“You’d Better Not Wear My Dress!” Teen Anxieties (Old and New) around Prom

Posted May 3, 2013 by

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I’m sure most of us can remember our senior year of high school: perhaps you went through the stress of SAT and ACT testing, the anxiety of sending off college applications (and waiting for the letters to come back), and, the grand finale of high school – the prom. I realize the grand finale of high school is actually graduation but most people focus on “The Prom” as being the ceremony that signals the end of their high school career.

For the majority of teens today, “high school” is still just the four years leading up to that major rite of passage, “The Prom.” It’s interesting to note that prom first started in the late 1800’s as a way for high school students to hone their burgeoning social skills at a formal dinner-dance sort of thing. It’s also interesting to note that only about 5% of adolescents were enrolled in school during the late 1800’s; The prom wasn’t the same rite of passage it is today.

Related: Parenting Tips for Prom

A lot of other things have changed about prom over the years, things such as hemlines, hairstyles, the types of dances, the music played, whether or not a date was required. For example, when I graduated (1984),  “Gunne Sax” was the epitome of prom wear, the only way to wear your hair was “big” and “When Doves Cry” and “99 Red Balloons” were two of the Billboard top 100 songs. Our prom was held in the high school gymnasium. From talking with my kids and their friends, what you wear isn’t as important as the fact that no one else is wearing it. Girls in my daughter’s school have social media pages dedicated to girls posting pictures of their dress with subtle, and not so subtle, threats towards anyone who might be even thinking about wearing the same thing. As for hairstyles, they tend to be dependent upon what group you identify yourself with. Most proms are held off campus at a much more suitable venue than the sweaty gym.

Long story short, there have been a lot of changes in 30 or so years. Some things, however, really haven’t changed that much. For example, as much as your daughter may be looking forward to the prom, there is probably also an underlying thread of trepidation that she may show up wearing the same dress as someone else (a common fear among prom-going girls, hence the huge number of social media sites aimed at decreasing these odds). Your son may be apprehensive, thinking about asking the girl who sits next to him in English class to go with him. From our parent perspective, these may seem like little things. If you wear the same dress, what’s the big deal? It’s only prom. And, that’s where the difference of perspective comes into play. While for us it may be “just prom,” for a lot of kids, prom is everything.

Let’s look at the word “prom.” It’s a shortened version of the word “promenade”, which means a “ceremonious opening of a formal ball consisting of a grand march of all the guests.” (Thank you Merriam Webster online dictionary!) The implication here is that there is going to be some sort of presentation or procession, a time when you are going to be on display for everyone to see. Anyone familiar with adolescent development can tell you teens usually feel they are on a stage and everything they do is on display for everyone to see. One thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years is the fear and anxiety around not fitting in, especially in momentous social situations like the prom. Even kids who seem to have it all together socially and academically may have anxiety when it comes to big social situations such as this. There is only ONE senior prom. If you don’t get it right the first time, there is no do-over.

So, where exactly am I going with this? I think I would like to suggest parents try to remember how important this time was for you when you were in high school. When you’re getting frustrated because you’re daughter is stressing over whether she should get the blue dress or the green or your son is more testy than usual, take a step back and think about where this may be coming from. I will be the first person to tell you being the parent of a teen can be downright difficult. But, I’m also going to tell you that being a teen isn’t always a walk in the park, either. They may not have the worries and responsibilities you and I have, but, they do have worries and responsibilities, without necessarily having all of the coping skills to deal with them appropriately.

Take a moment to recognize that. Validate for them sometimes by acknowledging that growing up is often challenging. And, as tempted as you may be to take away prom as a consequence for inappropriate behavior, don’t. There are numerous other ways you can hold your teen accountable for his or her behavior without taking away the social event of their high school career.

About

Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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