Sex, Drugs and SATs

What are the biggest problems teens face?
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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.

Continued on page 2:  Stress and Violence


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