Parents who yell at, threaten, push or hit their middle- or high school-aged kids are pushing them toward risky behaviors, according to a new study.
Instead of promoting better habits and attitudes, harsh parenting can have the opposite effect, the research shows.
Boys who feel unloved and unaccepted by their parents will seek approval from their friends and classmates in other, unhealthy ways, such as stealing or hitting. For girls, it may be more frequent and early sexual behavior. And for both, it may mean poorer results in school.
"Youth whose needs aren't met by their primary attachment figures may seek validation from peers," said Rochelle Hentges, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh who led the study. "This may include turning to peers in unhealthy ways, which may lead to increased aggression and delinquency, as well as early sexual behavior at the expense of long-term goals such as education."
It’s a sobering lesson for parents, who are often exasperated by their children. And it may be helpful to teachers who recognize the need to use different strategies to help students who are treated harshly by their parents.
How the study worked
The University of Pittsburgh study started with 1,482 students in a Maryland county near Washington, D.C., and followed them for nine years. At the end, 1,060 students remained in the study. The young people represented a range of racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The young people told researchers about the ways their parents treated them, including being aggressive toward their kids both verbally and physically. And they described their own interactions with their peers, their delinquency and sexual behavior.
How did the researchers decide that kids leaned more on their friends than their parents? Key signs included:
- Deciding to spend time with friends instead of doing homework
- Feeling it’s OK to break rules to keep friendships
- Saying their friends were more important than other responsibilities
Parenting is hard
The years from age 12 to 17 are important in young people’s development. They go through major emotional, mental and physical changes as they transition from young children to adults. All the changes can cause anxiety for the young. They can be rough on family members, too.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for parents of children ages 12-14:
- Be honest when talking to your child about drugs, drinking, smoking and sex.
- Meet and get to know your child’s friends.
- Show an interest in your teen’s school life.
- Respect your teen’s opinions and take into account his or her thoughts and feelings.
- When there is a conflict, be clear about goals and expectations (like getting good grades, keeping things clean and showing respect), but allow your teen input on how to reach those goals (like when and how to study or clean).
And for teens ages 15-17, the CDC says:
- Talk openly with your teen and be watchful for changes in his or her behavior. Don’t be afraid of asking if he or she has thought about suicide, because it will help show you’re paying attention and care. Seek professional help if necessary.
- Compliment your teen and celebrate his or her efforts and achievements.
- Show affection for your teen.
- Show respect for your teen’s opinion.
- Encourage your teen to make decisions and take actions to solve problems.
- Respect your teen’s need for privacy, while being mindful of how he or she is spending time.
- Help and encourage your teen to get sleep and exercise and to eat healthy meals.
To help you through challenging times, you might consider speaking with a professional, joining a parents group or taking parenting classes. As always, you can find a Providence provider in our directory.
If you’re a parent who has found ways to ease stress when talking to a teen, share it in our comment section.