Turning the odds in favor of teens

October 28, 1997|By Susan Reimer

DO YOU LIKE your chances?

Do you buy lottery tickets or raffle tickets? Are you among the first to jump into the office pool? Are you brave enough to take a flier on the stock market? Do you love a long shot? Will you take that bet?

Do you like to play the percentages?

Try these:

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80 percent of high school seniors have used alcohol -- 30 percent reported binge drinking in the preceding two weeks -- 64 percent have smoked and 35 percent have used marijuana.

Another survey of adolescents and high-risk behaviors says that the percentage of high school students who report using a condom during their last sexual intercourse decreases from 63 percent in ninth grade to 50 percent in 12th grade, while the percentage of kids who report having sex goes up from 37 percent in ninth grade to 66 percent in 12th grade.

According to the same survey, the percentage of students who report riding with a driver who has been drinking goes up from 38 percent in ninth grade to 42 percent in 12th grade.

A quarter of the children surveyed report thinking seriously about suicide in the past 12 months, and girls are much more likely to have considered it than boys.

Are you the parent of a teen-ager? How do you like your chances now? How do you like your child's chances?

Looking strictly at the numbers, my kids have a better than even chance of having unprotected sex by the time they are 17. They are almost certain to be drinking by their senior year and there is a very good chance the driver of a car in which they ride will be drunk.

If the numbers tell the story, it looks like my kids will smoke dope before they graduate from high school, and my daughter is likely to have thought seriously about killing herself.

The ages that children are beginning to smoke cigarettes daily, drink alcohol, use marijuana and other drugs are the youngest ever. The average age of the first sexual experience is now 16. Among kids with no other problem behaviors, these risk behaviors are increasing. The number of children who believe that these behaviors are wrong or dangerous is decreasing.

Not only are sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes increasingly acceptable, they are acceptable among kids so young they still need us to cut their meat: 47 percent of 14-year-olds say they could buy marijuana within a day; 55 percent of eighth-graders have tried alcohol, more than 75 percent found it easy to get and 27 percent admitted being drunk.

Numbers like these tell us that high-risk behaviors are not just a problem for poor families or single-parent families or dysfunctional families or somebody else's family. The percentages are too high for that. These numbers tell us that high-risk behaviors among America's teens are mainstream and Main Street.

These are everybody's problems. These are our problems.

Play these percentages and your kids will lose, that's clear. But how do we improve our chances? How do we hedge our bets?

How do I make sure my two middle-schoolers are among the shrinking percentage of kids who make it to young adulthood without taking some incredibly stupid risk? Tell me what to say, and I will say it. Tell me what to do, and I will do it.

That is the cry of every parent I know: Show me the mistakes, and I will not make them with my children.

The answer is deceptively simple, frustratingly vague. The answer is love. It is right there in those numbers.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health -- another survey with more percentages -- comes to this conclusion:

"Across all of the health outcomes examined, the results point to the importance of family and the home environment for protecting adolescents from harm. What emerges most consistently as protective is the teen-ager's feeling of connectedness with parents and family.

"Feeling loved and cared for by parents matters in a big way."

This huge study of thousands of teens across all racial and economic lines found that those who avoided or delayed risky behaviors had one thing in common: the love and support of their parents.

Specifically, a parent was present at key times of the day -- before school, after school, at dinner and at bedtime. And parents let their children know they had high expectations for their success at school.

Be there. Believe in them.

Can it be so simple? Can it be so easy to beat the odds?

We can't know for certain, I guess. But it makes sense to take the chance.

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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