- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

Teenage pressures are much the same as they were a generation ago. There is the pressure to fit in, to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, to be popular, to be cool.

However, the pressure begins much earlier than it did 25 years ago, says Debra W. Haffner, author of "Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens From Middle School to High School and Beyond."

"I think the dynamics are the same," she says. "There are the struggles with identity, friends, values and deciding what is important in the future. The external that has changed for this group is that they are facing decisions about two years earlier than we in the 1970s did. If there were alcohol and drugs to try in ninth grade then, teens today are exposed to it in middle school."

It is a safe bet that many teens will at least try what is being offered, too. Consider these latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which polled 13,601 American high school students. The survey is done every three or four years.

• Seventy-eight percent of high schoolers (and 85 percent of 12th-graders) have tried alcohol.

• Thirty percent say they have driven with a driver who has been drinking.

• Forty-two percent have tried pot. Twenty-three percent have smoked pot in the past 30 days.

• Forty-six percent (and 60 percent of 12th-graders) have had sexual intercourse.

• Forty-two percent say they have tried smoking cigarettes.

So it is important to have ongoing communication with children, even if they are at the age where it is "uncool" to talk to their parents, says Michael Riera, a California psychologist and author of the new book "Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying."

Some tips for parents include:

• If you are caught off-guard, note your child's question and say you will get back to him or her later. This is not the time to get defensive or babble so much you will regret it later, Ms. Haffner says.

• If you are proud of your behavior such as holding off on having sex until college or marriage or not drinking until you were 21 by all means share your past with your children.

Ask your teen further questions as well, however. This will provide insight into what is going on in your children's lives and also will show them you know what it is like to be a teenager, even if you didn't give in to teen temptations.

• Youngsters know their parents do not want them to smoke or drink, but they still want reminders, says Peter Sheras, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

"They still look to you to be role models," Mr. Sheras says. "If you want to be honest, you can say, 'I sometimes did drink and smoke, and sometimes I got in trouble.' But you can remind them it is a scarier world now, and that you did it didn't make it OK from a moral standpoint."

• If a child says, "I don't smoke (or have sex, etc.), but my friends do," consider it a red flag, Mr. Sheras says.

"It is a red flag in the sense you should talk about it more because the stakes are high," he says. "You need to stay involved with them, even if they are pushing you away."

Nicole Klein, a 50-year-old mother of a 14-year-old daughter, says she remembers from her own youth how strong peer pressure can be. She remembers in the early 1970s telling her father she didn't do drugs, but all her friends did. A few months later, she joined them.

"Peer pressure can be very powerful," says Mrs. Klein, who lives in Florida. "Those of us who got ourselves into trouble in the '70s know what it is like. I would like to think that when these questions come up with my daughter, there will be a level of honesty that we didn't have with our parents."

• Don't preach, Mr. Sheras says. It is a surefire way to get teens to tune you out but even if they appear to be tuning you out, they probably are getting whatever messages you are sending.

"I know one 14-year-old girl who wanted to go to a concert at the Hampton Coliseum with some friends," he says. "The girl's mother explained to her daughter her concerns. Among them: The boy who would be driving had not had his license for long and that people could be doing or selling drugs in the parking lot. The girl, of course, argued and told her mother she was too rigid.

"But the mom later heard her daughter on the phone," Mr. Sheras says. "She was saying to her friend, 'I've been thinking. Your brother hasn't had his license that long, so I better not go.' So the mom provided an opportunity to make her daughter think about consequences."

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