Organized youth activities help teens develop independence without the conflict and distancing from their families that parents have come to anticipate during adolescence, says a new University of Illinois study.
"Participation in these groups can make the teen passage smoother for everyone," said Reed Larson, the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency at the U of I. "When parents negotiate teen independence around such issues as going to parties, messy rooms, or the choice of a girlfriend or boyfriend, it's rarely a win-win situation."
In youth activities, teens develop independence in a way parents can appreciate, Larson said. Teens in the study learned to speak up for themselves, developed social confidence, worked with peers toward a goal or as part of a team, and learned how to regulate their emotions, all skills they eventually brought home for use in a family setting.
"But teens also reported that participating in these activities made them feel closer to their families, which runs counter to what we've come to expect of family relationships during adolescence," he said.
In the study, published in January's Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 113 high-school students in 12 arts, technology, and leadership/service programs were interviewed biweekly over a two- to nine-month period of participation. Researchers also spoke with program advisers and parents about the teens' development as they participated in their activity and asked how teens' participation affected family relationships and household routines.
The study showed that organized youth activities allow teens to gradually negotiate their independence in a context of continued family connection, a situation developmental psychologists see as the ideal course of development, Larson said.
"In the past, experts have thought that tension and family conflict were necessary during adolescence so that teens can separate from their families. But new research shows that teens who have more conflict with their parents continue to have struggles and don't do as well in adulthood," he said.
Instead of discouraging teens from participating in youth activities for fear of overscheduling them and losing precious family time, parents should encourage their teens to participate in at least one organized activity outside of school, he said.
Larson said a certain amount of "parental scaffolding" surrounds the successful involvement of teens in a new activity.
"In most families, teens choose an activity they like or have an interest in, and parents support and encourage them. Everyone's on the same wavelength. Parents take steps to facilitate their child's involvement, such as providing rides or relaxing rules so that kids can take part," he said.
For parents in high-risk neighborhoods, permitting and supporting a teen's independence could have critical, if not life-threatening, consequences, the researcher said.
Marco, an urban youth from a Mexican-American family, described his parents' reactions when he decided to attend Art First in middle school: "My mother and father were reluctant to let me go to because it was far away from home, and they were worried. The first few days my dad took the train with me to help me see where I would get off, to make sure I had every detail down. Then I took the train by myself."
According to Larson, granting such freedom often involved progressive trust-building with youth. One mother said, "I had to trust Monique with the key to my house, as well as trust her to go to the program and come home without having any problems."
Monique's mother learned to have confidence in her, and many teens in the study reported that their parents were treating them with more respect and were interested in their opinions because of the new behaviors they displayed as a result of participating in these activities.
Supportive parents noticed and took pride in their children's accomplishments and attended events and special program activities, but it was important for the teens to set boundaries on parents' involvement.
"Research on how adults support youth's growing independence includes not just things parents do, but things they don't do," Larson said.
In some cases, teens had to gently negotiate the extent of parental involvement and assistance. "That too was a process that led both to autonomy and closer emotional ties, including mutual respect," he said.
In a few instances, teens' participation in an activity led to conflict in the family, Larson said. One daughter became involved in a faith-based group that was more evangelical than the parents' own religious background. In another case, parents hoped their son would decide to become a doctor rather than continue to pursue his musical interests. As the study ended, parents and teens continued to discuss their differing viewpoints.
Co-authors of the study are Nickki Pearce, Patrick Sullivan, and Robin L. Jarrett, all of the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by the William T. Grant Foundation.