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Congratulations! It's the End of the School Year. But, Watch Out for Kids Gone Wild.

by Richard Gallagher, PhD

It is the end of the school year for most teenagers. It's a time to relax, enjoy evenings free from homework, and hold celebrations. Most kids handle this time in a healthy, risk-free fashion. However, with graduation, proms, and other parties, many kids get themselves into serious trouble and face major negative consequences, including injury and death.

Entire weeks of programming on television showing festivities during Spring Break have inspired teens to behave like college kids when they party. They learn that celebrations are associated with drunkenness, other substance use, risky games, flashing body parts, and sexual abandon. Prom and graduation often symbolizes "growing up" to teens and celebrations for these events "are supposed" to include similar behaviors in the minds of many teens. There is also a legacy about proms and graduation from books, movies, and talk from older relatives and friends, that this is a time to let loose.

It is very important for parents to know some of the facts about the dangers and what they can do to cut down on the chance that their children will get involved in the problems.

Across the country, the main concerns parents have relate to worries about partying and driving during this time of year. That concern is warranted. The number of drivers on the road greatly increases in the late spring and summer. Recently reported statistics indicate that teens spend nearly 1.5 more hours driving during a typical summer week than they do during the school year. An increased number of accidents goes along with that increase and a greater increase goes along with driving while under the influence of alcohol and other substances. When it comes to prom nights and prom weekends, statistics collected over two year periods find that 180 to 260 persons are killed in car accidents each weekend during peak times for proms and graduations. Over half to 60% of those deaths are associated with alcohol use. An unknown, but increased number of accidents are associated with other substance use, although the figures are not exact.

Parents in urban areas have to watch out too. Kids may be traveling late at night and early in the morning on public transportation and in parts of town where there are clubs and action, but also slightly more danger. They can be targeted for robbery through pick-pocketing or snatching purses and jewelry and confrontation.

However, as if car accidents and crime are not enough to worry about, other accidents happen more often during this time too; in particular, drowning increases. Pool parties, trips to the beach and other swimming spots can also be a problem if not handled carefully.

Finally, one more consideration for parents that is present throughout a teen's life is sexual activity. How a teen manages his or her sex life is always an important issue. Following family values about sexual activity and, if active with others, maintaining safe sex practices should be stressed at times of celebration especially. Some kids feel pressure to keep up with others, so that prom is the "big night". This can lead to many wonderful experiences if everyone agrees and all consequences are considered, but kids should also feel comfortable with the option of holding off. They can follow whatever guidelines and advice parents believe are important, but only if those topics are discussed.

So, these times of celebration are times for preparation for parents. It is important to get involved in talks with your kids. Give them some advice, give them some guidelines, and help make sure that they have the appropriate supervision. Letting them loose for long hours or for a few days with no check-in and no caring adult contact (even by phone) can put them at great risk. Take the time to prepare them with your expectations and have a schedule for contact so you know that they are safe and healthy. They can have some freedom and some privacy, but remember, they are often just leaving their teen years. They are still not quite adult in their thinking and judgment.

Considerations and steps to take

  • The fuels for problems, poor judgment and risky behaviors are substances that alter thinking and coordination. Alcohol and illegal drugs, especially marijuana, contribute to all of the concerns listed. Motor vehicle accidents, drowning, fights, unwanted or unsafe sex usually double in frequency when kids are under the influence.
    • So, have frequent, brief talks with your kids about avoiding substance use during the celebrations. Make sure they are familiar with the effect of substances on their coordination, their thinking, and their judgment. Help them be clear how rapidly they can get stumbling drunk or high if they have had no previous exposure. And, make sure that they do not accept rides from people under the influence. Over 65% of teens say that they have ridden with a driver that they know had been drinking or using drugs. Don't let the next contact that you have with your child be in a hospital or police station or worse after you take the pictures and say have a good time.

    • Supply transportation to parties. A trusted and responsible adult or a professional driver or bus may be the best way to go. Often these people know the roads better than teens, have more driving experience than teens, and are less likely to be distracted than teens. They are also going to be sober and not as likely to succumb to temptations or risk. However, make sure that the teens know that having a hired driver does not give them license to use substances. For some teens, knowing that they do not have to worry about driving leads them to engage in more substance use and letting themselves go.

    • Do not supply the substances. Parents sometimes think that it is better for safety to make sure that they control the party and supply alcohol and, sometimes, even drugs to kids while the parents supervise the activities. After all, the kids won't be driving and you can make sure nothing terrible happens. However, teens and substances are not a good mix because substances are not handled very well by the adolescent brain. Teens get drunk and high much more quickly than adults. And, rarely are parents able to control such gatherings. With text messaging, cell phones, and other forms of communication, the word gets out. Many parents who have sponsored parties that they believed they could supervise have lost control of the situation when their house gets flooded with kids from all around town or other towns who have heard that some "cool" parents are supplying the fun. Recently, it is not infrequent that parents who supplied alcohol or drugs have been arrested and prosecuted. The police are cracking down all over the country and holding the suppliers responsible for any injury, accident, or crime that kids commit even hours after they have left a party where they have obtained substances. The idea that you are keeping kids safe does not make sense generally anyway because at least some of the kids will have driven there and will be driving away. Teens have a really hard time being the designated driver when everyone else is partaking of the substances.

    • Consider your teen's risk for substance use. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other impulse control problems are especially prone to temptation and use. However, anxious kids who experience some distress in social situations may be tempted to use substances to manage the parties in a more comfortable way. Families or teens that have had prior trouble with substances are also at risk. Make sure that you have even more careful talks and provide more supervision if you think your teens fall in these categories.

    • Check to see if your teens' school support substance-free celebrations. Many schools host Project Graduation, a controlled all-night party that requires check-in and sign-outs. Such arrangements have resulted in significant reductions in substance related injuries and death in many towns. If the school does not sponsor such an event, check to see what it would take to do so.

  • Swimming should always be supervised in some fashion. Kids should know rules about safe swimming and how they can watch out for each other. Having them familiar with ways to save someone who is in trouble is important. They should get familiar with the swimming spot to know how deep it is, so they don't dive right in, or know about tides and the strength of the rip tide. Rope or long sticks should be around to help someone in trouble. A discussion of these ideas can be quick and provide essential information. Pool gatherings should be considered carefully. For small gatherings, consider having an adult who is not swimming in the vicinity. For large gatherings, hiring a life guard is a lot less expensive than the psychological cost of facing a near drowning or drowning.
  • Have some discussions about sexual activity with your kids. The "talk" that helps make sure that teens know how people reproduce is never enough. Kids want information throughout their teen years on how to manage sexual impulses and how to make decisions about sexual activity. Providing discussions about your family values and how you want your teens to manage their sexual maturity is essential. Helping them make decisions about whether or not to be involved in sexual activity is difficult, but goes a long way to comfortable, informed choices that stand up to peer pressure or the pressure of strong sexual urges. If your children are considering being sexually active with others, the discussions should include a check on their knowledge of safe sex practices. Also, remember that consensual sex can be regretful under some circumstances. Even if everyone is safe, partners that are engaging in sexual activity without completely clear agreements about the meaning of the sex or how it impacts their relationship sometimes experience a high level of social and psychological discomfort with the consequences. Either partner can feel used or stuck if they have not given some consideration to the days and weeks after intimate acts.

Of course, everyone should strive to have fun during this time of year. Parents need to keep informed of important risks. Taking a relatively short amount of time to talk to their teens to provide advice, listen to questions, and give guidance on what actions are expected of their children can make certain that these celebrations are full of joy.