Parents urged not to control or use threats to withdraw love on teens: world-first research

Teenagers with controlling-style parents experience a sharp drop in mental health and self-esteem, and the damage can be lasting, a world-first Australian study has found.

The research urges parents to set boundaries, which should be developed with their teenager, but to avoid engaging in controlling-style parenting, including surveillance-type activities, guilting or threats to withdraw love.

The study found that wealthy parents with a high socioeconomic status (SES) are most likely to increase a controlling style of parenting, when compared with parents from middle class and working-class families.

The Australian Catholic University (ACU) study asked young people in years 8 to 12 across 16 Australian schools how their parents behaved when the teens sought more independence.

Professor Joseph Ciarrochi from ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education said youth typically demand greater autonomy as they get older but when parents deny this demand it can have dire consequences for teens’ mental health.

“Many life-long mental health disorders start in the teen years. Coercion is a poor way to motivate youth and has huge costs. Conversely, having a psychologically healthy senior school time can set a young person up for life,” he said.

“Teenagers increasingly want to have a say in what they can and cannot do. They want to express their own opinions. They want increasing freedom.”

The landmark study discovered that high SES parents engaged in increasingly less collaborative parenting and more coercion. In contrast, low SES parents did not tend to show this change and were relatively consistent throughout the teen years. It is one of the few, if only studies, to show that high SES parents are linked to worse developmental outcomes in teens.

The research also found that collaborative parents listen to their teenagers’ opinions and provide explanations for rules. In contrast, coercive parents try to control what their teen thinks and feels, often by using guilt and by threatening to withdraw love.

“Parents need to set clear rules and have clear consequences for rule violations. These rules can be set up in a way that is collaborative and supports increasing independence. Collaborative parenting is generally better for youth mental health than coercive parenting,” Professor Ciarrochi said.

“The research found that parents, even if they started out being collaborative in Year 7, need to become increasingly collaborative to match their teen’s increasing need for autonomy.

“If the parents become coercive, or even if they just remain stable, their young person will experience worsening mental health. Parents need to evolve with their teen and support more autonomy to help their young person develop into a healthy adult.”

Top five tips for parents of teens:

  1. Use a collaborative parenting style. Give young people as much choice as possible. When you need to limit choice, and have clear boundaries and consequences, then provide a clear explanation about why the boundaries are important.
  2. Be aware of what the young person is doing but do it by asking the young person during open discussion, rather than conducting surveillance.
  3. Reduce the use of guilt and love withdrawal, as an attempt to motivate young people.
  4. Pay attention to the young person’s increasing need for autonomy, and work to include the young person more and more in the decisions that affect their life.
  5. Finally, the key to collaborative parenting is patience and recognising feelings of time pressure but not letting those feelings push you towards a coercive style (EG: “If you don’t do what I want, I will be ashamed of you”). Parents can mindfully breathe through their feelings that they need to rush and instead discuss rules and boundaries in a calm way with the young person.

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