It's prom time again, some young people (and their parents) wanting to pull out all the stops to observe this culminating senior year event. Why is that?
Because for the late adolescent the occasion can have a "coming out" significance, a rite of passage that leads to more unrestricted adult-like independence soon to come. (Hence the night that allows staying out much later than normal.)
For parents the occasion can have a "turning out" significance, a chance to see their son or daughter formally attired and looking maximally grown up, testimony to the successful child raising they have done. (Hence the importance for parents of taking pictures of their son or daughter dressed for the occasion.)
For many young people and their parents senior prom is a watershed event, a coming of age ceremony that separates the end of high school from whatever more worldly experience comes next.
In both parents and adolescent there's a desire to mark the occasion, to make it special, to make it memorable with the 4 grown up D's - dating, dressing up, dining, dancing at a fancy, expensive, exciting celebration that lasts far into the night.
In preparation a lot of emotional and financial investment can be made. However, it's important to remember that the more hopes and money are invested in the occasion, the greater the anticipation that is created, the harder that expectation is to fulfill when it becomes unrealistically high.
In the extreme there can be a desire to make the occasion measure up every step of the way - to have a perfect night. There can be the need to find the perfect date. There can be the need to look and dress one's best. There can be the need to go to the fanciest restaurant via the coolest transportation. There can be the need to have a triumphant time at the dance. There can be the need to attend a great late night party afterwards. And finally there can be the need to wind the occasion up with delicious prom breakfast the morning after. That's a lot that needs to go right.
To appreciate the possible stress involved, consider three phases of prom night. There is the selection/rejection phase leading up to prom when people are trying to get a date, and the process of asking or waiting to be asked can be stressful. There's the preparation/planning phase where people are trying to look their best and arrange the best, and the frustrations with getting all this accomplished can be stressful. And there's the experience/enjoyment phase, and the need to act like your having a good time all the time when you're not, which can be stressful.
Whatever else prom night is, it's usually pressured because the occasion feels too important to entirely relax. This is why, even though a lot of it was fun, young people can feel relieved when they finally get home. I loved the assessment of a young woman I saw in the week following prom when I asked her how it was. "The best thing about prom," she said, "is that I got through it okay and now it is over."
For students with a lot of friends, senior year can be one long occasion for saying goodbye to the companions of one's youth, partying how this is done, prom one of the biggest and most important parties of all. So parents really need to get their head straight when approaching prom.
It makes no sense for parents to push young people into having a more sophisticated prom night and then be surprised when a young person exploits the occasion to behave more grown up in ways they disapprove.
Of course the grown up behavior parents are most worried about is recreational substance use, with alcohol the most common drug of choice - acting old enough to socially drink.When excessive use is mixed with driving, sexual, or socially aggressive behavior, prom night can degenerate into an unhappy occasion.
Although, as young people will tell you, they can decide to drink any time, the extra hype, long duration, and special significance of prom night can encourage drinking to get dangerously drunk.
And from what I've seen, parents who pay for a suite at a local hotel for an after party are usually asking for trouble at the time, and often end up being charged extra for damages when it is over.
The danger of senior prom is turning it into an extreme event -- extremely idealized, extremely pressured, extremely grown up. This is when young people are at risk of extreme acting out.
So my advice for a safe and satisfying prom is this. Keep the financial investment modest, the arrangements simple, the expectations moderate, the companionship focused on friendship, the occasion well chaperoned, and the experience as free of alcohol and other drugs as possible.
One approach that seems to keep Prom night safe is treat the school experience as a social "lock-in." So young people come to the dance, then stay for enjoyable activities and festivities afterwards, and finish up there with an early morning "prom breakfast" at the school before safely leaving for home.
Next week's entry: Adolescence and the pursuit of popularity