Sex, Drugs and SATs
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Sex, Drugs and SATs

What are the biggest problems teens face?

Sex and Alcohol

Historians will argue that today's teenagers are growing up in a world of unprecedented opportunity. The country is at peace, the economy is prosperous, thanks to the galvanizing efforts of previous generations, girls as well as boys can grow up to be doctors, soccer stars or Supreme Court justices.

So why are you so worried?

Probably because parenting your teenager still feels incredibly hard. You aim for connection, yet conversation often disintegrates into confrontation. You try to set reasonable limits, but it's a struggle to make up the rules fast enough. You think you've been there, done that -- but you haven't. While the millennial generation may be dealing with some of the same issues you did as an adolescent, they're doing it at earlier ages and with far more serious consequences.

We spoke with Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, director of the New York University Child Study Center, in New York City, and author of It's Nobody's Fault: New Hope and Help for Difficult Children and Their Parents (Times Books, 1996), for a heads-up on what you need to know now.

Sex and sexually transmitted diseases

Fact: More than half of all ninth- through 12th-graders have had sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta. Oral sex is considered no big deal. Teens talk about "friends with benefits" or "friends with privileges" -- those they turn to for sex, and nothing more.

But this generation is not necessarily sexually smart. Although the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped substantially, 900,000 teens still get pregnant every year. Sexually transmitted diseases are epidemic. And then there's the specter of AIDS.

What you can do now: "Parents have to start talking to their children about sex from an early age -- ideally in grade school -- and teach them how to make responsible choices," says Koplewicz. Take advantage of teachable moments: If your daughter is in the throes of her first big crush, for example, you might want to explain that while affection, love and sexual relations often go together, they're not the same thing.

Kids also need strategies for making sense of the misleading sexual messages society sends them. Challenge the sexist images in the media that promote a limited standard of beauty, and question TV shows or music videos that send blatantly sexual or demeaning messages. You might say, "How would you feel if someone treated you like that?"

Alcohol and substance abuse

Fact: The widespread use of alcohol and drugs -- including designer drugs, such as Ecstasy, and prescription drugs, such as the painkillers Vicodin and OxyContin, has triggered a seismic shift in teenage life today. According to an annual study of high-school students conducted by the University of Michigan School of Social Research, 37 percent of high-school seniors have smoked marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug. The use of Ecstasy, a cousin of speed, rose sharply at all grade levels, even among eighth- graders. Among older kids, even heroin usage has zoomed.

Still, alcohol remains the drug of choice, and nearly one quarter of eighth-graders and half of all seniors reported drinking in the month before the Michigan survey was taken.

What you can do now: Parents need to say no and make it clear that drug and alcohol use is forbidden. They can also get the community involved, suggests Koplewicz. Call parents in your teen's grade and ask them to sign agreements banning unsupervised parties in their homes. Insist that your teen phone you rather than get in a car with someone who has been drinking, and that he call you or dial 911 for immediate medical help if a friend is so intoxicated he passes out.

Stress and Violence

Stress

Fact: By the time they get to high school, most teens have killer schedules. They may be juggling part-time jobs and caring for siblings along with their schoolwork, community service projects, AP classes, SAT prep courses and summer internships.

The college-admission process ratchets up the stress level. And you may be partly to blame. Many experts say overambitious parents push children to perform and expect them to reach goals that may be unattainable and inappropriate.

What you can do now: Remember that you're raising a child, not crafting a r?sum?, and consider the ways you may unwittingly pile on pressure instead of fostering the enthusiasm for learning that will help her excel in the long run. "If you micromanage your child's life, she'll get the message that you don't think she's capable of handling things on her own," says Koplewicz.

Help her put life's ups and downs into perspective, says Koplewicz. Rejection, difficult at any age, is most piercing during adolescence, but it's an essential life lesson. Stifle your own disappointment while you challenge extreme reactions ("This is the worst day of my life!") by pointing out that the world doesn't end just because she wasn't offered a part in the school play. Re-frame the experience for her by asking, "What did you learn from all this?" "Kids are resilient," says Koplewicz. "Let them know you have faith that they can pick themselves up after a setback and move on."

Violence

Fact: According to the CDC's latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 17 percent of students carried a gun, knife or club to school during the 30 days preceding the survey; nearly 8 percent were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and 5 percent of students had missed one or more days of school during the preceding month because they were afraid to be there. And while teen violence is decreasing from a high in the early '90s, The National Education Association says that threats, ridicule and other forms of harassment are increasingly common in classrooms today.

What you can do now: "Even kids in good neighborhoods say they are worried," says Koplewicz. "Remind them that school is probably one of the safest places they could be." The U.S. Department of Education confirms that 43 percent of schools had no violent incidents, and fewer than one percent of teen homicides occur in school. Encourage them to take an active role in making their school safer, such as organizing assemblies or rallying in support of gun control. Use tragic news events as a catalyst to get kids to share their feelings -- and relieve anxiety. When they do tell you something, take it seriously. "Many kids don't confide in their parents because they don't want to worry them -- or because they think their fears will be dismissed as silly or false," says Koplewicz.

The Judgment of Their Peers


Fact: A decade of economic prosperity and conspicuous consumption has raised the status bar in high-school corridors to levels that were incomprehensible a decade ago. In an age that celebrates flat-screen TVs and SUVs in every garage, your daughter may find it unbearable to carry her books in a generic backpack when everyone else has Kate Spade tote bags.

Tightly defined peer groups -- jocks and preppies, Goths and ravers, racial and gay cliques -- hold teens to surprisingly high and piercingly judgmental expectations. The social stigmatization this can create can be devastating. "The pain of being marginalized as a teenager lasts a lifetime," says Koplewicz.

What you can do now: Don't belittle your child's need to be accepted. If she's been ostracized by a group to which she very much wants to belong, acknowledge how lousy that feels. Listen compassionately to social crises and ask questions that nudge the conversation along: "So, how did you handle that?" Or, "Is there anything I can do to help make this better?"

At the same time, challenge groupthink. Is "everybody" doing something? Calmly mention that people respect those who don't bend with the wind.

Finally, reassure your child that as awful as this period is, it will end. Talk about the value of having one good friend instead of a passel of phonies. "Be very careful not to demonize the other kids," says Koplewicz. "Shifting allegiances can blindside you; your child's enemy one day may be her best friend the next." --Margery D. Rosen

Margery D. Rosen is editor-at-large of Ladies' Home Journal.

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