Parenting Styles Can Minimize (or Prompt) Risky Teen Behaviors
During the teen years, it often feels like parents stop mattering to kids. But two new studies reinforce a deep body of research suggesting the opposite: Not only do parents continue to matter, parenting styles has an outsized effect on the risky teenage behaviors all parents worry over.
We’ve written before about how parenting style is the biggest deterrent of underage drinking. Now, a new study has reached similar conclusions regarding abuse of drugs in general.
“The key conclusion is that parenting style can be a protective factor or a risk factor for the consumption of alcohol and other drugs in adolescence,” said Zila Sanchez, PhD, the study’s lead author and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School in Brazil. “This means the drug abuse prevention programs implemented by schools should not just raise the children’s awareness but also focus on training parenting skills.”
Sanchez’s team surveyed pre- and early-teens at 62 public schools across Brazil via a questionnaire that asked the students about drug use, but also asked about how the adolescents perceived their parents (parenting style), socioeconomic conditions, sexual behavior, and school violence, among other topics.
Then, based on an assessment scale widely used in international studies and validated in Brazil, parenting styles were determined according to “demandingness,” which relates to the degree to which parents monitor their children’s activities and require them to follow rules, and “responsiveness,” relating to the degree of parental sensitivity to children’s needs and openness to dialogue.
Parents with high scores in both domains were classified as “authoritative.” Those with high scores in demandingness alone were classified as “authoritarian.” Responsive parents who neither monitored their children’s activities nor required rule-keeping were considered “indulgent,” and parents with low scores in both domains were classified as “neglectful.”
In line with previous research on the subject, the “authoritative” style was the most protective, followed by the “authoritarian” and “indulgent” styles. As the researchers note in the article, “neglectful” parents put adolescents at greater risk of belonging to the two classes of drug user identified by the study: alcohol users/binge drinkers, and users of tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, crack and/or inhalants (such as benzene or glue) in the previous year, as well as alcohol.
“The fact that an ‘authoritative’ style is more protective and a ‘neglectful’ style is riskier was expected, but there was disagreement about the ‘authoritarian’ and ‘indulgent’ styles in the literature. It wasn’t clear which was better,” said Juliana Valente, a PhD candidate and researcher. “The findings of our study reinforce the idea that demandingness, in the sense of more parental monitoring and use of rules, is a style that protects adolescents by preventing drug consumption.”
But while high demandingness from parents — that is, both authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles — tends to prevent alcohol and drug abuse among teens, it can come at a cost. Demandingness with little or no responsiveness (authoritarian parenting) is associated with other risky teenage behaviors: suicidal thoughts.
A study out of the University of Cincinnati analyzed nationwide data and found a significant link between parent’s behaviors and thoughts of suicide among adolescents. While the data is American, there is a clear learning to take from it in India, were suicide is the leading cause of death for teens.
Their findings show children between the ages of 12 and 17 are significantly more likely to contemplate, plan and attempt suicide when their parents do not engage in certain behaviors that demonstrate to their children that they care about them.
“Kids need to know that someone’s got their back, and unfortunately, many of them do not. That’s a major problem,” said Keith King, a study author.
Startlingly, the findings showed that the age group most significantly impacted by parenting behaviors was 12- and 13-year-old children. Children in that age group with parents who never or rarely told them they were proud of them were nearly five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, nearly seven times more likely to formulate a suicide plan and about seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Similarly, 12- and 13 year olds with parents who rarely or never told them they did a good job or helped them with their homework were at excessively high risk for suicide.
“Parents ask us all the time, ‘What can we do?'” said King, who coordinates the university’s health promotion and education doctoral program and serves as Director of the Center for Prevention Science. “You can tell them you’re proud of them, that they did a good job, get involved with them, and help them with their homework.”
The risk of suicidal behaviors among high school-aged teens, though lower than among 12- and 13-year-olds, is still significantly higher when their parents aren’t emotionally involved. For example, 16- and 17-year-olds whose parents rarely or never told the children they are proud of them are about three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and almost four times more likely to make a suicide plan and attempt suicide than peers whose parents sometimes or often did.
That may seem promising when compared to the youngest age group, but the decrease in the odds of suicidal behavior among children ages 14 and above may partially stem from teens finding other coping mechanisms to deal with their lack of parental engagement — often unhealthy ones, such as drug use and high-risk sexual behaviors, King said.