As rites of passage go, the prom is almost universal, especially these days when there's no stigma to going with a group of friends rather than with a date. But the price parents pay for their teen to dress up and feel grown-up goes far beyond the money for gown, tux, and limo. This is one of those nights when we earn every new strand of gray hair.
Teenagers don't need the prom to engage in drinking, drugs, and sex; we all know that can happen any night of the week. Unlike any other night, however, the prom implies a kind of license to don adult behaviors as well as clothes.
"There's a cultural magic to the night that makes it more risky," says clinical psychologist Mark Goldman of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and one of the nation's leading researchers on under-age drinking.
Here's why: Teens who have never been risk-takers may want to make prom night count; they'll try something new. Teens who are already engaged in risky behavior may push the envelope.
"If parents are scared, they're right to be. There's about a 100 percent chance that kids will do something they wouldn't normally do, especially drink over their limit," says Rhett Godfrey, a high school senior in Manhattan. He is also the author of a new book, "The Teen Code, How to Talk to Us about Sex, Drugs and Everything Else" (Rodale). He interviewed 1,000 teens nationwide via e-mail.
Even with limousines reducing the drinking-driving danger, and even with the prevalence of marijuana and other drugs, Goldman says drinking continues to be the biggest problem -- for reasons teens and even parents may not realize. It has to do with the way a teenage brain works.
"The warning signals that tell you you've had too much to drink go off later in the teen brain than in an adult," says Minneapolis psychologist David Walsh. It's not because a teen can hold more alcohol, as many teens tend to think, but because the adolescent brain is not fully developed. "By the time the brain does send the signal, the effects of alcohol are more pronounced and more serious," says Walsh. He is author of the forthcoming book, "Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen" (Free Press).
Also underdeveloped is the part of the brain that links risk-taking to consequences.
"So now you have teens who are more drunk than they realize engaging in behaviors that are more risky than they know," Walsh says.
This leads to unplanned, unprotected sex, unsafe driving, accidents such as drowning and falling, and belligerent behavior, says Ralph Hingson, a professor at Boston University's Center to Prevent Alcohol Problems Among Young People. Perhaps the greatest risk of all is underestimating their own or someone else's drunkenness. That can result in alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
Knowing that this night carries heightened danger can push some parents to try to micromanage by serving alcohol to guests but taking their car keys. "I can understand the motive but I don't condone it," says Lexington High School principal Van Seasholes.
Not only is it illegal in Massachusetts to serve alcohol to minors other than your own, but the mixed message it sends is hard for teens to process. "You wouldn't serve your teen's friends any other night of the year, would you?" asks psychiatrist Duncan B. Clark. "Why change your expectations for this night? Knowing teens are at greater risk requires increased vigilance by parents, not excuses."
He calls it "a contradiction in parenting that you just have to accept: You acknowledge to your teen the reality of drinking, drugs, or sex, but you still encourage responsible behavior." Clark is director of the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Brittany Modoono of Lexington doesn't have all her plans nailed for the senior prom June 3 at the Hyatt in Cambridge, but she knows that afterward, she and friends will board a "party bus" to take 40 guests to a supervised, all-night house party.
There are a couple rules. One is from Brittany and her friends. "Only the people on the bus can go to the party," she says. "We don't want it to be too rowdy." The other rule comes from her parents: If there is any alcohol, Brittany can't stay.
This is not a rule invented for prom night. This is how it was for Brittany's older sister and brother, both now in college, and how it is for her and for her brother, Michael, whose junior prom is tomorrow.
"It's a little annoying," concedes Brittany. "You know on prom night there's going to be some alcohol. I'm just hoping not among my friends." Michael does not want to have to leave a party. "If someone comes in drunk, I won't leave. If alcohol is there, I will." He's talked about this with his date, and their parents have talked, too.
If this sounds too good to be true, the credit belongs to parents Theresa and D.J. Modoono. "We tell them to use good judgment, and we know they will," says D.J. On the other hand, says Theresa, "We're talking to them, and to their friends, all the time."
About what? "Well," says Michael, "we talk about what to do `if.' What if somebody says they can drive and I don't think they can? You can say no. Like, there's talk of Ecstasy at the prom. I can just say no."
Having ongoing dialogue with your teen is your best insurance, Clark and others say. It's not easy.
"If you say, `You have to do this,' teens shut down," says Godfrey. "If you ask stupid questions, they just tell you what you want to hear."
This is a problem because parents have information teens really need, especially inexperienced teens. "They're more likely to buy into some of the misconceptions that are out there," he says. He ticks off a few:
Drinking water while you drink alcohol neutralizes its effect. (Not true. Only time does that.)
A high blood-alcohol level numbs your sperm so they can't swim and you can't get a girl pregnant. (False.)
A couple of beers won't impair anyone's driving. (Not true; each body's proportions are different.)
Smoking marijuana (call it pot or weed, never dope; that's heroin) while you drink keeps you from getting sick. (Not true.)
Oral sex protects against sexually transmitted disease. (Also not true.)
Godfrey's advice to parents, with a nod of agreement from Walsh and others, is to talk about all of this, but abstractly, in the third person ("I've heard there's a greater chance kids will do drugs and drink on prom night."); to keep conversations short (two minutes or less); to stay natural ("Gee, I just read that some teenagers think sex is safe if you drink a lot."); and to ask questions ("Have you ever heard of that? Why do you think that is?"). Oh, yeah, one other thing: "Don't just have this conversation once, the night before the prom."
And then? "And then," he says, "parents just have to take a leap of faith."
Contact Barbara Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org