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What if a parent provides alcohol to your teen without your permission?

Each year I’m contacted by a number of parents about this issue. In almost all cases they’ve recently found out that another parent (usually one hosting a party or gathering) has provided alcohol to their child and now they have this information they’ve absolutely no idea how to respond. Some of them certainly confront the other parent, however, most of them are too worried that if they do respond it could result in a backlash against their son or daughter in some way (e.g., they’ll be socially excluded in some way by their peers). As a result, they end up feeling totally frustrated and powerless, furious that another parent would do this sort of thing but too worried to do anything about it.

I have written about this issue before but have decided to raise it again because I have just got off the phone from a Mum and Dad who are really struggling with what to do next. They’ve asked me not to use their case in this piece but what I am able to say is that they found out that another parent had provided alcohol to their teenage son when they were recently contacted by a hospital to let them know he was on life-support as a result of his drinking at a friend’s home earlier that evening.

This is one of those questions that I absolutely hate being asked because I have no easy answer (not that there are ever easy answers in this area, or any area to do with parenting). It is, however, one that many parents will have to face and work through at some time or another whilst going through the whole teen years, particularly if they’ve established clear rules and boundaries around alcohol and parties. Every family is different and every situation is going to be handled in a different way, dependent on so many factors, but I thought I’d share with you one parent’s story that could have ended in tragedy and how she dealt with the other parents concerned. I have used this case before but it so closely mirrors what the parents I’ve just spoken to have recently experienced that I think it is worth repeating.

I have had to change a lot of details about this story for legal reasons (as well as to maintain anonymity) but this essentially captures the general gist of what happened.

Janice is a mother of two teenage daughters, the eldest, Ashley, being 15-years-old. Ashley was recently invited to a 16th birthday party and when her mother reluctantly agreed to let her go she then handed her a letter from the parents hosting the event. The letter stated that alcohol would be available and that any underage person attending would need to get their parents to sign the attached permission slip allowing their teen to drink whilst on their property. Janice made it clear to her daughter that she would not be signing anything and there was no way she would be attending the party. Although there were the usual tears and tantrums things settled down quickly and she thought no more of it until a Saturday night a few weeks later when she received a phone call from the local hospital letting her know that Ashley had been admitted to the emergency department with alcohol poisoning. Her daughter had told her that she was at a sleepover with friends (Janice had actually dropped her off at the home and was planning to pick her up early the next morning) but instead had gone to the party she had been told she couldn’t attend. 

I’ll let Janice tell you what happened next …

“I thought we’d done everything right but my daughter and her friends had been extremely clever and had it all planned out. We all made the right phone calls, did the dropping off and the like but the temptation of the first alcohol-fuelled party was too great. Of course I was angry with Ashley – she’d lied, gone behind our backs and put her life at great risk as a result – but I was furious with the parents who put on the party and allowed (and most probably provided, although that has become extremely difficult to prove) alcohol. When I first called the house to discuss what had happened (Ashley had been transported by ambulance from the home to the hospital so they were well aware of the situation) the mother hung up on me when I told her who I was. I tried a number of times after and still had no luck, so after discussion with my husband and some friends (all Mums and Dads themselves) I finally resorted to writing a card and putting it into their mailbox. This is what I wrote:

My daughter was the young woman who was transported to hospital for alcohol poisoning after attending your son’s 16th birthday party. In the weeks prior I received your letter asking me to give you permission to allow her to drink at the event. I did not sign it and told her that she could not attend. My understanding is that she forged my signature on the permission slip and subsequently gained entry to the party.
The doctors have told me that she almost died on the way to the hospital.
I accept a great deal of the responsibility around what happened that night – I should have known where she was. I also accept that it was my daughter that did the drinking. However, it was you that provided an event enabling 15- and 16-year-olds to drink alcohol and, for that, I will never forgive you. If you’re going to seek parental permission to allow a teenager to drink you need to make absolutely sure that you have it before allowing them to drink on your property. Shame on you!  

Some of the details have been changed but the content of the card is almost word for word what this mother wrote. Pretty powerful stuff!

It’s important to note that what happened to Janice’s daughter is not only confronting but potentially illegal across all states and territories but I’m not going to touch the legal issues surrounding these types of situations at this time. That said, it’s important for parents to remember the law is on their side as a parent in this area. ‘Secondary supply’ laws exist across the country and it’s illegal for an adult to provide alcohol to someone else’s child without getting their permission to do so. For information on the laws across the country take a look at this page on the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF). As far as I can tell it’s up-to-date and, most importantly, also discusses the issue of ‘responsible supervision’ that is included in the legislation in some jurisdictions.

Janice’s story is of course an extreme case. When your child is hospitalized as a result of drinking alcohol that another parent provided it takes the issue to a whole different level. That said, this isn’t an isolated case and there have been many young people taken to hospital with alcohol poisoning and some have even died after being provided alcohol by other parents. In fact, secondary supply laws in some states came about (to some extent at least) as a result of such incidents and the subsequent efforts of the parents involved, e.g., the parents of 15-year-old Leigh Clark from Victoria who died after drinking an alcohol product purchased by another parent and then given to their son were at the forefront of ensuring that the legislation was pushed through in that state.

Some parents, like Janice, will confront the people who provided alcohol to their child but they are without doubt in the minority. As already said, most parents are usually reluctant to confront or even raise the issue with those responsible due to the possible impact it may have on their child. Their children beg them not to say anything, making it clear to them that anything they do say could ‘shame them forever’ and potentially affect their social-standing and their position in their friendship group. Most importantly though, parents I have spoken to also acknowledge that, for the most part, they are unlikely to really get any real positive outcomes from a discussion with parents who do this sort of thing anyway. So instead of confronting them, they simply make a mental note of who they were and ensure that their teen has as little to do with that family as possible in the future. I haven’t spoken to Janice for a couple of years now but I can’t imagine she ever got a satisfactory response from the mother. What I can remember is that the actual writing of the card and placing it into the woman’s mailbox was quite cathartic and helped her to deal with her anger about what had happened.

As a society I think we should be questioning the behaviour of parents who disregard the views of others and provide alcohol to their children without their explicit permission (those permission slips are just ridiculous and almost impossible to police adequately! Is there really any way you can know that the signature on them is real?). If you want to give alcohol to your own teen that is entirely up to you, but putting on parties or other events at your home where alcohol will be provided or tolerated for 15 and 16-year-olds and then inviting others people’s children to attend is just shameful and a recipe for disaster … Don’t get me wrong, I totally get that you are never going to be able to stop young people from drinking if that’s what they want to do but with all the evidence we now have about the harms associated with underage drinking we should be making it as difficult for them as possible and not be providing so-called ‘safe places’ for this activity …

Published: November 2019

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