Spending most of my social work career working with teenage girls, I’ve heard the word “prom” more often than I can count. Around this time every year, each of my teenage clients is usually scrambling to make her manicure appointment, get her dress, and ensure that the love of her life (this week) has found his cumberbun in just the right matching shade of electric blue. BIG issues, people.
Prom is definitely a huge deal to most teens, and even most adults can’t help but smile when they drive past a stretch limo lined with overly made-up high school Kens and Barbies. Don’t misunderstand my jaded tone – while I fully support kids enjoying the rights of passage of adolescence, I feel like my inside knowledge of this bigger-than-it-needs-to-be ritual has ruined the magic for me. In fact, after years of inside prom info, I tend to break out in a mild case of hives merely at the sound of the P word.
You see, prom is not always the innocent fairytale dance that your teens lead you to believe it is. After my young female clients ooze excitement about their plans for weeks leading up to the big night, they show up in my office on post-prom-Monday looking like a shriveling balloon that has descended to the floor days after a party. At best, they are underwhelmed from an over-hyped evening. At worst… well, those are the stories that bring on the hives.
When I went to my senior prom twenty years ago, it wasn’t as wild as it is today. Sure, no generation of teenagers was perfectly behaved and we all did stupid things in high school. (I recall hunting down the phone number of adorable Hey Dude and Blossom actor David Lascher and phoning him to ask him to the prom… poor guy, he was so sweet about my adolescent stupidity, too.) But age-appropriate stupidity and parent-permitted excess are two very different things.
Today, the prom privileges are much wider and far more self-destructive. Most of us know that many teenagers “pre-game” before prom or sneak alcohol and drugs into the actual dance. But that isn’t even the extent of it. I’ve spent countless sessions cringing at the excessive details of post-prom partying, which is what leads to me ask why parents are allowing their children to have such unlimited freedom.
In the New York area where I practice, teenagers in recent years have made a tradition of heading to the Jersey Shore for prom weekend. They make an entire weekend out of a one-night dance and they shack up without adult supervision…all with their parents’ blessings. During most weekends in May, hundreds of high school students from all over the area congregate in the sleaziest, bedbug-infested motels of the Jersey Shore to binge drink, use drugs, behave promiscuously, and get arrested. And I have the pleasure of hearing all the gory details.
I’ve heard from sobbing girls who lost their virginity while they were drunk. I’ve heard about girls lining up on the beach to perform degrading sexual favors on guys one after the other. I’ve heard about drunken orgies. I’ve heard from kids who were so traumatized by all of this that they slept in their car or hid under smelly motel blankets while their roommates engaged in rampant sex.
And every story I heard just made me ask myself, “Where were your parents?”
Part of our jobs as parents is to set limits so kids learn how to have self-discipline in adulthood. And as with every danger in life, it is the responsibility of parents to protect their children from harm. In many cases, that means preventing them from being exposed to things for which their adolescent minds and bodies are not ready.
Parents need to remember that they can say no. They are still in charge and they do not have to allow their vulnerable young teenagers to go away unsupervised for prom weekend just so they can be the cool parents. Prom is a tradition, but it’s not a God-given right to abandon all self-control or self-respect.
While these stories are very real and much more common than most adults know, does it mean that all teenagers behave like rabid animals on prom night? Of course not. There are a lot of kids who stay sober/virginal/without an arrest record. There are a lot of kids who enjoy the music and dancing and just hang out at an all-night diner afterwards. There are a lot of parents smart enough to provide safe after-prom plans for their teens. And there are a lot of kids who heed the warnings of their parents. Like every other parenting principle I’ve learned, if you have an expectation of your kid, voice it! Set boundaries and stay consistent and your kids very well may follow your lead.
Will I let my own kid go to the prom? I’m sure I will. But I’ll be damn sure to oversee his before and after plans. (And he’s sure as hell not going down the shore.) I may be the the uncool mom, but at least I’ll know I made an effort to set healthy boundaries for him. While we can’t always prevent kids from pushing the envelope, it’s important to remember that adolescents’ brains do not develop at the same rate other parts of their bodies. One of our most important responsibilities we have as parents is to teach self-regulation. In doing so, we can protect our kids from experiences they aren’t ready for psychologically, while also preparing them for a lifetime of healthy personal choices.