Teaching Teens About Relationships

Much research has centered on the factors that contribute to adolescents’ later abilities to forge their own healthy intimate relationships.  A good parental marriage has already been identified as one crucial factor, as adolescents imitate positive relationship views and behaviors that they learn from watching their parents interact.  Also crucial, researchers from the University of Alberta have discovered, is the quality of the parents’ relationship with the adolescent.

The researchers highlight two purposes in their study: 1) to uncover the association between parent-adolescent relationship quality and later, young-adult intimate relationship quality, and 2) to examine the possible but more indirect association between adolescent-parent relationship and mental health during adolescents’ transition to adulthood.   Data came from the Add Health study, which collected, among other things, “information related to social, economic, psychological, intimate relationship, and health domains.”  The researchers measured survey responses to questions concerning parent-adolescent relationship quality, parent-young adult relationship quality, depressive symptoms, self-esteem, and intimate relationship quality, while controlling for sex, age, race, education, religiousness, relationship length, and relationship type.

The results were “striking”: “ . . . parent-adolescent relationship quality directly predicted quality in an intimate relationship 15 years later.”  Moreover, the researchers comment that “[t]his is even more impressive when one considers that this finding persisted after accounting for the influence of concurrent parent-young adult relationship quality, mental health during adolescence and the transition to adulthood, sex, age, race, and level of education.”  The researchers also discovered that good mental health (as shown in answers to questions about self-esteem and depressive symptoms) also worked indirectly to help adolescents achieve high-quality intimate relationships after their transition to adulthood: “Specifically, parent-adolescent relationship quality was associated with increased self-esteem in the transition to adulthood, which ultimately predicted higher intimate relationship quality as a young adult.”

The researchers conclude by outlining directions for future research, and also by declaring that the “results from this study point to the importance of incorporating developmental processes earlier in life, in particular the quality of the relationship between parents and adolescent children and the intrapersonal processes across the transition to adulthood for understanding relationship quality during young adulthood.”  What would be interesting to know—and what the researchers do not discuss—is whether parents’ marital status played a role in their ability to have these essential good relationships with their adolescent children.  One would speculate that, given the hurt and physical separation that typically arise after parental divorce, children would feel closer to parents who were married and living in the same household during their adolescence.

(Matthew D. Johnson and Nancy L. Galambros, “Paths to Intimate Relationship Quality From Parent-Adolescent Relations and Mental Health,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76 [February 2014]: 145-60, emphasis added.)