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What do you do when your 15-year-old comes home drunk after a party?

Although we’re continuing to see more young people choosing not to drink alcohol, if your child lives with you for long enough (and evidence suggests many of you will still have them living in your house until they’re in their mid 20s at least!), there’s still a good chance that at some point they’ll turn up at your door feeling a little worse for wear. They went out with friends, had a little bit too much to drink and you’ve got to end up looking after them. Now if they’re 18 or over when this happens, you may not necessarily be happy about it but they’re ‘legal’ – once they’ve recovered, you certainly have the right to tell them that they’re living under your roof and have to follow your rules, but realistically most of us make a mistake at least once when it comes to drinking (that’s how we learn about our limits) and most parents help clean their drunk son or daughter up, mop up the mess, make sure they’re okay and move on.

But what do you do when they’re 15 or 16 (or even younger) and return home drunk from a night out? Most parents I’ve spoken to who’ve had this experience have spoken about the range of emotions they felt at the time – they were disappointed in their teen’s behaviour and the choices they made, angry their friends had allowed (or enabled) them to get so drunk, terrified of what could have happened while they were in this state and, not surprisingly, almost every parent talks about almost a sense of relief that at least they made it home safely …

I contacted three parents who’ve written to me over the years about this issue and asked them to let me know what they did in response to finding their teen drunk. Most importantly, I asked them to also reflect on whether they believed their response was the ‘right one’ and if they could, would they have done anything differently? Here are their edited responses:

Michael, father of 15-year-old Tomas
I suppose my wife and I both knew Tomas would experiment with alcohol at some point during his teens, we just never expected it to be so early. We’d spoken about underage drinking a number of times and made it clear to him that we would not be happy if we found out he’d been drinking at a party. He was allowed to go to parties as long as we knew or had spoken to the host parents. We thought things were going well … We had dropped him off at a party early (we have since learned that it was a ‘pre-party’ with no parents present) and were expecting to pick him up at 11.00pm. At about 10.30pm we heard noises outside our front door and when we opened it we found our son laying on the verandah so drunk he couldn’t walk or talk. He was a mess – he had wet himself, vomited (and kept vomiting for quite a few hours afterwards) and had a bloody nose (we later found out this happened when his friends dropped him as they were carrying him to our door).The next few hours were absolute hell – our two younger children were greatly disturbed by Tomas’ appearance and we were trying to keep them calm while my wife and I argued about whether or not he needed medical attention. It was an awful night!
We then had to work out how we were going to respond to what happened. Tomas was unwell for a number of days and couldn’t even look us in the eye for a time as he seemed so ashamed of what he had done. We certainly told him how disappointed we were and he was grounded for a month (but in truth that only lasted for a couple of weeks). I think most of my anger was aimed at his friends and that they’d left him at the door and not let us know he was there. When I look back on it, apart from the grounding, we really didn’t punish Tomas – I suppose we just thought that the experience was enough.
Would I do it differently if I had the time again? Absolutely! In reality Tomas (and his friends) learned little from the experience. It was only a couple of months later and we had a call from the hospital because he had passed out after drinking too much. I’d ensure that as a family we sat down and really talked through what went down that night and how it affected everyone (that never happened) and then we should’ve tightened some rules around where he was on a Saturday night and what he was doing. Simply grounding him for a couple of weeks seemed to have no effect.

Gavin, father of 16-year-old Cameron
Cameron says he has little recognition of the night he came home drunk. He’d been at a party with his friends that we knew well and we trusted him to do the right thing. We both knew that he sometimes had a drink when he went out but he’d never appeared intoxicated and so we thought, well if he’s drinking, he’s not drinking a lot! We were able to prepare ourselves for how drunk he was because the father picking him up from the party called to tell us that he was in a pretty bad state. He’d apparently got worse while he was in the car and we had to carry him into the house. He was vomiting and had wet and messed himself while he was being driven home. Needless to say, we were up for the rest of the evening looking after him and when we finally decided we were able to put him to bed safely, one of us took turns to sit with him until mid-morning.
We didn’t agree on how we should punish Cameron and there were quite a few arguments about how to proceed. Was the shame and embarrassment of what had happened enough of a ‘punishment’ or not? As a result, it took a few days until we came to a decision. If we’d done anything earlier we would’ve responded in anger. My wife was also very hurt as she’d always pushed for Cameron to be allowed more freedom – she felt very let down. In the end we decided that all of his privileges around parties were to be taken away and he had to earn them back over time. He also had to pay for the cost of steam-cleaning the car of the father who had brought him home, as well as apologise for what he’d put him through that night.
We believe we did get it right and when we were putting this piece together and asked our son what he thought, he agreed (He’s now 19). We’re glad we waited a while before we did anything and although Cameron went through a horrible experience and we didn’t want to add to that, we both ended up agreeing that to ensure he understood that his getting drunk not only affected him but those around him, there had to be consequences as a result. 

Maree, mother of 15-year-old Reagan
We’d absolutely no idea that Reagan had been drinking alcohol for almost a year before ‘the incident’. We’d blindly trusted her and her friends and had done none of the calling of host parties and the like. We certainly asked her lots of questions about the parties she was going to but she told us not to worry and that she wasn’t into drinking like other people in her class. When we got the phone call from one of her friends telling us that an ambulance had been called because Reagan was drunk and unconscious, our world crumbled. We got to the house just as the ambulance arrived and after examining her the paramedics said that we could take her home. We later found out that she’d been found drunk in one of the bedrooms but it was well over an hour later that one of her friends defied the others and called 000 and then us …
So much happened in the next 24-48 hours that some of it is still a blur. We found out that Reagan had been lying to us for a long time about her partying and her drinking. We discovered that the parents hosting the party she went to that night had actually provided alcohol to those attending (“Only beer and wine, no spirits!” I remember the mother saying to me later that week) and there was a real risk that she could have been sexually assaulted before she was found. As a result, our response to the incident was really muddled. We were so angry with her for lying to us for so long, yet at the same time wanted to hold her close and comfort her because of the horrific experience she had been through. In the end, apart from a couple of ‘parent-child’ talks about how disappointed we were in her behaviour and how she had broken our trust, she avoided any other real consequence. All my anger was targeted at the parents who had hosted the party (but that got me nowhere, only more frustrated) and her school for not clamping down on this type of party (which I know now was a totally ridiculous response!).   
We so got it wrong! Reagan had blatantly lied to us for a long time and when we did find out what she had been doing she avoided getting into trouble because of the state she was in. We really did believe that after having such a terrible experience she would never get that drunk again. Over the next couple of years she became a real ‘problem teen’ and ended up leaving school early and ran away from home a couple of times. She is now 20, has really sorted her life out and we have a wonderful relationship but it was really hard for a while. When I asked her about that night and how we responded, the only thing she could remember was a conversation she had with a friend who told her to ‘cry a lot and you won’t get into trouble’! We were well and truly had!

There are a couple of similarities in these cases that highlight some of the problems that arise for parents dealing with this issue:

  • before you deal with anything else, you’ve got to ensure your drunken child is safe and that they’re going to end up being okay
  • you then have to deal with a range of emotions, including disappointment, anger and betrayal, but most of all how much you love your teen and how much worse the situation could have been
  • your child has been through a traumatic experience and trying to find the right time to talk the incident through and what the consequences will be can be difficult, i.e., you’re angry and hurt and they’re hungover and embarrassed
  • was the drunken experience enough of a punishment? Will you really achieve anything by adding a consequence to their embarrassment and shame?

Put these together and what you have is parents delaying their response, and when they finally do act, they are often reluctant to apply any really effective and meaningful consequences, frightened that whatever they do could add to their teen’s existing trauma related to what happened that night. I’m certainly not saying that a teen needs to be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ should they come home drunk, but if they’re broken your rules and let you down by doing so then there certainly needs to be some action taken.

Without a doubt, over-indulging when you are young (or whatever age) can be an incredibly unpleasant experience. For a teen who does it at a party it can be embarrassing and, in extreme cases, affect friendships and even their social-standing amongst their peers. With cameras being everywhere nowadays, this is even more of an issue today than ever before. That said, if your 15-year-old comes home drunk and has broken your rules, after talking to the parents who shared their stories above, we came to the conclusion that there needs be a consequence doled out. With that in mind, we came up with the following five points for parents to consider should their teen come home drunk:

  • make sure your child is safe and well before doing or saying anything else
  • keep calm and don’t overreact – collect as much information from others about what happened (e.g., Where were they? Who were they with? Were they where they told you they would be?) – this will help you decide on how to respond. If they lied to you about absolutely everything, then that needs to be taken into account – blatant lying about where they’re going and what they’re doing can’t be ignored, no matter how bad their experience
  • avoid responding or applying consequences ‘the day after the night before’ – this is the time you let them know that you love them no matter what they may do (i.e., “I love you but not necessarily your behaviour”). Let them know the time you will be sitting down to talk about what occurred and how you will be responding, e.g.., “Now is not the time, I am angry and hurt and you are not 100%, we will talk about this properly on Tuesday evening”
  • you and your partner must agree on a fair and age-appropriate consequence – there must be a ‘united front’ and whatever you decide on, it must be doable. Grounding a 15-year-old for three months is not practical and realistically you’re only punishing yourself!
  • do not wait too long to deliver the consequence – two or three days at the most – drag it out too long and you’re unlikely to actually get to it and your teen may have forgotten why they are actually being punished

What should that consequence be? That was one thing that we couldn’t agree on … Both Maree and Michael believed that if they had grounded their teens at the time that may have had a greater effect on their children’s behaviour but when pushed, Maree, in particular, felt it would have been extremely difficult to follow through with. I’ve written before about my thoughts on ‘grounding’ – I don’t believe it works particularly well (i.e., it’s usually given in anger and is more often than not watered down considerably or simply forgotten about). Gavin felt strongly that the removal of his son’s privileges around parties was very effective and I agree that that is most probably the best way to go. Your teen has lost your trust, they now need to earn that back. This shouldn’t drag on for months (remember, they have experienced a trauma – you don’t want to compound that) but a few weeks of tighter rules and boundaries is most probably a fair and effective way of making it clear to them that they have disappointed you …

Now it does need to be made clear here that these are three quite extreme cases – there’s ‘drunk’ and then there’s ‘drunk’! Having your child turn up at your home a bit ‘tipsy’ or picking them up from a party and them getting into the car obviously alcohol-affected but still walking and talking is much easier to deal with because they have not been through a trauma (in fact, they most probably had a pretty good time!). Voicing your displeasure there and then applying a consequence the next morning is not that difficult, e.g., “You know our rules about drinking, you obviously broke that rule last night – you won’t be going to any party next week.” They might not like it but it’s fair and appropriate. It’s also not really that hard for a parent to implement. The more extreme cases that some parents experience, however, are not only frightening and confronting at the time, but so much more difficult to deal with in the days after.

Finally, a big thank you to Michael, Gavin and Maree (not their real names, but they know who they are!) for all the assistance they gave me in writing this piece. Thank you for sharing your stories so honestly (and for allowing me to edit them) and for your insight into this issue that many parents will face at some time or another.

Published: June 2018

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