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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 drug users. 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 Masenhimer. “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.” APPEARENCES DECIEVING 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 compulsive overachievement. “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 pounds?’” 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 school. “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 Center. 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 respected. 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 school. 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 pressures.” 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. DEPRESSION: 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 time.” SUICIDE: 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. SEX: 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. ALCOHOL: 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.
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