Study Tracks Teenagers Through Nine Years
A study conducted by members of the psychology department at the University of Virginia found that parents who exercised psychological control of their teenagers hinder their child’s ability to develop close relationships later on in adulthood. The study, published in the journal Child Development, was titled “The Cascading Development of Autonomy and Relatedness from Adolescence to Adulthood.”
“Adolescents who have parents who do this learn that in close relationships it is bad to assert your opinion and you’ll hurt other people,” said Elenda Hessel, one of the doctoral candidates who worked in the research group conducting the study. “They think that this is what happens at home and so this is what must happen elsewhere.”
Throughout a nine-year time period, researchers tracked 184 teenagers from a public middle school in Virginia. The study began when the participants were 13-years-old and continued until they were 21. The group assessed the adolescents’ relationships with their parents to determine its relationship to the development of autonomy and relatedness with their friends and romantic partners.
Guilt, Shame, Withdrawing Love, Cultivating Anxiety
The parent’s use of guilt, shame, withdrawing love or cultivating anxiety — all examples of psychological control — set the adolescents on a long-term trajectory toward badly functioning relationships in the future.
“We have no evidence that provides why exactly these parents do this,” Hessel said. “However, it may be possible some parents had the same relationship or that some of them are scared and anxious and don’t have good ideas so they resort to these methods.”
During each assessment period at ages 13, 18 and 21, researchers asked the participants about their psychological health, their values, their parents’ conduct and their relationships with their friends. As the participants matured, the researchers began adding more questioning pertaining to their romantic partners.
Regarding their parents’ behavior, the participants were asked to assess the degree to which their mothers and fathers used guilt, anxiety, love withdrawal and other manipulative methods.
“Self-reporting is often the most informative method of gathering data,” Hessel said.The researchers rated various situations on a 10-point scale. For example, with the question “My mother/father is a person who is less friendly with me, if I do not see things his/her way,” respondents could give a value of one, meaning “not like my mother/father” or a value of three being “a lot like my mother/father.”
The group created another phase of the study that simulated real-life interactions. At each assessment period, the participants were placed in a video-monitored room and were given an activity or question that forced them to disagree.
“The idea was to look at how adolescents talk about things when they disagree with one another,” Hessel said. “We think it’s a good skill to have to express yourself without damaging the relationship, and being able to say, ‘I disagree with you but I still value you.’”
At age 13 for example, they were told that 12 people were stranded on Mars and only seven would fit on the ship returning home. The adolescents separately picked the seven people and later came together to discuss disagreement and come to a decision.
Once the participants were 21, they discussed real-life issues in their relationships, such as money or budgetary problems, jealousy and communication issues. Researchers used a coding system that indicated expressions of reasoning and confidence — a sign of autonomy — and warmth and collaborativeness, a sign of relatedness.
As predicted, the researchers found that parental psychological control ultimately undermines the youth’s ability to properly express autonomy and relatedness when in disagreement with close friends and later on, romantic partners. This shows the importance of the transitional period from early adolescence to adulthood.
“The transition period from early adolescence to early adulthood is the time when the peer group matters more and determines how they’re able to navigate those relationships and the expectations going into new relationships,” Hessel said.
Researchers emphasized that without the right parental guidance, adolescents will be ill-prepared to manage their relationships.“Guilt tripping your kids won’t be good for them in the long run,” Hessel said. “You can still have an influence over your kids at this age and let it be a good one.”