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Troubled Teens' Parents Desperate for Solutions

Psychology: Need for parent-teen communication training grows, but such help is hard to find.

July 18, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — The kids are angry. "I've never seen such rage," said Sue, the mother of a 15-year-old boy. "I remember being mad at my parents, thinking I hated them, but not every day, not every minute."

The parents are fed up. "He calls our house a hellhole and says he can't wait to get out," Sue went on. "Some days I can't wait for him to get out, either."

For teenagers and the adults they live with, these are confusing--even critical--times, and they are receiving precious little help getting through it.

The parenting class in a school library here where Sue spoke out is sponsored by a county agency, which uses the nationally distributed STEP method (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting). But organizations that provide such training in parent-teenage communication are few and far between.

The need for such guidance appears to be mounting. Teenagers have always had a lock on the alienation market, but study after study shows that clinical depression is rising in this age group. And now comes gun-toting violence, at once a terrifying aberration and a hovering horror.

"After Littleton, our phones were ringing off the walls," said Kathy Reager, director of the county agency running the class.

Research consistently reveals that the steady presence of even one caring adult can alter a teenager's life for the better. But a Temple University study of 20,000 high school students found that about 30% of parents were significantly uninvolved in their kids' lives, unable to describe how their teenagers spent their time or who their friends were. Psychologist Lawrence Steinberg, who conducted the survey several years ago, calls this "frightening."

Meanwhile, adolescent disengagement and mental health problems such as depression and attention deficit-

hyperactivity disorder appear to be on the rise. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 300% increase in depression among teenagers over the last 30 years. Research also shows that kids with these problems are the most likely to end up in trouble with the law.

Parent education is a fast-growing trend, but generally for parents of young children. Books on infant development sell millions of copies, and tomes on toddlers reach hundreds of thousands of readers. Adolescent books? "Parents have almost given up by then," said Tufts University psychology professor David Elkind.

But Steinberg said research repeatedly shows that teenagers who are alienated from their parents are more likely to have mental health problems, academic problems and trouble with the law. "Staying connected with your kids during their teenage years is the best protection social scientists have ever been able to find," he said.

Parents Need to Learn Communication Skills

Steinberg and others recommend large-scale public health-oriented education for parents of teenagers. On the surface, it's a radical thought, Steinberg conceded. But, he noted, "we've made a lot of progress in educating parents of infants. We need the same kind of effort on a widespread national scale to educate parents of teenagers."

Parents whose teenagers exhibit obvious signs of disturbance are most inclined to seek help. After her 13-year-old son, Bobby, carved a gang symbol on his abdomen and assaulted his younger siblings, Rita--another Sterling Heights mother--turned to county mental health officials. The parent-training program she enrolled in was a good move; although there is no panacea, evidence shows that for parents whose kids have gotten into trouble, this approach works.

Distributed by the American Guidance Service in Minnesota, the STEP learning packages used by Rita and Sue are tailored for parents of children from birth to age 6, parents of teenagers and parents of children in between. Over 20 years, about 4 million parents have taken the seven-week courses in church basements, community centers, school libraries or detention facilities. STEP--an educational training technique, not a support group--remains one of only a handful of widely used programs for parents of teenagers.

Macomb County, north of Detroit, allocates $365,000 a year for 140 parent-education classes. Confidentiality is part of the contract the participants negotiated for themselves, so all the parents asked to have their names changed. Their stories, however, are quite real:

Elaine: "My older daughter, she's 15, was in a performance at school. My younger daughter, 13, refused to go. She said she had too much homework. I said you've known for a week about this performance, why didn't you get the homework done sooner? I took them out for a quick dinner. When my older daughter and I got home from her performance, the younger one had eaten all the leftovers, and just about everything else in the refrigerator. She still hadn't done her homework. It was 11 o'clock and I was ballistic."

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