Family Foundations of Youth Development

Research Update

W. Justin Dyer, Michael A. Goodman, Mark D. Ogletree, and Sam Hardy

Justin Dyer ( is an associate professor in BYU's Department of Church History and Doctrine.

Michael A. Goodman is the Associate Publications Director at the BYU Religious Studies Center.

Mark Ogletree is an associate professor in the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine.

Sam Hardy is a professor of Developmental Psychological at BYU.

Principal Investigator: Justin Dyer; Co-Investigators: Michael Goodman, Mark Ogletree, Sam Hardy

There is a tremendous need for us to better understand the rising generation’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Headlines regularly speak of the challenges our youth face and the dire consequences they often experience, from broken families to drug and alcohol addiction, pornography, faith crises, mental health problems, and even suicide. There has never been a time where accurate information is more important as we try to stem the tide of mental health difficulties that threatens to overwhelm today’s adolescents. A crucial concern for Latter-day Saints is how our own youth are handling these pressing issues.

With a desire to better understand so that we can all better help, we began the Family Foundations of Youth Development project in 2016.[1] The project has three main goals:

  1. Describe the family life, mental health, and religious activity, attitudes, and beliefs of today’s youth
  2. Describe how family life, mental health, and religious activity, attitudes, and beliefs influence each other
  3. Examine how family life, mental health, and religious activity, attitudes, and beliefs predict the following in early adulthood:
    1. Religious activity
    2. Mental health
    3. Family life

We began with a sample of approximately 600 fourteen-to-sixteen-year-old youth living in Utah and an additional 600 adults—the parents of the youth. These youth and parents were randomly selected from a large database containing information on Utah residents. In 2018, the 600 youth (now sixteen to eighteen years old) and parents were again recruited to participate, and an additional approximately 600 youth and parents from Arizona were recruited to participate. In 2020, the 1200 youth from Utah and Arizona were recruited to participate again (now ranging from sixteen to twenty years old—we have over 100 of our sample currently on missions) and approximately 600 additional youth from California were recruited. In 2022 we again recruited each of these 1800+ adolescents and their individual parents (over 3600 participants total). We just wrapped up this fourth wave of data collection.

This project has relied on online surveys; however, in 2023 we conduct face-to-face (in person or via Zoom) interviews with some select participants. This will provide in-depth data on their experiences, offering a rich source of information for understanding what is found in the survey.

This is one of the largest longitudinal studies on adolescent development ever. The fact that it is longitudinal—meaning we survey the same people every two years—allows us to not only determine basic associations but to begin to examine cause and effect. The fact that we survey both the youth/young adults and their parents allows us to understand family dynamics and parental impact. We have oversampled Latter-day Saints so that approximately one half of our sample individuals are Latter-day Saints and the other half are from other faith traditions or no faith tradition. This varied sample provides unprecedented opportunities to help us see how our youth are doing alongside those of other or faiths or no faith.

Longitudinal research designs are quite rare because they can be so time, labor, and money intensive. One of the key reasons this project is possible is our intentional focus on student mentioning. BYU’s encouragement of undergraduates taking part in research is quite rare among universities, and we and our students have been blessed by BYU’s emphasis. In fact, this project would be prohibitively expensive by way of both time and money without the involvement of numerous student assistants. Every two years we have recruited around twenty new research assistants. They apply for the opportunity, and we have always had more students apply than we have been able to accept. As part of the assistantship, the students take an entire winter semester course. In this course we teach them both the state of the extant research on adolescent development, with an emphasis on spiritual well-being, and the skills they will need to work as paid research assistants over the spring and summer terms.

As part of this winter-semester class, we break the students up into four teams, each headed by a faculty member, to design and implement a research project that can be presented at a state, regional, or national academic conference. Since 2016, this has resulted in over forty students co-presenting 12 separate presentations at the BYU Mary Lou Fulton Mentored Student Research Conference; thirty students co-presenting 9 separate presentations at the Utah Council on Family Relations Conference; and twenty-five students co-presenting 9 separate presentations at the National Council on Family Relations Conference. One of our mentored poster presentations won a best poster award at the Mary Lou Fulton Conference, and two of our student-involved paper presentations were awarded the Outstanding Professional Paper award by the National Council of Family Relations’ Religion, Spirituality, and Family section.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this research project is the opportunity to work with and mentor these bright and capable undergraduate students. They are involved in every aspect of the research, from design, data collection, and analysis to the creation/writing of the poster or paper. Though all four faculty members work with all of the research assistants, each student works especially closely with the faculty member who is directing their research project. We are regularly amazed at the hard work and capability of the students. Many of our research assistants have been accepted to graduate school and began their studies as a result of these mentored learning opportunities.

Besides the academic poster and paper presentations mentioned above, we have regularly presented findings from our research in church and public settings. We have presented to several general organizations of the Church, including the Priesthood and Family Department, the General Young Men and Young Women’s Presidencies, the Church’s Communication/Public Affairs Division, the Correlation Research Committee, and the LGBTQ Working Group in the Church Office Building. Additionally, in March 2022 the BYU Office of Student Success and Inclusion sponsored a meeting where we presented some of our research findings to faculty from throughout campus. Articles highlighting our research have also been published in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and the Church News.

Our research projects thus far have dealt with a number of important areas. For example, in one project we found the importance of peer support in reducing depression and discovered that youth (especially boys) who experience both high family religious practices and high father-positive parenting had the lowest levels of depression. Similarly, we found that when mothers were verbally hostile but family religious practices where high, youth felt particularly abandoned by God. We also found that when youth were 12–14, if they were experiencing high shame, low church support, and/or low family flexibility, they were more likely to increase in their suicidal thoughts over the next two years. Another project found that keeping the Sabbath day reverent or holy appears to reduce anxiety symptoms in adolescents. Furthermore, personal prayer and keeping the Sabbath Day holy also appear to reduce depressive symptoms.

Some other work examined LGBTQ youth and how coming out was related to their mental health. We found that when the child’s report of parental warmth was high, they had relatively low levels of anxiety no matter whether they were out or not. However, when children did not see their parents as warm, the more out they were, the more anxious and depressed they were.

At this point, these findings are just the tip of the iceberg. With the most recent data we will be able to examine how family, religion, and mental health factors early on can predict religiousness and mental health as the youths in our study enter adulthood. Our goals are not just to produce new knowledge, but to assist those who work with adolescents and young adults, both in and out of the Church, to know how best to encourage youth to succeed and thrive in their lives.


[1] See