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A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Families: We supposedly live in an era of openness. Which is why the case of two teens accused of killing their baby has us so baffled.

November 25, 1996|JOAN KELLY BERNARD | NEWSDAY

How, in this day and age?

That phrase resounded last week as baffled adults asked how a pair of 18-year-old college freshmen could possibly kill their just-born baby, as police say happened last week in Delaware.

How, after years of sex education in school and with all the information on television, in movies, in newspapers and magazines and books, not to mention on the Internet, could two young people today not be aware of all the options available to them in the face of an unwanted pregnancy?

How, when it seemed we were light years beyond Victorian shame about sexuality, could anyone feel--as apparently Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson Jr. did--that there was no one they could confide in?

Parents everywhere posed even more urgent, personal questions: Could this happen to me? Could my child be so desperate without my knowledge?

As the story got around, concerned parents sat down to talk with their own teenagers. Or called them at college, as did the mother of Laura Hudson, a sophomore at the University of Delaware, where Grossberg was also a student, to say, "I just want you to know I will always be here."

Grossberg and Peterson, high school sweethearts from suburban New Jersey, could face death themselves if convicted of first-degree murder. They are being held without bail.

The medical examiner's office said last week that the baby boy, found wrapped in a plastic bag in a trash bin, was born healthy. An autopsy found that the boy died of a skull fracture, but investigators don't know if the injury happened before or after the baby was put in the trash.

One only can imagine how their parents feel.

"It's just unbearable to think of it," says Arlene Kramer Richards, a Manhattan psychologist and author of "What to Do If You or Someone You Know Is Under 18 and Pregnant" (Beech Tree Books, 1983).

The immediate impulse is to think that if this was the only alternative these teens thought they had, somehow their parents must have failed--indeed, the parents must be asking themselves that very question.

Children often overestimate in their own minds how a parent will react to a problem, experts say. The child's fears could be "way off the mark," Richards says, "because he attributes to his parents the harsh dictates of his own conscience. A kid will say, 'My parents will kill me if I did that.' In some sense, he really believes his parents will punish him very harshly, while the parents will say, 'We don't approve' . . . but wouldn't punish and wouldn't condemn the child for what the child condemns himself."

Moreover, some children have a skewed sense of how their parents see them, of what is expected of them.

"A child may carry around a notion that it's their mission to provide good feelings for the family, to be the golden boy, the achiever," says Rona Novick, a clinical psychologist and coordinator for the parenting center at Schneider Children's Hospital of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "The child feels responsible, whether the parents have given them the job or not, for assuming a certain role."

In the Delaware case, we may not know until the trial, and perhaps not even then, but it may be telling that Peterson's lawyer, Joseph Hurley, told ABC's "Good Morning America" last week that Grossberg "apparently had real problems in communicating this situation to her mother because of the way she was valued by her mother."

Parents may tell their kids they don't have to be president of the United States or win a Nobel Prize, but the message won't necessarily get through, experts say. "I think what parents say and do is always understood by the kids as the kids need it to be. It's structured by their own perception," Kramer says.

Parents only can try to be alert to signs of such confused and essentially narcissistic thinking. That's not easy. As Novick says, "Very few parents get a call from school: 'Your child is doing much too well. This child takes too much responsibility. . . . She's too perfect. She succeeds.' "

Certainly, parents are advised to create an atmosphere in which children feel they can come to parents with their mistakes and get more support than censure, say experts. "Will you be mad? Yeah, probably," says Holly Shaw, a clinical nurse specialist in Glen Cove, N.Y., and a director of adolescent health education of the Flushing YMCA. "Will you be disappointed? Yeah, probably. But they need to understand that the overriding concern is the kid's well being."

Kids need to hear that message early and often, but parents also must live it out.

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