A nationwide study finds relationships with peers are important to character development in adolescents, but bonds with parents are also significant.
Some researchers who have studied teens believe that peer relationships are more important than families in influencing their behavior. One writer, Judith Rich Harris, has argued in her book The Nurture Assumption that parents don’t have any long-term effects on their child’s personality. In her view, it’s all in the genes and the influence of peer groups.
Evidence to the contrary
Not so fast, other researchers have responded, offering evidence to the contrary.
For example, one nationwide study involving 90,000 adolescents and 18,000 parents concluded that teens who have strong ties to their parents and teachers are much less likely to drink or use drugs, smoke, or have early sex. The study, funded by 18 federal agencies, was called The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health.
Dr. J. Richard Udry, the study’s principal investigator, said: “People tend to think of adolescence as a time when parents don’t matter anymore; it’s all peers. That isn’t true. There are still plenty of things on which parents exercise an important influence.” Peers may have a stronger pull on a teen for some behaviors, but not all, he said.
“You can’t know for any specific behavior whether peers or parents are more important unless you look closely at that behavior,” said Dr. Udry, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “For example, we have a paper by one of our investigators that shows that on smoking, peers have more influence than parents. But that isn’t true on other things.”
The study began in 1995 with 90,000 students in grades 7 through 12 answering a questionnaire at school. Subsequently, 12,000 of the adolescents were interviewed for an hour and a half in their homes. Some 12,000 parents were also interviewed. Both children and adults were asked about the teens’ attitudes and experiences with smoking, drinking, marijuana use, propensity for violent behavior, and sex. The teens heard the most sensitive questions through headphones and typed their answers into laptop computers for privacy reasons.
‘Connectedness’ with parents, school
The aim of the research was to assess the emotional health, level of substance abuse, and violent and sexual behavior of adolescents and identify factors that protected the children from risky behavior.
The researchers found that “connectedness” with parents and families – feelings of love and close attachment – protected the teens against every health risk. This connectedness was more important in protecting children from risky behaviors than whether the family was single-parent or had both parents on the scene, and also more important than the amount of time the parent devoted to being with the child. In other words, a single parent who has loving bonds with her teen-ager is better than two parents who are somewhat cold and aloof, even if they can spend more time with the adolescent.
Of course, even emotionally distant parents can protect the child against some risks if they are at home at such crucial times as after school, at dinner, and at bedtime. If they are there, the teen is much less likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or visit the liquor cabinet.
The study also found that “connectedness” with school was also a factor in the emotional health and behavior of teen-agers. Connectedness was measured by questions that asked whether the teens felt that their teachers treated them fairly and whether they felt close to, and a part of, the school.
Both seventh and eighth graders and the high school students who reported feeling connected to their schools had less emotional distress – feelings of depression and fearfulness_than those who did not have a strong attachment. They also were less likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or drink alcohol.
Teens’ characteristics also factors
The type of school – whether public, private, or parochial – and size of classes mattered less than the strength of the students’ attachment to their school and whether they thought their teachers were fair and cared about them.
The individual adolescent’s characteristics also were factors in determining whether an adolescent would get involved in risky behaviors. Not surprisingly, teens who have a strong religious identity are less likely to smoke, use drugs, or have early sexual activity.
Among those most likely to take such risks are adolescents who have to repeat a grade and those who worry that they will die by violence or ill health before they are 35. Those who think they look older or younger than their age-mates are prone to emotional distress. The older-looking kids are also more at risk for substance abuse.
Most teens, most of the time, make choices that protect themselves from harm, the study found. But not all is well.
A quarter of the students said they were regular cigarette smokers, and about one in 10 said they had smoked marijuana at least once in the previous month. Seventeen percent admitted drinking alcohol more than once in the past month (7.3 percent of the seventh and eighth graders and 23 percent of the high school students). Three percent told the researchers they had attempted suicide within the previous year. Sixteen percent of the younger adolescents said they had engaged in sexual intercourse, as did half of the high schoolers.
The study reported that during the 1980s there was a significant improvement in the health of teen-agers, because they were smoking less, using less alcohol and marijuana, and had fewer fatal auto accidents than teens in the 1960s and 70s. The bad news is that during the 90s there has been an increase in some of those risky behaviors – cigarette smoking and marijuana use, among others.
Robert W. Peterson is the author of The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure.
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