The family someone comes from can shape how they relate to the world around them – including how they cope with stressful situations, as it turns out.
A new study from researchers in Canada and New Zealand suggests that the sense of connection teenagers have with their families foreshadows the coping skills they will develop, which in turn predicts their subsequent mental and physical health.
In the study, researchers tracked 1,774 teenagers in New Zealand, surveying them once a year for three years.
To evaluate these teens’ sense of family connectedness, the researchers looked at factors like whether participants identified strongly with their families and how much time they spent engaged in activities with their families.
As far as coping skills, the researchers were especially concerned with the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies. Adaptive coping skills are ones generally with positive mental health outcomes. These coping strategies, which seem to promote mental health, include techniques like seeking out social support and engaging in active problem-solving.
By contrast, maladaptive coping strategies tend to be counterproductive. They include strategies that center on avoiding certain situations or getting caught up in repetitive negative thoughts.
Besides looking at family connectedness and coping skills, the researchers considered adolescents’ health outcomes at the end of the study. This was done both by simply asking the study participants to rate their health and by considering factors such as substance use, self-harm and sleep habits.
Putting all this information together, the researchers found an interesting pattern. Teenagers with a higher sense of family connectedness in the first year of the study tended to use more adaptive and less maladaptive coping strategies in the second year of the study, and teenagers using more adaptive and less maladaptive coping strategies in the second year of the study in turn tended to report better health outcomes at the end of the study.
Moreover, the link between family connectedness at the beginning of the study and health at the end of the study could be partly explained by coping skills. That finding raises the possibility that having a better sense of family connection somehow builds more effective coping skills, which ultimately has positive health implications for teenagers.
On one hand, these results reaffirm the difference that good coping skills can make. To the extent that interventions such as therapy can help people turn their energy toward positive coping mechanisms (like problem solving) rather than negative ones (like avoidance), those interventions can set people up for better mental health outcomes.
But an additional point raised by this study is that, in some cases, interventions designed to improve coping skills might be able to go back further and take into account factors that influence coping skills to begin with. At least for teenagers, anything that can be done to build family connectedness might also ultimately facilitate the process of taking up healthy coping strategies.