When the pressures of school and friends and sports become overwhelming, many adolescents have nowhere to turn. Family life is increasingly fragmented by divorce and workplace demands. The simple rituals that once provided structure and support are disappearing. More and more, the kids feel they're going it alone.
The drive-through line at McDonald's on Main Street in Glastonbury is so long on this December evening that it snakes out of the parking lot and into the road. A stream of glaring headlights pierces the darkness.
Inside, under the bright fluorescent lights, children on their way from indoor soccer camp to basketball or karate lessons flit about as they wait for their food and impatient moms and dads tap their feet in line.
The waiting time for chicken nuggets and fries is now running half an hour.
It's dinnertime in America.
If there is anything that tells the story of the American family over the past 20 years, it's the disappearance of dinnertime, a time when families used to set aside the demands of the moment to share their stories about the ups and downs of the day. It wasn't always calm, and - depending on who was cooking - it wasn't always good. But it was always there.
In an otherwise tumultuous world, dinner is an oasis of order, a simple ritual to count on from one day to the next. But there often isn't time for dinner anymore, or much else, as families find themselves too pressured, too distracted or too busy to carve out time for each other.
"How have we, as a country, become so alienated from each other?" asked Paula Armbruster, director of the outpatient unit at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven.
This isn't simple nostalgia for those good old "Leave It to Beaver" days. While the absence of order can spark anxiety and fear in a child, simple rituals reinforce a sense of belonging. Many families are so busy there is no time to even notice problems that may be simmering inside.
And children today are under pressure on so many different fronts - from unrelenting expectations of perfection to the harsh judgment of their peers - that they often have a profound need for shelter from the storm - shelter that can be hard to find.
"Parents just being there offers kids a lot of reassurance about how to navigate these difficult waters," said Elizabeth McCauley, who heads the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Children's Hospital in Seattle. "There's a lot of time when no one's available."
Tracy Mott is a therapist at Hartford's Institute of Living, and without an M.D. she can't write prescriptions for Prozac or any of the other drugs commonly used to treat adolescents on her unit.
She can, however, prescribe dinner - and often does. Mott routinely directs families who are preparing to take their children home to sit down and eat together several nights each week.
"They have to communicate, and they're sitting down as a family," Mott said. "That's when people have their roles. The dad sits at the end of the table: `I'm the dad, I'm the mom and you're the child.' It gives them a sense of family."
The patients Mott treats often have problems sparked by divorce, neglect or other family issues that can strike at a child's sense of security. When she asks them if there is anyone at home they can confide in, the answer is often "no."
"There's almost this emptiness," Mott said. "There's no one there. It's really sad."
Parents are too busy at work. Kids are too busy racing from soccer to piano. There's a business trip, a PTA meeting; something comes up. Divorce has reshaped the typical American family, tearing parents even further away from their children.
The results are clear: Children trying to cope with increased pressure and stress on so many fronts no longer have a safe harbor to turn to for support, comfort and stability. At a time when children need parents around, families are finding it harder than ever to connect.
"What does a household look like in which you have one parent who presumably has to work, or two parents who are working full-time? What that looks like is a stressed-out household in which the parents don't have the time or energy to create a family environment," said Joseph Woolston, director of inpatient child psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
"What happens now is a child goes into a difficult time and no one notices. And they start going downhill, because that difficult time puts them at much higher risk for doing even more risky things. They increasingly feel worse and worse about themselves."
Lora Cushman still feels the sting of her parents' divorce every holiday season, even now, 16 years later. Cushman thought she had the all-American nuclear family: mom, dad and two kids all living happily together. Joyful holidays. The classic picture.
The divorce blindsided her. The safe harbor she'd come to count on was suddenly gone, and Cushman went into an emotional tailspin. She suffered physically, coming down with mononucleosis and bronchitis. She wrestled with depression and stress.
"Why would someone want to hurt you this badly?" wondered Cushman, who is now 32 and lives in Baltimore. "It still brings a tear to my eye."
If one of the realities of family life is that parents often aren't around to listen to their children, another is that children often don't feel especially compelled to listen to their parents.
As families become more fragmented, experts say, many parents are having a hard time laying down simple rules for their children - often with damaging consequences.
Richard Hersh, president of Hartford's Trinity College, said freshmen at colleges across the nation are showing up for school more fragile, unable to handle their first year of freedom without crumbling under layers of stress and anxiety.
The effects, he says, are devastating: There is more alcohol and drug abuse, suicide attempts are up, and colleges are reporting far more episodes of mental illness.
In Hersh's view, what he sees is a consequence of parents being either unwilling - or unable - to create a clear set of rules for their children that they can carry with them as they head out on their own.
"Adults are no longer taking leadership. Everyone is absent. There's no one around," Hersh said. "We're just now trying to figure out how to get back the authority of wisdom. I think that's what the struggle is now."
Many believe parents are victims of a cultural squeeze. As they find themselves pushed out of their children's lives by the growing influence of peers and the media, they have been forced to cede ground in the battle for authority.
"It's harder to keep kids kids," said Barbara Leonard, a mother of two teenagers from Stonington. "You can't shield them from this; it's part of the world that's all around us. That's kind of sad. We would like to have kept them younger longer."
Under pressure themselves, parents sometimes are reluctant to say "no" or set limits, lest their child feel deprived or excluded from the crowd.
"They need to look like they're the perfect family or that they're doing everything for their kids," said Patricia Marsden-Kish, a family therapist with the Family and Children's Agency in Norwalk. "We're pretty seduced by images on TV, radio and in the press for what is appropriate for kids."
Other experts believe it is more a matter of convenience. In many families, both parents work, leaving less time to tend to the needs of children. So giving a child more responsibility - and freedom - is often as much a necessity as a choice.
Divorced parents also contribute to the problem. Because divorced moms and dads have less time to spend with their children, they can be reluctant to risk an unpleasant encounter.
Yet another theory holds that because so many of today's parents grew up rejecting authority during the 1960s, they hesitate to act with authority. James Garbarino, a leading expert on parenting issues from Cornell University, says too many parents are afflicted with what he calls the "OK" syndrome.
As in, "Time for bed, OK?"
"This opens up the door to unnecessary conflict," Garbarino said.
This lack of leadership also opens the door to some kids who effectively run their parents' lives. In more extreme cases, teenagers who have never learned how to respect limits can get swept up in an array of dangerous behaviors, from binge drinking to high-risk sex.
"Every family has values - but they don't necessarily clearly convey them to their children," Marsden-Kish said. "As they grow, they take on the values of the group or they take on the values of society - which aren't necessarily the healthiest."
This time of year, Lisa Mokrycki makes a point of piling her four kids into the car and driving around to look at Christmas lights. In warmer weather, the family heads for the beach at Hammonasset State Park.
But the final destination is not really what's important. Mokrycki has two sons who suffer acutely from depression, and getting away every so often on a "Mokrycki Adventure" is a ritual that helps ease the strain that struggling with a mental illness can put on a child, and on a family.
"I think they need to know there's a unit here, there's a family unit," said Mokrycki, a divorced mother who lives in Wethersfield. "They need to know there's somebody rock solid behind them, who has faith in them, that hopes for the best for them. I want all the kids to realize that."
Regular rituals are more than just the stuff of happy memories. They are critical to the emotional health of a child.
Children tend to see the world through the prism of their family, so when it is chipped or shattered, their entire view of the world changes. A recent study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that predictable family rituals can protect children from the stresses of society.
Younger children had fewer behavioral problems in households with regular family routines. Regular rituals were found to be especially important for children of divorce.
"If you could count on dad to arrive home at 5:30 each evening, it said something about the predictability of that family's life," said Lisa Namerow, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Hartford's Institute of Living. "That serves to indicate to a child that the world is predictable, understandable - and therefore a safe place."
"If I can't even figure out what is happening in my own family or my own life," she said, "how am I ever going to do OK out there?"
Rituals also make children feel part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it's the child's job to set the table for Sunday dinner, light the Hanukkah candles or put the angel on top of the Christmas tree, participating in rituals helps children carve out a strong sense of who they are.
"We think that aspect of rituals gives to children the message that they belong, that they are important, that they have a group of people who care about them," said Barbara H. Fiese, chairwoman of the psychology department at Syracuse University and an author of the study on rituals.
Routines don't have to be time-consuming or expensive to be effective, Fiese said. Today's stressed-out families are not likely to sit down at 5:30 every night to a hot three-course meal complete with a Jell-O mold for dessert. But with a little planning they can make a point of sitting down together for 20 minutes three times a week - even if it's only to share a pizza.
"We're talking about something that probably lasts the same amount of time as a one-hour television show that has a profound effect on children's physical and emotional health," Fiese said.
Dinner. Family. Limits. Rituals. Time.
These aren't big secrets, just the kind of things that can be easy to forget in the crush of busy lives.
They also aren't the only answer.
The difficulties that face children who suffer from emotional problems are vast. Children who need intensive care and long-term treatment can find themselves scrambling for even a minimum of services. Children suffering serious abuse and neglect are often bounced from hospital to foster home to prison.
"I don't think anybody even wants to think that children have serious mental illness," said Harold Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living.
But a new emptiness is out there, bringing pain to so many children. And often, they reach out for something to hold on to, only to find themselves grasping at shadows.
"We're all alone. We all feel lonely," said Kimberly, a young woman who suffered severely from depression as a teenager. "It's hard to call out for help when nobody hears you."