September 2023 Research Roundup
In this issue of our quarterly Research Roundup, we provide an overview of some recent research showcasing the importance of support for positive identity development, the role of family and peers in mental health and emotion regulation, and the impacts of educational settings.
In This Roundup
- The importance of social identities in adolescence as an opportunity to promote positive adjustment (September 2023)
- Effects of conflict at school and at home on the emotional health of gender nonconforming youth (June 2023)
Family and Peer Relationships
- Strong family cultural values can moderate environmental effects on adolescent mental health (September 2023)
- Parents and friends can both influence emotion regulation abilities in adolescents (September 2023)
- Exclusionary discipline practices in schools can increase the risk of legal system contact and substance use in adulthood (October 2023)
- School engagement in adolescence predicts positive adult outcomes (March 2023)
Adolescence is a key period for exploring and developing our sense of who we are. This includes our social identity, such as our ethnic-racial or sexual identity. In this paper, Adam Hoffman and Adriana Umaña-Taylor argue that the importance of social identity during adolescence can be an opportunity to promote positive adjustment—especially for youth with marginalized social identities. The authors highlight two specific interventions that effectively targeted social identity development and improved adolescent adjustment: the Identity project and the PRIDE project.
The Identity project was a weekly, school-based intervention in which mid-adolescent (about 15 years old) youth explored their ethnic-racial identity, with the opportunity to teach each other, reflect, and discuss. The program increased exploration of and clarity in the students’ ethnic-racial identity, which was in turn associated with higher levels of self-esteem, better academic outcomes, and lower symptoms of depression a year later. The PRIDE project was a short intervention aimed at affirming marginalized social identities amongst 9th graders, a transition year for many youth when self-esteem often begins to decline. The intervention–three sessions throughout the year for youth to write about one of their social identities, what they liked about it, and why–buffered against this developmental decline in self-esteem. By the end of the year, youth in the program showed higher self-esteem than their peers once the program was completed. (Child Development Perspectives, September 2023)
Why this is important: This paper draws upon successful real-world interventions to highlight the value of programs that support social identity exploration and affirmation in adolescence, especially for youth with marginalized social identities.
Gender nonconformity—gender expression that differs from stereotypes based on sex assigned at birth—has been associated with elevated risk of emotional and behavioral health problems in youth due to higher rates of peer victimization and rejection by parents and peers. In a sample of 10,000+ 10- and 11-year-olds, Hannah Loso and colleagues examined how family conflict and perceptions of the school environment (that is, how safe and/or supported an individual feels at their school) might contribute to the association between gender nonconformity and emotional and behavioral health problems in youth. Youth with gender nonconforming presentations reported higher levels of conflict amongst family members, as well as poorer perceptions of their school environments; even further, family conflict and negative perceptions of the school environment partially explained the associations between gender nonconformity and mental and behavioral health problems amongst these youth. (Journal of Adolescent Health, June 2023)
Why this is important: This study demonstrates how gender nonconforming youth often face family and school conflict at a detriment to their mental and behavioral health, highlighting the potential value of school and family-based interventions such as anti-discrimination policies for schools or education and resources for parents to support their gender nonconforming children.
Family and Peer Relationships
Family cultural values—such as those that emphasize family support, attachment, loyalty, respect, and obligation—can shape the home environment and influence emotional development. In this study, Gianna Rea-Sandin and colleagues examined whether family cultural values impact mental health and behavior in adolescence. In 10,000+ children and adolescents and their parents, greater parent- and youth-reported family cultural values at age 11 to 12 predicted fewer internalizing symptoms (such as anxiety and depression) and externalizing symptoms (such as rule-breaking behavior or aggression) at ages 12 to 13. In a subset of the sample that included 1,042 twin pairs, the authors found that shared and unshared environmental influences, but not genetic factors, accounted for the variance in internalizing symptoms over adolescence. Interestingly, higher levels of family cultural values decreased the role of unshared environment influences on internalizing symptoms amongst the twins, indicating the important role that supportive family environments can play in shaping healthy emotional development in adolescence. (Behavior Genetics, September 2023)
Why this is important: This study demonstrates that family cultural values such as respect and loyalty towards family can be a protective factor for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in adolescence.
During adolescence, we are especially sensitive to our social environment. Feedback from those around us shapes how we process and regulate our emotions. Although friends become increasingly important in adolescence, parents are still key to emotional development during this time. In this study, Juan Wang and colleagues explored how feedback from friends, mothers, and fathers can facilitate or impede emotion regulation abilities in a group of 438 young adolescents (around 11 to 12 years old).
More supportive responses from friends were associated with better emotion regulation abilities a year later for both boys and girls, while parents’ responses showed uniquely strong effects in girls. Mothers’ supportive responses (such as asking why the child is unhappy or assuring them they don’t have to worry) explained additional emotion regulation abilities beyond friends’ responses, and fathers’ unsupportive responses (such as ignoring the child’s unhappiness or punishing the child) moderated the predictive power of friends’ responses on emotion regulation abilities a year later. This suggests that both parents and peers are important for regulating emotions in adolescence; further, parental support may enhance or decrease the positive effects of peer support, suggesting that even if adolescents rely on peers over parents for emotion regulation, parents can shape the influence of peer support on their child’s emotional development. (Journal of Youth and Adolescence, September 2023)
Why this is important: This study demonstrates that social relationships with both parents and peers are important for emotion processing and regulation in adolescence and underscores the value of both forms of social support for adolescent emotional development.
Exclusionary discipline practices in schools can increase the risk of legal system contact and substance use in adulthood
Exclusionary school discipline (suspension and expulsion) can break down social bonds, decrease school connectedness, and disrupt academic progress, which can increase the risk of problematic substance use and exposure to the criminal legal system. In this study, Seth Prins and colleagues examined associations between substance use and exclusionary school discipline in a group of 20,000+ high school students who were interviewed in the 1990s and early 2000s, when exclusionary discipline practices and school-based arrests increased sharply in the United States. The authors also tested how adolescent substance use and exclusionary school discipline predicted likelihood of being arrested in adulthood (ages 24 to 32 years old).
Students who reported substance use were more likely to experience school discipline over the following years, and students who reported exclusionary school discipline were more likely to report substance use in the following years. Youth who reported substance use and exclusionary school discipline in adolescence were also more likely to use substances and to be arrested as adults. (Drug and Alcohol Dependence, October 2023)
Why this is important: This study demonstrates that exclusionary school discipline practices can contribute to substance use and future entrance into the criminal legal system, highlighting schools as crucial contexts for investment in interventions to support healthy outcomes instead of exclusionary punishments.
In this study, Jennifer Symonds and colleagues used data from 13,135 individuals studied over 40 years of life to investigate how school engagement in adolescence relates to educational and employment outcomes in adulthood. Students were interviewed at age 16 regarding their level of school engagement—measured by how much they enjoyed school, felt school was a good use of time, and were willing to help and participate at school. Over a decade later, at ages 34 and 46, these same individuals were interviewed regarding their employment outcomes. Higher levels of school engagement at age 16 predicted higher educational achievement and income levels in adulthood, even when controlling for relevant demographics such as childhood socioeconomic status and cognitive ability. (Developmental Psychology, March 2023)
Why this is important: This study shows that engagement in school and school activities in adolescence can have a persistent, positive impact on adult outcomes, highlighting the importance of fostering engagement in schools for healthy adolescent development.