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Clueless About the Secret Lives of Teenagers: What Parents Fear to Know

July 30, 1996

What parents may only suspect about the secret lives of their teenage children, Kate Pavich knows.

She spends most of her working week listening to their tales of drug hunger and alienation, of heroin overdoses and uncaring parents. As a veteran substance abuse counselor for the Orange County Health Care Agency, Pavich has pretty much heard it all. And after more than 20 years working with children of all ages, she has never been more concerned.

She spoke to Times special correspondent Russ Loar.

"The kids now are much more depressed. They're much less hopeful and they're much more self-destructive. They feel very trapped. They don't have role models. There is an assignment on heroes I do with them. I ask them, 'Who are your heroes?' They are hard-pressed to come up with anyone that they look up to.

"They've got parents who are not available emotionally, in terms of their time. And they get stigmatized very early as bad kids because they are poor learners, or have family troubles, or they are involved with drugs. They tend to get stuck in this box of the bad kid, and they will be very good at being very bad.

"Kids will see their friends die. They'll overdose. We had a kid at one of the high schools die this year of a heroin overdose, but it doesn't stop them. I can sit there and tell them all the stuff, show them the videos, they can even hear it from their friends. But until they experience the downside of the drugs, they're mostly unwilling to believe what I'm saying to them.

"The Centers for Disease Control talks about drug fads being in five-year cycles. Everybody was into crystal meth, but now we've pretty much gotten over the methamphetamine phase. Now they're doing what they call 'chiva,' which is heroin. I have a lot of kids that I never, ever thought would be doing heroin. They're not shooting it, they do what they call 'drips.' They put it in a little nasal dropper and stick it in their noses. It goes right to the brain. All my high school-age kids are doing it.

"Kids will get the little aerosol cleaners for cameras and inhale those, because they have Freon in them. At one of the high schools, I had a kid come into a group counseling session and his hands were a mess. I said, 'My God, what did you do to your hands?' It was frostbite from holding a valve open on the school's air-conditioning system while he inhaled the Freon. His hands looked like hamburger. A lot of the schools now have barriers that they put around the air-conditioning units.

"Parents are very uninvolved in their kids' lives. These parents will come in to see me and they'll be in complete denial that their kid has a drug problem. And I've already talked to this kid and I know he's in major trouble. The parent will say, 'Well, they might have tried it once or twice.' They are really in denial about any of the symptoms. They don't really want to know.

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"Some of these parents use drugs themselves. And a lot of them are just involved in other things. They'll say, 'My kid's a teenager, they don't need to be cared for, nurtured, watched, structured. They're on their own. So if the kids can act like they are OK on their own, why should I mess things up by getting involved?'

"The hardest darn thing that we have to do as parents is to set limits. It is so much easier to walk away, but it's a gift that we can give our children. If they know we care and we can set limits, we've given them what they need.

"I ask parents if they are awake when their kid comes home at night. Many times they're not. But if a kid comes in under the influence and the parents are awake, they're going to know something's up. They're going to smell the breath, they're going to see the eyes, they're going to watch how they walk, they're going to listen to their speech. They're going to know there is something going on.

"But most of these parents do not stay up. We have lots of them who pride themselves on being really cool parents, and it's really a problem.

"The kids are pushing the envelope. They are taking more and more risks and they are in incredible denial that anything bad will happen to them. We had a rash of bad acid that was going around, a lot of strychnine in it. Kids were having really serious problems, but they would sit here and say, 'I'll be cool with that. I can handle it.' They feel omnipotent at this age. And they're not."

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