By Hugh C. McBride
As winter subsides and the weather warms, many students’ thoughts turn to summer vacation and the fun and freedoms they hope will await them there. But for older teens, one of the more highly anticipated events of their young lives occurs while school is still in session.
In high school hallways across the nation, the arrival of spring heralds an event that holds near mythic status among teens, and causes parents to hold their breath in fear for their children’s safety and well-being. The focal point of this angst and anxiety? Prom.
What was once little more than an opportunity for older teens to experience a bit of fancy formality has morphed into an exercise in extravagance that is all too often associated with alcohol abuse and other less-than-desirable behaviors. Yet, faced with decades of “tradition” and various corporate entreaties (from limo companies, hotels, florists, and the fashion industry, to name a few), many parents swallow their misgivings and, with forced smiles and frozen eyes, watch their tux- and gown-clad children head off for a night they fear will be filled with debauchery.
Though prom often appears to have taken on larger-than-life status in the pages of glossy teen magazines and in the plots of more than a few R-rated films, parents are under no obligation to stand idly by while their children engage in behaviors that on any other night would be categorically unacceptable. And though managing your teen’s prom-related behaviors may not always be easy, the following tips can go a long way toward ensuring that their actions remain in line with your expectations.
Penetrating the teen code of secrecy can be among the most challenging aspects of parenting a teen, but maintaining an active presence in your teen’s life will put you in the best possible position to head off any problems before the damage has been done.
As is the case in almost every aspect of your teen’s life, keeping the lines of communication open will allow you to discuss topics of concern before they become bones of contention. Know what prom-related activities your teen is planning (such as pre- or after-parties), meet the friends who will be accompanying your child, talk about transportation arrangements, and be sure that there aren’t any surprises when the big day finally arrives.
Tip #2: State Your Rules & Hold Your Ground
If you trust your child, there’s nothing wrong with extending his curfew on prom night or allowing him to drive your prized classic car to pick up his date. But just because prom is a special event doesn’t mean that you’re under any obligation to permit activities that you find objectionable.
When you are discussing prom with your teen, make sure she knows exactly what you will and will not allow her to do – and then stand strong in the face of any objections, arguments, or protestations that “everyone else’s parents are letting them [insert prohibited behavior here]!”
Your parental rights aren’t revoked on prom night – and neither is your responsibility to ensure your child’s safety. Be fair, be firm, and be guided by a desire to let your teen enjoy the best possible prom night in the safest possible manner.
Tip #3: Talk About Drinking & Drug Use
If you haven’t yet talked to your child about the dangers of teen alcohol and drug use, now is the time to do so. If you’ve already started the discussion, now is the time for a refresher course. And if you’re sure that your teen understands exactly where you stand on the issue of alcohol and drugs, talk about it again anyway.
Your teenager needs to know that attending prom is no excuse for ignoring your rules, and that there is no such thing as a “safety zone” when it comes to the health and legal repercussions that can result from the confluence of teens, drugs, and alcohol. Talk to your children about drugs and alcohol before they are presented with the opportunity to experiment with these substances, and continue the conversation until they safely reach adulthood.
Tip #4: Talk About Sex & Violence
Some teens look at prom night as an opportunity for sex, while others fear that they may be pressured to do something they don’t want to do. Both of these emotions need to be addressed.
Parents of teenage boys and girls need to be sure that their children are aware of the risks associated with sex at a young age, understand that coercing another person to have sex is unacceptable, and know how to respond if they are put in a dangerous situation. Teen abuse victims can suffer from a host of physical and emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and are at risk for depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Be sure that your teen knows right from wrong when it comes to relationships, sex, and violence – and knows who to call to escape an abusive environment.
Tip #5: Stay Informed & Keep in Touch
Review and approve your teen’s prom night itinerary, and don’t be afraid to communicate with school officials or other parents. If your teen is going to be out later than usual, set up check-in times when he needs to phone home or expect a call from you on his cell phone. Check with the school to determine which activities are part of the “official” prom experience, to confirm that chaperones will be present at all times, and to verify start and end times for all events.
Most importantly, remember that although your teen may be tempted or pressured on prom night, her behavior is likely to be consistent with what you’ve experienced in the years leading up to this night. If you’ve kept the lines of communication open and established a trust-based relationship, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. But if your teen has established a pattern of poor decision making and unacceptable behaviors, it’s highly unlikely that one big talk will result in significant improvements in a short amount of time.
If your continued efforts haven’t been enough to motivate your teen to live a life that is free of drugs, defiance, and other problematic attitudes and behaviors, don’t expect big changes just because prom time or graduation is approaching. Older teens who are engaging in unhealthy or unacceptable behaviors often require intensive intervention, such as the guidance and support that is available in a wilderness program or a boarding school for troubled teens.
Prom is important to your teen, but your teen’s healthy future is surely much more important to you. If you are worried about your teen’s ability to make healthy choices, know that help is available, and that things can get better.