Parenting Style Impacts Teen Autonomy, Relationships

New research suggests a controlling parenting style can hinder autonomy and relationship development among teens.

Investigators at the University of Virginia believe their findings are important because the teenage years are a time to establish a healthy degree of autonomy and closeness in relationships (rather than easily giving in to peer pressure).

The longitudinal study discovered parents’ psychological control strongly influences adolescents’ ability to balance autonomy and obtain closeness in relationships.

Investigators found that teens whose parents exerted more psychological control over them when they were 13 had more problems establishing friendships and romantic relationships. These challenges extended from adolescence and into early adulthood.

The study appears in the journal Child Development.

Investigators looked at whether parents’ greater use of psychological control in early adolescence can hinder teens’ development of autonomy in relationships with peers.

Parents’ psychological control involved such tactics as using guilt, withdrawing love, fostering anxiety, or other psychologically manipulative tactics aimed at controlling youths’ motivations and behaviors.

“These tactics might pressure teens to make decisions in line with their parents’ needs and motivations rather than their own,” said researcher Barbara A. Oudekerk, Ph.D.

“Without opportunities to practice self-directed, independent decision-making, teens might give in to their friends’ and partners’ decisions.”

Oudekerk and her colleagues found that parents’ use of psychological control at age 13 placed teens at risk for having problems establishing autonomy and closeness in relationships with friends and romantic partners that persisted eight years later, into early adulthood.

Previous studies have shown that adolescents who fail to develop the capacity to establish autonomy and closeness are at risk for using methods that undermine autonomy in their own relationships.

These teens are also at risk for experiencing depression and loneliness in close relationships in adulthood.

The study included 184 ethnically and socioeconomically diverse teens. At ages 13 and 18, the youths reported the degree to which their parents used psychological control.

For example, some parents used psychological control by saying, “If you really cared for me, you wouldn’t do things to worry me,” while others acted less friendly toward their teens when the adolescents didn’t see things in the same way the parents did.

The study also assessed teens’ autonomy (their ability to reason, be their own people, and express confidence) and relatedness (their ability to show warmth and connection) in friendships when the adolescents were 13, 18, and 21, and in romantic relationships at ages 18 and 21.

Throughout adolescence, teens became increasingly less skilled at establishing autonomy and closeness in friendships and romantic relationships the more psychological control they experienced from their parents.

In addition, teens’ abilities (or lack thereof) to express autonomy and maintain close relationships with friends and partners at age 18 predicted the degree of autonomy and closeness in future relationships at age 21.

Despite romantic relationships being relatively new in adolescence, the better teens were at establishing autonomy and relatedness with partners at age 18, the better they were at establishing autonomy and relatedness with both friends and partners at age 21.

“Parents often fear the harmful consequences of peer pressure in adolescence,” said Oudekerk. “Our study suggests that parents can promote or undermine teens’ ability to assert their own views and needs to close friends and romantic partners.

“In addition, teens who learn, or fail to learn, how to express independence and closeness with friends and partners during adolescence carry these skills forward into adult relationships.”

Researchers believe the study illustrates the importance of intervening early and encouraging healthy relationships between parents and their adolescents.

Study findings also show that adolescent relationships with peers and partners offer opportunities for learning and practicing healthy relationship skills that can shape the quality of adult relationships.

Source: Society for Research in Child Development