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If communication is the key to family success, Americans are in trouble.

U.S. parents, says Michael A. Buscemi, spend the first year of the child's life teaching him and talk, then spend the next decade telling him to shut up."What we need in our homes is to build a solid foundation. It is certainly better to build children than to repair adults," Buscemi said during his keynote address to "Depression and Suicide Update: A Landmark Conference for the '90s."

The two-day conference, held at the Red Lion Hotel in Salt Lake City, continued Wednesday.

Buscemi, vice president of Quest International, said that communication within families will determine, in large part, whether a child goes to college or drops out of school. It can mean the difference between going to work or to prison, having an adolescence or skipping directly to parenthood, using drugs and alcohol or staying "straight." In a world where youthful suicide is on the rise, communication can keep a child alive.

He quoted an intensive, long-term study conducted by the Ohio Department of Education, which tracked communication in "a number of typical American homes." It found that, from one Saturday to the next, communication was typically one-way, with the parent directing the child to "pick that up," "close that door" or "do your homework."

"A child is born with neither a positive nor a negative self-image," he said. "We shape it. Don't kid yourself that you can spend one minute `quality' communication with a child and 100 without. Communication has to be in quantity."

The so-called Information Age, coupled with poor family communications, has overwhelmed children, he said. And these youngsters are having a hard time linking up with people who will help them to understand that huge amount of information.

"Thirty to 40 years ago, we have less information, but more time, opportunity and concerned people to help us make sense of it. By the time he is 6, a child will have watched enough TV in man-hours to have earned his bachelor's degree. By the time grade-school kids graduate, they will have accumulated 45,000 hours of one-way information. The degree to which children remain confused will be the degree to which they remain at risk."

In addition, the American family has left behind its Ozzie and Harriet expectations. Many children have lived through multiple divorces. They have three ex-moms and two ex-dads and maybe a boyfriend to relate to.

Buscemi said children report feelings of being isolated, of being unimportant, of being exploitable. And they report feelings of being alone.

"Those are the invisible bruises too many children carry around. Bruises you may not see."

The result of the confusion - and the inability to work through all the information and issues - has been a rise in serious adolescent problems, including depression and suicide.

Turning things around will take commitment from everyone, Buscemi said. "The problem we have is a people problem. If we repeat the `pamphlet prevention' of the early '70s and practice what I call `functional segregation' - the church will do this, the schools will do that . . . - we won't solve it.

"The greatest need in all of us is the need to be needed. If you can convince me I'm needed, you'll have a much more difficult time, world, convincing me I ought to leave it. Because I am connected."

As a counselor, he would ask parents this question first: How are you making your young people feel needed? Parents have to remember what it was like to be 12 or 14. Then they have to reach out to their children.


(Additional information)

Sounding the alarm

Michael A. Buscemi, parent, educator and senior vice president of Quest International, a non-profit organization that serves students, parents and teachers worldwide, presents some alarming statistics about youths and the world in which they live:

- 2,400 U.S. teens become pregnant every day, 40 of them for the third time.

- In American homes, 98 percent have TVs; 96 percent have indoor plumbing. "That means we now have more garbage coming in than going out . . ."

- 35 percent of students don't graduate.

- 1,375 students drop out of school each day and never return.

- 170 infants under age 1 die every day from lack of prenatal and natal care.

- For every child in substance abuse treatment programs, there are three who aren't.

- 5,000 teens succeed at suicide every year. One statistic suggests that for every success there are 350 youths attempting suicide.

- Since 1970, the overall suicide rare has increased less than 3 percent. It has jumped 44 percent for teens 15-19.

- Less than 7 percent of families have two parents, one who works and one who stays home with the kids.

- 14 million American children live in poverty.

- More than 4 million are latchkey kids.