- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

It's Saturday night, and the Cushmans' spacious Loudoun County home is in a controlled uproar. Cole is already greeting early arrivals for his 15th birthday party. In a few hours, the basement will be filled with 50 of his classmates and friends.
His brother Travis, 17, is discussing his evening plans with his mother, Gail. He's pretty sure that he'll be spending the evening with three friends a boy and two girls. What isn't clear is their destination. Cell phones and frequent calls will keep Mrs. Cushman abreast of his evolving plans as destinations change and friends join or leave the group. Last week, they all ended up at a Chuck E Cheese. Tonight, they're headed for a movie.
That's the social life of teens these days. It's unusual for boys to call at the beginning of the week and arrange a carefully planned date with a special girl. Similarly, few girls stay home all weekend waiting for that call to come through. Dating is so yesterday. Friendship is so now.
While many parents applaud this free-form group dynamic, experts caution there's safety in numbers as long as parents maintain good communication and continued involvement in their teen's social life.
"Teens have always functioned in groups," says Don Elium, a family therapist and parenting author from Walnut Creek, Calif. "The change is that in the last 10 to 15 years, one-on-one dating has given way to group dating. It can be a wonderfully healthy thing because the group insulates the teen from the social pressure to be intimate. But it can also be very dangerous if the group organizes around drugs or drinking or sex."
Mr. Elium says membership in a social group gives teens a sense of security as they move from the safety of their nuclear family into the bigger world. It can serve as a safe place to experiment as teens discover who they are. But since limits of behavior are set within the peer group, Mr. Elium says, it can also become a "Lord of the Flies" environment and entice members into activities they would never consider if they were alone.

Keeping close communication

The loss of small neighborhood schools and connection to community centers, such as churches or youth groups, have left many parents disconnected from their teen's social life.
Ideally, parents will know not only their children's friends but the parents of their friends, and they will maintain close communication within that network. But adolescence is also a time when children pull away from the close parental ties, and parents must often use reconnaissance methods worthy of the CIA to keep informed of their teen's activities.
"I find out more things when I'm chauffeuring my children and their friends," says Tammy Prather, a mother of seven from Washburn, Ill. "My kids will tell me some things, but I'm invisible when I'm behind the wheel, and I hear everything."
Mrs. Prather, who hears more than her share of teen stories as the teen community producer for Parentsoup, an Internet site that caters to parents, says she finds that membership in a strong group often protects teens from precocious sexual experiments.
"If the group is good one where everyone has grown up together then it feels like brothers and sisters," she says. "Sexual experimentation is much less likely to occur among members of the group."
If the parents are also close or at least talking with each other crises can be handled together. Mrs. Prather says her 13-year-old's group faced a challenge when one of their longtime members became enamored with sexual sites on the Internet.
"At first the girls defended her," Mrs. Prather says. "But eventually the group confronted her and asked her to choose between the group and her unkosher activities. She chose to leave the group and joined another group that was also into less savory activities."
Mrs. Prather says she often hears from parents who are concerned that their child has been drawn into the "wrong" crowd.
"At this age, children have an overwhelming desire to belong and to be in a group where they feel needed," she says. "Unfortunately, it's usually children who have self-esteem issues that get pulled into these unhealthy groups. They may not know it, but what they need is attention from their parents."
Parents need to be vigilant to find an opportunity to talk to their teens. "It may take only 10 minutes to have a key conversation," says Mrs. Prather, "but it may take 10 hours of preparation for that door to open up."

Creating more face time

That's the problem with parenting adolescents, says Edward Brazee, a professor of middle-level education at the University of Maine. It's the time when children most need their parents, yet research indicates that it's when parental involvement begins to fall off.
"Kids may not be able to articulate it, but they really want adult interaction at this age," he says. "Unfortunately, research says that the average time that adolescents spend with adults in face-to-face communication is just 10 to 13 minutes a day. Parents are busier today than ever. But they have to carve out more time for this."
In a study of 294 New Jersey adolescents, published this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, author Sharon Beier of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx confirms that adult interaction is critical. She writes that connection to a responsible adult "significantly makes it less likely [that adolescents] will engage in risky behaviors" such as smoking, sex or violence.
Mr. Brazee says too many parents live "parallel lives" with their teens where everyone in the house is left to go in their own direction.
"The changes that kids go through are normal and natural and, in 80 percent of the cases, they will come out just fine," he says. "The problem between parents and kids is not so much what the kids are going through, but what the parents are going through."
He calls the phenomena "middlescence," where adults hit their middle years and put the pressure of their unfulfilled dreams on the immature shoulders of their offspring.

Facing the scary facts

Patricia Hersch spent three years chronicling that phenomenon and discovered that all too often these days, ambitious parents have left their teens alone while they pursue their own goals. In 1998, the Reston journalist wrote about her chilling experience following eight Reston teens in her book "A Tribe Apart." She hopes her message will serve as a wake-up call for parents to "get real" and confront "the scary things that teens are into before it hits [parents] squarely between the eyes."
"Too often parents say, 'Not my child' or 'Not my neighborhood.' But it's everywhere," says Mrs. Hersch, who has raised three children past teenhood. "It takes courage to face the fact that the teen years these days means dealing with drugs and alcohol and sex."
While not every child will use drugs or have sex, even the nonusers will be exposed to these behaviors at parties, Mrs. Hersch says. Parents need to realize this "isn't rebellion, but a normal part of teen life."
The real "dirty little secret" that Mrs. Hersch says she uncovered in her research and subsequent speaking tours around the country, is that many parents either tacitly or actively encourage drug and alcohol use.
"We can't 'just say no' to our kids. We need to give them wonderful and creative alternatives to say yes to," says Mrs. Hersch, who encourages parents and communities to listen when their teens ask for things like nonalcoholic dance clubs or skateboard parks. "We also need to take responsibility as communities. There's no excuse for letting teens party in an empty house without adult supervision."
Vicki Corno is happy that her Bethesda home has long been a hangout for her three children and their friends. Her oldest son is now in college, but her middle son grew up with a group of friends that she fondly calls "the glump." In their early middle school years, they were a male group, but the group expanded to include a "girl glump" as they hit their teen years, Mrs. Corno says.
"The dynamic changed when they began to drive, and now that my son has a girlfriend, we don't see much of the glump anymore," she says. "But now my youngest daughter [who is 13] has her girl glump hanging out at our house. That's exactly where I want them to be."
That's the way Gail Cushman likes it as well. She outfitted their newly built home with teen-magnet attractions in the expansive basement. But Cole's party turned out to be more about black lights and loud music than pingpong and foosball.
But that was all right because Mrs. Cushman and her husband, Larry, were hosting a party of their own upstairs and attending were the parents of many of the teens partying just a floor below.

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