When we finally found the perfect dress for my daughter’s school prom, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was December. The party wasn’t until June, but like the other 15 and 16-year olds in her class (who had been splashing pictures of dresses costing £200-£600 all over social media marked as ‘reserved’ to avoid the horror of accidental ‘twinning’), Florence had talked of nothing but ‘the dress’ for months. Such is the hysteria surrounding these events which mark the completion of GCSEs and the end of school for 16-year olds, that planning invariably starts the previous Autumn.
We thought we’d got off lightly by bagging a slinky blue bargain (£40 from Phase Eight sale) but the matching gold glitter clutch bag and vertiginous heels (Dorothy Perkins) more than quadrupled the price. And we forked out £100 for her pre-prom ‘head to toe’ of fake tan, fake nails, hair ‘up do’ and professional make up like all her friends which made me feel a little less penny pinching in the light of the bargain dress. All the preening was highly unusual for Flo who had always been more interested in ponies than partying. (Less so some of her friends). So we decided to bite our tongues about the 0-60 transformation from school kid to Kardashian almost overnight, so that she didn’t end up being socially excluded.
Like it or not, the school prom is a very big deal for teens and it can be a tightrope walk for their parents. Our instincts were screaming ‘but it’s only a party!’ and ‘how are you going to walk, let alone dance in those heels?’, but we found ourselves completely sucked into our daughter’s desperation to look and feel stunning. Florence is our oldest of three and our only girl, so we found ourselves on a sharp prom-prep learning curve.
Parenting expert, Tanith Carey, is mother to two teenage daughters and author of new book The Friendship Maze. She identifies the teenage prom as a major parenting flashpoint. The peer pressure can prompt the natural parental urge to want to protect your child from the social stigma of getting things wrong. So judgement can often be clouded, she says, not least because the hype might evoke memories of social insecurity from the parent’s own childhood.
"Social pecking orders in school can be brutal," says Carey, "and the prom has been elevated above any ordinary school party to become a very visible way for young people to cement their place at the top of the social totem pole or to try and improve their position."
This rings true for Florence, who tells me the pre-prom pressure she felt was enormous. "If you’re outside the popular group, prom is all about looking amazing and showing the rest of your year group that you’re not as nerdy as they might have thought," she says. "And if you’re popular there’s immense pressure to uphold that reputation."
Dr Angharad Rudkin, a clinical psychologist at Southampton University suggests helping to provide a levelling perspective by talking to your teenager about all of the things that will be happening in their life post-prom. "It’s important to get both parents involved in this," she says. "Try to help your teenager understand what makes them feel comfortable and confident – the smile that gives them will be more striking than anything they wear."
At a time when their self-esteem is often so fragile, my instinct certainly told me we should be protecting our daughters from fixating on appearance like this. GCSE year is hard enough without the added pressure of looking like a Disney princess for the night. And yet it’s very easy to be swept up in the hype.
Since arriving in the UK as an American import a decade ago, the ‘High School Prom’ has grown into a multi-million pound industry which is an over-commercialised mash-up of High School Musical, Glee and Hannah Montana sprinkled with a liberal coating of Kardashian vulgarity and excess. In some parts of the country you can even take your teen to a ‘prom fayre’ (a bit like a wedding fair) to watch catwalk shows of eye-wateringly expensive evening gowns, peruse displays of glittering jewellery, watch make-up tutorials and choose photographers and limousines.
This year, more than 85 per cent of UK schools will have a prom to mark the end of year 11, and whether it’s a disco, a ‘ball’ or dinner and dance, the really important issues for the children involved are to look amazing and arrive in style.
For the girls, it’s all about the dress, but for the boys, the wheels are key. Woe betide anyone who gets dropped off by their parents. It’s got to be a stretch limo, a Bentley, a Harley Davidson, a helicopter, or even a tank. Some pick the comedy option, purloining milk floats or mobility scooters.
Oxfordshire-based beauty therapist, Kyly Harper, who was responsible for Florence’s tangerine transformation, is already fully booked with the next wave of ‘pre-prom’ makeovers and her 15-year-old daughter, Cyranai is thoroughly immersed in making plans for her own school prom.
"The build-up gets worse with each passing year," she says, "the girls I see now are such little divas – they put tremendous pressure on their parents and on themselves. They ask all the beauty therapists for make-up trials and tell me they’ll let me know if I’m successful. To them it’s a very big deal - like appearing on X-Factor."
The hysteria has reached the boys too now. A few years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to hire a dinner jacket. Now boys are spending hundreds of pounds on ‘statement suits’ and spray tans too (so they look good when the buttons come undone for the all-important ‘after party’).
Because of her mum’s job, Cyranai is taking the hair, tan and make-up as a given, but Harper says this means she is putting huge emphasis on the dress: "She’s not a 'promzilla' but she’s got her eye on a heavily beaded number she spotted in Selfridges for £1600. It’s beautiful - but this is Oxfordshire, not LA."
Like so many parents, we found it a struggle to maintain perspective (we ended up borrowing a swanky white Lotus Elise from a friend to ensure a memorable arrival). But Carey warns against viewing prom as a ‘coming of age’ and urges parents to encourage their children to see it as one of many memorable nights in their lives.
She suggests asking questions about what’s important to them about this prom and why, so they start to decode the influencing forces. "Help them prioritise: is it about celebrating and enjoying the evening with friends? Or trying to outshine everyone else at any cost?"
Setting a budget is also key: "By putting a limit on spending you’ll be helping them make their own decisions and learn that spending is not a bottomless pit which will help their planning skills and encourage them to be more creative."
The most important message for parents, she says, is to "work together to keep the financial investment reasonable and appropriate, the arrangements not too over the top, the expectations realistic and the focus on having fun."
But if your not-so-little darling is already so thoroughly swept up in preparations for this year’s extravaganza that the ship of excess has clearly sailed, be reassured it will all be over in a flash. "The actual prom was a complete anti-climax," remembers Florence, "the food was rubbish, we were far too intimidated by the teachers to dance – when I look back I think all that stress and preparation was a pointless waste of money."
Good to know.
Have you survived a school prom? What advice would you give to parents of a 'promzilla'? We want to hear from you in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Family Facebook Group.