The Promise of Prom

Editorial Team

Prom and graduation season is in full swing, and both teens and parents are getting caught up in the whirlwind of dresses and tuxedos and caps and gowns. Of course, you want your teen to enjoy this special time – but there are also concerns during this season of celebration. There are certain risks teens face as they attend graduation and prom parties but there are steps parents can take to minimize those dangers and keep their teens safe.

Teens are at greater risk for car accidents—and not just because of alcohol

During this time of year, of course parents are worried about drinking and driving—but most parents worry every single time their child pulls the car out of the driveway. Simply getting behind the wheel is more dangerous for teenage drivers, who have three times the fatal crash rate of drivers over the age of 20. Car accidents cause more teenage deaths than any other factor, and the majority of these accidents happen between 6 pm and 12 am.

Lack of experience certainly contributes to this increase in accidents, but there are other factors.  Distraction is a major concern for teens who drive, particularly if they’re driving with friends. Texting is also an issue, with 3500 deaths from distracted driving per year. Teens have a higher incidence of being distracted at the time of fatal crashes than any other age group.

Drinking and driving is also a major problem, particularly this time of year when teens are celebrating prom and graduation. An estimated 20% of all accidents involving teens are alcohol-related, and about a third of those crashes happen during April, May, and June. A survey by the American Automobile Association (AAA) shows 84% of teens said their friends would be more likely to drive after drinking than risk getting in trouble by calling home for a ride. Another 22% said they'd ride in a car with someone who had been drinking.

As a parent, it’s important to recognize teens are at increased risk for car accidents, whether they drink or not. To protect your teen on prom night or graduation, create a game plan for both events. If you can, keep your teen off the road altogether by hiring a limo, playing chauffeur yourself, or ordering a ride share. If that’s not possible, remind your teen of the “house” rules for driving: seatbelts are not optional, phones are not to be used while driving, and no amount of alcohol is okay. Add credit to your child’s Uber or Lyft account to make it easier to choose a safe option – and remind your child that you’ll provide a no-questions-asked pickup any time, anywhere if your child is in an unsafe situation.

Teen drinking is always dangerous

Even if your child doesn’t get behind the wheel, there are still concerns about teen drinking during spring celebrations. Prom night and graduation will often present opportunities to drink, and even kids who’ve never considered using alcohol before can get caught up in the moment while celebrating with friends. Another survey by AAA found 41% of teens age 16 to 19 said they’d most likely drink or use drugs on prom night. Of teens who do drink at prom, more than half (54%) have four or more alcoholic beverages.

The risks of drinking at prom and graduation extend beyond drunk driving. Because teenage brains are still developing, a teenager doesn’t have the same decision-making skills as an adult. When teens drink, their developing brains are especially vulnerable to the effects – making them more like to make bad decisions or lose control when it comes to sexual behavior, criminal mischief, and even violence. What’s more, underage drinking puts teens at increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder down the road.

Prom night has a reputation that makes most parents concerned about alcohol and sex, and for good reason. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, so teenagers who’ve been drinking might be more likely to have unplanned sex and less likely to use protection, putting them at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Alcohol can also impair a teen’s ability to consent, leading to higher risk for sexual violence. Alcohol can also make someone more likely to commit a sexual assault, with one study showing that 44% of assailants had been drinking at the time of the assault. The violence associated with drinking doesn’t stop at sexual assault. Teens who drink are more likely to damage property, get into physical fights, and to commit violent crimes.

How parents can help

Surprisingly, only 29% of high school seniors reported having conversations with their parents about the dangers of drinking – but data from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) shows that it works. Teens who have parents with strict rules that make it clear alcohol is unacceptable are 80% less likely to drink than teens whose parents have a more casual attitude.

To keep your child safe on prom night and graduation, start by having a conversation. Explain why drinking is so dangerous and that the risk extends beyond your teen. By drinking or using drugs and driving, your teen not only puts themselves at risk but can hurt or kill a friend or stranger. Remind your child that it only takes one bad decision to potentially ruin their future. End by asking your child not to drink. You might be surprised by the results.

More tips for parents to increase teen safety

As a parent, you can also take other precautions, particularly to help your teen avoid the dangers of prom night and graduation. Try these tried-and-true tips for keeping your child safe:

  • Talk with other parents to make sure you’re all on the same page about alcohol-free festivities and that no other parents will provide or allow alcohol.
  • Plan with your teen and decide what they’ll do if they find themselves in an unsafe situation. Let them know they can call you for help.
  • Create a code word or code emoji your child can share with you without letting their friends know they’re asking for help so they won’t be embarrassed.
  • If you think your child might worry about getting in trouble if they call you, designate a trusted family friend whom they can call instead.
  • Offer to host the prom after-party or graduation celebration so you can keep an eye on the festivities.
  • Share The Say Something Anonymous Reporting System with your teen. This online tool allows people to "submit secure and anonymous safety concerns to help identify and intervene upon at-risk individuals before they hurt themselves or others."

Your teen values your input more than you may realize. Together, you can create a strategy to keep prom and graduation celebrations safe – and to make sure your child has nothing but happy memories of those milestones for years to come.

Originally published in 2017.

Teen talking to a therapist

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