With the onset of adolescence, parents and their children in some cultural groups show a decrease in the time they spend interacting with each other and in the number of activities they do together outside the home. These declines are quite common in white middle-class families in America (Larson and Richards, 1991; Steinberg, 1990). We know much less about how typical these declines are in other cultural groups. Steinberg (1990) argues that this “distancing” in relations between adolescents and parents is a natural part of adolescent development, citing evidence from nonhuman primates that puberty is the time at which parents and offspring often go their separate ways. Because parents and adolescents in American culture usually continue to live together for a long time after puberty, distancing rather than complete separation may be the evolutionary vestige in humans. Although he did not take an evolutionary perspective, Collins (1990) also concluded that the distancing in parent-adolescent relations has great functional value for adolescents, in that it fosters their individualization from their parents, allows them to try more things on their own, and develops their own competence and efficacy. It should be noted, however, that this distancing is not universal. It occurs less frequently and less extremely in many non-Western cultures and in both Hispanic and Asian communities in the United States (Larson and Verma, 1999; Mortimer and Larson, 2002).
These changes in family relationships have two important implications for community programs for youth. First, community programs, particularly for early adolescents, can help support good communications and relationships between youth and their parents. Programs such as those developed by Girls, Inc. (2000a) for preventing adolescent pregnancy have specifically focused on facilitating parent-youth communication about issues of sexuality and resisting peer pressure. Community programs can provide a setting outside the family in which adolescents can explore their growing independence and autonomy from their parents in well-supervised, safe, and constructive environments. These programs have the potential to provide the opportunity for youth to form close supportive relationships with both familial and nonfamilial adults. These relationships in turn can provide a way for youth to discuss and explore issues of identity and morality as well as future life options. These relationships also have the potential to provide them with important social connections that can help them as they navigate adolescence and the transition into adulthood.