The School Ball Dilemma

In this edition of the The Journey, one mum recounts her experience with her daughter's school ball pre-party and discusses why she would make different decisions for her younger children.

Here’s something I’ve confessed to only a few people very close to me: a few years ago I bought my teenager alcohol for a pre-school ball party.

Many parents of older teens will be able to relate to the scenario: My elder daughter told me ‘everybody’ would have alcohol, including one of her closest friends - confirmed by me with the parents who I knew to be otherwise very responsible people -  and she would feel like a ‘loser’ if she didn’t have any.

So I told my daughter I would buy her one drink if she promised to drink only that one and nothing else.

Then, as a 40-something year old woman, I went into a bottle shop and bought one of those dreadful blue-coloured cocktails I hadn’t drunk since early days at university. I felt that as a woman of a certain age that I may as well have had plastered on my forehead what I was doing. 

I was on a walk of shame that had also been taken by a usually very sensible good friend of mine who had told me she’d bought her teenage son some beer after he made the same plea before a school ball.

While we knew it was illegal to supply minors with alcohol, we thought our approach was more ‘realistic’ than to ‘just say no’, fearing our children would either be the odd ones out, or rebel and drink something possibly more toxic than anything that came sealed from a shop.

And we were not alone: Research shows that parents continue to be the most common source of alcohol for teenagers, followed closely by friends. 

I also had sympathy for the argument that in countries such as France and Italy parents allow their children to have a little alcohol from a young age, as my parents had done with me. Those children, some people argue, grow up to have a more ‘mature’ attitude towards something that was never forbidden to them.

But after hearing about recent research regarding teenagers, alcohol and drugs in the media, and attending one of Paul Dillon’s forums, would I make the same decision with my younger children?

Paul Dillon has become an expert on alcohol and drug education for teenagers after conducting research in the area for more than 25 years, and is a well-known speaker on the topic.  

He says parents should promote 'positive norms’, highlighting data that clearly shows school-based teenagers who DON’T use illicit drugs, including alcohol, makeup the overwhelming majority of young people.

So teens’ argument that they will be the ‘loser’ or the ‘odd one out’ at the party doesn’t hold water - or beer or sugared-up spirits.

I recently heard Mr Dillon speak in a forum where he did not try to convince the boys present to ‘just say no’, but instead urged them to be smart in their choices.

The key - and for my son and me the most confronting - argument against any teenage drinking is its detrimental effect on the still developing brain.

If that isn’t enough, the younger that teenagers start drinking - even small quantities- the greater the risk of physical health problems such as liver disease and cancers. They’re also more likely to engage in risky behaviour including unprotected sex, have problems with alcohol in the future, and are more likely to be victims of crime.

To parents and carers, Mr Dillon says they need to be just that - and not their child’s friend.

He points to a 40-year research project by leading British think-tank Demos, which studied groups of parents with four different approaches.

The study found the 'tough love' method, which combines a high level of warmth alongside consistent discipline, is by far the most effective in educating young people about drugs and alcohol, and cutting the likelihood of a child drinking excessively at age 16.

As for the 'Mediterranean model’, evidence has been emerging for more than a decade that this more so-called ‘sophisticated’ approach to parental alcohol supply is not as protective as was once thought. ‘Le binge drinking’ among French young people is now recognised as a problem, with Italy and Greece also facing the issue.

Parties are important for social development, but before you say yes, Mr Dillon suggests asking some key questions, including:

  • Whose party is it and do you know them and/or their parents?
  • Where and between what times will the party be held?
  • Will the parents be there?
  • Is alcohol going to be 'permitted' or 'tolerated'?
  • How will you be handling the alcohol issue?

 If your son asks you to supply alcohol, it’s important to remember: 

  • Don’t be bullied into a quick decision without first considering good quality information.
  • Both parents must show a united front.

Before any social occasion, talk with your teenager about alcohol and drugs - and other issues - regularly, away from other children in a positive manner.

Remind your son of what you love about him, what is wonderfully unique about him and encourage creative and healthy pursuits. 

Dr Arne Rubinstein, an expert in boys’ development, says this leads to a strong Personal Identity which, his research has found, significantly reduces the risk of addiction, not just drugs and alcohol but also digital devices and risky behaviour.

And before you drop him off at a party, always remind your son that he can call you anytime if something goes wrong.

On reflection, I believe I was regressing to my insecure, 16-year-old self in giving in to my daughter when she said she didn’t want to be the ‘loser’ at the party. 

We do indeed need to be parents and impart our sometimes-hard-won self-confidence into our children. We need to reassure them that it’s OK to stand tall and say no to peer pressure, and to remind them that there is a big world of wonderful opportunities awaiting them beyond their small circle of peers.

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