under 18s with alcohol in private settings without parental consent. What does this mean in a practical sense and how does it affect 18th birthdays? The WA Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor have provided a series of FAQs on secondary supply laws and I’ve included a few of these below:

Q: What if a 17-year-old attends the 18th birthday party of a friend and the person whose party it is supplies the 17-year-old with alcohol?
A: The 18-year-old will need consent to do so from the 17-year-old’s parent or guardian – failure to obtain consent will make the 18-year-old liable for at $10,000 fine.

Q: I am having a party at home for my son’s 18th birthday and some of the people attending will be under 18 years of age, is it okay for me to give them alcohol if they have a note from one of their parent’s giving permission for them to drink alcohol?
A: Yes, provided that you are satisfied that the note has been provided by each juvenile’s parent or guardian and not another person (for example a sibling).

Q: I am having a small gathering at my home for my daughter’s 18th birthday, a few of her friends haven’t turned 18 yet; is it okay for me to serve them alcohol if one of their parents rings me and gives their permission over the phone or provides permission by text message?
A: Yes, but again, provided that you are satisfied that the person you have spoken to, or received the text message from, is each juvenile’s parent or guardian.

Q: My daughter is having her 18th birthday party at home, one of her 17-year-old friends told me that her mother had given her permission to drink alcohol, is it okay for me to give her a drink in my house?
A: No. You must obtain the permission from the parent or guardian.

The laws are slightly different in each jurisdiction (e.g., fines imposed for the offence and the definition of ‘provide’ or ‘supply’ can vary) but around provision of alcohol at 18th birthdays, they’re all pretty much the same. Host parents have to either receive consent from the parents or guardians of those underage attendees, allowing them to drink alcohol, or do their best to ensure that those young people don’t drink at all! Neither of those are going to be easy and one of them is likely to cause friction between you and your teen. So let’s take a quick look at these two options and the problems associated with each of them …

If you decide to go down the path of obtaining permission for those underage partygoers to drink, there is an additional legal responsibility that comes with that choice. This is best explained by another of the questions from the WA Government site:

Q: If I have the permission of a parent to supply alcohol to my son’s friend who is still 17 years old, are there any legal responsibilities that I have to be aware of?
A: The new laws require that if you a supplying alcohol to a juvenile you must observe responsible supervision practices at all times; including making sure juveniles don’t get drunk (or you do not get drunk yourself) and that you are able to supervise the consumption of alcohol at all times.

So not only do you have to make sure you have received consent where appropriate, you also have to ensure that you are “able to supervise the consumption of alcohol at all times”. Ask any licensee and they’ll tell you that’s difficult when you have trained bar staff, CC-TV and security on every door in the venue – it’s going to be almost impossible for a parent hosting an 18th birthday party. I’ve talked about ‘active supervision’ before and as far as 18th birthdays are concerned, I believe it should involve the following:

  • be there, right in the thick of it – don’t plonk yourself in the middle of a group of teens and just stand there! Find reasons for being there, such as carrying food around … Always consider your teen here as well – do this in an oppressive way and he or she will be mortified and rightly so but those attending are now truly young adults, have a conversation with them if it’s appropriate. There can still be a fine line between ‘being there’ and ‘lurking’ – try not to cross it!
  • move around – most probably the biggest mistake parents make in this area is to position themselves in one place, justifying their decision by stating that the partygoers will know where to find them if something goes wrong. Having adults regularly moving through the space ensures that all those attending be a little more careful about what they are doing and may be more likely to monitor their drinking a little more carefully
  • talk to those attending – the best way to know what is going on at a party is to talk to as many teens as possible. This should not be intrusive and don’t try to be cool – kids can see through that in seconds! Be yourself – ask them how they’re going, if they’re having a good time and the like. Not only does this help you to get to know your child’s friends a little better but it also helps you gauge how the party is going and monitor alcohol consumption
  • most importantly, stay sober! There is no way that you are able to effectively monitor a houseful of 17 and 18-year-olds if you have been drinking yourself

What about the other option? What if you decide to state clearly that those under the age of 18 will not be able to drink alcohol at the party? This is also not easy (I told you offering a 19th birthday is a better option!) but I have to say, many parents have found ways of making it work. I very much doubt whether all of the underage partygoers actually remained ‘alcohol-free’ in these cases, but at least the host parents did their best. Here are some of the ways other parents have navigated through this issue:

  • the trust option – this appears to work best when parents have a strong relationship not only with their child, but also their friends. It’s also much more likely to be successful at smaller parties or gatherings. Alcohol is provided for those aged 18 or over but the invitation states clearly that due to legal issues, the host parents will be asking those who are underage not to drink. Many are surprised to find out that this can often work – the hosts putting the responsibility back onto the young people and they respond accordingly
  • the wristband system – another popular method of trying to control who is able to drink alcohol or not. Parents using this system have to be organised, usually creating a guest list that separates those who are 18 or over from those who are not. When partygoers arrive they are issued a wristband indicating which group they are in. In my experience, this does not always work well and is regarded by many of the young people I have spoken to as ‘restrictive’ and ‘too controlling’. That said, I have spoken to many parents who have used this option and have found it to be successful – once again, it has so much to do with the parent-child relationship
  • a bar service where proof-of age has to be given before alcohol is served – I now know of a couple of parents who have used this option and from what they have said, it worked well. It’s based on what would happen at a bar or club if you wanted to drink alcohol. There is no BYO and attendees are informed on the invitation that there will be trained bar staff present who will be serving alcohol to those 18 years or over – proof of age will be required. No spirits are allowed, you can only collect one drink at a time and because alcohol is only available from the bar, levels of intoxication can hopefully be monitored. An interesting option …
  • hold the event on licensed premises – this is the one I often suggest to parents who are really struggling in this area. If you hold an 18th birthday on a licensed premises, even if a parent wants to give consent for their teen to drink, they can’t – it is an offence. All those who are 18 or over are able to drink and establishing proof-of-age is no longer your responsibility. The licensee must monitor the young people coming to the party and they also have to ensure that no-one on their premises drinks to the point of intoxication. It’s a ‘win-win’! This can be an expensive option and some young people don’t like it because of the restrictions that will be placed on some of their friends but it does tick all the boxes for a parent

There it is – whether you choose to allow those who are underage to drink alcohol at an 18th or you try to prevent it from happening, neither way is going to be particularly easy. Regardless of what you do, involve your teen in the organization process and let them see what actually goes on when putting on such an event. As already said, the success of the event will usually depend on the relationship you have with your son and daughter …Whatever decision you make, you want a celebration like this to bring you together and certainly not tear you apart!

Published: March 2018

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