Clearer picture emerges of 'at-risk' youths

Poverty and race aren't the best ways to predict problem behavior, study shows.

It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your teenager is?

If not, that could be a fairly good indication that he or she may end up in trouble. It turns out that kids who hang out with friends unsupervised and who are failing in school are at much higher risk than their peers.

Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? But for years, researchers have used race, income, and family structure as shortcuts for understanding adolescent behavior. While no one ever said it directly, the implication was always there: If a teen is black, poor, and from a broken family, he's more likely to end up in trouble.

Now, the findings of the largest study ever of American teenagers have turned that assumption on its head, giving parents and educators a whole new set of tools to help understand and prevent dangerous behaviors, from substance abuse to violence to early sexual activity.

In fact, school failure, large amounts of time spent "hanging out," and friends who engage in risky behavior themselves are three to eight times more likely to predict trouble for teens than race, income, and family structure combined, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, released yesterday in Washington.

"When we looked at how much knowing someone's family structure or race or income status tells us about a kid's behavior, the answer is: not much," says Robert Blum, one of the nation's leading authorities on adolescent behavior. "But looking at the other factors, you're able to explain 20, 30, or 40 percent of behavior. It's just hugely different."

Dr. Blum, the lead researcher on the report, which is known as the ADD Health study, adds that focusing on race and other traditional measures can inadvertently mask underlying causes - like school failure - that can be addressed.

"Oversimplifying also identifies some kids who aren't at risk and leaves out large numbers of kids who truly are," he says.

Take Brian Lutz. He fits few of the traditional stereotypes about troubled teens. A football and lacrosse player, he's white, lives in a leafy, well-tended Long Island suburb, and his parents earn a good living, although they recently divorced.

Nonetheless, Brian started getting high and drinking regularly in the seventh grade. He's now spending his senior year in high school in an intensive drug- and alcohol-treatment program.

But if his parents and teachers had been aware of the findings of the ADD Health study, Brian's troubles might have been avoided.

"I was always home alone," he says. "I had friends over and got high, just hung out, watched TV."

That led to addiction. Nine months ago, after his mother caught him for the "20th time," she enrolled him at Daytop Village in Huntington, N.Y., a drug treatment facility for teens that uses a "highly structured, family-oriented" approach.

Brian is there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and every minute is accounted for - from breakfast to school classes to afternoon group sessions to resolve conflicts.

"The structure just basically tells you, you can't do what you want to do when you want to do it," he says. "And that's the philosophy of a drug addict: 'I just do what I want to do when I want to do it.' "

Brian is still struggling with his new life. He says it's sometimes boring. But Caroline Sullivan, the facility's director, says the structure and accountability Daytop provides kids like Brian are all about "responsibility, love, and concern," as well as emphasizing academic excellence.

And she's delighted the scientific research is finally confirming what her own experience and eight years at Daytop have taught her - not only do kids need structure, but they actually like it.

"After they leave here, they go back to doing things that kids are supposed to do: boating, riding bikes," she says. "But they're able to structure their own time, because they know they'll be held accountable."

In many families, where both parents are working, it's difficult to keep an eye on kids during the afternoon. Ms. Sullivan says she has a simple piece of advice for parents: "Extend your family. You've got to reach out to cousins, grandparents, neighbors."

Daytop requires that parents talk to their kids, and regularly. As a result, Brian now has a much better relationship with the father he assumed had abandoned him in the divorce.

Indeed, the ADD Health data found that "a positive parent/family relationship was the single most consistent factor" in reducing risky adolescent behaviors.

"[It] held across all ethnic groups and income levels ... regardless of whether a family had one or two parents," says Blum. "Clearly, it's the quality of relationships within families that matters most - not wealth, the number of parents, or race and ethnicity."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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