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'90s FAMILY : The Talk : The facts-of-life discussion every parent dreads has never been more important than it is today. The keys are communication and mutual trust.

August 24, 1994|SUSAN JAQUES / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Believing that her hair is holding her back, Angela, the teen-age protagonist of the new television drama "My So-Called Life," goes a punk shade of red. "It could be a lot worse," Angela's father tells his distraught wife. "She could be cutting class, doing drugs, having sex. . . . like we did."

Just wait a few episodes.

These days, unusual hair color and buzz cuts are the least of parents' worries as rates of teen-age substance abuse and pregnancy climb. Yet repeated, consistent messages from media and community groups targeting these problems are on the wane and many parents feel ill-equipped to fill the gap, experts say.

"Many parents are terrified to have these kinds of conversations with their teen-agers because no one talked to them (as teens)," said Winnie Holzman, creator and co-executive producer of ABC's "My So-Called Life." "It's our hope that by showing Angela's parents struggling through these moments, the show will engender discussions between parents and young adults."

The ability to discuss sensitive topics with teens requires years of preparation, experts say.

"You can't sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk about sex if you haven't established an open channel of communication," said Berkeley High School teacher Nancy Rubin, whose book "Ask Me If I Care: Voices from an American High School" (Tricycle Press) will be published in September. "Many times, communication starts when there's a problem. But it's an ongoing process that should start by responding to children's questions from an early age."

But in a time when AIDS is a real fear and when young people's reality about sexual relationships and drugs are increasingly influenced by television, their questions can fall outside the range of many parents' comfort level and experience. Simply telling teens to "be careful" is not enough anymore.

"How many parents know what (the "designer drug") ecstasy is?" Rubin asked. "How can you explain the danger of a drug when you don't know what it is? It's hard for parents to be good educators when their only message is 'Don't do it.' "

Credible messages can often come from trusted friends and relatives, as it did for 14-year-old Henry Oswald, who lives with his grandparents and older siblings.

"My grandparents just know that drugs are bad," said Oswald, who starts at North Hollywood High School next month. "As I am walking out the door to go to a party, my grandma will say, 'Henry, if anyone asks you to use drugs, call home.' But when my older brother tells me how this stuff really does mess you up, it means a lot."

Parents who are uncomfortable talking directly with their teens can show their support by participating in school-based drug prevention programs.

"Any school-based program will be strengthened by parent participation, whether it's putting on a drug-free party or getting involved in discussions and activities," said Dr. Phyllis Ellickson, senior behavioral scientist at Rand, the Santa Monica-based research institute.

Getting teens to listen requires that adults be very straight and factual, and parents have had less help in recent years from media and community groups in reinforcing the message, Ellickson added.

"The common wisdom is not to use scare tactics, which can have a boomerang effect--like images of reefer madness or malformed fetuses linked to marijuana use. People really do die from cigarette smoking, drug overdoses and drunk driving. Parents do not need to shade the information to make things look worse."

Angie Latimer-Roberts, a labor relations specialist and mother of two, recently took her son Russell, 14, to Skid Row to see firsthand the effect that drugs and alcohol can have on "real people." Determined that her son would not have to learn about sex and drugs on the street as she did, Latimer-Roberts encourages questions on any subject.

"Sometimes I am nervous inside," Latimer-Roberts said, "but on the outside I remain calm and answer Russell's questions. I'll also ask him if he has any questions about sex. Or I'll say, 'Children are going to approach you at school about drugs. How are you going to decline it?' "

Rather than encourage experimentation as many parents fear, directness has had the opposite effect on Russell Rashed-Latimer, who enters Palisades High School next month. At his alma mater, Paul Revere Middle School, he had no interest in the "jungle," a popular fourth-period smoking spot behind the school. "My mom wants me to be able to talk to her whenever anything comes up," he said.

Teaching parents to communicate factually and openly with children is a big part of many adolescent rehabilitation programs, such as the Suzanne Somers Family Treatment Center in Yorba Linda. According to center Vice President Tim Allen, teens who find themselves in trouble share the common perception that they cannot do things right and are not important in the family. Most of their parents fall into what Allen describes as either permissive or controlling.

"In either case, children will feel rejected and respond in a negative way," Allen said. "If permissiveness is not based on love and affection, kids will be more likely to take risks and experiment with drugs like marijuana, LSD and other hallucinogens. If a child perceives controlling parents as hostile, he or she is likely to have attendance problems and try alcohol or cocaine."

The approach to strive for, Allen said, is to act with authority while encouraging dialogue. "Parents have to be like chairmen of the board with consistent policies," Allen added. "There must be clear and reasonable consequences as well as recognition when a child does things well and makes good decisions."

Teen-agers always have experimented and always will, Allen said. The family is the reference point for how they will ultimately behave.

"We need to be role models. If we want our kids to be open in communication with us, we need to be honest with them about our feelings and emotions."

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