Navigating The Senior Prom: Tips To Help Parents Cope

By Drs. Steve Schlozman and Eugene Beresin
Guest contributors

The recent fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old girl in Connecticut have understandably cast a dark shadow over prom night.

Attacks like the one in Connecticut are rare, but these events receive massive attention and can thus obscure the more common tribulations characteristic of the spring dance.

In no way do we want to make light of the seriousness of recent events, but we also do not want to miss the opportunity to explore the more common hand-wringing of this yearly ritual.

So, consider the following scenario:

It’s late afternoon on the day of the prom. Your son ambles downstairs in his tuxedo, silently seeking approval. Your younger daughter giggles: “What’s that thing he’s wearing?” she asks.

“That’s a tuxedo," you say.

“I know what that is, Daddy, but what’s that big black belt?”

“It’s a cummerbund,” you reply.

But you are wrong, according to your daughter's analysis. “It’s morantic,” she says. “I think he looks morantic.”

That’s how she says romantic. It usually cracks up your son when she says this, but not today.

“No,” you respond. “You look very distinguished.”

He's still not pleased. He’s 18, after all, and not ready to be distinguished.

And as his date arrives, you have this sinking recollection: they are preparing themselves for a night that can’t possibly live up to expectations.

Then you start to worry about the sharp turn that can separate the glamour of the dance itself from the potential debauchery of the post-prom festivities. No dress-up clothes then, no contrived formalities...just hanging out with friends and staying up all night, with possible cut-loose celebrations (read: sex) or unfettered over-indulgence (read: drugs).

For all those parents out there who are planning to launch their own kids into this great Western tradition, we would like to opine from our vantage points as child and adolescent psychiatrists, and as former prom attendees, and, for at least one of us, as someone who has seen four kids attend proms. Here are a few tips:

1. Don't use the "S" word

When your daughter emerges in her prom dress, don’t fuss. Tell her that she looks great, or that she looks beautiful, but don’t say sexy.

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but we’re confident that most girls don't want their mothers or their fathers telling them that they’re hot.

2. Be exceedingly kind

If your kid’s date is a boy, be super sweet. He’s really nervous. He’s been rehearsing this night for the past three years, and he’s still not sure what to do. He has no template other than his friends’ or older brother’s horror stories and a few bad movies. Secretly, he wants it all to play out like "High School Musical," but then nothing in life goes like "High School Musical." Shake his hand. Treat him like a man. If you choose to tell him that you expect him to be safe with your daughter, remember that he expects you to say this. Hopefully, it goes without saying. Best to just smile and nod your head. This will make him happy, even if he may not make eye contact.

3. Don't tie his shoes — or tie

If your child is a boy, hold back from helping him with the vagaries of a tuxedo. Like tying his shoes, he’ll feel better if he can master it all on his own. Maybe he can enlist the help of one of his buddies or an older sibling. Still, if he emerges “ready” but is nevertheless sporting a wardrobe malfunction, gently offer to fix things. If he refuses, so be it. Prom is all about agency.

This advice also holds for corsages: count to 10 before helping. Corsages are deceptively complicated, and if it’s the pin-on variety, the added threat of drawing blood doesn’t help. Still, this is all part of the ritual. If you do offer help, say something like: “These things are tricky.” Don’t say: “I remember pinning this on my date. Woo! What a night! But then you don’t want to hear about that.” Because you know what? They don’t.

4. Go ahead, take the picture

This may be controversial, but take photos even if your kids would prefer that you didn’t. Most kids and their dates really will want a picture, even if they say they don’t at the time. Remember what it’s like to look at your high school yearbook? We love paying tribute to the gangly bygone fashions that a good prom photo can provide. They'll thank you later.

5. The tough part

What to do about the post-prom festivities? When they say: “Hey dad, can we have the post-prom party here? We’ll take everyone’s car keys..." you will probably frown.

But take a moment to think about it: this is a reasonable question. Talk with your spouse. Maybe it would be safer at home. Maybe you could be better monitors then someone else’s parents. Maybe your kid can set an example. But do you really want to host the post-prom party? Do you really want to face party-crashers? Do you really want to walk into a crowd of unruly teenagers and ask some loudmouth to keep it down? Do you really want to be in the position of escorting someone out of your house? Do you want to take someone’s keys?

No way.

No parent in their right mind should do this. The past practice of “social hosting”, when parents either provided alcohol or turned a blind eye and thought their kids would be safer at home is clearly against the law. While you may think it is better to have your kids and friends under your watchful eye, you are potentially facing serious legal charges if you go this route.

You might think it’s only a matter of months until your kids will be off to college, and then they could do what they please, but remember you are the role models, and kids really do watch and learn from your example. And if you think prom worries are huge, remember this is just one night, not four years of college angst!

Anyway, usually the pre-arranged post-prom parties with designated chaperones are the safest bet. And you could volunteer for that if you are brave enough. But even with this set-up, there's plenty of opportunity for trouble.

6. Think role model

Remember, at the end of the day, that you are the parent or the guardian. Tell your kids to have fun and to be careful. This means addressing sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Be direct and let them know that you are counting on them to be safe, take care and be responsible for their dates and their friends. Be willing to be the bad guy: You want them to say: “I would totally do [fill in the blank here with a stupid adolescent thing they’ll deeply regret later] but my dad/mom/uncle, etc. will kill me.”

7. It's truly special

One element of prom night is that it can starkly underscore differences among kids: differences in socio-economic capacities, emotional abilities, sexual preferences, and, well, general special-ness. In fact, most of the academic writing about proms talks a lot about these details. Regardless of our knowledge that the night cannot live up to our expectations, don’t let on. Like the tooth fairy and Santa, it's something they must discover on their own.

8. No weeping

Bite your tongue, say good-bye and walk them to the door. Don’t stand there waving (for too long). Instead of wallowing in your kids newfound independence, you can distract yourself by watching Grease or Napoleon Dynamite — they have some pretty good prom scenes.

Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds: Developing Resilience through Engagement, Awareness and Media and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Steve Schlozman is associate director of The Clay Center, and co-director of medical student education in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.


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