Adolescence Without Family Disengagement: It Does Happen (Just Not Here)
August 9, 2004
 
August 9, 2004

URBANA--American teenagers argue with their parents, favor friends over family, and listen to music alone in their rooms for hours. And, although it's frustrating for parents, they remind themselves that rebellion is normal for teenagers. After all, we've been taught that separating from family is a necessary task of adolescence.

But a recent University of Illinois study of adolescents in India found that they and their parents have a more tranquil passage through their teenage years.

In the United States, time with friends accounts, on average, for a fourth of a teen's waking, non-classroom hours. But the Indian teenagers in the U of I study spent less than one-eleventh of their day with peers. And, when asked in a questionnaire who they would rather spend time with, 43 percent of Indian adolescents named family members, said Reed Larson, a U of I professor of family studies.

According to Larson, such family closeness during the teen years would be a developmental asset for American adolescents.

"With puberty occurring now as early as 11 or 12, it would be healthy if we could delay the distancing from family that occurs in American culture by at least three or four years," he said. "Just as young people start to go through a lot of changes, they begin to separate from the people who are in the best position to help them."

Larson and his colleagues studied 100 Indian eighth graders and their parents, all carrying a device that signaled them to report on their experiences at random times during the day. When signaled, Indian teenagers were often at home with family, and they reported more favorable emotions than a comparable sample of American teens. "For Indian teens, family time seemed to be a positive experience," he said.

In a separate report on the youth's fathers, Larson reported that Indian men were also heavily invested in family life. The random signals often found them thinking about their families and talking with their children.

In contrast, American fathers often report bringing work-related emotions home or being happiest at home when they are engaged in leisure-time activities, said Larson.

If American families slowed down and stayed home more, would the quality of our relationships improve? "Certainly there are a lot of parents whose lives are so busy that they're not there at key moments in their children's daily lives," Larson said.

But creating more family time won't help if American teens find time with their families unpleasant, he added. "We're really challenged to create family time that's rewarding for young people--so that they're not wishing they were somewhere else," he said.

So Larson encourages parents to start conversations that are woven around their children's interests. "It helps if parents stay involved with their child's school or activities so they have a starting point for conversation," he said.

The researcher found that Indian fathers were more successful than American men at engaging their teen children in conversation.

Larson said that many American men find conversation difficult. "Their interests may not naturally overlap with the interests of their teenage children. And they may not have made the time to be sensitive to the topics their children are interested in," he said.

He said it can be especially difficult for fathers to talk to their teenage daughters. "Girls are usually interested in people, emotions, and relationships--topics that often make American men uncomfortable. Indian men were better able to talk about those issues."

Larson said these parenting styles can be explained by cultural differences. Eastern cultures emphasize group needs while Western culture places more emphasis on the individual. And Indian culture has a long tradition of placing family at the center of their lives, he said.

Larson's study of Indian teenagers is a chapter in Cross-cultural Perspectives in Human Development: Theory, Research, and Applications. His study of Indian men's work and family life was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Suman Verma and Jodi Dworkin co-authored both articles.

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