The Family Context in Middle Childhood Puberty and Health
Puberty may appear to be a phenomenon largely determined by genetics and biology, but the family environment may affect the timing of pubertal maturation in girls. Research has shown that the absence of a biological father and the presence of an unrelated male, in addition to the absence of a warm and positive family connection, may accelerate girls’ pubertal development. Early maturation and greater levels of family conflict have been associated with earlier sexual debut in African American youth as well (McBride, Paikoff, & Holmbeck, 2003).
Research also shows that living with both parents protects against early sexual debut, as does having good teen-parent communication, close parental monitoring, and strong parental attachment—particularly for African American and Hispanic youth (Crosby & Miller, 2002; Karofsky, Zeng, & Kosorock, 2001). Mothers are more likely than fathers to communicate with their children about sex-related topics, and mothers have more influence on the age of sexual debut of their daughters than their sons, as well as greater impact on age of sexual debut than condom use (Averett, Rees, & Argys, 2002; McNeely et al., 2002).
Parents can influence the health of their children by making healthy foods available, modeling good eating habits, or possessing positive attitudes and behaviors about eating. Research that examined household, parent, and child contributions to obesity showed that parents of obese children did not recognize the importance of their role in shaping their children’s nutritional patterns. Parents of obese children were more likely to agree with statements such as “It doesn’t matter which foods my child eats. As long as they eat enough, they will grow properly”; and “[My child] is old enough to take care of feeding him/herself.” They also seemed less cognizant of the relationship between physical activity and related health and weight issues. The results of the study suggested that any effort to curb childhood obesity should include improving parent knowledge of child nutrition (Gable & Lutz, 2000).
Familial conflict has been shown to affect the quality of sleep in middle childhood. For example, studies have shown that increased marital conflict is associated with disruptions in the quality and quantity of 8- and 9-year-old children’s sleep and increased sleepiness during the day. Researchers have suggested that exposure to marital conflict may influence children’s biological regulatory processes, such as sleep (El-Sheikh, Buckhalt, Mize, & Acebo, 2006).
Parents may play a role in the initiation of smoking in middle childhood as well. When family factors were examined for their influence on daily smoking initiation in 10- and 11-year-olds, for example, researchers found that parental smoking contributed to the onset of daily smoking in their children—even if parents practiced good family management, were against teen tobacco use, and did not involve their children in their own tobacco use. To reduce risks for smoking initiation in children ages 10 and 11, these findings suggest that parents stop or reduce their own smoking (Hill, Hawkins, Catalano, Abbott, & Guo, 2005).
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