Study suggests keep eye on teens, but forego the microscope
A U-M study published in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology shows that giving teens too little freedom can put them at risk.
"Parents of young teens have to maintain a delicate balance in exercising control over their children's social behavior," says Pamela Davis-Kean, a psychologist with the Institute for Social Research and a co-author of the study with Sara Goldstein, now at the University of New Orleans, and U-M psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles.
"This study confirms that young teens who spend a lot of free time with friends in the absence of adult supervision are likely to get into trouble later in high school. But it also shows that problems are likely to develop when parents are intrusive and monitor teens too closely."
For the study, Goldstein, Davis-Kean and Eccles analyzed longitudinal data on 1,357 adolescents from Maryland schools. Participants were interviewed three timesin 7th grade, the summer after 8th grade and in 11th grade. At the time of the first interview, their parents or primary caregivers also were questioned.
The seventh-graders were asked about the emotional tone of their relationship with their parents, the extent to which their parents had control over their daily activities and how intrusive they felt their parents were.
The researchers also asked teens and their parents about drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, school problems and delinquent behavior such as vandalism and theft. Finally, they assessed the amount of unsupervised time teens spent with their friends, whether their friends had been in trouble, and whether they felt it was OK to break parental rules to keep on good terms with their friends.
After controlling for any current behavior problems, the researchers found that the quality of teens' relationships with their parents when they were in 7th grade predicted behavior problems when they were juniors in high school.
"In general, the stronger and warmer the relationship between the parent and the child, the less likely the teen was to become involved with risky peers or to develop potentially problematic ways of thinking about peers," the authors noted.
Their relationship with parents also predicted how much unsupervised time they later spent with friends, including those who weren't deemed "good influences" by parents.
"Seventh-graders who said their parents permitted a high degree of autonomy and freedom to decide who they spent time with, how late they could stay out at night, whether they could date, and other day-to-day activities were likely to do a lot of unsupervised socializing in 8th grade and that in turn put them at risk for problems in 11th grade," Goldstein says.
But seventh-graders who felt their parents were highly intrusive, limited their freedom and tried to supervise their daily activities too closely also were more likely to have higher levels of unsupervised socializing in 8th grade. Moreover, they tended to pick friends who engaged in risky behaviors.
While the findings may initially make struggling parents of young teens feel like they're in a no-win situation, the authors point out that there are some things parents can do to increase the chances their children will stay out of trouble.
"Talk with teens about picking an after-school activity they enjoy, and that's likely to have a fair degree of adult supervision," Davis-Kean says. "Try to create an atmosphere where teens feel comfortable volunteering information about their whereabouts and their friends.
"If teens decide for themselves to tell parents about their social lives, rather than make parents drag the information out of them, they might be less likely to feel that parents are being overly intrusive."
The National Institute of Child Health and Development and the W.T. Grant Foundation funded the research.