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Vigilance is powerful for the parents of teenagers

When young people are taking risks and testing boundaries, tough love is just a start.

November 15, 2011|Sandy Banks

It was a campus forum on teen suicide, for parents alarmed by the recent deaths of three students with ties to Agoura High.

The crowd was standing-room only. The questions had a tragic subtext — and desperate edge:

Could their sons and daughters — the products of carefully cultivated, privileged lives in suburbia — be harboring the kind of pain that makes a teenager want to die?

The week before, just after noon on Halloween, Agoura High senior Dan Behar had texted his friends, telling them where to find his body, then had driven off a steep embankment in nearby Malibu State Park. The popular 17-year-old was dead by the time rescue teams arrived.

The morning before that, a former Agoura High student had been found dead at a friend's home after a Saturday night party. Authorities said alcohol poisoning probably killed 18-year-old Griffen Kramer, who played football for nearby Thousand Oaks High.

And earlier that week, Agoura High graduate Josh Feinberg, home from college in Santa Barbara, jumped to his death from a cliff over Malibu Creek. He had turned 21 the week before. He had texted friends before he jumped and had left a suicide note in his car.

The string of deaths sparked an outpouring of grief among teenagers, who posted online tributes and staged candlelight vigils. The school brought in counselors for an assembly on dealing with pain, anger, depression, guilt. The students talked about painting murals, making bracelets, creating a memorial yearbook page.

The parents had different concerns: How do you tell the difference between moodiness and mental illness? When do you move from talk therapy to Prozac? How do we get our teenagers to open up and talk to us?

The counselors' answers weren't exactly what they expected to hear.

::

The Conejo Valley is 35 miles from gritty downtown Los Angeles — and a world away. It's a place of pastoral beauty: winding roads, horse trails and hiking paths against the backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The schools are good and the crime rate is low. In an era of shifting demographics, Agoura Hills is 78% white; more than half its adults are college grads; and more than one-quarter of its households make more than $150,000 a year.

And its parents, like parents everywhere, are often tripped up by what they don't know.

"We try to compare our children's lives to what we remember from high school. How many of you could get heroin in high school? Raise your hands," family counselor Alan Ludington said. No hands went up. "Well, your children can."

The spike in suicides is frightening, but it is also an opportunity to shine a light on other problems that pose threats to their children's lives.

"One in six teenagers will have a serious problem with drugs or alcohol before they leave high school," he said. And the most common sources in communities like theirs are homes with unlocked liquor cabinets and unused pills in the medicine chest. And parents with open wallets, closed eyes and unwitting ignorance.

The dealer supplying their children with pot, cocaine and Xanax bars isn't some scuzzy guy driving out from inner-city Los Angeles, but the kid in the back row in English class, with a marijuana card or a physician dad or a drug connection in Malibu.

There was silence while that settled, then parents began weighing in. They complained about stress from the workload at school, parents who supply liquor at teenagers' parties, the bad-apple kids in their children's cliques.

One mother, her voice slightly trembling, raised her hand and challenged them. "Probably half the parents in this room know who the kids are who are dealing the drugs, and they're still letting them in the their homes," she said.

Ludington, a counselor for 30 years and father of two college-aged sons, tried to push parents toward vigilance. Even the most innocent rituals seemed to have a hint of "reefer madness:"

After a party, don't let your kids sleep over at a friend's because you won't know what they've done. Drug test them when they come home, and warn them that you will. Bird-dog your teenagers' buddies when they visit, so they're not stealing your Vicodin.

And how do you clamp down on your kids without making them hate you for it? One father had the nerve to ask, but that was the question on all our minds.

Ludington knocked it out of the park.

"You're not trying to be popular," he said. "Your job is to make sure your kid survives adolescence."

::

It seemed strange to sit in that room and talk about black tar heroin and prescription cocktails and kids squirting drugs into their eyes instead of smoking or injecting them. Those are supposed to be some other community's problems. That's what these parents moved to the hinterlands to avoid.

I went home that night, grateful I'd managed to get my daughters safely through adolescence, in a world where the threats keep multiplying and the age-old advice — tough love — seems frighteningly inadequate.

I went online and looked at the tribute pages created by friends for the young men who died. Almost every shared memory referenced alcohol, partying or drugs.

He was always there to throw insane parties that will never be forgotten.

A good guy who would share his weed with anyone.

One boy had apparently spent part of his sophomore year in rehab and came back to a circle of friends willing to supply him with alcohol and drugs.

I thought back to what might have been the most important thing counselor Ludington said all night. And it's not about policing but about helping children to make good choices.

"Right now the kids are setting the standard. As a community, you've got to change that," he told the parents. "It's up to us to give our kids another outlet, besides Friday night with a bong."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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