Predicting Positive Outcomes for Adolescents (page 2)
What do we know about factors in adolescents' lives that promote optimal behavioral outcomes? Although high self-esteem, low feelings of anxiety or alienation, and frequent participation in extracurricular activities are commonly assumed to protect adolescents from problem behaviors, in fact these factors do not predict fewer problem behaviors in adolescence (Gottfredson, 2001). Instead, research shows that both internal and external assets relate to positive outcomes; they protect adolescents from high-risk behaviors, enhance the likelihood of engaging in positive behaviors, and promote resilience in the face of adversity. The more protective factors an adolescent has working in his or her favor, the more likely he or she is to avoid problem behaviors. Adolescents without the benefit of these protective factors are not doomed to poor outcomes, but they may face greater challenges.
Some of the most important assets for youth are the ones they carry within themselves. Four key internal assets identified by the Minneapolis Search Institute (Benson, Scales, Leffert, & Roehlkepartain, 1999) include
- a commitment to lifelong learning and education,
- positive values that guide future choices,
- social competences to build relationships and make wise decisions, and
- positive identity in the form of a strong sense of self-worth.
These assets result from a community's commitment to actively promote them. When families, schools, media, religious institutions, and neighborhoods work together continuously, youth have the greatest chance of benefiting from these supportive features.
The remaining assets, or predictors of positive outcomes, may be considered external assets since they reside outside the adolescent. These external assets are connected through their common offerings of support, feelings of empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and a constructive use of time.
Peers and friends provide important sources of self-validation, cooperation, mutual respect, and security (Newcomb & Bagwell, 1996). These relationships are especially important in adolescents' lives because they represent voluntary relationships where members are on equal levels in terms of cognitive development and social power. This context is ideal for providing mutual support and for developing important conflict resolution skills within a safe environment.
Parents can also be developmental assets for adolescents. Extensive research has shown that authoritative parenting, or parenting that combines warmth with structure and rules, is related to the best outcomes for adolescents (Steinberg, 2001). Adolescents with authoritative parents are less likely to engage in problem behavior, including drug and alcohol use, and delinquency. These adolescents also enjoy better mental health, including higher self-esteem and lower rates of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, they achieve more in school than adolescents with parents who do not employ this combination of warmth and structure.
Although middle school and high school students generally view teachers with greater mistrust and find fewer opportunities to establish relationships with teachers than they did as elementary school students (Eccles et al., 1993), teachers remain important influences in adolescents' lives. Support from teachers is unique from both parent and peer support in that it relates to interest in attending class, pursuing academic goals, and adhering to rules and norms (Wentzel, 1998). Furthermore, adolescents who perceive their teachers as supportive are more likely to behave prosocially and to engage in behaviors that promote their learning (Wentzel & Battle,2001).
Other adults in adolescents' lives may also act as developmental assets. Grandparents, mentors, coaches, or neighbors can all provide guidance for adolescents. Especially in the absence of a strong parent-adolescent relationship, other adults may fill this gap and provide important support.
Balancing School and Work Roles
Given that most American adolescents are employed at some point during high school, how might work experiences in adolescence contribute to positive outcomes? Adolescents' perceptions of the effects of their employment are overwhelmingly positive (Mortimer, Harley, & Aronson, 1999). Adolescents cite gains in responsibility, money management, and acquiring social skills as key benefits.
Hours worked per week does not have a significant effect on time spent doing homework (Mortimer et al., 1999), in large part because working adolescents spend significantly less time watching television. Adolescents appear to benefit most from employment that is limited to part-time work. Minor delinquency is greater for adolescents who work long hours or who do not work at all than it is for adolescents occupied by part-time work (Wofford, 1988). Similarly, working excessive hours limits educational attainment, while part-time work encourages adolescents to balance their roles as students and employees (Mortimer et al., 1999).
Beyond the number of hours worked, it is important that the level of the job be appropriate to the adolescents' capabilities. Adolescents who work in highly stressful jobs are more likely to experience depression (Shanahan, Finch, Mortimer, & Ryu, 1991), whereas those working in jobs with high autonomy and clearly defined roles experience gains in self-esteem (Barling, Rogers, & Kelloway, 1995).
One often overlooked but important developmental asset for adolescents is the value that communities place on youth. Unfortunately, only one in five adolescents feels that their communities value youth (Benson et al., 1999). Sixty percent of adolescents feel that they are part of a caring neighborhood, and only 25% feel that their schools provide a caring environment. Furthermore, reports of perceived caring decline from middle to high school. These factors may be particularly important because they represent the influence of relationships beyond the immediate family. Such relationships are important for building self-esteem, transmitting cultural customs, developing social competencies, and, perhaps most critically, compensating for suboptimal familial relationships.
Avoiding Developmental Deficits
In a study of 99,462 6th- through 12th-grade youth, the Minneapolis Search Institute uncovered five key correlates of poor outcomes for adolescents.
- Being home alone
- Attending parties where there is drinking
- Being a victim of violence
- Overexposure to television
- Experiencing physical abuse
Although these factors do not necessarily cause poor developmental outcomes, engaging in or experiencing these behaviors corresponds with other high-risk behaviors such as drinking, gambling, using drugs, and perpetrating acts of violence. On average, an adolescent will experience approximately two of these five deficits (Benson et al., 1999). Measures that help adolescents to avoid these deficits (e.g., greater parental monitoring of activities, youth centers providing structured after-school activities, violence prevention programs) are likely to promote positive developmental outcomes for adolescents.
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