In Families With Teens, What Supports Healthy Outcomes?
The Search Institute just released their latest report entitled, "The American Family Assets Study"—an online-survey based examination of just what factors in American households support the health and well being of their children, age 10 to 15 . So while this study was one of the most comprehensive of its kind, it still had a relatively narrow focus, looking only at a sample of those households with: a) online access and b) those that had a “parenting adult”—any adult who assumed responsibility for care of a child between the ages of 10 and 15.
A number of intriguing methods were used in the AFA assessment. First, the researchers were focused on broadening an examination a diversity of sources for family strength. To that end, they looked at the contributions of all adults who felt responsible for the well being of the pre-teen or teen—not just those adults who could be listed as “parent” in the U.S. Census. This reflects an important reality in American life, namely that our kids are raised not just by biological parents but by grandparents, adoptive and step parents, a variety of legal guardians and other families members like aunts, uncles and older siblings. All of these individuals can and do contribute to child rearing in America.
Second, the researchers were interested to look at some of the more intangible assets in the family, not just how much money or material advantages were present in the family system.
The study utilized a Family Assets Index which considered five main ways in which families can be assessed for strength and resilience: 1. Nurturing relationships, 2. Establishing routines, 3. Maintaining expectations, 4. Adapting to challenges and 5. Connecting to community.
More specifically, the Index measured things like the quality of relationships (communication, affection, openness); the presence of routines and traditions; how expectations are set and defined (how openly can the “hard topics” be discussed, the use of rules and clear boundaries and expectations); how well the family adapted to challenges (use of problem-solving and decision-making techniques, as well as how daily commitments are handled and how adaptable family members are with managing these commitments) and; relationships with others in community and how well the neighborhood and close world of others either supported or enriched the life of the family.
Perhaps most important, the study acknowledged that strength- and asset-building in families doesn’t just move in one direction, from the adult to the child—youth are “active agents in the development of family well-being” or to paraphrase writer Peter De Vries, “children raise parents as much as parents raise children.”
What Are the Assets of American Families?
So, what did the survey have to tell us about how American families with young teens are faring? About fifty-six percent of the families scored “poor to fair” on the Family Assets Index, with thirty-four percent scoring “good” (thirty-nine percent) and eleven percent scoring “excellent.” Those figures don’t really tell us a story, though. It’s important to look at how the figures are derived to understand why the majority of American families are thought to be “poor to fair” in reaching the hoped-for combination of strengths and assets.
The study found that the most common asset in families had to do with the quality of relationships and setting of expectations within the family. Adults set and hold clear expectations for what they want their young teens to do in school and keep the important adults in their lives informed about who they were with and what they were doing. But American families’ least common asset involved deficits with the fourth and fifth assets: having dependability/follow-through in interactions, as well as clear boundaries and; close relationships with people in the surrounding community and cohesion and stability in the neighborhood. Surprisingly, only about one-quarter of youth surveyed said they felt close to peers and people in the neighborhood. Why surprising? Because many of the enthusiasts and champions of digital technology and social media hope that the opportunities for social connection afforded by the Internet and digital media will increase, rather than degrade the sense of connection to the world outside our doors. With most teens living online, the jury is still out on just what kind of difference this increased “connection” will make.
Agreement and Disagreement Among Teens and Caring Adults
Other highlights from the study including an expectable gap between parent and child perceptions. For example three-fourths of caretakers said they felt comfortable talking about the hard subjects like sex, drugs and alcohol and bullying but less than half of their children said they felt comfortable talking about these things. A significant gap also existed between adults’ feelings that the children had a say in important decisions and the young teens that felt that way.
What did parents and their young teens agree on? Most parenting adults and children alike agreed that it was tough to balance the expectations at home, school and work. And most parenting adults and children (about seventy-five percent) felt that they didn’t know from day to day what each other would do. It seems that while American families are consistently being busy, they are not necessarily busy being consistent.
What Increases or Decreases Assets in a Family?
Surely, as with most things in America, the more money, the more “intangible” assets the family will have, right? Not according to the FAS survey. The sheer quantity of assets in a family doesn’t significantly differ depending upon how educated the parent is or how much money the family has at its disposal. Many would argue that it must, then, be about having a two-parent, biological mother and father (heterosexual), non-immigrant household to provide the sense of cohesion and stability needed to increase the assets in the family. Not according to the FAS survey; gender, sexual orientation and biological status of the parenting adult played no significant role in determining the strengths of our families.
Consistent with other research, the study also showed that Black and Hispanic families show more assets than White, Asian or families of other races and ethnicities—primarily around connection to community. And families in urban areas (populations greater than 50,000 people) consistently show more assets in all categories than their suburban and rural peers.
As might be expected, families that had basic unmet needs like access to affordable and dependable transportation, health insurance, medical care, nutritious meals and safe housing reported fewer assets, across the board. It’s worth noting the primary role that lack of affordable health insurance plays in decreasing family assets.
Is there an age where the parenting gets easier (or harder)? Yes, according to the study, and this is confirmed by my own experience as a clinician. I write about this, too, in The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager . From early adolescence to about 13 ½ is often associated with a steady decrease in family assets (and overall sense of family satisfaction). This generally begins to rebound as teens move from 13 to 15 years of age. This holds true for each of the five assets expect “Maintaining Expectations,” where things get harder as teens in the family get older. This, too, however, is a normal developmental trajectory as renegotiating expectations is often cited as one of the most difficult and conflict-prone areas of family life with teens.
So, What’s the Big Deal About Having Assets in the Family?
Well, the big deal seems to be that families with more assets are more likely to: a) Engage in health behaviors around sleep, exercise, eating and self-care; b) Have higher rates of youth academic achievement; c) have more empathy and act in socially responsible ways, serving the community and being more politically engaged. In other words, more assets equal more hope and engagement.
These are all things we’d hope to strengthen and support in all American families. And so a number of questions are raised by the AFA study and the assets approach to understanding family strength and resilience. First, it seems clear from the study that while parents are important, parenting is more the issue. Parents do not need to be any specific gender, race, sexual orientation or income level to play a key role in determining healthy outcomes in the family. Second, the results demonstrate a very complex interplay of factors involved in translating individual family strengths into family and community “successes” in the United States. For example, the study showed that it is not necessary to grow up in a two-parent, White, higher income family in order to have a family with higher assets and the demonstrated outcomes that go along with having higher assets. In fact, the study showed that urban, Black and Hispanic families had, in some cases, higher assets than their White or Asian counterparts. And if having access to affordable healthcare and health insurance plays an important role in positive family outcomes, then does that mean that simply increasing access for all Americans will positively impact the asset levels for all families currently non- or under-insured?
What seems clear to me is the difficulty in deriving any kind of formula from this or any study on just what makes a family strong and successful in America. For example, the AFA study may tell us that its important to have strong connections from the family to the wider community, but it doesn’t tell us that we have to live in an urban area to do that, only that there seems to be higher clustering of families with more assets in the urban area. The study may tell us that Black and Hispanic families have more assets, on average than their White or Asian counterparts, but it doesn’t mean you have to be Black or Asian to have strong family connections. What the study does remind us of is the main theme underlying The Approximate Parent.
The outcomes in a family are always going to be complexly determined by the interplay of genetic and environmental factors. And outcomes in a family are likely not going to be determined by any single cause, or for that matter, by the interplay of the same specific and identifiable causes within all families. One size will never fit all. Certain families can produce positive outcomes because of the unique ways in which the people in that family make use of their strengths and resources. Other families will “squander” their “objective” resources like money, access to healthcare and insurance and clear expectations for performance because of the manner in which those resources are accessed or implemented, for example, by a stressed-out, angry parent who doesn’t allow their precocious 14 ½ year-old to participate in any meaningful decision-making around how those assets get “tapped.”
What do you think this study helps to illuminate? What questions are you left with after reading this piece I’ve written? Does it help you to think about your own family in relation to the assets approach? It’s up to us as critical consumers not simply to accept the latest headlines (especially from research). We need to engage with that data--in the same ways we need to engage with the data generated by our own lives with our teens--to come to answers that work for our specific families.
About the Author
 Syvertsen, A. K., Roehlkepartain, E., & Scales, P. C. (2012). Key findings from The American Family Assets Study. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.
 Simon, M.Y. (2012). The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager. Oakland, CA: Fine Optics Press.
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