Skip to this page's content

Family a Critical Influence on Teens' Mental Health, Simmons Study Shows

25-Year Study Shows Sometimes-Surprising Family Influences

NEW ORLEANS, LA (January 16, 2004) — The family--sometimes in surprising ways--is a powerful influence on the mental health of adolescents even when the youths seem to be rejecting their families, according to one of the nation's longest-running studies of influencers on mental health from early childhood forward.

Major risks and key protective factors within the family that contribute to good or poor mental health and school performance in 18-year-olds were summarized Jan. 16 at the annual meeting of the national Society for Social Work and Research in New Orleans by Helen Reinherz, Sc. D. of the Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston. Under Reinherz, the Simmons School of Social Work since 1977 has been following the lives of nearly 400 residents of the working class, predominantly white community of Quincy, MA, since they entered kindergarten, seeking key predictors of good or poor mental health in adulthood.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is looking for the major risks and protective factors that are likely to lead to mental health problems in adulthood, or serve as buffers from life's rough spots, to help mental health professionals and policy makers improve early identification and treatment.

While numerous factors outside the family can influence mental health, Reinherz said, certain family environments were strongly associated with serious mental disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal behaviors documented by age 18. And some family experiences commonly thought to be negative, actually had minimal impact on the development of mentally healthy adolescents.

Key risk factors or protective influences in the families found by age 18:

--Family conflict and violence had a heavy toll on mental health of the teens. The youths appeared to be more affected by conflict in the home than by marital disruption, divorce or separation.

Males exposed to family conflict and violence over the years were significantly more likely than other males to have suicidal thoughts, be depressed, have overall emotional and behavioral problems, be drug dependent, or have post traumatic stress disorder. Females from such environments had higher rates of alcohol disorders and lower grades at high school graduation.

--Not feeling valued as a family member or feeling like a disappointment to their family at age 9 was strongly linked at age 18 to poor outcomes, including poor grades, increased dropout rates, or suicide attempts. "It can be inferred that a child's sense of being important to the family group is critical in developing a positive sense of self," said Reinherz.

--Death of a parent before age 15 had an impact on females but not males in subsequent adjustment at age 18. Females who had lost a parent were more likely to suffer major depression, suicidal thoughts, poor self-esteem or alcohol disorders than other females.

Some family factors indicating less risk to mental health than commonly believed included:

--Divorce. The Simmons study traced the progress of the children at ages 9 and 15 whose parents were divorced, and found that the impact of divorce was short-term and diminished over time.

--Working mothers: Mirroring national trends, most mothers in the Quincy study stayed at home in the 1970's and were working in the 1980s and 1990s. Reinherz found that the children at age 9 with working mothers performed no worse and in some cases better than children whose mothers remained at home. And the children of mothers who returned to school to increase their education showed improved performance in school and behavior.

--Having a family member as a source of advice or as a confidant significantly reduced the risk of overall
behavioral and emotional problems by age 18.

Females at age 18 who said they had a family member to turn to for advice indicated higher self-esteem and reduced risks of major mental disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression, or overall behavioral problems. Males with advice-giving families had better school performance and lower school dropout rates.

At age 18, males and females who had a family member in whom they could confide showed reduced risk of depression, behavioral and emotional problems than those without a confidant. Males had a higher grade point average; females had a reduced risk of alcohol or drug disorders and a lowered risk of suicide attempt.

Family cohesion (the youth's feelings that their families were close and supportive) promoted positive outcomes by age 18 by males and females, including higher grades, greater likelihood in receiving school and community honors, and a reduced risk of numerous problems and some mental disorders. Family cohesion appeared to be especially important for young women in reducing risk of serious mental
disorders.

"Does family matter?" said Reinherz. "A resounding ‘yes.' Although family composition has changed over the years, this study underscores the powerful influence of home and family over good and poor functioning during the transition to adulthood."

"We need to approach the prevention and treatment of mental and behavioral problems of youth from a total family perspective," she said. "Focusing on the family provides a strong starting point for mental health research into the etiology of major disorders and public policy planning for prevention and treatment."

The family influence portion of the Simmons School of Social Work longitudinal study drew data from both qualitative and quantitative research of 386 youths, including observations, school records and interviews with the participants, their mothers, and teachers at ages 5, 9, 15 and 18.

The Simmons College School of Social Work is the oldest school of social work in the nation. For more
information, contact Diane Millikan, public relations director, at 617-521-2364 or millikan@simmons.edu

Sitemap