Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » Sleepovers, parties and gatherings: What should parents expect when it comes to ‘adult supervision’ of these events?

Sleepovers, parties and gatherings: What should parents expect when it comes to ‘adult supervision’ of these events?

I’ve written many times about the importance of finding out as much as you can about an event your teen is invited to before you make a decision as to whether they can attend or not. To do that, you need to collect a range of information about what will be happening when your child gets there. One of the key questions that every parent needs to ask is around ‘adult supervision’. Whether your child is going to their first sleepover, a small gathering on a Friday night at a friend’s house or a 16th birthday extravaganza, it’s important to find out whether adults will be there and what level of supervision will be taking place.

What amazes me is that all parents expect their child’s school to provide high quality adult supervision at all times – if this wasn’t happening they would be up there pretty quickly to express their concern and demand that something be done. But when it comes to a Saturday night, this expectation of appropriate adult supervision often goes out the window! In reality, many parents never put the effort into finding out how those hosting these events plan to look after their children, relying instead on their teen telling them not to worry and not making a simple call under threat of ‘shaming their child forever’! 

I think one of the main reasons that parents don’t do their homework here is that they tend to believe that others hold the same values as they do, i.e., this is such an important area that those hosting are bound to ‘do the right thing’. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and I have met many parents over the years who have been totally floored by the lack of (or totally inappropriate) supervision that occurs at some of these events. Some examples that parents have shared with me over the past 12 months include the following:

  • a sleepover for a group of 14-year-old girls where the parents went out for the evening arriving home intoxicated to find an ambulance (along with a group of angry Mums and Dads) after one of the girls had fallen and split her head open 
  • a 15th birthday party for 150 teens that ended up being supervised by the birthday girl’s 18- and 19-year-old brother and sister (when confronted by upset parents, the mother supposedly hosting defended her actions by saying that no-one wanted a couple of ‘old fogies’ to be there!)
  • a gathering of 15-year-old boys where the father bought a carton of beers to drink with those present to make sure they were drinking safely!  

It seems it just isn’t enough to ask the question – “Will there be adult supervision?” You need to be far more specific and ask “Will you be there for the evening?” (my god, you’d think that would be a given if they’re actually putting an event on at their home wouldn’t you?) and “Will you be actively supervising?” Please note the word ‘actively’ – I believe this is now a key part of this question and plays an important role in parents making an informed decision on whether or not their teen attends a sleepover, party or gathering.

You would think that when you asked a parent whether they were supervising a party and got a “Yes” in response that your child would actually be supervised in some way – well, surprise, surprise – that’s not always the case! I shared this story a couple of years ago with readers, but it is well worth revisiting. Here is an edited version of an email I received back then from a mum telling me about her experience in this area ….

“I always call people whose home she is going to stay at, call before parties, drop-off and pick-up etc and I am constantly alarmed at how many parents don’t do that. However I just want to tell you about a recent party she went to. This was a girl I didn’t know well and I had never met the parents. I said she could go providing I spoke with the parents first. I called and spoke with the mother – she sounded very nice, told me that her and her husband would be home, that it was a small gathering of just a few kids from school, there’d be no alcohol and she was glad I’d called as her daughter told her that she was the only one that ever did that. Okay, good – I felt a bit better about her going. My husband and I dropped her off and went in to meet the parents as they were sitting out on the front verandah of the house. When we picked her up later that night from the party I asked how it was. She told us there was someone there with a bottle of vodka, some others smoking dope and a bunch of uninvited guests came in over the back fence!! I asked where the parents were when this was going on. They, apparently were sitting on the front verandah making sure there were no gatecrashers!”

So what is active supervising? Well before we look at what it should involve, let’s look at what it isn’t. Put simply and very bluntly, active supervision is not:

  • simply being at home – you and your partner bunkered down in the lounge room and the teens out the back doing god knows what!
  • having a couple of adult friends over to assist with potential gatecrashers – and while they’re there, well you all may as well have a couple of drinks in the kitchen
  • asking your older children to make sure they’re at home to mingle with the partygoers – it’s surprising how many parents have told me that they do believe that is appropriate supervising. Their justification is that they see their older children as closer to the kids’ ages and they’ll have a better idea of what to look for and will be able to respond more appropriately than some ‘fuddy-duddy’ parents. When you look at the research on where many teens actually get their alcohol from (if it’s not their parents), it’s often older siblings – this is just plain dumb. Of course, have them there to assist you if you wish, but don’t leave it all to them
  • hiring a security company to deal with alcohol and gatecrasher issues – that way, you’re covered and you can go out and have dinner and a few drinks and no problems. Speak to any security company that works in the teen party area and they will tell you the fights they have with some parents around their insistence that they be present at the event, with some wanting to simply pay the money and then hand the responsibility over to someone else
  • partying with the teens – your son or daughter is your best friend and why miss out on a good time?
So what do we mean by active supervision and what should parents expect when it comes to adult supervision of the sleepovers, parties and gatherings their teen is invited to?

I believe that active supervision at these events should be conducted in a similar way as to that of playground duty at a school. I know that sounds very formal and ‘heavy-handed’ but hear me out … There is no way that a school can let a group of young people, even teenagers, come together and not supervise them in some way. Teachers need to be on the look-out for problems and issues but at the same time not interfere with the important socialising that is taking place. Playground duty is not about teachers meddling in the students’ appropriate interactions with each other – no teacher should want to be a teen’s best friend. You certainly should never see a teacher sit down with teens and start gossiping about who is dating who, but it can be a time where teachers are able to have different type of conversations than they do in the classroom and build up positive and appropriate relationships as they’re walking around the school yard, at the same always being on the look-out for trouble. Sleepovers, parties and gatherings offer the same opportunities to parents hosting these events.

With that in mind, I believe that active supervision should involve the following: 
  • being there, right in the thick of it – this doesn’t mean you plonk yourself in the middle of a group of teens and just stand there! As I’ve said before, think of yourself like a teacher on playground duty – walk around, smile and be on the look-out for problems. Find reasons for being there – carry food around, make sure they have a drink (non-alcoholic of course!) … Always consider your teen here as well – do this in an oppressive way and he or she will be mortified and rightly so. It can be a very fine line between ‘being there’ and ‘lurking’ – try not to cross it!
  • moving around – teens aren’t stupid, if they want to break the rules they’re highly likely to find a place where they are going to be able to do so without being caught. Most probably the biggest mistake parents make in this area is to position themselves in one place, justifying their decision by stating that the kids will know where to find them if something goes wrong. Sitting in the kitchen or the lounge room while the kids are in another area of the house is not supervising – get off your bum and find all those nooks and crannies around the house that you remember from your teenage years! Once again, this should be done respectfully – don’t walk around with a torch and a stern face yanking cupboard doors open! Having adults regularly moving through the space also ensures that all those attending be a little more careful about what they are doing 
  • talking to those attending – the best way to know what is going on at the sleepover, party or gathering 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, if alcohol and other drugs are being used, help you to identify signs of intoxication nice and early …
  • trying to be at the front door to meet those attending and their parents – a key to good supervision is knowing who is coming into your house. Watching them enter (meeting their parents if they turn up), monitoring what they bring in with them and saying a few words of welcome is going to be helpful later if something goes amiss. They now know who you are (if they didn’t before) and you have a better idea of who they are
The reality is that there is no way that you can know with absolute certainty that the parents you are entrusting your teen with on a Saturday night are going to actively supervise. You should, of course, do your ‘due diligence’ and try to find out all you can about the sleepover, party or gathering they want to attend, but even then there are no guarantees. When it really boils down to it, it is your teen who is going to have to make choices at the event that will really make the difference. If there is inadequate or inappropriate supervision your child may have to make decisions about taking part in risky activities and, if it all goes well, it is then that all the hard work you have put into instilling positive values can really pay off.

Almost all of the examples of inappropriate supervision that I have mentioned above been discovered by parents because their teens had shared their experiences with them. Some called their parents on the night to ask to be picked up because they felt unsafe, while others told them about what had happened after the event. All these parents wrote to me not only to share their concern about what was going on, but also to express their pride in their teen and the positive decisions they made on the night. As always, connection and communication are the key words here …

I truly believe that the vast majority of parents have the basic expectation that if their teen is invited to someone’s house to attend a sleepover, party or gathering, that there will be adult supervision. Of course, this needs to be age-appropriate, but whether your child is 13 and having a sleepover with 5 friends, or your son is celebrating his 18th at your home with 100 mates – there has to be some form of adult supervision to make sure it all runs smoothly. If you do contact the host parents and ask questions around supervision (and I really believe you should so you can make an informed decision) make sure you always remember that their definition of supervision may be very different to yours! 

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