CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Parents shouldn't fret about their kids' absence
from household life between fifth and 12th grades, because it's not likely
a reflection of family turmoil, according to a new study. A surprise finding
is that total quality time children in that age group spend talking with
parents remains stable.
Reed Larson, a professor of psychology and family development at the University of Illinois, has calculated how much children ages 10-18 pull away from their parents. Once Johnny hits the fifth grade, his time spent in the living room or in family activities begins dropping. By the time he's a senior in high school, he's spending 60 percent less time on such activities than he was eight years earlier.
"I think the number -- the fact that there is this decline of 60 percent in the amount of time spent with families -- is somewhat staggering," said Larson, the father of a sixth-grader. "If you're a parent with children approaching this age group, you may as well be ready to not see them for a few years."
Larson's team published the findings in the July issue of Developmental Psychology. Co-authors were Larson; Maryse H. Richards, Grayson Holmbeck and Elena Duckett, all of Loyola University, Chicago; and Giovanni Moneta of the Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, Finland.
While detachment from family by teens is generally expected and considered normal, Larson's team was interested in what happens to quality family interaction during these turbulent years.
The researchers studied 220 middle- and working-class children of European descent in the Chicago suburbs. The children -- from among 328 students initially chosen while in the fifth to eighth grades for an earlier study -- were given beepers and contacted randomly to find out about their activity.
Their method, Larson said, provided a more precise look at children's withdrawal from their families than did previous questionnaire-based methods. A subsequent study, as yet unpublished, found similar results among African-American children in the same age group, he said.
Other findings: Puberty drove boys into less time with family than it did with girls; girls were more likely to talk about personal issues with parents; mothers were more likely a part of quality conversation; and the older kids' having such things as cars, friends, jobs and parental permission to be out later motivated their time spent away from home. Perceptions of family conflict did not play a significant role in keeping children away.
"Parents need to know that the process of kids withdrawing from family life is very typical," Larson said. "There will be fewer times when a son or daughter will just plop down in the living room; instead they will be withdrawing to the bedrooms or going off with friends."
Larson's advice: "Be ready. Kids are going to talk when they want to talk, and it may be 11 o'clock at night or early on a Saturday morning. A parent needs to be available. Most kids will find time; most kids want to have interaction with their parents. Be there on the kids' timetable."
It also may help, he added, if the kids are allowed to take the lead in those conversations.