Adolescent Research: Family Environment Impacts Kids’ Future

Two studies provide good reminders for parents that the family life your child experiences now significantly impacts her or his future life as an adult.

In one study, researchers from the University of Alberta examined data from 2,970 people who were interviewed at three stages of life from adolescence to young adulthood spanning ages 12 to 32. The study found that teens who shared a good relationship with their parents enjoyed healthier and high-quality romantic relationships as adults. Researchers also noted that recognizing the type of relationship teens share with their parents earlier on can help them stay away from future heartbreaks.

In another study, scientists at the University of East Anglia (U.K.) used brain-imaging technology of teenagers, ages 17 — 19, to investigate potential links between home life and brain development. The study found that brain scans revealed children who experience ‘mild to moderate’ family problems up to the age of 11 suffer impaired brain development and could be at risk of psychiatric illness. These problems include arguments or tension between parents, physical or emotional abuse, lack of affection, or communication between family members.

Those who had encountered ‘mild to moderate’ family problems when they were younger than 11 had a smaller cerebellum — a part of the brain linked to skill learning, stress regulation, and sensory motor control. A small cerebellum may indicate an increased risk of psychiatric problems later in life, said the researchers.

The study also revealed one significant and unexpected finding — stressful experiences at the age of 14 might actually benefit the brain. Children stressed at this age were found to have developed a number of larger brain regions by the time they were 19. The exposure to mild stress during the early teenage years may serve to ‘inoculate’ children and help them cope better with difficulties later in life.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Parents should work to establish and maintain healthy relationships with their kids. Times of conflict with adolescent children are inevitable, but how parents process and act to resolve conflict is critical. The life modeling parents display now can set the example for how kids will deal with relationships in the future.
  • For younger children, keep most marital or family conflict “behind the stage” where kids are not continually exposed to family problems.
  • As kids grow into adolescence, some exposure to dealing with family or marital conflict is healthy for proper brain development and it provides (hopefully) healthy modeling kids can imitate in adulthood.

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Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has 40 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, editor, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord Culture Blog also appears on Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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