To know what your teenager is doing, get to know your teen


Public service announcements and how-to books about raising adolescents emphasize the importance of parents knowing what's going on in their teenagers' lives. However, remarkably little is known about how fathers and mothers acquire such information.

Now researchers from Pennsylvania and Washington state universities participating in the Penn State Family Relationships Project report in the July/August journal Child Development that it takes more than simply asking questions. The research, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that the best way to acquire knowledge about your teenagers' experiences is to be in a relationship in which your teen openly shares with you, and in which you know your child well enough to notice subtle cues.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers conducted home interviews with 179 two-parent families with 16-year-olds. They asked parents how much they relied on each of six different possible sources to remain informed about their children: teenager self-disclosures, questions from parent, parental listening and observing, spouse keeping the other parent informed, siblings keeping the parent informed, or others outside the family (parents of child's friends, coaches, etc.) keeping the parent informed.

Overall, the researchers identified three main groups: relational, in which the parent relied on relationship communication (e.g., teenager self-discloses; parent listens and observes) to stay knowledgeable; "relies on others," in which the parent relied on others outside the family for information; and a third group composed of fathers who relied on their wives for information and mothers who stood out because they asked their teenager questions.

The researchers also explored whether the groups differed in terms of how much parents knew and how involved youth were in risky behavior across time. For both parents, early risky behavior did not predict how the parents acquired knowledge; but it did predict how knowledgeable they were the more risky behavior the youth engaged in at age 13, the less informed their parents were three years later.

Additionally, fathers who were in the "relational" and "relies on spouse" groups were more likely to be knowledgeable about their teens' activities; while their teens, in turn, engaged in less risky behavior at age 17. This pattern was similar for mothers in the relational group.

For both fathers and mothers, relying on others outside the family for information appeared to be a last resort. It was associated with parents being less knowledgeable about their child, and with their child engaging in more risky behavior.

"The most problematic route to knowledge is relying on other people," says Ann C. Crouter, PhD, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, "particularly siblings and people outside the family.

"These findings suggest that mental health practitioners and program developers should focus on helping parents and children establish open, trusting relationships in childhood and early adolescence," she says, "which will provide the basis for healthy communication during the teenage years."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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