Youths in urban environments often have high levels of exposure to community violence. They face complex social and economic pressures and have few safe spaces to spend time. For the past three decades, homicide has been the leading cause of death among African American adolescents. It has been the second-most common cause of death among all adolescents in the United States.
Dr. Alison Culyba is an adolescent medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. She meets young people every day who have been exposed to violence within their families, peer groups or neighborhoods. Through her work, she is committed to protecting teens from violence. Her research seeks to understand the role of positive connections with adults in the lives of youths navigating challenging situations.
Having an adult who supports youths unconditionally and holds them to high expectations helps teens thrive. Research from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) shows important findings about connections. Having supportive connections to adults is important for young people’s healthy development. It promotes physical health, mental health and school engagement. Other positive effects show reductions in substance use and a delay in sexual initiation. For many teens in the Add Health study, these positive adult connections come from parents. Some youths also identify healthy connections with adult mentors outside their families.
Dr. Culyba’s research also looks at adolescents in low-resource urban environments. When these youths have adults in their lives whom they look up to and whom they can turn to for guidance in handling tough situations, positive things happen. These mentors can have profound protective effects on young people’s health and development. Before moving to Pittsburgh, Dr. Culyba and colleagues worked in Philadelphia. In a study among adolescent males there, the research team found that 86 percent of youths identified a positive adult connection. Sixty-eight percent specifically identified a supportive connection with an adult family member. Those youths with positive adult connections were significantly more likely to be thriving at school. They were less likely to use substances or be exposed to violence.