THE FAMILY VIEW - The stresses parents don't realize

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

It could have been the library of any suburban high school on any night. Except that something unusual was about to happen.

Students were going to tell their secrets - the thoughts and feelings that hunch alone and mute in the shadows - behind the volleyball victories and algebra grades and college-application essays.

These kids know they have great lives. Their homes have basketball hoops bolted to their garages and rose bushes along the side windows and parents who sit in the stands at their soccer games.

As one girl would say later, "I think we live in denial about what's going on and how we feel because we feel we don't have a good enough reason to be feeling down. So many people have so many bigger problems than you do, so you feel stupid and spoiled saying anything."

But on this night, they were going to say out loud what their parents and teachers don't know about them. Inspired by the Diary Project, an online forum for teens around the world where they can post their thoughts and feelings (http://www.diaryproject.com), a group of students organized an evening for parents to hear the truth, or at least a different truth, about their lives.

The students, mostly junior and senior girls in bell-bottoms and flip-flops, sat scattered among 10 wooden tables. On each table was a red hand- written sign: "Depression," "Relationships," "Drugs and Alcohol," and so on.

Also on each table to spark discussion were two anonymous "diary" entries.

Students wrote, for example, about the stress of everyday life in a community of high expectations: Get perfect grades, play flawlessly in a sport, stay thin, have a boyfriend or girlfriend, get invited to the right parties, have someone to eat lunch with every day, score high enough on the SAT to get into the right college, do community service and take advanced-placement physics and calculus courses to boost the transcript - all while maintaining the appearance of a happy, appreciative kid.

"I'd just once like to stop and enjoy what's around me today," one girl wrote. "But more often than not, just when I think I'm ready to stop, I push harder for that A. The worst part is, as I sit here and write, I'm really thinking about a physics test."

When the piece was read aloud, a mother asked why this girl wouldn't share her feelings with her parents. We want to hear this, the mother said.

"I think a lot of kids feel like a disappointment if they come home with these problems," said a girl named Jennifer. "And I think we're always comparing ourselves to others, and it seems no one else is having problems but you."

Instead, you get smashed on the weekends or smoke weed in the garage every day after school. Or you binge on food and throw up. Or you slip into a funk that your parents write off as hormones until a row of Ds shows up on your progress report. You withdraw into dark Internet chat rooms.

One girl, whose parents weren't at the session, said she lied to them because they had forbidden her to go to any parties. She goes because that's where her friends are.

"I don't want to betray my parents' trust, but I also feel they're in denial about the reality of being a teen-ager," she said. "Parents who say, 'Oh, my kid just goes to the movies and comes home' are kidding themselves."

These are the kids we don't much notice. They haven't committed some horrible crime. Their problems seem so ordinary - and they are. But horror begins in the ordinary, as we learned at Columbine and other schools, in the everyday rejections and failures. Our children don't tell us.

Maybe it's because they are embarrassed and afraid. Maybe it's because we are.