By Lisa Rapaport

Teens who feel understood by their parents and teachers may grow up to be healthier adults, a U.S. study suggests.

The 14,800 study participants completed health surveys at an average age of 15. “Connectedness” scores averaged 22.1 out of a possible high score of 30 for teens’ relationships at school and 25.5 out of 30 for family relationships.

Later, at an average age of 28, participants with higher levels of school connectedness in adolescence had lower rates of emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, physical violence victimization and perpetration, multiple sex partners, sexually transmitted infections, and drug abuse, the study found.

Higher levels of family connectedness were linked to lower odds of emotional distress, all exposures to violence including intimate partner violence, multiple sex partners, sexually transmitted infections, and drug abuse, the study also found.

“These findings suggest that helping strengthen connections to schools and family during adolescence can have a powerful impact on an individual’s health, potentially contributing to better adult outcomes in terms of mental health, experience of violence, sexual risk behavior, and substance use – areas that are directly related to major health crises we now face as a nation,” said senior study author Kathleen Ethier, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“While this study did not delve into why school and family connectedness are so important in addressing these outcomes, we do also know that social isolation underlies many negative psychological and social problems both during adolescence and adulthood,” Ethier said by email. “It may be that connectedness during adolescence provides a more solid base on which to continue to build those connections with important others into adulthood.”

Compared to people in the study with lower scores for each type of connectedness, participants with higher scores were 48% to 66% less likely to have a range of risky health behaviors, researchers report in Pediatrics.

Adolescence is widely recognized as a critical period in child development that shapes the choices people make in adulthood. Many teens engage in risky behaviors or experience adverse events that contribute to poor life decisions and experiences later in life, the study team writes.

At the same time, positive experiences during adolescence can have a lasting positive impact on the direction people’s lives take later on, particularly when they learn how to form healthy relationships with other people and make healthy choices about things like sex and drug use.

“Many behaviors we have as adults began when we were adolescents – we call this “tracking” of health behaviors,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The chances of getting on the right track with health behaviors may be higher when teens have solid relationships and modeling of good behaviors both at school and at home, Carnethon, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“While connectedness through school can set social norms among a peer group, for example a sports team (that) reinforces the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle for better performance, these social norms are solidified when families share those same values with their teens,” Carnethon said.

“A family that also models close relationships, healthy conflict resolution and healthy lifestyles helps a teen navigate how to integrate these important principles into his/her own life,” Carnethon added. “Connectedness at school and in the family are interrelated and reinforce one another.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online June 24, 2019.