Prom Night and Alcohol: How to Protect Your Teen

With prom night in your teen’s future, as caring parents you worry about all the things that could go wrong – especially if alcohol is involved. And, you’re right to be concerned, since proms and teenage consumption of alcohol have proven deadly for decades. Even if your teen is a responsible person who has always shown good judgment, the upcoming milestone event may be the time he or she is tempted to “party” with alcohol. Instead of dreading prom night, take proactive measures to protect your teens from the dangers of alcohol.

Make Time for a Discussion

Just as you schedule a family get-together or birthday celebration, or a trip to the hairdresser or time on the golf course, carve out sufficient time in the family schedule so that both parents can sit down with the graduating teen for an in-depth discussion about alcohol.

It’s important that this scheduled date not be interrupted by outside distractions. Turn off the cell phone and put away pagers, Blackberry devices. No Internet connections should be open for emails, no TV or stereo playing in the background. This should also be a private conversation that you have with your teen. It is best if other younger children are not present as well, in order to maximize the opportunity to have your teen’s full attention. You will be discussing things in terms that may not be appropriate for younger children. Even though messages about alcohol and its use not allowed in the family are suitable for family conversation, this is not the time to do that.

Be sure your graduating teen knows that you will be having an important discussion about alcohol, and it is mandatory. Beyond saying that, don’t go into it any further until the time of the meeting. You will need the time to do your research and get prepared.

Research Everything You Can on Alcohol

Many adults think they know enough about alcohol to have a frank discussion with their teens about its dangers. They often pepper the conversation with statements like, “When I was your age, I…” This is a definite turn-off to teens, however, since no teen wants to hear what it was like in the old days. They feel superior, like you’re over the hill or, worse yet, you don’t get how they can take care of themselves.

To combat this, you need to know a lot more about the subject than your teen ever could. Good places to start include the following websites:

• Teen Alcohol Abuse, located at

• National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Research and Health

• NIAAA Spectrum, Drinking Too Much Can Kill You Quickly…or Slowly

• National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Alcohol

Above the Influence, Facts on Alcohol

• Mayo Clinic, Tween and Teen Health, Teen Drinking: Talk to your teen about alcohol

Teen Drug Abuse

What to Discuss

Outside of flatly forbidding your teen to drink anything on prom night – which you won’t be able to monitor anyway – a better strategy is to begin your discussion with what could happen if your teen drinks before, during, and/or after prom. Here are some things to bring up, along with the rationale behind them. Use your own words when talking about each one with your teen – and back it up with facts and statistics you accumulate in your research.

• It’s a special event – and alcohol could make you forget it. Teens plan for prom night for weeks and months in advance. They have to have just the right dress or outfit, know who’s having what parties and which ones to attend in what order, whether or not there’ll be a limousine and how many are invited, where’s the best place for dinner, and on and on. Parents can use this excitement and pre-planning to their advantage. Let your teen know that you’ve seen how happy they’ve been making plans for prom, and you’re happy for them. You want them to get everything out of it that they possibly can, so that it is a truly memorable experience that will be with them for a lifetime. Explain that drinking alcohol – even a small amount – can interfere with or obliterate their recollection of prom night. That’s because the hippocampus – the area of the brain that controls memory – is still in the maturation process in teens. Alcoholic consumption can wipe out part or all of those memories, especially if there is a black-out due to binge drinking (consumption of 5 or more drinks on a single occasion) and alcohol intoxication.

• Alcohol could make you sick. Movies about teens and parties with alcohol consumption have shown the effects of drinking too much too fast. The image of vomiting all over a prom dress or rented tuxedo isn’t one that is very appealing. Besides the nausea, there’s dizziness to contend with. The room will seem to be spinning and balance will be lost as the equilibrium is thrown out of whack by the effects of alcohol. Instead of dancing the night away or laughing with friends, your teen may be sick on the sidelines – and become the joke of his or her friends. Beyond these mild effects, there are other more serious consequences to drinking. Alcohol irritates the stomach. In fact, it’s this irritation that leads to the dehydration and vomiting already mentioned. Drinking too much alcohol too fast (called binge drinking) can also lead to alcohol poisoning, a serious condition that causes the body’s systems to break down. Alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention.

• You may do things you don’t want to do if you drink alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, which lowers inhibitions and results in sometimes very inappropriate and/or risky behavior. Unprotected teenage sex and driving while drunk are two examples of things that can go wrong as a result of drinking on prom night. Planning and decision-making are controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex – another area that doesn’t mature until the mid-to-late 20s. The consumption of alcohol can interfere with your teen’s ability to weigh and balance what to do instead of just going ahead and doing something because others are doing it, or it feels good, or just because the alcohol makes them feel happy and invulnerable. Alcohol robs teens of the ability to see alternatives to inappropriate and/or risky behavior.

• You may be involved in fights because of alcohol. Violent behavior is a frequent accompaniment to drinking too much alcohol. Researchers have found that alcohol may encourage violence or aggression by disrupting normal brain functioning. Alcohol does this by weakening the brain mechanisms that normally restrain impulsive behaviors – including aggression. Alcohol also impairs brain processing, resulting in the misreading of social cues. Your teen may misinterpret a look or a gesture as threatening, and act in a violent or aggressive manner as a means of self-protection or protection of others (prom date). In addition, the narrowing of the attention span means your teen won’t be able to see ahead to the possible consequences of getting into a fight after drinking alcohol.

• Drinking and driving is illegal and can land you in jail or worse. Every state has a zero-tolerance law on teenage (any youth under the age of 21) drinking and driving. That means that having any measurable amount of alcohol on your teen’s breath is a violation of the law. Of the estimated 5,000 annual deaths resulting from underage drinking, nearly 2,000 are from motor vehicle crashes. Your teen needs to hear from you that there is no permissible circumstance for them to drink and drive – or be in a vehicle with another person who has been drinking and attempts to drive.

• Alcohol will make you feel bad for a few days afterwards. This is the awful hangover, and it’s not something anyone wants to experience. It’s also something they don’t forget. Hangovers can cause your teen to be thirsty, dizzy, and light-headed. Other hangover symptoms include headaches caused by the expansion of blood vessels, and sleepiness, due to the narcotic effects of alcohol on the body’s central nervous system. As a result of the hangover, your teen may feel too ill to go to school or participate in events and activities they would normally be involved in.

• Drinking on prom night can ruin more than just one day. The damage that drinking can cause can be pretty disastrous – to your teen, the family, and your teen’s friends. Despite the fact that your teen is trying to be independent and stretch his or her wings, they are still very vulnerable. A ruined reputation, injuries or fatalities, fights, legal and school problems, not to mention what it does to their relationship with you, the parents, are too steep a price to pay for one night of partying with alcohol.

Be In On All the Details of Prom Night

Once you’ve had the discussion, be sure that you’re up-to-date on all the details pertaining to prom night. Make sure that your teen knows, and feels comfortable enough, to call you for a ride or assistance if there’s a problem with anyone drinking at prom.
It’s important that you be as loving and caring as possible during this time. While you don’t want to appear intrusive on this all-important event, it is your right as parents to know exactly what the plans are for prom and make sure you approve of them. You can even help your teen to come up with desirable alternatives to drinking at the prom (or before or after).

If you’ve established an open and honest two-way communication channel, it shouldn’t be difficult to show your enthusiasm for the prom preparations and to stay informed on plans. Remember the TV shows and movies where the teenage boy came to the door with the corsage or wrist bouquet for his prom date and the girl’s father and mother looked the boy over and pretty much grilled him and laid down the law? It’s pretty much still the same – minus the grilling. The point is that you want to know whom your son or daughter is taking to the prom, how they’re getting there, what time prom starts and ends, who the chaperones are, who else is going, and other pertinent details. Make sure both parties (the boy and the girl) know the time they are expected home.

Contact the parents of your teen’s close friends so you have a united front on all the prom preparations – and rules and expectations. Be prepared that not every family is as vigilant on this matter and may not welcome your broaching the subject. Try to be as diplomatic as possible, but do have the discussion. It helps if you already are well acquainted with these parents – but don’t let the fact that you don’t know them well deter you from taking the initiative and calling them.

What Happens When Your Teen Drinks on Prom Night

Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that your teen won’t drink just because you’ve had an in-depth discussion, kept yourself informed of all the plans, and talked with other parents about prom night. You can’t foresee all the things that may happen when prom night actually arrives. You just do the best that you can ahead of time.

If the reality turns out to be that your teenage son or daughter gets involved with alcohol on the night of the prom – whether or not there is trouble attached to their involvement – be prepared to deal with the matter swiftly. Your teen will already know that there are consequences, so now’s the time to enforce them.

What those punishments entail depends upon the severity of the problem, as well as any mitigating circumstances. If, for example, someone spiked your teen’s non-alcoholic beverage with alcohol and/or drugs, that’s a whole different situation than if he or she willingly consumed alcohol. And, depending on the circumstance, there may be other things that you and your teen have to deal with, including legal issues, problems with school (expulsion, for example), and medical conditions resulting from alcoholic consumption.

Through it all, if your teen drinks or gets into a problem related to alcohol on prom night – or any other night, for that matter – be sure that your teen knows that you love him or her unconditionally. This will not in any way alter that fact. But also let them know in no uncertain terms that there are consequences for drinking alcohol. The restrictions and/or punishments you enforce will last only for a time, and your teen can show you he or she has learned the lesson by their actions – not their words. They can earn your trust again by demonstrating responsibility and keeping their word.

Just because it happens once doesn’t mean your son or daughter is destined to become an alcoholic or have problems with alcohol the rest of their life. Sometimes a brief and nasty (due to the side effects) encounter with alcohol is enough to convince your teen that drinking is not something they should be doing at this time of their lives. There is a time and a place for responsible drinking – but not when you’re a teen.

Finally, it may be helpful for parents to remember this acronym: CLASS.

• Care – for your teen at all times and in all circumstances.
• Love – your teen no matter what happens.
• Advise – your teen on the dangers of alcohol.
• Seek – help from others when necessary.
• Support – your teen to encourage responsible action at a