U.Va. Receives $600,000 to Study Influence of Non-Parental Adult Relationships in Lives of Youth

Researchers at Youth-Nex: The Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia have won a $596,465 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to study the influence of non-parental adult relationships in the lives of adolescents and just how those bonds develop.

Nancy Deutsch, associate professor at the Curry School of Education, and Valerie Futch, a Youth-Nex postdoctoral fellow, are co-principal investigators.

“Research has shown how important adults are in the lives of kids – as role models, mentors and sources of social support,” Deutsch said, “but little work has been done on how these relationships are formed and sustained.”

Futch added, “Relationships with non-parental adults are not simply something that ‘happen to’ youth. Rather, youth exercise considerable choice in identifying which adults may be positive mentors and implement agency in crafting productive relationships.”

In their 3½-year study, Deutsch and Futch will follow two groups of youths: seventh- to 10th-graders, and 10th-graders to new high school graduates.

Deutsch, whose work focuses on the role of after-school programs and non-parental adults in the lives of youth deemed “at-risk,” said those are “key transitional points” in youths’ lives.

“Both transitions, from middle school to high school and from high school to post-high school, involve changes in their relationships with adults and peers, as teens become less self-focused and more concerned with reconfiguring intimate relationships and figuring out new roles for themselves in society,” she said. “These are times when youth are particularly in need of adult relationships for support and a bridge to the adult world.”

Futch’s expertise lies in the area of adolescent identity development and the aspects of settings and safe spaces that contribute to effective identity development. She said the study’s implications are also important for the way we as a society plan and think about the environments youths routinely use.

“If we can better understand these relationships, then we can make informed decisions not only about our relationships with youth, but about how we create spaces – in schools, after-school programs and communities – that provide opportunities for fostering these beneficial ties,” Futch said.

The researchers said the publicity surrounding negative and damaging youth-adult relationships in recent months underscores the need for this kind of study.

“It makes it all the more important for us to understand the positive relationships that youth do have with adults, so that as a society we can better support those,” Deutsch said.

“An aim of the research,” Futch said, “is also to understand youths’ general perceptions of adults and what adults think of them and to get at their internal assessment of the promise, possibility and risk inherent in these relationships.”

Futch said they hope their work will create a multi-layered understanding of what positive relationships look like.

“That way, we can understand how the youth, adults and settings converge and create relationships that are empowering and effective for youth,” she said.

Researchers will issue an initial report at the end of the first year with additional reports throughout the grant period. They will complete a final report in the fall of 2016.

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Ellen Daniels

Assistant Director of Communications University of Virginia, Contemplative Sciences Center