Risk and Safety for Our Teens

By Kenneth E. Buckle, Psy.D.
July 31, 1998

A long-term research study of risk and protective factors has recently produced some important and very helpful information as it applies to the health of our adolescents. The main threats to adolescents’ health are categorized in four areas:  violence, substance use, emotional health, and sexuality. The data was gathered in a major project funded by the federal government which was led by teams of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Thousands of teens from around the US were carefully interviewed and followed during their junior high and high school years. Identified factors were in three groups: the context of the family and the school, as well as individual characteristics. The results of this study are significant by themselves, but they are particularly useful as they confirm findings of previous studies and support changes that are occurring today in US public policy. Here is a summary of the findings.

Feeling connected to parents or the family (time availability, warmth, love, and caring) in addition to engagement or connectedness to school (perceived caring and high expectations for performance from teachers) were found to be protective for all factors except pregnancy. Ease of access to guns at home was associated with suicidality and violence (the American Medical Association recommends the removal of
guns from the home). Access to substances in the home was associated with use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana (this supports new legislation restricting access to alcohol and tobacco both inside and outside of the home). For high school students, appearing older than peers in class was associated with emotional distress and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Appearing older was also associated with substance use and
earlier age of sexual debut for junior high and senior high teens. Having to repeat a grade in school was associated with emotional distress for both high school and junior high school students. Also, repeating a grade was associated with tobacco use in junior high. Parental expectations of school achievement were associated with lower levels of the four categories of health risk behaviors. Parental disapproval of early sexual debut was associated with later age of onset of intercourse. For high school students, working
20 hours a week or more was associated with cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use (combination of having excess leisure income but increased fatigue). Among the teens who reported having a religion, the perceived importance of religion and prayer was protective, such that those students tended to have a later age of sexual debut and were also less likely to use all substances.

A detailed report of the above research can be found in the Journal of the
American Medical Association, volume 278, number 10, pages 823-832.

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