The Parenting of Adolescents and Adolescents as Parents: A Developmental Contextual Perspective

Richard Lerner, PhD
Anita L. Brennan Professor of Education
Director, Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships
Boston College

E. Ree Noh

Clancie Wilson

Adolescence has been described as a phase of life beginning in biology and ending in society (Petersen, 1988). Indeed, adolescence may be defined as the period within the life span when most of a person's biological, cognitive, psychological, and social characteristics are changing from what is typically considered child-like to what is considered adult-like (Lerner & Spanier, 1980). For the adolescent, this period is a dramatic challenge, one requiring adjustment to changes in the self, in the family, and in the peer group. In contemporary society, adolescents experience institutional changes as well. Among young adolescents, there is a change in school setting, typically involving a transition from elementary school to either junior high school or middle school; and in late adolescence there is a transition from high school to the worlds of work, university, or childrearing.

Understandably, then, for both adolescents and their parents, adolescence is a time of excitement and of anxiety; of happiness and of troubles; of discovery and of bewilderment; and of breaks with the past and yet of links with the future. Adolescence can be, then, a confusing time--for the adolescent experiencing this phase of life; for the parents who are nurturing the adolescent during his or her progression through this period; for other adults charged with enhancing the development of youth during this period of life, and--with disturbing, historically unprecedented frequency--for adolescents who themselves find themselves in the role of parents.

On the Nature of Parenting

Parenting is both a biological and a social process (Lerner, Castellino, Terry, Villarruel &McKinney, 1995; Tobach & Schneirla, 1968). Parenting is the term summarizing the set of behaviors involved across life in the relations among organisms who are usually conspecifics, and typically members of different generations or, at the least, of different birth cohorts. Parenting interactions provide resources across the generational groups and function in regard to domains of survival, reproduction, nurturance, and socialization.

Thus, parenting is a complex process, involving much more than a mother or father providing food, safety, and succor to an infant or child. Parenting involves bidirectional relationships between members of two (or more) generations; can extend through all or major parts of the respective life spans of these groups; may engage all institutions within a culture (including educational, economic, political, and social ones); and is embedded in the history of a people--as that history occurs within the natural and designed settings within which the group lives (Ford & Lerner, 1992). Given, then, the temporal variation that constitutes history, the variation of culture and of its institutions that exist in different physical and designed ecological niches, and the variation, within and across generations, in strategies for and behaviors designed to fit with these niches, we may note that diversity is a key substantive feature of parenting behavior. Focus on this variation, rather than on central tendencies, is necessary in order to understand parenting adequately. In addition, there are multiple levels of organization that change in and through integrated, mutually interdependent or "fused" relationships; these relationships occur over both ontogenetic and historical time (Lerner & Lerner, 1987; Tobach & Greenberg, 1984). As such, context, as well as diversity, is an important feature of parenting.

Developmental contextualism is a theory of human development (Lerner, 1986,1991, 1992; Lerner, et al., 1995) that focuses on the changing relations--or, better, coactions (Gottlieb, 1997)--between the developing individual and his or her context. We believe developmental contextualism is a perspective that is useful for understanding the contemporary challenges involved in studying adolescents and parenting and for designing programs pertinent to promoting the positive development of youth--either in relation to enhancing the parenting they receive and/or to addressing the challenges faced by adolescents who are in the role of parents. That is, the challenges of adolescence derive from the fact that youth today are both in need of parenting that promotes their positive development and, at the same time, historically unprecedented numbers of adolescents are themselves becoming parents and, typically, unmarried parents (Children's Defense Fund, 1996). Indeed, in America an adolescent girl has a baby every minute of each hour of the day (Children's Defense Fund, 1996).

Developmental Contextualism

Developmental contextualism (Lerner, 1986, 1991, 1995, 1998) is an instance of a theoretical orientation to human development termed "developmental systems theory" (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Sameroff, 1983; Thelen & Smith, 1998). Developmental contextualism has its roots in the multidisciplinary and multiprofessional field of home economics (Lerner & Miller, 1993; Miller & Lerner, 1994), a field now labeled family and consumer sciences. In addition, developmental systems theory, generally, and developmental contextualism, more specifically, have emerged within the current study of human development as representing important, and arguably the key theoretical orientations within the field because of their "co-evolution" with the life-span view of human development (Baltes, 1987; Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998), the life-course study of human development (Elder, 1974, 1980; Elder & Caspi, 1988), and the ecological view of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998).

The life-span developmental perspective extends the study of development across the course of life by conceptualizing the basic process of development as relational in character, that is, as involving associations between the developing individual and his or her complex and changing social and physical context, or ecology. The broadest level of this ecology is history. As explained above with regard to family diversity and family policy, embedding change within a historical context provides a temporal perspective to the study of a phenomenon. Linking the changes that characterize lifespan individual development with an ecology that includes temporality focuses scholarship on the degree of plasticity (of the potential for systematic change; Lerner, 1984) that may exist across life. In addition, there is a concern with the characteristics of the person and his or her context that may foster continuity or discontinuity in development.

The life course and the human ecological views of human development also take a view of developmental processes as relational in character. The life course perspective significantly extends the analysis of the developmental process beyond the individual by considering the contributions that institutional structure, function, and change make to the person-context relation and, as well, to the experience of both individuals and groups of individuals (cohorts) developing within specific historical periods. For example, people who were children during the economically difficult period of the Great Depression developed differently across their lives than did people who experienced their childhood years in more economically favorable historical periods (Elder, 1974).

In turn, the human ecological perspective provides understanding of the levels, networks, or social systems or subsystems within which person-context relations occur. This perspective provides developmentalists with an understanding of the dynamics of person-context relations occurring within a specific setting (e.g., the home) within which a person develops (a microsystem); the interconnected set of specific systems (e.g., the home, the classroom, the neighborhood) within which the person develops (the mesosystem); the settings (termed the "exosystem") in which the person does not interact (e.g., the workplace of a young child's parent) but wherein developments occur (e.g., the experience of job-related stress) that influence behavior in the micro- or meso-system; and the broad social institutional context (the macrosystem) that, by virtue of its cultural and public policy components, textures social commerce and influences all other systems embedded within it.

For instance, public policies pertinent to the eligibility of adults to receive public assistance for their children (e.g., Aid for Dependent Children), and cultural attitudes about people who receive such welfare support, may result in specific communities placing time limits on an adult's eligibility for welfare and requiring that the person enter either job training or educational programs. The challenges and stressors that a person has in such a program may influence the emotional character of interactions with his/her child, and the child may carry the "residue" of his/her interaction in the home with the parent into the child's interactions with peers in the classroom.

This example of the applicability of the human ecology perspective can be extended by reference to the life-course viewpoint. Here we might consider the effects on cohorts of poor children growing up in a context wherein there are major changes in their family life occurring as a consequence of a historically significant change in public policy regarding welfare. In turn, the life-span perspective would extend this example still further by asking questions about whether and how the course of personal development was altered as a consequence of the specific changes that occurred in individual-context relations as a consequence the historically non-normative change in public policy.

Clearly, then, there are important interconnections between the life-span, the life-course, and the human ecology perspectives. All viewpoints focus on the linkages that exist between changes within a person over the course of his or her life and the changing structure and function of his or her family, peer group, school, workplace, and community setting, which in turn are embedded within policy, cultural, and historical contexts. All viewpoints are concerned with the way in which the pattern or system of these relations shape human development over the course of life. Simply, all perspectives are concerned with the developmental system and, specifically, with development-in-relation-to-context. By providing a theoretical frame for these viewpoints, developmental contextualism offers a means to integrate and further understanding of the dynamic (that is, bidirectional or reciprocal) relations between people and the settings within which they live their lives.

Accordingly, developmental contextualism takes an integrative approach to the multiple levels of organization presumed to comprise the nature of human life; that is, "fused" (Tobach & Greenberg, 1984) and changing relations among biological, psychological, and social and physical contextual levels comprise the process of developmental change. Rather than approach variables from these levels in either a reductionistic or in a parallel-processing way, the developmental contextual view rests on the idea that variables from these levels of analysis are dynamically interactive--they are reciprocally influential over the course of human ontogeny.

Thus, within developmental contextualism, levels are conceived of as integrated organizations. If the course of human development is the product of the processes involved in the "fusions" (or "dynamic interactions"; Lerner, 1978, 1979, 1984) among integrated levels, then the processes of development are more plastic than often previously believed (cf. Brim & Kagan, 1980). Within this perspective, the context for development is not seen merely as a simple stimulus environment, but rather as an "ecological environment . . . conceived topologically as a nested arrangement of concentric structures, each contained within the next" (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22) and including variables from biological, psychological, physical and sociocultural levels, all changing interdependently across history (Riegel, 1975, 1976a, 1976b).

Given this conception, it is clear why the central idea in developmental contextualism is that changing, reciprocal relations (or dynamic interactions) between individuals and the multiple contexts within which they live comprise the essential process of human development (Lerner, 1986; Lerner & Kauffman, 1985). Moreover, because time--history--cuts through all the levels of this developmental system, all portions of the system of person-context relations envisioned in developmental contextualism change across time. Diversity (variation) within time is created as change across time (across history) introduces variation into all the levels of organization involved in the human development system. Accordingly, within developmental contextualism diversity--changes within a person over time (intraindividual change) and differences between people (interindividual differences) in their patterns of intraindividual change--is a topic of central importance.

Through the diverse interactions a child has with his or her parents, the child influences the parents that are influencing him or her. The child is thereby shaping a source of his or her own development. In this sense, children are producers of their own development (Lerner, 1982), and the presence of such child effects constitutes the basis of bidirectional relations between parents and children. Of course, this bidirectional relation continues when the child is an adolescent and an adult. And corresponding relations exist between the person and siblings, friends, teachers, and indeed all other significant people in his or her life.

There is diversity in these child-social context relations. As a consequence of their characteristics of individuality, children elicit differential reactions in their parents, and these reactions provide the basis of feedback to the child, that is, there is return stimulation which influences his or her further individual development. The bidirectional child-parent relationships involved in these relationships may be termed "circular functions"(Schneirla, 1957); these functions underscore the point that children (and adolescents, and adults) are producers of their own development and that people's relations to their contexts involve reciprocal exchanges (Lerner, 1982; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981). The parent shapes the child, but part of what determines the way in which the parent does this is the child himself or herself.

Moreover, the child-parent relationship is embedded in social networks which, in turn, are embedded in still larger community, societal, cultural, and historical levels of organization. These relations are illustrated in Figure 1. Time--history--cuts through all the systems. This feature of the figure is introduced to remind us that, as with the people populating these social systems, change is always occurring. Diversity within time is created as change across time (across history) introduces variation into all the levels of organization involved in the system depicted in Figure 1.

As such, the nature of parent-child relations, of family life and development, and of societal and cultural influences on the child-parent-family system are influenced by both "normative" and "non-normative" historical changes (Baltes, 1987) or, in other words, by "evolutionary" (i.e., gradual) and "revolutionary" (i.e., abrupt; Werner, 1957), historical changes. This system of multiple, interconnected, "fused," or coacting levels comprises a complete depiction of the integrated organization involved in the developmental contextual view of human development (Lerner, 1986, 1991); this system provides a useful frame for studying the nature of child-parent relations at this moment in our nation's history. In addition, the system of individual-context relations represented in developemntal contextualism provides a frame for interventions pertinent to promoting desired changes across the life span (Lerner, 1995).

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Figure 1. The developmental contextual view of human development: Parent-child relations, and interpersonal and institutional networks, are embedded in and influenced by particular community, societal, cultural, and designed and natural environments, all changing across time (across history).

Although we shall return again to the implications of developmental contextualism for the design of youth programs, we should reiterate here the point that the contemporary context within which we may study the intersection of the life stage of adolescence and the role of parenting is characterized by an historically unprecedented coincidence of the need to understand (a) how to parent adolescents; and (b) the need to understand adolescents as parents. We discuss each of these topics successively.

Parenting: Child Rearing Styles, Socialization, and Parent-Adolescent Relationships

The key function of a child's family is to raise the young person in as healthy a manner as possible (e.g., see Bornstein, 1995). The parents' role is to provide the child with a safe, secure, nurturant, loving, and supportive environment, one that allows the offspring to have a happy and healthy youth; this sort of experience allows the youth to develop the knowledge, values, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to become an adult making a productive contribution to self, family, community, and society (Lerner, et al., 1995).

What a parent does to fulfill these "duties" of his or her role is termed parenting; in other words, parenting is a term that summarizes behaviors used by a person--usually, but, of course, not exclusively, the mother or father--to raise a child. Given the above-described characteristics of this set of activities, it is clear that parenting is the major function of the family.

However, adolescents live in different family structures. These contexts are presented in Table 1. This variation influences both the way parents interact with youth and, in turn, the behavior of adolescents. For instance, in a study of urban, African American adolescents living in either (1) single-mother, (2) step parent, (3) dual parent, (4) mother-with-extended-family (e.g., grandparent, aunt, or uncle), or (5) extended-family-only settings (e.g., only an aunt is present), the social support provided to youth was generally the same across family types, with one exception: Youth living in single-mother families were given more support than the youth in the other four family types (Zimmerman, Salem, & Maton, 1995).

Table 1
Examples of Contemporary "Family" Contexts of Children and Youth
  • Intact Nuclear (and biological)
  • Single Parent (biological)
  • Intact Nuclear (adoptive)
  • Single Parent (adoptive)
  • Intact (blended)
    • {Heterosexual;Homosexual}
  • Single parent (step)
  • Intergenerational
  • Extended, without parent
    • {e.g., Child-Aunt}
  • In loco parentis families/institutions
    • Foster Care Homes
    • Group Homes
    • Psychiatric hospitals
    • Residential treatment facilities
    • Juvenile detention facilities
  • Runaways
  • Street children/youth
    • {e.g., Adolescent prostitutes}
  • Homeless children

Source: From Lerner, et al. (1995)

In turn, support to mothers, especially when provided by relatives, can enhance adolescent and maternal adjustment, and improve the mother's parenting skills (Taylor & Roberts, 1995). For example, among 14- to 19-year-old African American youth, social support from kin was related to self-reliance and good school grades; however, when kinship support was low the youth experienced feelings of distress (Taylor, 1996). However, although differences in regard to academic achievement and high school grades are slight among youth living in either intact, single-parent, and remarried families, large differences exist in regard to school drop-out (Zimiles & Lee, 1991). Students from intact families are least likely to drop out. Similarly, youth from such families are less likely to experiment with drugs than are adolescents from single-parent families (Turner, Irwin, Millstein, 1991).

Of course, however, adults differ in the ways in which they enact their role as parent. They show different styles of raising their children. Differences in child rearing styles is associated with important variation in adolescent development.

Child rearing styles in adolescence

The classic research of Diana Baumrind (1967, 1971) resulted in the identification of three major types of child rearing styles: Authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. The first style of rearing is marked by parental warmth, the use of rules and reasoning (induction) to promote obedience and keep discipline, non-punitive punishment (e.g., using "time out" or "grounding" instead of physical punishment), and consistency between statements and actions and across time (Baumrind, 1971; Lamborn, Mants, Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991). Authoritarian parents are not warm, stress rigid adherence to the rules they set (obey--just because we, the parents, are setting the rules), emphasize the power of their role, and use physical punishment for transgressions (Baumrind, 1971; Belsky, Lerner & Spanier, 1984). Permissive parents do not show consistency in their use of rules, they may have a "laissez-faire" attitude towards their child's behaviors (i.e., they may either not attend to the child or let him or her do whatever he or she wants), and they may give the child anything he or she requests; their style may be characterized as being either more of a peer or, instead, as an independent "observer" of their child. Indeed, because of the diversity of behavioral patterns that can characterize the permissive parenting style, Maccoby and Martin (1983) proposed that this approach to parenting can best be thought of as two distinct types: Indulgent (e.g., "If my child wants something, I give it to her") and neglectful (e.g., "I really don't know what my child is up to. I don't really keep close tabs on her").

Whether the three categories of rearing style originally proposed by Baumrind (1967, 1971), the four categories suggested by Maccoby and Martin (1983), or other labels are used, it is clear that the behavioral variation summarized by use of the different categories is associated with differences in adolescent behavior and development (Lamborn, et al., 1991). For example, in a study of over 4,000 14 to 18 year olds, adolescents with authoritative parents had more social competence and fewer psychological and behavioral problems than youth with authoritarian, indulgent, or neglectful parents (Lamborn, et al., 1991). In fact, youth with neglectful parents were the least socially competent and had the most psychological and behavioral problems of any group of adolescents in the study. In turn, youth with authoritarian parents were obedient and conformed well to authority, but had poorer self concepts than other adolescents. Finally, while youth with indulgent parents had high self confidence, they more often abused substances, misbehaved in school, and were less engaged in school.

Similarly, in a study of about 10,000 high school students, adolescents whose parents are accepting, firm, and democratic achieve higher school grades, are more self reliant, less anxious and depressed, and less likely to engage in delinquent behavior than are youth with parents using other rearing styles (Steinberg, Mounts, Lamborn & Dornbusch, 1991); this influence of authoritative parenting held for youth of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and regardless of whether the adolescent's family was intact. Moreover, adolescents with authoritative parents are more likely to have well-rounded peer groups, that is, groups that admire both adult as well as youth values and norms, e.g., academic achievement/school success and athletics/social popularity, respectively (Durbin, Darling, Steinberg & Brown, 1993). In turn, youth with uninvolved parents had peer groups that did not support adult norms or values, and boys with indulgent parents were in peer groups that stressed fun and partying (Durbin, et al., 1993).

Considerable additional research confirms the generally positive influence on adolescent development of authoritative parenting and, in turn, of the developmental problems that emerge in youth when parents are authoritarian, permissive, indulgent, or uninvolved (e.g., Almeida & Galambos, 1991; Baumrind, 1991; Brown, et al., 1993; Feldman & Wood, 1994; Melby & Conger, 1996; Paulson, 1994; Simons, Johnson, & Conger, 1994; Wentzel, Feldmen, & Weinberger, 1991). Moreover, this research confirms as well that the positive influences of authoritative parenting extend to the adolescent's choice of, or involvement with peers (e.g., Brown, et al., 1993). Thus, the influence of parents is often highly consistent with the influence of peers among adolescents (Lerner & Galambos, 1998).

Socialization in adolescence

Whatever style parents use to rear their adolescents, the goal of parenting is to raise a child who is healthy and successful in life, who can contribute to self and to society, who accepts and works to further the social order. The process--the behaviors that are used over time--to reach these goals is termed socialization. Although all societies socialize their youth (in order that, as future contributors to society, the society can survive and prosper), there are marked differences in what different societies, or groups within society, want to see in a youth that has been "successfully" socialized. Said another way, there is great diversity in the specific goals parents have in socializing their youth.

One way of illustrating this contextual variation and, as well, of judging whether parents and society at large have been successful in shaping youth to accept social values, is to ask youth what it means to be a good or a bad child. In one study that took this approach American, Japanese, and Chinese adolescents were asked "What is a bad kid?" (Crystal & Stevenson, 1995). In America, youth answered that a lack of self control and substance abuse were the marks of being bad. In China, a youth who engaged in acts against society was judged as bad. In Japan, a youth who created disruptions of interpersonal harmony was regarded as bad.

Another way of understanding the socialization process is to see how immigrants to a new country give up the values and customs of their country of origin and adopt those of their new one--a set of changes termed acculturation. This approach was used in a series of studies involving youth of Chinese ancestry, who were either first generation Americans (their parents were born in China and immigrated before the adolescent was born) or second generation Americans (their grandparents were born in China, but their parents had been born in the United States). These youth were contrasted to Chinese adolescents from Hong Kong, to youth of Chinese ancestry whose parents had immigrated to Australia, to European American youth, and to Anglo Australian youth. In one study both first and second generation Chinese American youth were similar to the non-immigrant youth groups in their levels of adolescent problems (Chiu, Feldman, & Rosenthal, 1992). However, immigration resulted in lowered perceptions of parental control; but it was not related to views about their parents' warmth. In turn, Chinese American adolescents' value on the family as a residential unit changed across the generations (in the direction of placing less value on the family for this function), and thus showed variation consistent with acculturation to both Anglo Australian and European American values (Feldman, Mont-Reynaud, & Rosenthal, 1992); however, the Chinese Americans still differed from these other groups in this value.

Still another approach to understanding socialization is to appraise whether different groups within a society direct their youth to comparable developmental achievements. Research in Israel, for instance, suggests that youth from Arab Israeli families are raised to view the father as having more power than the mother; in turn, Jewish Israeli youth see more maternal than paternal power (Weller, Florian, Mikulincer, 1995). Similarly, in Japan, problems of adolescent adjustment are most likely to occur for boys who are aligned with their mothers, but whose mothers and fathers disagree about socialization practices (Gjerde & Shimizo, 1995). In turn, male and female adolescent immigrants from Third World countries to Norway differ in their attitudes toward acculturation (Sam, 1995); although both groups place a lot of importance on maintaining their cultural heritage, boys favor acculturation more than girls.

In the United States, while there is evidence of consistency in some socialization practices across diverse groups (e.g., in regard to the development of mental health among Latino and European American youth; Knight, Virdin, & Roosa, 1994), there is also research indicating that practices differ in different American groups. For instance, African American parents more frequently discuss prejudice with their adolescent children than is the case for Japanese American or Mexican American parents (Phinney & Chavira, 1995); in addition, both African American and Japanese American parents emphasize adaptation to society more so than is the case with Mexican American parents.

How successful are parents' attempts at socialization? By virtue of the fact that society continues to evolve, and is not characterized by intergenerational warfare or revolution, and that the vast majority of youth become contributing adults to society, we can conclude that socialization "works," that the "apple does not fall far from the tree" (Adelson, 1970; Lerner, 1986). Indeed, during adolescence very few families--estimates are between 5% to 10%--experience a major deterioration in the parent-child relationship (Steinberg, 1990). Moreover, not only do parents expect to see change in their sons' and daughters' behaviors as they socialize them during adolescence (Freedman-Doan, Arbreton, Harold & Eccles, 1993), but--through their interactions on a day-to-day basis--parents can model and/or shape the cognitive, emotional and behavioral attributes they desire to see in their offspring (e.g., Eisenberg & McNally, 1993; Larson & Richards, 1994; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger & Conger,1991; Whitbeck, 1987). It is through the relationships that parents and their adolescent children have that the most immediate bases are provided of youth behavior and development.

Parent-child relationships in adolescence

There are a range of behaviors and associated emotions exchanged between parents and their adolescent offspring: Some of these exchanges involve positive and healthy behaviors and others involve the opposite; some of the outcomes for adolescent development of these exchanges reflect good adjustment and individual and social success, whereas other outcomes reflect poor adjustment and problems of development. As is true for all facets of human development, there is then diversity in the nature and implications of parent-child relations in adolescence.

Parent-adolescent relationships involving supportive behaviors and positive emotions

Among American youth, warm parental interactions are associated with effective problem solving ability in both the adolescent and the family as a whole; however, hostile interactions are associated with destructive adolescent problem solving behaviors (Ge, Best, Conger & Simons, 1996a; Rueter & Conger, 1995). Similarly, among German adolescents, parental behaviors marked by approval and attention to the positive behavior of the youth is associated with an adolescent who feels he or she is capable of controlling events that can affect him or her (Krampen, 1989); however, when parental behaviors disparage the child and fail to attend to his or her specific behavior, the adolescent feels that chance determines what happens to him or her in life.

As illustrated by the above studies, warmth, nonhostility, and closeness seem to be characteristics of parent-adolescent interaction that are associated with positive outcomes among youth. Other research confirms these linkages. Feelings of closeness in the parent-adolescent relationship is related to parents' views of their parenting as satisfying to them and to the youth's self esteem and to his or her participation in family activities (Paulson, Hill, & Holmbeck, 1991).

In turn, nonhostile parent-adolescent relations are associated with better adjustment by the adolescent to the transition to middle school and greater peer popularity (Bronstein, Fitzgerald, Briones & Pieniadz, 1993); in addition, nonhostility is related to a better self concept for girls and better classroom behavior for boys. Moreover, when parents are attuned to their child's development and support his or her autonomy in decision making, the youth is better adjusted and gains in self esteem across the junior high school transition (Lord, Eccles, & McCarthy, 1994). Furthermore, parental religiosity, cohesive family relationships, and low interpersonal conflict are associated with low levels of problem behaviors and with self regulation among rural, African American youth (Brody, Stoneman, & Flor, 1996).

The characteristics of parent-child interaction that are associated with positive outcomes for the adolescent are similar in that they reflect support for and acceptance of the developing youth. Indeed, when parent-adolescent relationships provide support for the youth's behaviors, interest, and activities, numerous positive developmental outcomes are likely to occur. For instance, support has been associated with better school grades and scholastic self concept (DuBois, Eitel, & Felner, 1994); with perceiving that social relationships could be more beneficial to one's development than risky (East, 1989); with being more satisfied with one's life (Young, Miller, Norton & Hill, 1995); and with a decreased likelihood of involvement in drinking, delinquency, and other problem behaviors (Barnes & Farrell, 1992).

Certainly, receiving support from one's parents may elicit in the young person feelings of positive regard, or emotions characterized by a sense of attachment. When such emotions occur in adolescence, positive outcomes for the youth are seen. For instance, parent child relations marked by attachment are associated with high self-perceived competence, especially across the transition to junior high school, and with low feelings of depression or anxiety (Papini & Roggman, 1992). In addition, attachment is linked to feeling cohesive with one's family (Papini, Roggman, & Anderson, 1991). Other research has found also relationships among attachment, a positive sense of self, and low levels of problematic behaviors/emotions, such as depression (Kenny, 1993).

In sum, then, parent-child relationships marked by behaviors supportive of the youth and by positive feelings connecting the generations are associated with psychologically and socially healthy developmental outcomes for the adolescent. However, some families do not have parent-child relations marked by support and positive emotions; and no family has such exchanges all the time. Families experience conflict and negative emotions. Such exchanges also influence the adolescent; but, as we might expect, the outcomes for youth of these influences differ from those associated with support and positive emotions.

Parent-adolescent relations involving conflict and stress

Family conflicts seem inevitable (Fisher & Johnson, 1990). At the least, conflicts are a ubiquitous part of all families at some times in their history. Just as the reasons for conflicts between individuals, on the one hand, or nations, on the others, varies, so too do the reasons for conflicts in families. For example, adolescents report that conflicts often arise because they feel that parents are not providing the emotional support they want, or because youth or parents believe the other generation is not meeting the expectations held for them, or because of a lack of consensus about family or societal values (Fisher & Johnson, 1990).

In turn, in a study of over 1,800 Latino, African American, and European American parents of adolescents, conflicts were said to occur in the main over everyday matters, such as chores and style of dress, rather than in regard to substantive issues, such as sex and drugs (Barber, 1994). [Similar findings were reported in research conducted a generation earlier (Lerner & Knapp, 1975), suggesting that the nature of parents' views of reasons for arguing with their children may not change very much across time.] Parents from all racial/ethnic groups reported arguing about the same issues; however, European American parents reported more conflict than parents from the other two groups (Barber, 1994).

Moreover, although other research reports that adolescents and their parents are in conflict about the same sorts of issues--chores, appearance, and politeness--there is a decrease in arguments about these issues as the adolescent develops (Galambos & Almeida, 1992); however, conflict over finances tend to increase at older age levels. In turn, as youth develop they are less likely to concede an argument to parents; as a result conflicts may be left unresolved, especially it seems in families with boys (Smetana, Yau, & Hanson, 1991). The presence of conflicts between youth and parents is, then, a fact of family life during adolescents. Arguments with their youngsters are events with which parents must learn to cope.

Nevertheless, despite its developmental course, the presence of conflict at any point in the parent-adolescent relationship may influence the behavior and development of the youth. For instance, family conflicts may lead the adolescent to think negatively about himself or herself, and can even eventuate in his or her thinking about suicide (Shagle & Barber, 1993). In addition, conflict is associated with "externalizing" problems (e.g., such as hostility) among youth (Mason, Cauce, Gonzales, Hiraga & Grove, 1994). In adolescent girls, the experience of menarche is associated with increased conflict, especially in the mother-daughter relationship, and as a consequence less positive emotions and more negative ones characterize adolescent-parent exchanges (Holmbeck & Hill, 1991; Steinberg, 1987). In short, then, conflicts in the parent-adolescent relationship result in problems in youth development (Rubenstein & Feldman, 1993). A vicious cycle may be created in that, in turn, adolescent problems can increase parent-adolescent conflicts (Maggs & Galambos, 1993).

Moreover, the negative emotions exchanged between adolescents and their parents can themselves result in problems for the youth. For instance, fathers' feelings of stress are associated with adolescents' emotional and behavioral problems (Compas, Howell, Phares & Williams, 1989) and, as well, maternal stress is associated with "internalizing" problems (e.g., anxiety, depression) in adolescent boys and with poor school grades for adolescent girls.

The process through which parents' stress is linked to adolescent problems seems to involve the experience of depression in parents as a consequence of their stress which, in turn, disrupts effective parental discipline, and leads to adolescent problem behaviors (Conger, Patterson, & Ge, 1995). Other research finds that parental depression is associated with depression in youth (Gallimore & Kurdek, 1992), and that ineffective parenting behaviors (e.g., low self-restraint among fathers) eventuates in problem behaviors in their offspring (Baumrind, 1991; D'Angelo, Weinberger, & Feldman, 1995; Feldman & Weinberger, 1994; Simons, et al., 1991).

Moreover, parents of tenth graders with conduct problems are more hostile than parents of tenth graders with depression (Ge, et al., 1996a); in addition, parents of tenth graders who are both depressed and showing problem behaviors have high levels of hostility and low levels of warmth when their children are in Grades 7, 8, and 9. Similarly, depression among both European American and Asian American adolescents is associated with family relations marked by low warmth and acceptance and high levels of conflict with mothers and fathers (Greenberger & Chan, 1996). In addition, anger, hostility, coercion, and conflict shown by both parents and siblings have a detrimental effect on adolescent adjustment (Pike, McGuire, Hetherington, Reiss & Plomin, 1996).

Clearly, then, parents' negative emotions can lead, through the creation of problematic parenting behaviors, to negative outcomes in adolescent development. Moreover, the presence of problem behaviors in parents per se is linked to problems in adolescent development. For instance, psychiatric disorders among parents are related to the occurrence of antisocial and hostile behaviors among adolescents (Ge, Conger, Cadoret & Neiderhiser, 1996b). In addition, problematic alcohol consumption--problem drinking or alcoholism--in parents is associated with alcohol use and abuse problems their adolescent offspring--a relation that occurs in European American, African American, and Latino families (Barrera, Li, & Chassin, 1995; Hunt, Streissguth, Kerr & Olson, 1995; Peterson, et al., 1994). Similarly, parental drug use results in a host of behavioral, cognitive, and self esteem problems in their offspring (Kandel, Rosenbaum, & Chen, 1994), maternal smoking is associated with smoking in their adolescent children (Kandel & Wu, 1995), and in fact parental substance use in general is linked to numerous problems of adolescent personal and social, including experience with the substances (drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.) used by parents (e.g., Andrews, Hops, Ary & Tildesley, 1993; Stice & Barrera, 1995). Moreover, when fathers have an emotionally distant relationship with their wives, and as a consequence turn to their adolescent daughters for intimacy and affection, the daughters show depression, anxiety, and low self esteem (Jacobvitz & Bush, 1996).

In short, the rearing of adolescents is not accomplished in the same way and with the same outcomes by all parents. Adults vary in their parenting styles and in the manner in which they socialize their children. This variation is linked to different individual characteristics of parents and, as well, to the features of the proximal and distal contexts within which parents and families are embedded. This variation is associated also with differences in other contextual factors--relating, for instance, to parental education, family social support, parental mental health, family stability, and poverty.

For instance, IQ scores for youth are lower in larger families, wherein mother's educational attainment and the family's social support are low, and where the family is of minority background and poor (Sameroff, Seifer, Baldwin & Baldwin, 1993; Taylor, 1996). In turn, in regard to family stability, there is a considerable body of research that indicates that divorce is associated with social, academic, and personal adjustment problems, including those associated with early initiation of sexual behavior (e.g, Brody & Forehand, 1990; Carson, Madison, & Santrock, 1987; Demo & Acock, 1988; Doherty & Needle, 1991; Hetherington, 1991; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985; Simons, et. al, 1994; Wallerstein, 1987; Whitbeck, Simons, & Kao, 1994; Zaslow, 1988, 1989). In addition, parent-child relations are less hierarchical and children are pushed to grow up faster in divorced families (Smetana, 1993).

Moreover, the period following separation and divorce is quite stressful for youth (Doherty & Needle, 1991), especially if the adolescent is caught between divorced parents engaged in continuing, conflictual, and hostile interactions (Brody & Forehand, 1990; Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991). Furthermore, in some cases there are gender differences in the reaction of adolescents to divorce. For instance, although girls tend to react more negatively than boys prior to the parents' separation, they also tend to adapt better than boys after the divorce (Doherty & Needle, 1991; Hetherington, et al., 1985).

However, in the case of remarriage, there is evidence that although both male and female adolescents may have difficulty interacting with stepfathers, girls may have particular problems (e.g., Lee, Burkam, Zimiles & Ladewski, 1994). Moreover, both male and female adolescents show no improvement in relationships with their step fathers, or in behavior problems (e.g., regarding school grades) associated with the divorce--and this is the case even two years or more after the remarriage (Hetherington, 1991; Lee, et al., 1994).

In turn, living under the custody of one's natural father is linked as well to problems for both male and female adolescents (Lee, et al., 1994). For instance, adolescents living with their fathers adjust more poorly than youth living in other arrangements (e.g., with their mothers), a reaction that seems to be due to the closeness they have with, and the monitoring provided by, the parent with whom they are living (Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1992). On the other hand, living with a stepfather, as compared to living with a stepmother, is associated with more positive self esteem among both male and female adolescents (Fine & Kurdek, 1992).

Effects of maternal employment

After divorce, it is still the case that most youth live with their mothers, often for at least a period in a single-parent household (Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991), Moreover, because of unwed pregnancies or paternal death, almost one-fourth of all American families are headed by a single female (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 1995). These women must support themselves and their children and thus, in such contexts, maternal employment is virtually a necessity.

Of course, women work outside the home even when they live in intact, two-parent families. Indeed, the majority of American mothers work outside the home, and do so for personal, social, and economic reasons that correspond to those found among men (Hernandez, 1993; J. Lerner, 1994).

Despite their reasons for working, maternal employment per se has generally not been found to have adverse affects on the personal or social development of youth (J. Lerner & Galambos, 1985, 1991). Adolescents whose mothers work outside the home do not differ from youth with non-employed mothers in regard to variables such as adjustment (Armistead, Wierson, & Forehand, 1990; Galambos & Maggs, 1990); the nature of the mother-adolescent relationship (Galambos & Maggs, 1990); adolescent responsibility and self management (Keith, Nelson, Scholaback & Thompson, 1990); and adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors (Wright, Peterson, & Barnes, 1990).

Maternal employment can affect the mother's sense of "role strain," that is, (a) the feeling that she is finding it difficult to balance the demands of her role of worker with the demands of her role as mother; or simply (b) when she is dissatisfied with her role. Such role strain occurs when the mother feels there is a poor match between her aspirations or education and her job duties (Joebgen & Richards, 1990), or when she is in the midst of work transitions (Flanagan & Eccles, 1993). Simply, the mother feels stress because of the nature of her multiple roles. When such stress or role strain is experienced, an influence on adolescent adjustment can occur (Galambos, Sears, Almeida & Kolaric, 1995; J. Lerner, 1994; J. Lerner & Galambos, 1985, 1991).

Parental work and adolescents in self-care

In addition, there may be implications for youth simply because, when their mother is at work, there is no parent in the home. Indeed, a mother's time at work is obviously associated with the amount of unsupervised time a youth experiences after, and sometimes before, school (Muller, 1995; Richards & Duckett, 1994). Unsupervised time, especially the hours of 3:00 pm to 8:00 pm, does represent a problem period for youth; they often do not spend their time profitably during such periods (i.e., they "just hang out"), or they engage in high risk and/or illegal behaviors during such times (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992). However, in such cases it is the lack of supervision and not maternal employment per se that is the source of these difficulties for youth.

These problems can be counteracted, however. For example, when parents exert firm control over the way their youngsters spend time in "self care" at home, problem behaviors can be reduced (Galambos & Maggs, 1991). In addition, effective community programs for youth, for example, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, and community athletics, can provide youth with attractive, positive, and productive ways to spend their time. Current opinion among leaders of such youth-serving organizations is that if such community programs are strengthened young adolescents will have richer experiences and fewer life problems (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992).

However, the positive effect of community programs may not be as readily achieveable when the parents in a family are themselves adolescents. In such cases, the risks to offspring are increased. "Adolescents as parents" represents the second scholarly focus we must address in order to understand the contemporary linkage between adolescence and parenting. We turn, then, to this focus.

Adolescents as Parents

According to the data presented in the 1993 Kids Count Data Book, 45% of the 1.7 million new American families were started in 1990 by the birth of a new baby were at major risk of experiencing problems such as having inadequate family resources (that is, of living below the poverty line) or witnessing negative developments for the child (e.g., poor school performance) because of the presence of at least one of three factors: (1) The mother had less than 12 years of schooling; (2) The mother was unmarried to the child's father; and (3) The mother was a teenager at the time of the birth of her first baby.

Accordingly, when the head of a family is an adolescent, the family and the children living in it have an elevated probability of experiencing financial and developmental risks. Unfortunately, there continue to be many American families headed by adolescents. Illustrations of the magnitude of this problem among contemporary adolescents include:

The breadth and variation of the above-noted problems pertinent to contemporary adolescent sexual behavior is staggering. The magnitude and diversity of the manifestation of these problems is challenging the educational, health care, and social service systems of America. The complexity of these problems is due at least in part to their connection to the other risk behaviors of adolescence and to numerous individual and contextual influences on adolescents (Luster & Small, 1994).

To illustrate the several individual and contextual levels playing a role in adolescent sexual problems, we may note that biological, cognitive, and behavioral variables, and peer, family, and community ones influence adolescent sexual problems. For example, in regard to individual influences, ambivalent attitudes toward childbearing, contraception, contraceptive efficacy, and abortions are related to adolescent childbearing (Zabin, Astone, & Emerson, 1993). Similarly, possession of attitudes that reject societal norms, when combined with nonconforming behavior, is associated with early initiation of sexual intercourse among both African American and European American adolescents (Costa, Jessor, Conovan & Fortenberry, 1995). In addition, among both male and female adolescents, poor psychological adjustment is linked to early initiation of sexual intercourse (Bingham & Crockett, 1996).

The peers of adolescents also influence their sexuality. For example, peer rejection in the sixth grade is associated with the number of sexual partners females will have over the next four years (Feldman, Rosenthal, Brown & Canning, 1995). In turn, however, peer acceptance, when it is associated with both a lot of dating and use of alcohol with classmates, is associated as well with the number of sexual partners adolescents have by tenth grade (Feldman, et al., 1995).

Moreover, the number of sexually active girlfriends that an adolescent female has, as well as the number of her sexually active sisters, and whether she has an adolescent childbearing sister, are linked to her possessing permissive sexual attitudes, having positive intentions for future sex, and being more likely to be a non-virgin (East, Felice, & Morgan, 1993). Thus, both peer and family contexts can combine to influence adolescent sexuality. This point is underscored by other research. Among African American and European American males and females, possession of a girl friend or a boy friend, respectively, one's educational expectations, and the educational background of one's mother were associated with being sexually active (Scott-Jones & White, 1990); although these associations did not differ across the groups of African Americans and European Americans, it was the case that the former group of youth were less likely to use contraception than the latter group.

Family and peer contexts also influence the likelihood that adolescent girls will experience an incident of unwanted sexual activity (Small & Kerns, 1993). About 20% of girls report that unwanted sexual experiences have occurred within the past year. Approximately one-third of these encounters involved forced sexual intercourse; the other two-thirds of the events involved unwanted touching. Most of these experiences were initiated by boyfriends, dates, friends, or acquaintances (in this order). A girl's history of sexual abuse, a tendency to conform to peers, and having parents whose rearing style was either authoritarian or reflective of low monitoring were predictive of her being a target of an unwanted sexual advance. Similarly, in divorced families, a mother's dating behavior and her possession of sexually permissive attitudes influences both daughters' and sons' sexual activity (Whitback, Simons, & Kao, 1994).

The community context also influences adolescent sexuality. In poor communities, youth have higher rates of abortion and lower rates of marriage (Sullivan, 1993). In turn, among both African American and European American female adolescents, living in a socially disorganized, low income community, one wherein family planning services are not readily available, is associated with the initiation of sexual intercourse and with the young women's subsequent sexual activity.

Conclusions About the Parenting of Adolescents and Adolescents as Parents

Parents are charged with an awesome responsibility by society. Through the family they create parents must develop the human resources--the people--who will carry society forward into the future. The children that the parents rear constitute as a group this future. Society expects parents to do a good job, to create healthy and productive citizens. In most cases, parents fulfill these expectation. However, there are failures as well.

We have seen that parents vary in their rearing styles, in the directions in which they socialize their youth, and in the types of relationships they have with, and behaviors and emotions they show to, their offspring. A good deal of this diversity is not only quite healthy but is, in fact, necessary to maintain the richness of culture and experience that enhances human life. On the other hand, other instances of this variation--involving for instance, indulgent, neglectful, or authoritarian rearing styles, hostile interactions marked by negative emotions, and the display of problem behaviors--can result in significant problems for youth.

This diversity that exists in family functioning, in parenting, coupled with the diversity we have seen to exist in regard to family structure, together have pervasive implications for adolescent development. Families, in their structure and function, influence virtually all facets of the youth's psychological and social functioning. This influence may be associated with both positive and negative characteristics of adolescent behavior and development. As we have noted, all-too-often in today's society there are problematic outcomes of adolescents' relations with their families. In many cases these outcomes are associated with the adolescent himself or herself being a parent. Although family influences are not the only source of problems in adolescence, they covary with these other sources in affecting the incidence of problem behavior; at the same time family of origin influences can protect youth from the occurrence of problem behaviors.

Indeed, insofar as the limits of scientific generalization permits, most youth have the personal, emotional, and social context resources necessary to meet successfully the biological, psychological, and social challenges of this period of life--either by themselves or as a consequence of intervention programs that may capitalize on their "plasticity" (Lerner, 1984), that is, on their potential for systematic development change (cf. Dryfoos, 1990; Hamburg, 1992; Lerner, 1995). There are numerous examples of community-based programs that are indicative of this potential for successful interventions (e.g., see Dryfoos, 1990, 1994; Hamburg, 1992). Such programs provide evidence that with a supportive social context attuned to the developmental changes and individuality of youth, healthy and successful people may emerge from the period of adolescence.

We have emphasized, however, that the challenges we must address to produce such positive outcomes on a more regular and sustained basis are more daunting when the developmental period of adolescence is coupled with the role of parent. As such, a key task for future scholarship is to identify the bases of successful development under such circumstances and, then, to translate such successes into appropriately scaled and sustained programs and policies.


Copyright © 1998 Richard M. Lerner, E. Ree Noh, and Clancie Wilson.

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