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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Moms Try to Revive Their Ophelias

March 16, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began two years ago when her daughter was 12.

"I noticed a major shift in her," the mother said. First, it was the friends. They looked like gang members. Then it was the staying out all night. "She would come back the next day and say, 'Why are you upset? I was at a friend's house. I didn't do anything wrong.' "

The single mother had just moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in an effort to find a safer, more supportive environment for her daughter. But the teenager's behavior continued to deteriorate. She began seeing a boy who hit her because, he said, he loved her. Finally, the girl became belligerent and even violent. "She called me a bitch and every other name under the sun. She once hit me with a phone. She was angry with me--I asked her to get off the phone at 11:30 at night."

The mother decided to send her daughter to a private school, where she ran into another single mother who had enrolled her daughter in the school for nearly identical behavior problems.

Eventually, both mothers said they were reduced to sending their daughters out of state, one to a boarding school, the other to a private group home.

The two mothers were in misery and loved each other's company. But they took the unusual step of going beyond commiserating and decided to form a support group in conjunction with the local branch of Girls Inc., a national organization to meet the needs of girls 5 to 19.

Most of the community was willing to believe they were somehow to blame, and yet they found it hard to accept that single parenting alone could be the problem.

"Granted, we're not perfect, but we're not terrible either," said one mother who has a master's degree in business and lives in a single-family house in a middle-class neighborhood. "It started feeling like this is far bigger than what is happening in our homes."

The other mother, who owns her own business, said, "The feedback I had was that I had poor parenting skills. Why was I doing this? I have three other older children and I didn't have these kinds of problems."

Their support group is still in the planning stages and they hope to expand it beyond the Santa Barbara region. It will be based, they said, on the popular book, "Reviving Ophelia," by Mary Pipher (Putnam, 1994), who has chronicled the lack of community and social support for young people, particularly girls.

Sura Hart, program director for the Carpinteria-based branch of Girls Inc., said, "We're all in agreement. It's not just a psychological thing or a family thing. I see tremendous pressure on adolescent girls in our society right now." Most of the girls considered "at risk" and referred to her pregnancy prevention program are from middle- and upper-class homes, she said.

Once they began sharing the problems they had with their teenagers, the mothers said they started hearing similar stories from other parents, many of whom had previously been too embarrassed to talk about it.

"A lot of people have this problem and no one talks about it," said the mother of four. "A lot are couples. I was talking to the math teacher at high school. He said, 'I'm having the exact same problems with my son.' I talked to the principal of the school. She has a friend who had to send her daughter away. A couple in Santa Barbara sent their son away. His father's a minister."

Many of her daughter's friends' parents weren't interested in talking, she said. "They say things like, 'They're better off if you let them do what they're going to do.' "

The group will cover social pressures on girls today, different parenting skills to try and where to find community support.

"That was part of the difficulty for me, floundering around with no direction and no support from anyone," said the mother of four.

Said Hart: "If we do nothing else but bring the subject out in the open, let people know they're not alone and can ask for help, I think we will have been successful."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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