As spring kicks into high gear, many parents struggle with the anxiety they associate with prom and graduation season. Parents of chronically misbehaved kids might wonder, “Does my child even deserve this privilege?” Other parents are nervous that their child might do drugs, drink, have sex—or all of the above. The high cost of prom and your child’s emotions around attending can cause power struggles and heated fights at home.
In the meantime, you’re still worried about things like peer pressure and driving safety. I remember my own mom saying to me as a teen, “It’s not you I worry about. It’s the other drivers/kids/ parents!” I never believed her (and I still think it really was me that she worried about!) but years later I can see where she was coming from. This brings me to our first rule:
Be aware of your own heightened anxiety around Prom and graduation season. The pressure can add to any pressure you are already feeling. Be aware of your anxiety and try to stay calm as best you can. Don’t make your child anxious just because you are anxious.
Stand by your gut intuition. You know your child best. If at all possible, it’s best to let your child attend prom and graduation celebrations. However, if you think these events are too much for your child to handle, follow your instincts. If your child was just suspended again for drinking alcohol on school grounds, going to prom might not be a good idea this year. If you know in your mind that his behavior is not up for the challenge of prom at this time, you need to trust yourself. Find a calm moment and listen to that voice inside. James Lehman reminds us to always ask ourselves, “What does my child need from me right now?” It might be for you to allow your child to have some freedom (within limits).
Let’s recognize, too, that there are some kids who don’t need strict limits and extra supervision. Some kids are able to drive or ride to prom or to a party with friends, abstain from alcohol, and make it home safely and on time. Know your child and take the precautions you think are appropriate, keep them safe, and at the same time acknowledge the legitimate need adolescents have for a sense of belonging and independence.
Even for “good enough” children who tend to stay out of trouble, prom night and graduation parties can be a time of increased peer pressure and more plentiful opportunities for bad decisions. Granted, this doesn’t mean your child will definitely turn into a raging rebel. Determine how much supervision you think your child needs. Perhaps a get-together at a well-known friend’s house where the parents are going to be home is okay with you.
If your child’s friends are risk-takers or the parents are a lot more liberal than you as far as parenting goes, then look into another option such as a public venue or your own home. Or, no after-party at all if we’re talking about risky behavior. There is no right or wrong amount of supervision per se—you will need to determine this based on your knowledge of your child and his or her unique behaviors and needs.
Think about what you’d like to see happen between your house, the prom or party, and then the after-party (if there is one) and home again.
Consider how your child will get around, and then stand your ground. If the only option you feel you can provide is that you drive your child and his date, but he complains that you are ruining his life and that everyone will laugh at him, recognize this is designed to get you to back down. Don’t. If he doesn’t like it, then he has a choice: Let you drive him, or don’t go at all. (Another option might be for him to rent a limo, if you feel comfortable with that.) If he makes this choice, it’s very different then if you say he can’t go.
Depending on your child, this can be as simple as requiring your child to call or text when he leaves point A, when he arrives at point B, to get approval for plan changes, etc. You might also decide to let your child know that you will check in with the parents who are hosting any after-parties and offer them your assistance. These kinds of check-ins aren’t necessarily something you need to do. Again, trust your gut. Does your child need this kind of monitoring? Prom and graduation nights are highly regarded by teens as “special” nights, as rites of passage that are notoriously connected to more risk-taking behavior. If you do check in on your child, try to be subtle. After all, humiliating your child isn’t an effective goal; the goal is safety.
With other parents and adults, that is. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek information. You might ask the school what precautions they will be taking during prom and the common “project graduation” which many schools offer. Project graduation is a celebration hosted by the school for a graduating class and is usually intended to provide a safe, substance-free, and supervised celebration for the students. However, it’s not fail-proof. While some schools might do “lock-ins” where the students actually spend the night at the school with chaperones and are not allowed to leave, other schools make off-site visits that are tough to supervise. I can’t stress enough the importance of asking questions. This will allow you to make an informed decision as to what is best for your child.
While you certainly should have a plan for how you expect the night to go, it’s equally important to decide what types of consequences you might employ if your child disregards or defies your limits and expectations. You don’t necessarily need to communicate exactly what these consequences will be to your child because then that allows to him to weigh his options and decide that he can live with your consequences ahead of time. Therefore, they will lose value. On the other hand, if you keep the consequence plan to yourself, he doesn’t know what to expect and that makes it tougher to disregard them.
Another perk to coming up with a plan ahead of time is that you can more easily be in “business transaction” mode as opposed to “emotional reaction” mode. It’s always most effective to think of consequences as a business transaction because you can be calm, in control, rational, and keep the consequences enforceable. If you wait to determine consequences until after something happens, you will most likely be emotional and your consequences might not be as effective. All your child needs to hear from you is something like this: “If you don’t understand my expectations, now is the time to ask questions. Because if you don’t follow these rules, there will be serious consequences.”
This is a great time for you to start regular habits. It’s hard to change the rules for prom night, and you shouldn’t have to change your parenting style because of this event. This could be a time for you to start having regular expectations and conversations around it. Expectations and problem-solving should not be a seasonal thing. It’s incredibly important that on a regular basis you talk with kids about your expectations. It’s also important to speak with them about refusal skills, decision-making skills, what to do if they find themselves in a risky situation, the dangers of drinking and driving, and so on. These should be ongoing conversations in your home that are most effectively started while your child is still in elementary school.
When prom time and graduation time comes around, you certainly want to have a refresher discussion about these things and make sure your plan and expectations for “this night” in particular are especially clear. You might even write them down and go over them three months before, one month before, one week before, and the night of. After all, kids learn best by repetition. For most kids, hearing it once might not be enough. If your child refuses to listen to the discussion for the second, third, or fourth time, that’s fine. Put a privilege, like the cell phone or car, on hold until he sits down to revisit this stuff again.
And, speaking of repetition, remember to tell your child exactly what the natural consequences might be. Remind her of the ones you’ve established ahead of time as well. This does require you to anticipate what types of temptations your child could make, but it’s completely doable. Any dangerous behaviors like having alcohol in the car or driving under the influence have serious consequences, like a loss of driving privileges until your child shows you that he can make safe choices for a predetermined period of time. Have a plan that you are prepared to follow through with.
Bottom line for parents: This season is a classic time of worry and headaches for many—it always has been and probably always will be. One of our big sticking points on the Parental Support Line is that if your child is a senior, prom and graduation are two things that they can’t ever get back once they are taken away. James Lehman advises parents to use consequences that are short term, task-oriented, and that motivate your child to perform better in the future. That being said, it is probably most effective to let your child go to prom or graduation parties with some strict limits that are tailored to his or her specific risk-taking tendencies.
For example, if your son has a tendency to drive fast or recklessly, you might see to it that he doesn’t drive on prom night (if he has the driving privileges left at all). Perhaps you transport him, arrange a ride with a friend’s parents, provide money for a cab, ask him to pay for his own limo if he would rather you not drive him, or team up with some other parents to rent a limo for your child and his friends, if you’re lucky enough to have the budget for it. If your child has been caught doing drugs or alcohol, you might consider giving him a stricter curfew, or offer to host a get-together at a local bowling alley after prom as an alternative to a house party.
Any of these choices is better than taking prom and graduation parties away altogether, and better than taking the risk that your child may get into some serious trouble. Just because your child says, “My friends’ parents let them do whatever they want!” doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. But remember, you know your child best. If possible, let him have those life experiences. But if your child is not up to the challenge of prom or a graduation party, then you have to do what you think is best as a parent to keep him safe.
All of this being said, these end-of-year celebrations are part of a meaningful and exciting time for your teen. This time of year marks the beginning of the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, in which it’s your teen’s developmental task to become more independent from you and make decisions on his own. And, as important as it is for your child to be safe, you probably also want your son or daughter to have fun and create lasting memories with their friends, many of whom they might lose touch with once they go off to college.
Try your best to make practical, logical decisions for your child rather than emotional ones. Be proactive, be clear, and have a plan for yourself too—find something to do to help take your mind off the worry that you will be facing when your teen is out celebrating with her friends. Prom and graduation don’t have to mean constant stress. Be confident with your ability to be a proactive and responsible parent and try to have fun, too! No matter what, breathe deep. Be kind to yourself. This is really hard for you, too.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.