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It’s a guaranteed groaner; just talk about how difficult it is to parent a teenager and everyone around will roll their eyes and start talking about how awful the teen years can be. Now comes strong evidence that such stories are not inevitable. In fact, a just-released report, based on “rigorous research studies” from Child Trends, a Washington, DC-based research institution, indicates that most adolescents “report positive relationships and interactions with their parents.” Further, teens, in general, “respect, admire, and like their parents and enjoy spending time with them.”

The raw data comes from interviews reported in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997, (NLSY97), which reports on more than 9,000 U.S. adolescents who are interviewed annually. Surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the teens think highly of their mother (84 percent) and father (81 percent). More than half want to be like their parents (mother 57 pecent and father 61 percent). And more than three-quarters enjoy spending time with their parents (mother 79 percent and father 76 percent). While these figures fluctuate during the teen years (with younger teens having a harder time relating and older teens coming back around), the teens remained close to their parents.

Not so surprisingly, family disruption matters to teens. Parents who live apart from their teens rate significantly lower, especially fathers. Biological parents fare much better in teen relationships than do stepparent relationships generally, about 20 percentage points separate the two when it comes to measuring respect, wanting to be like them or wanting to spend time with them.

The broader question is: What difference does it make whether teens get along with their parents? The research is overwhelming that the quality of teen-parent relationships significantly impacts outcomes for teens. The more positive and warm the parent-child relationship, the better the outcome for the teen and vice versa. Child Trends reports that “these patterns persist across diverse populations, regions, and even across countries.”

In the United States, a positive parent-child relationship means better grades, higher academic expectations and protection against being suspended from school. Further, children with good parental relationships have fewer behavioral problems; they avoid violence, delinquency, use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and sexual activity. But, there is more than just protection from bad involvements, there is also an inclination toward the good. For instance, the Child Trends research shows that high-quality parent-adolescent relationships mean better mental, social and emotional well-being. It also means greater self-confidence and empathy, along with a more cooperative personality and better psychological well-being. Evidence also indicates that these traits continue on into adulthood so that children in those families experience greater happiness and life satisfaction as they pass from adolescence into adulthood.

The Child Trends report is significant support for those who have stressed the important role of parents in nurturing their children. In the past, some research has implied that peer relationships exert far more influence on children than parents. In fact, a poll conducted by Child Trends in 2004 indicated that half of parents believed that peers and parents were equally important and only one in four parents thought that they had greater influence on their children than peers. The research, however, is clear parental influence is compelling. Research studies consistently find that “parents are a critical influence in the lives of their children, adolescents, included.” The findings for American families are similar to that found in analyses of 21 other industrialized nations.

In the middle of this rosy view, there are some sobering facts and causes for concern. A minority of teens DO have problems with their parents or stepparents. Nearly four in 10 teens report not having positive feelings about their parents and one in 20 adolescents strongly dislike, disrespect and don’t want to be like their parents. Most of these teens DO NOT live with their parents or they live with a parent who is not a biological parent.

Positive parent-child relationships are vital for successful identity formation as children move into adolescence and from the teen years to adulthood. Strengthening marriages and families is not optional if we are concerned about children and teen well-being. Also, a healthy understanding of the important role that parents play in the lives of the teenagers is necessary. Far too many parents sincerely believe that tension is inevitable in their relationships with their teens or they mistakenly believe that their teen is far more influenced by peers than by their parents.

Indeed, some of the most important parenting is done during the later teen years when adolescents are completing their education, developing career plans and making decisions that will affect them the rest of their lives. While parenting changes as children get older, it nevertheless remains essential to children’s well-being whatever their age. The challenges facing older teens are more risky than ever before in history and the consequences of their decisions during the teen years affect them throughout their lives and can even be life-threatening.

The Child Trends study is timely and extremely important. The lesson for parents and policy makers is that healthy marriages are important not just for the husband and wife, but also, perhaps especially, for their children and that strong families matter throughout a child’s life!

1 Kristin A. Moore, Lina Guzman, Elizabeth Hair, Laura Lippman, and Sarah Garrett, Research Brief, Child Trends, Publication #2004-25, December, 2004.

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