Faced with the difficulties of moving from elementary school to middle school to high school, young adolescents often stumble, lose self-esteem, withdraw from recreational and service groups, falter in academic work, and even succumb to the temptations of delinquency and drugs.
Negotiating the difficult transitions of early adolescence successfully usually requires a supportive social context in which "schools, neighborhoods, nuclear families, and friendship groups jointly contribute to positive change."
So concludes a team of researchers from Northwestern, Western Reserve and the University of California, Los Angeles, who recently tracked the behavior and achievements of 12,702 young adolescents in Prince George's County near Washington, D.C.
Looking at data for academic, social, and psychological well-being, the researchers establish the importance of "social contacts as risk and protective factors." The influences of schools, neighborhoods, nuclear families and friendship groups all shape the social context in ways that "affect how young people develop. When a context was positive, it protected early adolescents; and when it was negative, it added to their risk."
When they scrutinize the ways in which the family helps young adolescents to succeed, the researchers examine both family process and family structure. Predictably enough, young adolescents are especially likely to succeed if they come from families in which parents communicate well with their children, monitor their behavior, trust and accept them, and frequently take them to museums and concerts.
But as important as these family process variables are, they cannot obscure the fundamental importance of family structure:
"Students living with both biological parents changed more positively [during the course of the study] than did other students." In sophisticated multivariate statistical models, intact-family structure consistently predicted positive changes in the researchers' composite Success Index
Not only did family structure predict success, but it also predicted the overall health of the school-neighborhood-friendship-family context in which young people live. What the researchers call "joint context quality" ran "higher when students came from intact homes" whether those students were black, white or Asian.
Such findings give researchers new reasons to care about the role of the family in creating a "social world [that] is ordered in ways that generally favor young persons."
(Source: Thomas D. Cook et al, "Some Ways in Which Neighborhoods, Nuclear Families, Friendship Groups, and Schools Jointly Affect Changes in Early Adolescent Development," Child Development 73 : 1283-1309.
Summary reprinted with permission from The Family in America, New Research, December, 2002. Published by The Howard Center, Rockford, IL.