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Teenage parties – when things go wrong: A paramedic’s perspective

With the holidays not too far away and the summer season almost upon us there’ll be more and more parties and gatherings your teen is going to want to attend. These are important events and if your teen wants, or more importantly, ‘needs’ to go to them, you should try to find a way. This is where many young people learn to socialize in a different way from when they are at school and they can play a vital role in establishing where they fit (i.e., their social standing) within their peer group. At the same time, it’s also important to remember that if your child doesn’t want to go to parties – that’s absolutely ok too! Don’t worry that they’re going to become some kind of ‘social outcast’ because they’re not into this sort of thing – they’ll usually find their own way at their own pace. Now as I’ve said before, when I say ‘try to find a way’ to let them go to a party, I don’t mean that you throw all your rules and boundaries out the window and let them do whatever they want, but if you don’t feel comfortable with an event they’ve been invited to, but it’s obvious they ‘need’ to attend (e.g., non-attendance will significantly affect their relationship with their peers), then tell them they can go but with strict caveats, e.g., “You can go but I’ll be taking you and picking you up and you’re there for two hours!” Saying ‘no’ all the time, particularly as they’re getting older is not going to cut it and inevitably your relationship will suffer.

The problem with teen parties is that things can go wrong, particularly when alcohol is added to the mix. Realistically, from about the age of 14 parents have to start assuming that alcohol could play a role in the parties, gatherings or sleepovers that their child attends. Hopefully, that won’t be the case most of the time, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and asking the right questions and putting appropriate rules and boundaries into place nice and early is a smart move. Sadly, many of the young people I speak to say that small amounts of alcohol can even start to be introduced and used at sleepovers from the age of 12 – sounds unbelievable but true! Thousands of teenage parties are held every single weekend, most without any problems at all, but when things do go wrong, they can go terribly wrong and result in tragedies. Over the past 25 years, I have been involved with 13 teen deaths, 12 of which were due to alcohol – most of these were Year 10s (around 15-years-old) and mostly female. None of these young people died in a park, a beach or other places that parents typically think deaths alcohol-related deaths occur, each one of them died at a party. Parents were supposedly supervising these events and a teen died … just because an adolescent is drinking (or has been drinking) alcohol and adults are present, it does not automatically mean they are ‘safe’ – sometimes, things can and do go wrong …

I recently contacted three frontline workers who’ve dealt with the fallout when a teenage party goes wrong and asked them to give their perspective on this topic. They were not asked to pass any judgement on the young people attending the event or the host parents – just to share their thoughts. Over the coming weeks I will share the responses from a police officer and an emergency department nurse but this week here is what I received from Teresa, a paramedic:

“I remember being dispatched to a teenage party that had been gatecrashed. It was an 18th in a local street and the parents had endeavoured to do the right thing by registering the party and controlling the alcohol that would be present. The young people present were behaving well and not causing any problems. Unfortunately, the parents were not aware that one of the attendees had shared the invite on social media. The house was walking distance to the local railway station and around 11pm several dozen uninvited youths arrived. When they were refused entry to the house, all hell broke loose. Although we attended with police, I can say this scene was terrifying. Fence palings had been torn loose and used as weapons, cars smashed and young people assaulted. The father had a fractured jaw from trying to keep the gatecrashers out of the house. There was a real feeling of menace in the air. Large contingents of police brought the scene under control, and we were able to treat the injured, but that scene remained in my mind for quite some time. It’s worth remembering that even well-planned and registered parties can go horribly wrong.”

Teresa also sent through another story that reinforces the message that even though your teen may look, talk and usually respond like a young adult, when they’re put into a party context (surrounded by peers and lots of emotion) and things go wrong, they’re not necessarily going to react in the way you would hope …

“I recall one particular job where I attended a 16-year-old girl who was unconscious after drinking vodka at a party. Her friends became concerned at the amount and rate at which she was drinking, which was, according to them, quite out of character for her. They made the decision to get her out of the party and, as one of them lived walking distance away, they decided to walk home. On the way she was slurring and vomiting and they had to half-carry, half-drag her. Their plan had been to put her to bed in an upstairs bedroom prior to their parents arriving home to sleep it off. If nobody knew, nobody would be in trouble.  The plan was thwarted when an older sister of one of the girls arrived home early and discovered them carrying her up the stairs. She immediately called the ambulance. 
On arrival the girl was heavily intoxicated and barely conscious, requiring a trip to hospital and ongoing airway support and management. The thing that struck me was the conduct of her friends. These weren’t ‘bad’ kids or uncaring friends, and they were clearly out of their mind with worry for her. They recognized she was at risk and they wanted to keep her safe, but when it came to the crunch, they panicked. Luckily for them, and her, the older sister intervened and avoided what could have been a catastrophic outcome. We see this so commonly with young people, for all of their bravado and front, when you see them at 3am, when something has gone horribly wrong, they are just scared little kids. So many incidents like this occurred over my years and solidified for me the importance of having ongoing, specific conversations with young people about what to do in an emergency. We assume they will just call if there is a problem but forget that in a crisis even adults make poor choices. They need to hear it every time they walk out the door; “I’m here, I’ll help; it will be ok”. 

No parent wants to receive a phone call telling them that their child has been transported to a hospital by ambulance. That said, if god forbid something ever happened to your child at a party or gathering and they needed medical attention, you would want to make sure that their friends who were with them at the time were smart enough to call 000 and ask for assistance as quickly as possible.

Make sure you have a conversation with your child about the importance of calling for an ambulance should the need arise. One of the main reasons teens don’t call for help is that they’re frightened their parents will find out – that’s appalling! Every child needs to be told by their parents that should they need to call 000, for whatever reason, they have their 100% support – “You call 000 and then call me” should be the mantra! If you have ambulance cover (i.e., you have health insurance that covers the cost of an ambulance), ensure they know that. Too often, another barrier to calling for help is the fear of how much it will cost their parents. They should be made aware that if they call an ambulance for a friend, it is the person who is transported that pays, not the caller.

Published: November 2018

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