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Proms, Parties and Teen Driving: Tips for Parents

Minimize the Peril and Preserve the Fun

Spring can be a difficult season for parents of high school students. Torn between wanting their kids to embrace their waning high school days and keeping them safe, many parents may find themselves worrying about the events they just encouraged their teen to attend.

The reality is that this season of proms, graduation parties and end-of-school celebrations can be a dangerous time for teens to be on the road. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), motor vehicle accidents remain the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2012, 23 percent of drivers ages 15-20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes were drinking. And at all levels of blood alcohol concentration, a teen is at greater risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash than an older driver.

You don't have to blow the whistle on fun, but it's an important time to remain being an advocate for safe driving practices. Here are some tips for keeping your teen safe, and maintaining your own sanity.

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Start With Conversation
You've probably already talked to your teen about safe driving, but with big events on the horizon, it's a good time for a refresher.

"Start the conversation by reminding your son or daughter that you love him or her, and want them to have a great time," suggests Dr. John F. Curry, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

Then, remind them about the dangers of drinking and driving. "Be honest about how serious you are," says Curry. "Be clear about what is and is not acceptable, and be ready to set limits accordingly."

Distracted driving is also worth discussing again. The typical high school student's social calendar is on overload with invitations, gossip and college news this time of year. Even your normally responsible teen may find it difficult to ignore the beckoning chime of an incoming text.

Reach Out to Resources
Each spring, high schools, communities and law enforcement agencies host awareness events that deliver blunt reminders to party-bound students. Licensed therapist Randi Klein has worked with Agoura High School in California for the past 15 years to present "Every 15 Minutes," a national program that uses staged accidents, mock court sessions and student "deaths" at high schools to remind students of the potentially tragic consequences of impaired driving. Klein says that parents can use programs like this to initiate conversation with their teens.

"Literature is sent home ahead of time, giving parents tips on talking to their kids, and there are also parental education nights," says Klein.

Similar initiatives include "wrecked vehicle" displays or mock car accidents. Discuss these events with your teen, who may be left shaken by the graphic stories or images.

Don't shy away from voicing your concerns about drinking and driving with other parents. All parents want to keep their children safe, and discussing common expectations can only strengthen your stance.

"Don't feel like you're one parent against the world," says Dawn Teixeira, president and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) in Marlborough, Massachusetts. "It really does take a village to raise a child."

Provide a Ride
Don't try to skirt the problem by offering to drive your teens to events. By senior year, no one wants to be chauffeured by their parents. Support their quest for independent sources of transportation, such as group limos or private buses.

For less formal events, consider asking a sensible, college-age sibling to drive. Just make sure the driver won't decide to join the party. Make sure your child knows he can always call you for a ride if he, or a friend who is driving, shouldn't get behind the wheel.

"One key promise is that discussion is deferred.... That doesn't mean there won't be consequences, just that there won't be any shouting or screaming right after the pickup," says Teixeira.

Also, remind them about other options in your area, such as calling a taxi or taking public transportation.

Don't Become a Pal
Some parents are resigned to the idea that kids will drink anyway and that it will be safer if they do it at home. And so they host parties, turning a blind eye to the presence of alcohol. Aside from potentially tragic consequences, this decision is problematic for several other reasons, Teixeira says.

"Research shows that if teens feel they have parental approval, they'll drink more down the road," says Teixeira. "It's a short-term solution to a long-term problem." Underage drinking is also illegal in every state, and many states have social host liability laws, imposing stiff fines and penalties on the adults responsible.

Curry urges parents facing these party-at-home situations to examine their motives. Don't be fooled into thinking such a party will boost your teen's popularity. "The peers who then want to be (at the party) are doing so just to have a permissive setting, and not because they want to be a genuine friend" to the teen.

Another false assumption is that being more "fun" will bring parents closer to their increasingly independent children. "The teenager doesn't need a buddy, but rather a parent," adds Curry. "Sometimes the parent who gets into the buddy role is too motivated to be liked, at the risk of dropping their responsibility to protect and guide."

Offer an Alternative
Soon to be scattered among colleges, most teens are craving time together — more so than alcohol. Offer to host a substance-free event. The key is clear communication between you and your teen about the party, Teixeira says. She says parents should ensure that their children invite friends who share their values and that they make it clear alcohol and drugs aren't on the menu and won't be tolerated.

Allow your teen to steer the planning, choosing the food, music and decorations. If money permits, offer some extras to make the evening special, such as catered food, a band, a DJ or a supervised bonfire or cookout.

Give them space at the party, but remain vigilant. To avoid controversy during the event, announce your level of involvement ahead of time.

"Let them know that you'll be coming through to refill soft drinks or bring out food, or you might stop and chat with a friend," says Teixeira. Your goal is to be present, but not to join the party. Many parents and teens set the boundaries by signing SADD's parent-teen contract.

With good planning, communication and support for responsible choices, you can enjoy this memorable time as much as your teen does.