Parents need to listen to their teens before the teens will listen to them

March 19, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Those public service ads that advise parents to "just talk to their teenagers about drugs -- they'll listen" should come with a warning label, says the author of a new and path-breaking study.

The "just-talk, they'll listen" ads are "misleading," says researcher John Caughlin, an expert in family communication, because, as he discovered, if parents haven't already established a pattern of listening to their teens -- even about less critical issues -- "there is a decent chance that the teen will not listen to the parent when the topic turns to drugs and alcohol."

In his study, Caughlin set out to discover if those parents and their adolescent children who frequently engaged in the communication pattern known as "demand/withdraw" tended to have various "negative health outcomes," in particular, poor self-esteem and drug use. Demand in this context means nagging or criticizing and withdraw means voiding discussing the issue related to the other person's criticisms.

According to Caughlin, the "apparently destructive consequences" of engaging in demand/withdraw in marriage have been widely studied, but they have not been a major focus of research on parents and their adolescent children until now.

Caughlin found that frequent demand/withdraw in conversations was indeed associated with low self-esteem and high alcohol and drug use -- or both adolescents and parents. Moreover, there were negative health outcomes associated with both demand/withdraw scenarios -- that is, whether it was the parents who were demanding and the children who were withdrawing, or vice versa.

Just as important, he discovered that criticisms and avoidance were related to adolescents' drug use, even when the topic of conversation was mundane, for example, adolescents making too much noise at home or not keeping their bedroom clean.

The results of the study are published in the current issue (Volume 21, Issue 1) of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Caughlin is a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rachel S. Malis, a graduate student of communication studies at Northwestern University, is the other co-author of the study and report.

In the study, 57 dyads --parent-adolescent pairs -- consisting of 14 mother-son dyads, 16 mother-daughter dyads, 15 father-son dyads and 12 father-daughter dyads, were asked to complete questionnaires about their perceptions of demand/withdraw, the overall amount of conflict in their relationship and about important health issues such as drug use.

The parents and adolescents also had a conversation with each other on prescribed topics -- one of interest to the child, one of interest to the parent and one on alcohol and drug use among teenagers. Caughlin's research team later analyzed recordings of these conversations for evidence of the criticisms and avoidance that indicated demand/withdraw.

The finding that adolescents' drug use could be predicted by examining discussions that were not directly related to drugs "suggests that communication patterns that are established for dealing with everyday conflicts may influence the way parents and adolescents deal with discussions of more serious issues like adolescents' health risk behaviors," Caughlin said.

"Whereas anti-drug campaigns focus on talking to children about drugs, conversations about other topics may also be crucial," Caughlin said.

"In addition to such anti-drug conversations, it may be just as important to help parents and adolescents learn constructive strategies for dealing with conflicts regarding common mundane issues." In particular, an important feature of advice would be "ensuring that demand/withdraw did not become a salient characteristic of such conflicts," the authors wrote.

Explicit "sit-down" conversations about alcohol and drug use may be less important than the ongoing socialization that occurs between parents and adolescents, Caughlin said.

"If parents and adolescents are able to deal with conflict in constructive ways, it may help the parents remain an important influence on the adolescents' values, even as the importance of peers rises.

"And by remaining a key influence on the adolescents' norms, parents may reduce the need for explicit discussions about alcohol and drug use and increase their influence on their adolescent if they do discuss alcohol and drug use." Moreover, the results suggest that to prevent the more common pattern of parent-demand/adolescent-withdraw, it might be important for parents to be responsive -- that is, not withdraw -- when adolescents want to discuss an issue, even if the issue is not particularly salient to the parents, Caughlin said.

If this finding is confirmed by subsequent research, it would suggest a "limitation" to the frequent media messages calling for parents to discuss alcohol and drugs with their adolescents. Rather than only emphasizing the need to talk to their children about drugs, it may be "equally vital to tell parents to listen to their children."

"By all means, talk to your kids about drugs," Caughlin said, "but be sure you listen to them too."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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