Friday, 4 July 2014

Can parental monitoring really make a difference?

I was speaking to a school counsellor recently and asked her what was the main issue she dealt with when talking to teens. Her answer was not surprising and very similar to what I hear from young people ... students having issues with their parents - discussions that usually started with - "my parents are trying to control me", "they are constantly interfering and wanting to know what I'm doing and who I'm with" and "my parents want to ruin my life!"

Didn't we all feel like that to some extent? That's just a part of adolescent life. A teen's response to their parent when they do ask the difficult questions, however, can be devastating. I can't even begin to imagine how it must feel for a parent when their child turns around and says "I hate you!" So is it worth it - does putting boundaries around your teen, stopping them from doing things and making sure you know where they are and who they're with really make a difference?

One of parents' greatest fears is that their child may start experimenting with illegal drugs. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to use drugs.

'Parental monitoring' is one of two main protective factors (the other being 'parental style'), that are supported by research evidence. So what exactly do we mean by 'parental monitoring'?

Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what is going on in their child's life —what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are, we say they are monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:
  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen's behaviour - what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there 'follow-through'?

Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, parental monitoring not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies.  Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent's alcohol and other drug use.

A crucial element of monitoring is 'parental knowledge'. Parental knowledge refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not. Always remember that simply asking a child where they are going and who they will be with may not actually result in accurate information and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. Calling the homes (using the landline) of where your child is meant to be, rather than simply relying on what they're telling you is a great way of getting the real facts!

As children grow older, many parents believe that the level of parental monitoring should be reduced, i.e., they are growing up and they need to be given more freedom. This usually takes place in later adolescence (although we are seeing it happen in younger and younger age groups all the time!) and is usually allowed when prior permission is granted. One study that examined this practice found that teens who reported that their parents allowed them to negotiate in such a way were in fact actually more likely to be sexually active and to use alcohol and cannabis than the adolescents who did not. It also showed that these teens were more likely to engage in sex-related protective behaviours, such as condom use, carrying protection or refusing sex when protection was not available, but 'giving them a little more freedom' certainly didn't prevent the behaviour from occurring. Unfortunately, no information was collected on 'safer' drug use behaviour in this study.

It is important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child's life to match their stage of development, but that doesn't mean they hit 15 or 16 years of age and you throw your hands in the air and say "now it's up to you!" Appropriate levels of monitoring still needs to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information.

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It is a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they are often told that their adolescent children do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their teen's behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence.

They may 'hate' you for a while but knowing where they are, who they're with and when they'll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years ... and I guarantee you that if you do it in the right way, they'll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it!

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