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'90s FAMILY : Good Relationship Bolsters Parents' Influence

October 12, 1994|MARY JO KOCHAKIAN Dr. Deborah A. Cohen..BD: THE HARTFORD COURANT

Parents of adolescents despair over how little say they have with their kids. As the threats to their kids multiply--drugs, alcohol, sex--parents' influence may seem to shrink.

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics, however, finds that parents have a lot of influence over their children--even though it's primarily indirect.

The study, of 1,034 fifth-graders and 1,266 seventh-graders in Southern California, was designed to find what, specifically, parents do that could be linked to children's use of alcohol or tobacco.

Critical for families is a warm relationship between parent and child.

Parents "can influence their adolescents by establishing strong relationships with them in middle childhood. So if they have that good relationship, and children feel they can go to their parents, that they can communicate with them, that their parents are there for them, then those children will be protected during adolescence," says Dr. Deborah A. Cohen of Louisiana State University Medical Center, lead author of the study.

"They'll be protected in that they'll be less likely to choose friends who use substances, and they'll be less likely to get into trouble--get into fights, or be disciplined in school, or take risks. So parents are powerful, but it's very clear in the study that it's an indirect effect."

The researchers expected to find that parents' knowledge of their kids' friends would help prevent dangerous practices. "In fact, that doesn't make any difference at all. Because parents, even if they know who (their children's) friends are, don't know whether those friends use substances or are a bad or good influence," Cohen says.

"Monitoring is important--knowing where your children are, what they're doing. But it doesn't really matter if they know who they're with," she says.

Children whose parents monitored them strongly were about half as likely as other students to use alcohol. Similar protective effects were found for parents who have effective communication and spend time with their children.

Researchers found that "the students who do end up using substances, their parents absolutely don't have a clue," Cohen says. "Parents who overestimate what kind of relationship they have with their kids, or who think their kids are OK, are much more likely to have problems than the parents who are concerned and have a better idea of what's going on with their children.

"There's a gap between what parents think and what kids think," Cohen says. "I think it's helpful if parents check with their kids--what are they doing, how do they feel."

A warm parent-child relationship "is characterized by parents' providing positive feedback through praise, encourage-ment and physical affection," the study says.

"Positive relations appear to be a direct consequence of parents' spending time with their children as well as having frequent communication, asking for a child's opinions, spending time talking, and sharing secrets and other concerns."

Parents who routinely use praise and affection with their children, rather than criticism and anger, are using a "positive feedback system, which de-emphasizes aggression and punitive actions," the article says.

The study did not find a link between single-parent homes and substance use. "This is consistent with other studies in which the quality of the overall environment and parental attitudes were more important than the number of parents," the study says.

Cohen advises that parents "be positive. It's important to have discipline and so on, but what really makes a difference with kids is for them to feel positive and accepted--to have that warm relationship. I know some parents can get overstrict and overcritical and so on, but what protects them is the positive relationship they have with their children."

'Positive relations appear to be a direct consequence of parents' spending time with their children as well as having frequent communication, asking for a child's opinions . . . sharing secrets.'

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