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The more positive relationships teenagers have -- family, friends, school activities, volunteer work -- the better their physical and mental health, according to a new Canadian study.

The research also challenges the notion that today's teens are cynical layabouts, showing that the vast majority are active in their communities, maintain strong, positive relationships with their parents, and are healthy and feel good about themselves as a result.

"This research points to the fact that everyone can make a difference in healthy youth development," said Dr. Richard Lessard, chairman of the Canadian Population Health Initiative Council.

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"Parents, school, friends and community are all important in helping a young person realize his or her potential as a healthy young adult."

The study, published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, explores the association between five positive "assets" -- parental nurturing, parental monitoring, school engagement, volunteerism and peer connectedness -- and the health behaviours and outcomes of Canadian teens.

The research shows that, among those from 12 to 15 years of age:

53 per cent reported high levels of parental nurturing;

53 per cent reported high levels of parental monitoring;

74 per cent reported high levels of school engagement;

80 per cent reported high levels of peer connectedness;

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73 per cent reported being involved in volunteer activities.

The researchers found that the "assets" clustered and that the more engaged a teen was -- at home, at school and in the general community, the less likely they were to drink, take drugs and smoke, and the more positive they felt about themselves.

"This is the first time we've been able to make a clear link between relationships and health," said Jennifer Zelmer, vice-president of research and analysis at CIHI. She said most analyses of adolescent health tend to focus on negative behaviours like smoking and drug use, but few explore the influence of the social and home environment.

"We know that our health status is largely a consequence of where we live, work and play," Ms. Zelmer said. "That's true for teenagers, too."

She said one of the more interesting aspects of the study is that the healthy teens came from various socio-economic backgrounds. "There were rich kids and poor kids with nurturing parents, rich kids and poor kids involved in school and volunteerism, and so on."

The about 3.2 million adolescents in Canada represent about 11 per cent of the population. About 80 per cent live in two-parent families, 16 per cent with single mothers and 4 per cent with single fathers.

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The 107-page report, titled Improving the Health of Young Canadians, reveals, for example, that:

67 per cent of young people report being in excellent or very good health, while 28 per cent describe their health as good;

71 per cent report high levels of self-worth;

92 per cent report low levels of anxiety;

18 per cent smoke regularly;

By Grade 10, about 27 per cent of girls and 34 per cent of boys drink alcohol at least once weekly;

Canadian teens spend almost 15 hours a week watching TV;

The principal worries of adolescents are lack of money, lack of time and not being understood by parents.

Like positive "assets," unhealthy behaviours also cluster. In other words, teens who smoke are more likely to drink, have unsafe sex, drop out of school, engage in criminal activity, and be less involved in their community.

"It is not smooth sailing for all Canadian teens," said Elizabeth Gyorfi-Dyke, director of the Canadian Population Health Initiative at CIHI. She said one of the best predictors of trouble among adolescents is a lack of parental monitoring and nurturing.

"Teens who have lower levels of parental nurturance or who do not feel engaged at school are less likely to report being healthy and are more likely to participate in behaviours that can put their health at risk," Ms. Gyorfi-Dyke said.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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