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Date, Dress ... Condom? Talking to Teens About Safety at Prom

What is it about prom night that sends parents into a fit of fear? Is it memories of our own proms (and the debauched parties we attended)? Or maybe visions of the entire second half of the John Hughes classic, Sixteen Candles?

The good news? Overall, both teen drunk driving and teen pregnancy statistics have gone down since most of us were pinning on a corsage. In fact, a 2011 study by an organization called Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) found that teens vastly overestimated how many of their peers would drink and drive on prom night: Ninety percent said they thought their friends would drive drunk, but only 6 percent reported that they did in fact get behind the wheel while under the influence. Even allowing for those who fibbed, that's a big disparity.

As for prom night sex, while almost half of U.S. high school students have had sexual intercourse, according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chances are there are more factors involved in that decision than the romance of prom. And it all starts with you—the parent. “You are [your teen’s] biggest influence," says Julie Strike, the Tennessee State Coordinator for SADD. "It’s not their friends. Even if it seems they aren’t listening, they value what you think and say, and the example that you set.”

Still, as any parent knows, even one drunk-driving accident or one unwanted pregnancy is one too many. It's natural to worry that your child might get carried away. So mom.me asked the experts how to prepare your teens for potential dangers and help them have a memorable—and safe—prom. Here are their tips:

Seize the Opportunity to Talk

Prom can be a time to connect with your teen by sharing the excitement of getting ready for the big night, notes Haydeé Morales, of Planned Parenthood of New York City. Shopping for a tux or dress can create a natural window of opportunity for finding out how your teen views prom. Don't let the eye rolls fool you: your teen really does care what you think. A Mothers Against Drunk Driving study shows 80 percent of kids will listen to parents regarding underage drinking.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Saying, "'What are you most looking forward to about the prom?’ or ‘How do you feel about your date?’ or ‘Do kids in your school feel pressure to have sex because it's prom night?’ opens the door to listen to your child first," says Morales, "and understand what he or she is experiencing.”

“You may also want to check in and discuss whether he/she feels any pressure to engage in sex or sexual activity because it is prom night," Morales says, "and to emphasize that he/she should not engage in sexual activity if it's not desired, or mutual, or protected, or because of any social/partner pressure.”

Connect the Dots

Teen brains are still developing executive-functioning skills, responsible for organization, strategy, planning, time management and attention to detail. Make sure your child understands that people often make decisions when they’ve been drinking that they wouldn’t make sober.

These conversations can seem daunting, but your kids won’t know what you think unless you tell them. You aren’t just sharing facts—you’re sharing your values and expectations. You’re helping them feel protected and safe. Teens won’t always have immediate answers to your questions or always seem to listen to what you’re saying, but having straightforward discussions with them gives you the chance to share your values in a way that’s nonjudgmental, and at a neutral moment. If a difficult situation comes up, they’ll be more likely to talk with you and share their problem-solving process.

Arm Them With Tools

Keep kids safe by helping them anticipate difficult situations, says David Daggett, founder of the nonprofit organization Safe Sober Prom Night. What will your teen say if offered a drink at an after-prom party? Work out specific statements your kid can use ahead of time so he's prepared. Have him make an agreement ahead of time with a friend that if things get hairy, they’ll stand up for each other and leave or contact an adult. Make a deal with your teen that if he calls and needs to be picked up, you’ll be there—no questions asked.

Stay in Contact

You’ve talked with your teen about not drinking, but stay in close contact during that night. Make sure you know the plans for the evening ahead of time, says Daggett. Teens love to be spontaneous, but make it clear that any changes to the plan have to be run by you. Let your teen know that you’ll be texting, and then follow through.

Don’t Assume the Worst

Remember, not everyone going to prom is planning a big party night of drinking, drugs and sex. Make sure you balance your fear of what might happen with the fact that this is a night to remember for your teen—and it should be good, safe, fun.

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