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Strong relationships, religious involvement ease transition into adulthood, study says

Published: Saturday, May 31 2014 4:25 a.m. MDT

Congolese children are welcomed by their Italian adoptive relatives as they disembark after landing from Kinshasa, at Ciampino's military airport, on the outskirts of Rome, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. The children ran excitedly into their parents' arms after an overnight flight from Congo.

Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press

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Close relationships with at least one parent, caring teachers and religious involvement have lasting power to ease transitions as youths move through young adulthood, according to a new pair of research briefs by Child Trends.

The national nonpartisan, nonprofit research center released the two "Transitioning to Adulthood" briefs May 28.

The researchers found that when kids have caring relationships with one or both parents, the likelihood increases that they will have fewer challenges in their late teens and early 20s — even stretching into their mid- to late-20s and early 30s. The same is true for those young adults who felt as they grew up that teachers cared for them or who were involved in consistent religious activities, according to the first report, subtitled "The Role of Supportive Relationships and Regular Religious Involvement."

The second report focused on "characteristics associated with a lower-risk transition" to adulthood, examining potential problems like heavy drinking or drug abuse, criminal activity and money trouble. It found that young people who in late teens and early 20s manage to avoid those issues don't usually pick them up later. Even those who had "moderate or multiple problems" tend to face diminishing issues with them as they age.

The report characterizes ages 18 to 29 "as a period of emerging adulthood" as young adults increasingly put off milestones like marriage, careers and parenthood in favor of education and self-discovery.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, looking at "waves" of information gleaned from interviews with roughly 11,500 young adults beginning when they were 11 to 19 years old in 1994-1995. They analyzed 13 years' worth of data to determine whether those subjects were poised to make healthy transitions into adulthood.

Not all the same

Groups of young people are different, and some of the findings buck popular notions. For example, whites and males don't do as well overall with challenges as female or foreign-born young adults, the research said.

"I think that's a valuable thing to know," said Kristin A. Moore, Child Trends senior scholar, who wrote the report with colleagues Mary A. Terzian and Nicole Constance. "People think immigrants are more likely to be in this category. No. It's native-born. I have no idea why that would be." Easier to understand is the struggle of young males, she added; they can't always find decent jobs and lag in terms of obtaining higher education.

In another counterintuitive finding, the researchers also learned that "young adults who as adolescents reported that their friends cared about them 'very much' were more likely to have a high-risk transition to adulthood." The reason is not well understood and begs for more study, Moore said, adding that while most peer relationships are positive, it's not uniformly true. "Often we don't know the values or behaviors of peers."

Inaccurate view of youths

While polling shows many American adults think most kids have lots of problems, the reality is that a substantial number have very few, Moore said. Of those who do, the majority are not severe. When the researchers examined a set of risks for poor outcomes during the transition to adulthood, they found that "most kids don't have those risks or have moderate levels of those risks."

Those who have problems in early adulthood tend to get better over time, she said. One reason may be simply gaining some maturity. Brain development continues until around age 25. Also, some mitigate challenges by finding informal or formal support of some kind. Even gaining experience and earning more money provide some relief.

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