Teenagers who have strong emotional attachments to their parents and teachers are much less likely to use drugs and alcohol, attempt suicide, engage in violence or become sexually active at an early age, according to the largest ever study of American adolescents.
The study, published in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, concludes that feeling loved, understood and paid attention to by parents helps teenagers avoid high-risk activities regardless of whether a child comes from a one- or two-parent household. It is also more important than the amount of time parents spend at home, the study found.
At school, positive relationships with teachers were found to be more important in protecting teenagers than any other factor, including classroom size or the amount of training a teacher has.
Researchers also found that young people who have jobs requiring them to work 20 or more hours a week, regardless of their families’ economic status, are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, smoke cigarettes, engage in early sex and report emotional distress.
The findings are the first wave of data from a $25 million federal study known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed 90,000 students in grades 7 through 12 across the country. Researchers also conducted interviews with more than 20,000 teenagers in their homes and with 18,000 parents. The results will continue to be analyzed in increasing detail over the next decade, researchers said.
The first analysis of the massive data not only confirms what other studies have shown — that family relationships are critical in raising healthy children — but teases apart more precisely what elements of family life are most important.
While the amount of time spent with parents had a positive effect on reducing emotional distress, for example, feeling “connected” to parents was five times more powerful. And this emotional bond was about six times more important than was the amount of various activities that teenagers did with their parents.
Though less important than the emotional connection, the presence of parents at home at “key times” — in the morning, after school, at dinner and at bedtime — made teenagers less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. The data did not cite any one period of the day as most important.
“This study shows there is no magical time,” said Robert W. Blum, head of adolescent health at the University of Minnesota and one of the principal researchers.
The study also found:
- Individual factors in a teenager’s life are most important in predicting problems.
- Most likely to have trouble are those who have repeated a grade in school, are attracted to persons of the same sex, or believe they may face an early death because of health, violence or other reasons.
- Teenagers living in rural areas were more likely to report emotional stress, attempt suicide and become sexually active early.
- Adolescents who believe they look either older or younger than their peers are more likely to suffer emotional problems, and those who think they look older are more likely to have sex at a younger age and use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.
- The presence of a gun at home, even if not easily accessible, increases the likelihood that teenagers will think about or attempt suicide or get involved in violent behavior.
The researchers, most of whom are associated with the University of Minnesota or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the study underscores the importance of parents remaining intensely involved in their children’s lives through the teenage years, even when they may feel their role is diminishing.
“Many people think of adolescence as a stage where there is so much peer influence that parents become both irrelevant and powerless,” said J. Richard Udry, professor of maternal and child health at UNC-Chapel Hill and principal investigator of the study. “It’s not so that parents aren’t important. Parents are just as important to adolescents as they are to smaller children.”
The study did not compare the influence of peers to that of family. But the authors did suggest steps parents can take: Set high academic expectations for children; be as accessible as possible; send clear messages to avoid alcohol, drugs and sex; lock up alcohol and get rid of guns in the home.
Wednesday, September 10, 1997; Page A01 – The Washington Post
– Barbara Vobejda – Washington Post Staff Writer