Photo by Juanmonimo/Getty Images
Listen up, parents of teens: Hard as it sounds, you may want to give your big kids more freedom, not less, or risk damaging their chances at making meaningful future connections in the romance department. That, at least, is according to a new study out of the University of Virginia, published in the latest Child Development journal.
“Teens might be learning to make decisions that please their parents, rather than thinking through how their decisions align with their personal wellbeing and their goals in life,” says researcher and psychologist Barbara Oudekerk, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, who led the study while a research associate at the University of Virginia.
She tells Yahoo Parenting that it’s important for teenagers to establish a healthy degree of autonomy and closeness in relationships, and that varying types of parental control — withholding love when you and you’re child aren’t on the same page about something, for example, or using guilt through phrases like, “If you really cared for me, you wouldn’t do things to worry me” — could inhibit the development of that skill. But don’t beat yourself up if you employ these tactics from time to time, she says. “Just because a parent does something like this once or twice might not lead to poorer peer relationship outcomes,” Oudekerk notes. “What we found is that the more often parents used these behaviors, the more likely teens were to have difficulties in future relationships.”
For the study, Oudekerk and her team looked at 184 ethnically and socioeconomically diverse teens. At ages 13 and 18, the youths reported the degree to which their parents used psychological control. The study also assessed teens’ autonomy (their ability to reason 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. They found that the better teens were at establishing autonomy and relatedness with partners at age 18, the better they were at establishing those qualities with both friends and partners at age 21.
Oudekerk believes there are several reasons for the connection between parental control and romantic difficulties down the line.
“We think these sort of behaviors are intrusive psychologically in a way that teaches teens they need to behave/think like their parents want them to, and if they don’t, then their parents will be upset with them,” she says. “Youth parented in this way might have fewer opportunities overall to practice negotiating or talking through disagreements, because doing so would upset their parents. In turn, youth might struggle expressing a combination of independence and closeness in relationships because they have been taught that expressing these opinions might harm the relationship, or maybe because they haven’t developed and practiced the skills they need to reason for their own opinions.”
But teens can be frustrating, worrisome creatures. How can moms and dads get away without resorting to such means?
“While we can’t recommend one ‘perfect’ way for parents to avoid using this type of control, we would encourage parents to think about whether they give their teens opportunities to practice talking through disagreements,” she says, “and how they might be serving as a role model for how teens negotiate differences with friends and romantic partners.” In other words: Listen to their points of view. Let them know it’s okay to disagree with you. And, above all, be warm and loving, even if you don’t see eye to eye.