TUESDAY, Aug. 21, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Parents often assume that time spent with their kids will dwindle in adolescence. But a new study suggests that while teens try to avoid spending a lot of time with their parents and friends together, private parent-child encounters may actually increase during these critical years.
And that may raise a teenager's self-esteem and social confidence, especially if it is time spent with Dad, the researchers added.
"It's commonly thought that something about adolescence splits kids and parents apart," said study co-author Susan McHale, a professor of human development at Penn State University. But, she said, they're often drawn together as the teenager becomes more capable of abstract thinking and interested in more communicative relationships.
The study was published in the August issue of Child Development.
The investigators wanted to know how time with parents affected teens' self-esteem and sense of social competence with their peers.
McHale and her colleagues have been studying how kids spend their time since the early 1980s. They've found that asking people after the fact what they did days or weeks earlier isn't as accurate or revealing as tracking activities in real time.
So they created a long-term (longitudinal) study in which they invited families in 16 school districts in central Pennsylvania to participate.
In each family, a teenager, a younger sibling, their mother and their father were interviewed in the home and then queried about their activities and self-perceptions five times over a period of seven years.
"Talking to kids on the phone about what they did that day really gives you insight into the reality of everyday life for them," said McHale. "Rather than getting generalized or processed information, it's right when things have been happening and in the children's own words, and it's harder for them to make mistakes or forget."
During the interviews, the children's sense of self-worth was measured using a multiple choice questionnaire to describe their feelings about themselves and how they got along socially with others in their age group.
The families participating in the study were a lot alike. They were white, all headed by a mother and a father, living middle- and working-class lifestyles in small cities, towns and rural communities. Most of the families had two to three children.
At the beginning of the study, the oldest children were about 11 and the closest sibling was about 8. The researchers compensated for the parents' level of education and factors associated with their psychological status and marital satisfaction, just to be sure issues weren't affecting their children or relationships within the family.
The study authors were surprised to discover that when fathers spent more time alone with their teenagers, the kids reported they felt better about themselves. "Mothers weren't unimportant, but they are kind of a given in most families," said McHale. "Mothers' roles are very scripted: they're caregivers, activity planners."
Something about the father's role in the family seemed to boost self-esteem among the teenagers in the study, McHale said. What most differentiated some families from others was how much the dad was typically around and whether he devoted some of that time to be with his children, she explained.
The study also found that parents tend to spend even more time with their second-born teenager than they do with the first. Why? Probably because the parents' comfort level in dealing with an adolescent is higher the second time around, said McHale. "The first born is a rough draft," she said.
Marta Flaum, a psychologist in private practice in Chappaqua, N.Y., who specializes in children and adolescents, said that how these findings translate to the much more heterogeneous real world is a real question. "The sample [in the study] is so small and so unrepresentative of most families in the country today that I'm not sure how much we can generalize from it," she said. "I'd like to see that study replicated in urban and suburban areas."
In Flaum's community in Westchester County, she doesn't see parents and teenagers spending much time together at all, she said. "Parents are working so hard, and such long hours, and kids are so over-scheduled and cultivated."
While Flaum said she thinks it's true that the more time kids spend with their parents, the happier and more self-confident they'll become, she doesn't think most teenagers get much exposure to their parents these days. "With the growing influence of screen time and everyone more plugged in than ever, I fear there is less, not more, family-together time."
However, Flaum encourages parents to make time for their kids regardless of all their other responsibilities. "Research like this reminds us of how important it is. The time we have with them is so fleeting," she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on building self-esteem in teenagers.