Dr. Amanda Morris knows that being a teenage girl isn’t easy.
“Girls reach physical maturity earlier than boys, and they don’t reach emotional maturity until late adolescence,” says the Oklahoma State University – Tulsa researcher. “Because of this gap, teenage girls are at a high risk of emotional difficulties and are more likely to suffer from depression than teenage boys.
Teenage girls living in economically poor or violent neighborhoods have even greater odds of suffering with emotional problems, she says.
Morris, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, is taking a unique approach in her latest research project by examining the interpersonal relationships between teenage girls, their mothers and friends. She wants to identify factors that result in a positive self-image and help teenage girls avoid risky behaviors, such as underage drinking, smoking, substance abuse and unprotected sex.
“There isn’t a lot of data available on what factors affect decision-making in adolescent girls, especially those living in high-risk situations,” says Morris. “Our study looks at the protective factors, such as support from peers and parents, that help girls make positive life choices, and how interactions with their mothers and friends impact their behavior.”
The National Institutes of Health awarded Morris a three-year, $490,000 grant to conduct the research with teenage girls living in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Tulsa.
“Dr. Morris’ research seeks to understand some of the fundamental issues that affect teenage girls in urban areas across the country,” says Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and OSU Center for Health Sciences. “The recognition from the National Institutes of Health will provide momentum for this study as researchers at OSU continue to address and find solutions to common problems affecting families everywhere.”
Living in poverty and exposure to high levels of community violence increases the chance of engaging in criminal activity, dropping out of high school and early pregnancy. Teenagers in Oklahoma have the highest rates of cigarette usage, the seventh highest birth rate and the 10th highest rate of alcohol use in the country. Teenage girls are also much more likely to suffer from depression and face myriad additional challenges as the result of engaging in risky behaviors, Morris says.
“Our research will gather data on how emotions impact whether or not they engage in risky behavior or suffer from depression,” she says. “Teenage girls are at a much higher risk for emotion-related difficulties partially due to the gap between the onset of puberty and emotional maturity. Girls start puberty at a much earlier age than boys.”
The project, Understanding Resilience in Adolescent Girls: Parent, Peer, and Emotional Dynamics, is a partnership with many researchers at OSU, on both the Tulsa and Stillwater campuses, in affiliation with the Center for Family Resilience at OSU-Tulsa.
Michael Criss, associate professor of human development at OSU, is serving as a co-investigator on the project. Morris and Criss are also working with a group of undergraduate and graduate students to collect the data. Karina Shreffler, OSU-Tulsa associate professor of human development and family science, Robert Larzelere, OSU professor of research methodology, Nancy Eisenberg, regents professor of psychology at Arizona State university, and Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, are consultants on the project.
The study aims to collect data from a group of approximately 80 girls, aged 12 to 15. Each girl gets a cellphone, and researchers contact them several times a day for two weeks to collect data on their emotional state and what activities are happening at that particular time.
“This method provides us with real-time data about how the girls are feeling at a given time and provides context for what factors are influencing their behavior,” says Morris. The girls are monitored for four weeks as researchers collect data through the cell phone interviews, and two lab visits where participants engage in observational tasks and answer questions.
A unique aspect of the research project is the inclusion of mothers and peers in the research analysis.
“Parents and peers can have protective relationships we want to explore,” says Morris. When researchers meet with a girl for an in-depth assessment, they also observe social interactions as the girl’s mother and a friend participate with the teenager.
“Our goal is to help girls develop positive mental health and avoid engaging in risky behaviors,” Morris says. “The research will help us understand the factors that protect against depression and empower young women to graduate from high school, make good decisions and be emotionally resilient.”
School counseling, parent education, peer counseling and prevention programs could benefit from the study.
“This project has the potential to impact millions of families and will contribute to better communities,” Barnett says. “It is another example of how researchers at OSU-Tulsa are creating a brighter future in the day-to-day lives of people across the country.”