Parental monitoring and prevention: what makes a difference

The recently published Understanding Society research found that for 15 year-olds, staying out late is associated with risky behaviours in particular, going to pubs, drinking alcohol and ever using cannabis.

This reinforces one of the standard recommendations to parents, worried about whether their child may start to drink or take drugs, to ensure they know where their child is when they go out and who they are with.

Research generally supports the idea that ‘parental monitoring’ is important, but does it offer any further help to parents?

This paper looks at four different ways of thinking about ‘parental monitoring’ which may affect the amount of knowledge parents have about their son or daughter’s activities, friends, feelings or opinions:

  •  parental monitoring behaviour;
  •  parental psychological control
  • parent-adolescent relationship quality; and
  • parent-adolescent communication.

The authors point out that although monitoring is generally a positive, protective action, some related behaviours can be negative, for example, ‘parental psychological control’ describes behaviour which is intrusive, manipulative, and disrespectful.

‘Parent-adolescent relationship quality’ describes the extent to which the relationship is loving responsive, and involved. Researchers most often define relationship quality as adolescents’ perceptions of their parents as involved, accepting, and emotionally and physically available. One of the criticisms is that studies have not focused enough on parents’ own perspectives.

Other theories of relationships may help us understand parental monitoring and their children’s reactions. For example, Strachman and Gable (2006) describe two types of commitment: approach and avoidance. Approach commitment has as its goal the desire to maintain the relationship and see it grow. Avoidance commitment has as its goal the desire to prevent relationship damage. Young people may be torn between a desire to build the relationship with their parents by sharing information (approach) and the fear that information disclosed could damage the relationship (avoidance).

’Parent-adolescent communication’ relates closely to the other ideas: it is part of parental monitoring behaviour (communicating expectations, asking questions); it can be psychologically intrusive or controlling; and it can both reflect and influence relationship quality.

Asking isn’t enough

Research by Stattin and Kerr (2000) found that what parents knew about their children’s movements was dependent almost exclusively on how much their kids chose to share with them, rather than how much the parents asked or the boundaries they set.

In contrast, Soenens et al. (2006) found that parents’ behaviour (e.g. asking) did have a direct impact on what they knew, however it also worked indirectly, affecting the amount of information that young people chose to disclose to their parents. Where parents acquired more knowledge about their children’s whereabouts and activities, this was associated with a lower probability of adolescent problem outcomes.

Other research, not directly on parental monitoring, but on patterns of communication, may be relevant. For example, one particularly damaging pattern of marital conflict is demand/withdraw, which involves one person nagging or criticizing while the other person avoids the topic. Research on parent-adolescent communication found that this pattern of conflict (on any subject, not just alcohol or drugs) was associated with low self-esteem and high alcohol and drug use for both adolescents and parents (Caughlin and Malis, 2004).

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