Northwestern study refutes 'sturm und drang' theory of adolescence

December 02, 2002

Despite the widely accepted belief that puberty breeds rebellion and emotional turmoil, findings from a Northwestern University study show that adolescents raised in traditional families are more likely to be well-adjusted teenagers and, as adults, have traditional families and continue their good adjustment.

The research also found that teenagers from less traditional families are more likely to have a tumultuous or periodically troubled adolescence and, as adults, to be in less traditional families and to be more poorly adjusted.

Daniel Offer, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study that evaluated 67 normal, mentally healthy, suburban male participants initially in 1962, when the boys were 14, and again in 1997, at age 48. Participants were questioned about family relationships, home environment, dating, sexuality, religion, parental discipline and general activities. Ten percent of the families were African-American or Hispanic.

As reported in the December issue of Adolescent and Family Health, the men who had been raised in intact two-parent, middle-class families were more likely to be married, be involved in traditional family relationships, attend religious services and participate in sports or exercise.

Unlike the boys in the "continuous" group, those from the "tumultuous" group were more likely to come from disrupted backgrounds. As adults, they were significantly less likely to be married or involved in traditional family relationships and unlikely to attend church and to exercise.

Results of the study indicate that continuity is an important aspect of development, Offer said.

The teenagers who came from a positive family background had no adolescent turmoil, sailed through adolescence and young adulthood and continued to live a life in harmony with their background.

Those in the "tumultuous" adolescent group also continued to reflect the adjustment of their teenage years, Offer said. The boys in this group had questioned cultural norms and, as adults, were more likely to live outside cultural norms.

"Both groups still hold on to the position they had as adolescents and young adults," Offer said.

Offer also said that results of this study test the psychoanalytic theory that adolescents who appear to be well adjusted as teenagers are "ticking time bombs" who will show significant maladjustment later in life.

Offer and colleagues found no hidden pathology among the "continuous" group. They were normal in adolescence and, 27 years later, were functioning in the same mode.

"We can now question even more deeply the 'sturm und drang' [storm and stress] theory of adolescence," Offer said.

His co-researchers on the study were Marjorie Kaiz and David Albert, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and Eric Ostrov, Loyola University, Chicago.
-end-
KEYWORDS: adolescence, troubled teens, traditional families, continuity

Northwestern University

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