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Teens Learn Their Model of Romantic Relationships from Parents

A new study from University of Alberta relationship researchers, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found the quality of the relationship between an adolescent and their parents was directly related to the quality of the teen’s intimate relationship 15 years later. Described as a small but noteworthy association, the researchers say their findings match previous evidence that children learn their model of close relationships from their family of origin.

The researchers examined existing data from 2,970 people included in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Subjects were interviewed at three points during the study, from adolescence to young adulthood, between the ages of 12 to 32. Data from a parent questionnaire completed in the earliest phase of data collection was also used.

The parent-adolescent relationship quality was assessed through ratings given by adolescents and their parents on qualities of the relationship such as: perceived closeness, communication, level of warmth and loving, joint decision making, trust, and overall satisfaction with the relationship. As young adults, participants were asked to rate the quality of their communication with their mother and father, and their closeness to their parents. Also tested was the adolescent’s mental health (depressive symptoms and self-esteem) in the transition to adulthood, to determine if that had an effect on the association between parent-adolescent relations and young adult intimate relations.

The results indicated that higher ratings of parent-adolescent relationships predicted higher self-esteem and lower depressive symptoms as teens became young adults. Also, these teens eventually had higher young adult intimate relationship quality, leading researchers to make an indirect link between self-esteem and depressive symptoms during the transition to adolescence, and the quality of their intimate relationships as young adults.

In a press release, lead researcher, Matthew Johnson, said, "People tend to compartmentalize their relationships; they tend not to see the connection between one kind, such as family relations, and another, like couple unions. But understanding your contribution to the relationship with your parents would be important to recognizing any tendency to replicate behaviour—positive or negative—in an intimate relationship."

That doesn't mean parents should be blamed for what might be wrong in a grown child's relationship, Johnson added. "It is important to recognize everyone has a role to play in creating a healthy relationship, and each person needs to take responsibility for their contribution to that dynamic."

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