It’s Hard to Grow Up- Anywhere
By: Kate Taylor/ The Oregonian 7/13/06
See them poking messages into their high-tech cell phones. See them leaving the mall,
Abercrombie bags swinging at their sides. See them sprawling on their patches of Gro-
Green suburban lawn. And think what? Suburban teens have it easy? It’s a
misconception, local teens say.
It’s also an assumption that conflicts with national studies and state statistics
indicating that suburban teens struggle as much as city teens with drugs and alcohol,
suicidal thoughts, depression and other issues.
“I have friends downtown who think our lives are all posh and great just because
we live in the suburbs,” says 16-year-old Mandy Breitbarth of Tigard, perched with her
best friend on a bench in Washington Square. “They have no idea that I’m from a broken
family. They have no idea that I live with a single mom. Or that everybody expects me
to be stick skinny, and I’m not. They just see the surface.”
A 1999 Columbia University study found that suburban teens are more troubled
than youths in other areas. According to the study, suburban youths were more anxious
about achievement, more isolated from their parents and heavier drinkers, smokers and
Oregon statistics are less dramatic: They indicate suburban teens are doing no
worse than urban teens- but no better, either.
For example, the state Department of Human Services’ 2005 Oregon Healthy
Teens survey found that Clackamas County teens seriously contemplate suicide more
than Multnomah County teens, but that Multnomah County teens drink more heavily than
teens from Clackamas and Washington counties.
Figures from the Oregon Department of Education reflect that mixed bag tend.
Though far fewer Washington and Clackamas County teens than Multnomah
County teens dropped out in 2003-04, Multnomah County teens were suspended at a
much lower rate than teens in the other two counties. Teens in all three counties are
expelled at the same rate, the figures show.
“Suburban kids absolutely have access to guns, alcohol and drugs- absolutely,”
says Kim Noah, principal of West Linn High School.
Pressing problems may vary from suburban school to suburban school, she says.
For example, though she has no figures, Noah has a strong suspicion that eating disorders
are up at her school. “But what I can say with certainty is that any problem that exists in
Portland exists here too.”
Sitting at a Lake Oswego coffee shop with several friends one recent morning,
Alex Williamson, 17, says the courtly exterior of places such as Lake Oswego High
School can disguise all kinds of problems.
Drugs are “just a phone call away,” same as in many Portland High Schools, he
says. He knows, because drugs and the drug crowd there seemed like a solution to pain
and loneliness after his father died in December 2004, and he had difficulty connecting
with the adults around him.
Soon he was dealing drugs, says Williamson, who stopped using drugs and
alcohol this year with the help of his faith in God and a friend, 18-year-old Alex
“At the time, it was fun,” Williamson says. “I like business, and I liked just
driving around with Ziploc bags and a scale and smoking for free. It was like, whatever,
I don’t care about anything. I didn’t even know I was lonely.”
Tanya Tompkins, an assistant professor of psychology at Linfield College, says
that’s just one example of how teens from seemingly stable homes can slip into self-
destructive lifestyles. Other teens may develop eating disorders, suicidal thinking or
“In families where both parents doggedly pursue high-power careers, parents may
make the assumption that their kids are fine on their own,” Tompkins says. “They may
think ‘We have a beautiful house and a beautiful daughter, and she’s getting straight A’s,
so what’s the problem?’ And you want to ask, ‘Have you noticed that she weighs 80
Youths in suburban families may share their parents’ view that they aren’t entitled
to problems, she says, because they’re surrounded by comfort. Add to that a hectic
schedule, academic competition in school and extracurricular activities, and it’s “not
surprising teens get into trouble without anyone really seeing it coming.”
Connor McWade, a 17-year-old senior at Lake Oswego High School, can’t say
why he’s not like other teens who can go to bed without finishing every single homework
assignment. But McWade, who takes many advanced placement classes and hopes to go
to a University of California college, says he hasn’t slept much since he started high
“Everyone is so competitive in those classes, and I’m a perfectionist,” he says.
“It’s just hard because you want to be on your teacher’s good side, you want your parents
to be happy, and you want to go to sleep, but you still have work to do.”
McWade- who has taken the PSATs three times, the SATs once and the ACT-
says he’s not about to crack. But he understands what pressure can do to a teen.
He also gets the connection between overwork and isolation. Simply put, he says,
he doesn’t have time for school and family.
Adults must help coax teens out of environments that are causing them to be
isolated and lonely, says Brian Boucher, who taught for 30 years of Lake Oswego Junior
High School and is now area director for Young Life in Lake Oswego. Parents and other
caring adults should do whatever they can to get through many teens’ “go-away
message” to make sure they know they are loved, he says.
Parents “can help kids feel less isolated by building a solid relationship with their
kids when they are young, keeping a sense of humor and avoiding overreactions to
typical teen stunts like getting pierces or tattoos,” Boucher says. “It helps to remember
that their kids don’t need them to be their friends, but to be real parents who stick up for
what they believe in and love their kids unconditionally.”
PEER PRESSURE IS INTENSE
Giggling and browsing through Washington Square on a recent weekday, Mandy
Breitbarth of Tigard and Lexi Larson of Beaverton, both cheerleaders at Southridge High
School, look like they walked out of the movie “Legally Blonde.” They have pretty
faces, shiny hair, bright smiles and poofy pink accessories.
But they are not to be envied, Larson says. The pressure and criticism they deal
with each day are intense.
“So many people make fun of us and seem to hate us,” she says. “It’s like you’re
supposed to have perfect hair, perfect skin and be really thin all the time or you shouldn’t
be a cheerleader. People are always looking and judging.”
Larson has been agonizing about her looks since she began flipping through the
hollow-cheeked images in glamour magazines.
“I have this really round face, and it’s like this cycle. I’ll hate myself, then I’d try
to lose weight,” she says, “and even then I’d still feel fat because of my round face.”
Suburbia, she says, hasn’t done anything to change the shape of her face. So
making snap judgments about a whole group of people just because they have a certain
ZIP code “just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Teens would be a lot healthier if they didn’t buy the pressure to look good all the
time, says Nathan Andrus, 18, a recent graduate of Tualatin high School.
“Everybody wants to look the same,” he says. “And all the girls do look the
same. They look like orange people (because they use self-tanners). And it’s not just
girls, but guys too, now that there’s the whole metro sexual thing. I’m not sure why so
many people get sucked into negative, anxious, consumeristic thinking.”
Because many suburban teens can afford to pay for their need to look like other
people, he says they easily do such things as drop $100 on pre-ripped jeans from places
such as Abercrombie & Fitch.
Andrus, a proud Value Village shopper, keeps his life in balance by sticking to his
ideals and holding down a meaningful job as a lifeguard and teacher at the Tigard Swim
He’s gone through difficult times, but he pushes himself to stay positive. When a
girlfriend he really cared about ended the relationship, he reminded himself that he was
feeling such a loss because he’d been able to create a partnership that he cherished and
Standing outside a Wilsonville Thrift way store, 19-year-old Josh Volden says
that while he grew up in a three-bedroom house with a white picket fence and three cars
parked in the driveway, his family was drowning in debt, and his parents divorced.
Those are just some of the reasons that made it hard to concentrate when he was at
Volden, who dropped out at age 16 and now works in construction, says,
resignedly, “That’s the way it is” for lots of teens in the suburbs. “It looks good on the
outside. But just below the surface, we’re dealing with the same issues, the same peer
OREGON HEALTHY TEENS
Suburban teens struggle about as much as urban and rural youths do with suicidal
thoughts, drugs and alcohol, and they’re about as sexually active, according to the 2005
Oregon Healthy Teens survey. The survey, conducted by the state Department of Human
Services Center for Health Statistics, was distributed in 34 counties and completed by
about 30,000 eighth-to-12th graders. About 8 percent of the returned surveys were
excluded because of missing information or other problems. That left 27,622 valid
surveys, including 11,028 from 11th graders. The survey asked students about everything
from drug use to suicidal feelings to risky behavior. The following results are based on
the responses of 2,295 11th-graders in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.
When asked how many days they had felt “so down in the dumps nothing could cheer
you up,” 2.4 percent of respondents in Clackamas County, 2.5 percent in Washington
County and 3.9 percent in Multnomah County answered “most of the time” or “all of the
Of the 11th-graders responding, 13 percent of those in Clackamas County, 10 percent in
Washington County and 11 percent in Multnomah County said they had thought seriously
about committing suicide in the previous 12 months.
Washington County 11th-graders reported lower sexual activity than their counterparts in
other counties: 31 percent said they’d had sex, while 43 percent of Multnomah County
and Clackamas County teens said they’d had sex.
DRINKING AND DRIVING:
About 8 percent of Clackamas County students, 8 percent of Washington County students
and 10 percent of Multnomah County students said they had driven after drinking.
And 25 percent of 11th-graders in Clackamas County, 25 percent in Washington County
and 33 percent in Multnomah County said they had consumed five or more drinks in a
row on at least one day during the past 30 days.