Factors that help teens avoid struggles as adults

BlogFamiliesMay 28 2014

We can all probably recall a few (or maybe even more than a few!) awkward or difficult moments from when we were moving through our own transition to adulthood. After all, it’s a time when we’re exploring our role in the world and relationships with other people, figuring out who we want to be. We’re bound to make some mistakes. But what happens to youth who have significant problems, like drug use or criminal behavior? Do they continue to struggle as adults?

Two hot-off-the-presses Child Trends’ briefs investigate this question and examine whether any factors improve troubled youths’ chances of being less troubled when they are young adults. (Briefs are here and here.)

Child Trends researchers used data from the Add Health (a.k.a. the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health). This survey followed a group of people from the time they were in grades seven to 12 all the way into their mid-20s to early 30s. We looked at whether the study participants reported several problem behaviors when they were in emerging adulthood (late teens/early 20s) and again when they were young adults in their late 20s/early 30s. Specifically, we examined five issues: serious delinquency such as selling drugs or stealing, weekly binge drinking, marijuana use, other drug use, and financial problems such as being evicted or having utilities turned off because of missed payments.

Most people fell into a low/minimal problems group during their emerging adulthood phase (late teens/early 20s), but a substantial minority were in a medium/moderate group, and a few had multiple/high levels of problems. There are some differences in who experiences problems in their late teens/early 20s: whites, males, and those born in the U.S. are more likely to fall into the multiple problems group at those ages than their African American, Latino, female, or foreign-born counterparts.

The good news is that nearly all emerging adults who have minimal problem behaviors become young adults who have minimal problems (we found that was true for 100 percent of females and 99 percent of males). Even more promising is that people who have moderate or multiple problems in their late teens or early 20s tend to have fewer problems in their later 20s or early 30s. We found that about half of the people who had multiple problems as emerging adults had only moderate problems as young adults. However, to some extent, problems persist into young adulthood – in fact, only 1 percent of males who had multiple problems as emerging adults had minimal problems as young adults (though 14 percent of females had went from having multiple to minimal problems).

But what kinds of relationships and supports help youth make a positive and healthy transition into adulthood? Past research has found that supportive connections with peers and adults matter, and other research says religious involvement and school engagement matter, too. We found that emerging adults with multiple problems were more likely to have fewer problems as young adults when their adolescence was characterized by having caring teachers or attending weekly religious services or youth groups. However, emerging adults with multiple problems who, as adolescents, were close to their parents or their friends were just as likely to have multiple problems as young adults (although having a close relationship with a parent is tied to having fewer problems in older adolescence to begin with). While we all experience a few bumps in the road to adulthood, having caring teachers, strong family relationships, and regular involvement in faith-based or other supportive communities may help smooth the way.