For every parent of a teenager, wild parties are the stuff of nightmare. And the biggest nightmare of all is the party where someone gets hurt –or, worse, dies.
Over the weekend, that nightmare became a reality for two sets of parents in west London. One couple is Lynne Jones and Patrick Reilly, whose 15-year-old daughter Isobel – a girl described by her headteacher as extremely popular, and by one of her friends as "gorgeous... and truly amazing" – is dead. The other parents are Brian Dodgeon and Angela Hadjipateras, whose 14-year-old daughter Beatrice was the party host.
The circumstances of Isobel's death are unclear, but it seems likely that she became ill after taking drugs. Beatrice's father has been arrested on suspicion of drug possession and child abandonment.
There will be those who say that teenagers should never be allowed to have a party. There will be those who say that Mr Dodgeon should never have left his daughter and her friends alone in the house.
But I suspect that most people who, like me, are parents of teenagers, will simply look with terrible sadness at the pictures of Isobel – a lovely young girl, so like our own children, just emerging from childhood on to the brink of adult life – and think: what are we to do? How can we cope with the ever-increasing demands from younger and younger teenagers for parties, for "gatherings", for opportunities to drink alcohol and experiment with drugs, for chances to socialise, socialise, socialise – often at events that totter on the precipice of disaster?
I'm absolutely certain that I won't be the only parent who reads the story of Isobel's death and thinks: there but for the grace of God go I. My older daughters are 19 and 16 – and like every parent with children of 19 and 16, the past few years have brought more than their fair share of party-related horrors. Children in hospital, damage to our home, visits from the police after neighbours' complaints, alcohol bottles emptied without permission... we've had all this and more, and we're not unusual.
Some, though not all, of the problems have occurred during unauthorised events while my husband and I have been out or away – indeed the phrase "empty house" now sends a shiver down my spine, especially when I hear it being whispered conspiratorially into a mobile phone, as in: "Tonight's gathering is at Joe's... he's got an empty house..."
The bottom line is, parents of teens are in a quandary. Stop kids from ever having a party, and your fear is you'll force them into the local park to booze and smoke pot. Allow them to gather their mates at home, and you risk being blamed for the horrors that result, especially if you bow to the (usually extreme) pressure to be out for at least part of the evening. Give them alcohol, and you'll be pilloried for condoning under-age drinking (even if you've bought beer and wine with the lowest possible alcohol content). Don't allow alcohol, and you know the likelihood is they'll smuggle in vodka and down it as though it was lemonade.
All we want is to do what's best for our children, in a less-than-perfect world. But these days, it seems to many of us that doing what's best is harder to work out than it's ever been.