Caring Adults ‘Inoculate’ Teens Against Risky Behavior

Debra Gordon
November 1, 1997

The finding in a major new study on adolescent health bears out what many youth workers, as well as parents, already have discovered: Love your kids, talk to them, keep involved in their lives, and chances are they will emerge from adolescence unscathed.

Reported in the September issue of the journal of the American Medical Association, the findings are the first to come out of the $25 million National Institutes of Health-funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. which surveyed 90,000 students in grades 7 through 12 across the country. Among the key findings on risky behavior:

-As teens get older, emotional distress increases.

-Over 10 percent of males and 5 percent of females reported, having committed a violent act in the past year.

-Nearly 50 percent of teens in high school have had sexual intercourse.

-One in four adolescents smoke tobacco and have smoked marijuana at least once in their lives and nearly 18 percent say they drink
alcohol more than monthly.

No surprises there. Researchers have known for years of the continuing increase in risky behavior among this counts youth. But what sets this study apart from the hundreds that came before it was that it didn't stop with the behavior. It went a step further, tracking influences on that behavior, specifically, adult influences.

Just as a vaccination protects a toddler from whooping cough, parental or other adult involvement imparts the same type of safeguards against risky behavior, the study showed. Regardless of how many adults lived in the house, their race, ethnicity or economic status, the data were clear: Children who reported feeling connected to a parent were protected against many different kinds of health risks, including emotional distress, suicidal thoughts and attempts, cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use, violent behavior and early sexual activity.

Contradicting a Myth

"It is a vote of confidence that parents shouldn't give up on their teens,' says Claire D. Brindis, executive director of the National Adolescent Health Information Center at the University of California-San Francisco.

And yet they often do, says Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg, who has conducted similar research with similar results.

"Many parents mistakenly believe that they cease to remain important as their kids move into and through adolescence. Contradicting that myth is perhaps the most important part of this study: That even when kids become high school age, their parents still matter an awful lot to them."

This message carries enormous social policy implications for government and communities, says Dr. Robert Blum, a professor of pediatrics and director of the adolescent health program at the University of Minnesota and one of file study's principal investigators. It means we have to stop relying on structural solutions for human solutions, he said.

“We tend to think that if only we had smaller classes, or more sex education, or abstinence, or more drug abuse education, and what this study says is that we need to take a hard look at the suppositions that underlay that whole approach. When we ask what protects kids from problem behaviors, more rules and regulations don't seem to make a difference to any tremendous extent. Structural change, such as the way the schools are set up, don't make a huge difference. What makes a difference is human interaction.”

Thus, he said, "it isn't the messages we give kids that make a difference, but the fact that adults give messages at all. That there is a sense of caring and connectedness that comes through from at least one person in school, from a parent, from someone, that really protects kids from all sorts of negative out-comes."

Little Time for Kids

Sounds good. But how does it look in reality? With the frenetic pace of today's families, the growing numbers of single-parent households, of mothers working outside the home, with the increasing influence of the media and the creeping tentacles of the workplace into the home. How do parents — or teachers, or youth workers, or other adults present in the lives of these teens find the time or energy to stay connected to kids?

Most don't. In a study Richard Brandon conducted for the Washington (state) Kids Count project, of which he is project director, 74 percent of fathers and 44 percent of mothers said they spend less than three hours a day with their children. The results of this inattention arc clear in the rest of his study:

-40 percent of 10th graders said they could not share their thoughts and feelings with their mother; 60 percent said the same about their fathers.

-70 percent of l2th graders and 57 percent of 10th graders say they would not be caught by their parents if they skipped school.

-Nearly half of kids 14-17 said they would like their parents to talk more to them about school work.

The results don’t mean parents need to quit their jobs and focus just on their adolescents. But it does mean they need to make changes in their lives. Brandon, for instance, turns down meetings that interfere with family life and leaves for work later in the morning so he can spend time with his children while he's fresh.

"Parents need to set priorities and insure that kids don't only get whatever time is available from work," he says. "They should give themselves a fixed time to spend with their kids. Schedule it on their calendars; then, someone has to work harder to convince me to change it."

But the issue is much more complex than simply scheduling in your kids, he warns. He and many other adolescent experts stress the need for more help from employers — both in providing workplace flexibility as well as the support of politicians and communities.

Fear of Teens

Given the fact that the hours between school ending and work places emptying are the highest risk times for youth, says Mary Jo Czaplewski, executive director of the National Council on Family Relations in Minneapolis, "this is realty a macro-cosm kind of issue. We need to talk with the workplace, families, schools, and communities about how they can support what happens to our kids after school." She suggests tapping into the older, retired population to create intergenerational mentoring programs within neighborhoods.

Socially, says Brindis, we need to stop undervaluing adolescents. "We are afraid of them," she says. And that causes us to distance ourselves from them. But as the percentage of teens as a part of the overall population increases (by the year 2005 there will be a 13 percent increase in the number of teens in America) she is concerned about how that fear will translate in a society with an aging Baby Boomer population and worried about limited resources. "I worry that teens are going to be further left out of the formula," she said. Compounding the problem is that parents — and many other adults — often don't know how to relate to adolescents.

"We used to think of parenting as an instinct, and it isn't," says Gerald Patterson of the Oregon Social Learning Center. "What's happening in our society is that the skills are not passed on from one generation to another because families are so mobile."

Thus, it becomes imperative that communities take on the role of teacher. We do it for new parents, says Brindis, offering dozens of classes during pregnancy and infancy on everything from bathing an infant to dealing with toddler temper tantrums to breastfeeding.

But are we offering classes at the other end of the spectrum, she asks, showing parents how to talk to their older kids about sex. alcohol, school work? How to discipline a rebellious teen? How to understand that at the very moment your teenager is pushing you away he may be wishing you'd come closer?

Change Social Context?

In a major study she just-completed, Brindis evaluated more than 1000 recommendations that have come out of every blue-ribbon panel on adolescent health in the past 20 years. A common theme: Recognizing –that there is a tremendous need, to support families and change-the social context in which teenagers are raised.

"We tend to blame teenagers for bad behaviors, for being irresponsible, for not planning their lives; but if you look at who is leading teens through this maze of shark-infested waters — the parents — the truth is there are too few resources for them."

Some shifts are beginning. In Hampton. Va., for instance, the city's nationally recognized Healthy Families Partnership, which seeks to ensure that every child enters school ready to learn, has recently expanded its program from birth to 5 to include adolescents. The city is holding parenting education pro-grams for parents of teens on a variety of subjects, from alcohol abuse to discipline, even inviting its youth to help teach the classes. It also began mailing an annual newsletter with age-specific information to all parents in the city and now partners with the city's churches to provide a handbook to parents about how to talk to their older kids.

The Oakland, Calif.-based child advocacy group, Children Now, has taken the talk-to-your-kid, theme national. Their campaign in partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser. Family Foundation and the Ad Council, targets parents of children eight through 12— when they're still most "trusting," says Children Now President Lois Salisbury.

The JAMA study "just corroborated the fundamental wisdom of the campaign; what we take from that study is that sowing the seeds of that connectedness before they become teens is the best way to reap the protectedness they need as they grow into those high-risk areas," she adds.

The Children Now campaign relies on Boys and Girls clubs in 20 major metropolitan areas to disseminate the information and direct parents to local resources to build on the communication theme. This use of community resources in teaching and encouraging parental connectedness is crucial, say experts.

Lou Dantzlers’ Formula

"I said these things back in '69 and 70," says-Lou Dantzler, President and CEO of the Challengers Boys and Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles. "People thought I was crazy. They said, 'we only need the club to help kids; we don't need to help the parents.'"

But Dantzler, an icon in the field of youth work, ignored the pundits. He has always insisted on parental involvement in his programs. He requires that all parents of the nearly 1,500 kids in his five clubs attend an orientation before their children start, volunteer at least four hours a month in the club. And attend a one-hour parenting meeting each month. "Kids feel better when parents are involved in something positive and can see what they're doing," he says.

Others stress that the effort must extend into collaborative coalitions between schools, youth serving agencies. employers, state and local governments and the community. “The public has got to be willing to practice what they preach," says Timothy Sandos, a board member of the Board on Children, Youth and Families. '"We've got to be willing to make changes, and change can be painful." Longer school days and years to limit teens "alone" time, more flexible, working places, more money into youth programs and less into incarceration — these are the kind of structural changes society must move towards if it truly wants its teenagers to be healthier.

It boils down to one thing, Sandos says, both on the individual and the community level: "What kind of trade-offs are you willing to make? What kind of future do you give to your children?"


Robert Blum, M.D.

Director of Adolescent Health

University of Minnesota, Box 721

420 Delaware St., SE

Minneapolis, MN 55455

(612) 626-2820

Richard Brandon

Project Director

Washington Kids Count

Box 35360

University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195

(206) 543-8483

Claire D. Brindis

Executive Director

National Adolescent Health Information Center

1388 Sutter St., Ste. 605A

San Francisco, CA 94109

(415) 476-5255

Mary Jo Czaplewski

Executive Director

National Council on Family Relations

3989 Central Ave., NE. Ste. 550

Columbia Heights, MN 55421

(612) 781-9331

Lou Dantzler

Challengers Boys and Girls Club

5029 S. Vermont Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90037

(213) 971-6161

Gerald Patterson

Oregon Social Learning Center

207 E. 5th Ave.

Eugene, OR 97401

(541) 485-2711

Laurence Steinberg

Professor of Psychology

Department of Psychology

Temple University

Philadelphia, PA 19122

(215) 204-7485

Gordon, Debra. "Caring Adults ‘Inoculate’ Teens Against Risky Behavior." Youth Today, November/December 1997, p. 27.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.