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Prom has always been the stuff of which teenage dreams are made. And while the excitement surrounding the occasion is nothing new, it's amped up like never before. Hundreds of phone calls and thousands of texts are exchanged in the months leading up to the event. Photos of gowns are posted on Facebook, and entire websites are devoted to finding the perfect dress or hairstyle.
To parents, the obsessive planning and grandiose expectations can seem over the top and out of control. But the emotional buildup is an inherent part of prom, one of our culture's few remaining rites of passage, says David Sabine, a clinical psychologist in Wichita Falls, Texas. "It's about teens moving from childhood to adulthood," he says. "They get to act like adults: dress up, ride in limos, and go to nice restaurants."
Kids may be counting down the hours to prom, but it's a bittersweet occasion for parents, seeing their children on the threshold of adulthood. "They share in the joy, but they also realize it won't be long before their kids will be leading their own lives," Sabine says. "Tensions rise because kids are trying to assert their independence while parents want to keep them safe by imposing rules." Suddenly everything becomes a conflict: budget, curfew, and post-prom plans.
While there's been an overall decline in teen alcohol use in recent years, prom night can be a game changer, even for kids who wouldn't normally drink. Think of prom as a teen's version of a trip to Vegas—everyday rules don't apply—and some students consider alcohol a standard part of the end-of-year celebration.
In light of this, parents, schools, and police have been working together to keep kids sober and out of harm's way. Kids may be greeted at the event's entrance by Breathalyzers, security wands, and bag searches to deter alcohol or drug use or possession. Some schools institute lockdown policies that prohibit teens from leaving until the event is over to ensure constant supervision. Last year in upstate New York a school held its junior and senior proms on Wednesday night and Sunday night and required next-day attendance to keep kids from indulging.
But teens still find ways to party, whether it's "pre-gaming" by drinking alcohol beforehand or sneaking in bottles or flasks that go undetected during bag check. Even Breathalyzer tests aren't a guarantee that drinking won't occur as the night goes on. In 2009 a Boston-area senior crashed his car while driving home the morning after prom, killing a woman. The prom had Breathalyzers at the door, but the dance was followed by an overnight cruise. During the night the student managed to consume numerous beers, police said. And last year an intoxicated Ohio high school senior was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer at the dance.
Surprisingly, many parents seem to think it's okay to let their teens run wild on prom night. They figure they'll soon be off to college anyhow—and may choose to look the other way when kids head to hotel rooms with booze-filled mini bars. It's also common for a group of teens to go to the beach or drive to the mountains and spend the weekend in a house rented by parents of one of the students.
And kids aren't the only ones to feel prom-time peer pressure. Parents may be coerced by other adults to allow their kids to have as much fun as possible, and no one wants to be the mom who's "ruining her kid's life."
Ultimately, it's up to you—even if your teen is 18. It's okay to forbid after-parties that make you feel uncomfortable, says Sabine—as long as you express the difficulty of the decision. Say, "I want you to have fun, but I'm concerned about a few risks. I need you to agree not to do X or Y in order to stay safe."
Parents have the most impact when it comes to a teen's decision to use alcohol, so talk early and often about underage drinking prevention, says MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney. Her tips can help ensure prom night stays memorable for the right reasons.
—Don't assume your kid is "too good" to drink. Even well-behaved teens can succumb to peer pressure.
—Do find a time when your teen is willing and able to talk and listen. He shouldn't be tired, hungry, or upset—or he won't be able to pay attention to what you are saying.
—Don't lecture. Avoid judgment statements like, "It's terrible for kids to get drunk" or "I would be so mad if you drank on prom night." This will make your teen defensive and put an end to the conversation.
—Do use open-ended questions like, "Do you know kids who drink?" Also ask about those who don't. Teens often have the wrong impression of how others behave; four out of five don't binge drink.
—Don't agree to host an after-party with alcohol in your home. It is against the law and most states will hold you liable for serving underage kids. Plus, it sets a bad precedent—your kid may think it's okay to drink another time because you permitted it on prom night.
—Do establish expectations, rules, and consequences regarding alcohol. Tell your kid you don't want him drinking and agree on what will happen if he does. Emphasize that you care about him and want him to have fun in a safe way.
—Don't assume you know where your teen is going to be. Ask him to text you a few times.
—Do make sure your teen understands you'll pick her up if need be. If she calls to say she has been drinking, get her and leave the consequences for the next morning.
—Don't think taking the car keys eliminates risk. Being in a limo or party bus doesn't remove all danger. Drinking on prom night has been linked to sexual assault, drowning, and falling from balconies.
April 21 marks the first day of MADD's new annual PowerTalk 21, an initiative for parents to start talking to their teens about the dangers of underage drinking. Get tips and download the free parent handbook "Power of Parents, It's Your Influence" at madd.org/powerofparents.
The mythologized romance of prom has tempted teens to lose their virginity as a way of making the night that much more special. Set the record straight with your kid: While it may seem like everyone is doing it, only 46 percent of high school students say they have had sex. Many kids choose to attend prom in groups, which may lead to less one-on-one time and the pressure that goes with it. Still, the risk exists that your teen may be sexually active that night. Here's how to deglamorize the situation, according to Paula Hillard, MD, chief of the division of gynecologic specialties at Stanford School of Medicine in California.
—Don't limit your discussion to one big talk about prom-night sex. Have countless ongoing discussions about your values and beliefs.
—Speak honestly, show respect, and listen to your kid's views.
—It's not always realistic just to tell your teen not to have sex. Instead, encourage her to think carefully about the repercussions of her actions and decisions. Talk with your teen about being physically and mentally prepared for sex and any potential consequences, like STDs and pregnancy. Discuss methods of protection and how she can get them.
—Ask questions like, "What do you think would happen if you were to get pregnant?" or "How would you feel if the person you had sex with didn't call you the next day?"
—Know who your kid spends time with to get a better sense of whether his friends are risk-takers.
—If you allow your teen to attend a post-prom party, call the host's parents to find out who will be supervising. Ask the parents if they will be there the entire night and how they plan to prevent teens' access to alcohol or drugs.
Originally published in the April 17, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.