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'Authoritative parenting' is best for young adults, studies say

Published: Sunday, April 1 2012 4:01 p.m. MDT

The majority of people in the United States who are between the ages of 18 and 29 and in college do not consider themselves adults. Neither do their parents, according to a recent article by BYU's Nelson and other researchers.

In this study, the research team set out to discover the types of parenting styles evident when children become adults and what effects those different styles have on emerging adults. The subjects were college students, most of whom were not living at home, giving researchers a window into the amount of influence parents still have over children who have left the nest.

The results indicated authoritative parenting — highly responsive parenting with low levels of control — was associated with the most positive outcomes, while emerging adults whose parents practiced a controlling-indulgent style — high on control and low on responsiveness — had negative outcomes.

Emerging adults with controlling-indulgent parents exhibited the highest levels of anxiety and depression and the lowest levels of self-worth and closeness between parents and children. There was a slight deviation depending on whether the mother or the father followed this style, with the highest levels of impulsivity associated with the former and lowest levels of kindness associated with the latter.

Nelson described three different types of controlling parents.

The first group is harsh and cold; these parents show little support or warmth with high expectations for success. This group of parents typically expects the adult child to figure things out on his or her own without providing much guidance for the child to do so.

The second type, psychologically controlling parents, make the relationship more about the parent than the child. They set conditions for adult children to behave in certain ways to show they love the parent.

The third group contains what are traditionally known as helicopter parents: although they are very warm, they often intervene so the child cannot fail.

"If a parent is too controlling, a young person doesn't learn the skills (needed) to learn to be independent," Nelson said.

Parents who fall into one of these three camps can still change and begin to have a more positive influence on their adult children, Nelson said. They should begin by focusing on the relationship instead of their child's behavior, even when they do not agree. Parents should check in on children instead of checking up on them, he said.

For instance, instead of asking college-age children if they're attending classes, ask how they are overall and allow the adult child to guide the conversation. While parents should provide support, financial or otherwise, Nelson warns against using it as a manipulation tactic. For instance, some parents threaten to stop financial or other support if their child fails to choose a major the parents want or if they are dating someone the parents don't like.

Again, Nelson encouraged parents to distinguish between a child's behavior and their relationship with the child. However, if a child is engaging in a negative behavior, like not working or going to school, parents may choose to limit what Nelson calls instrumental support. In this case, a parent could effectively tell their children they will pay for college if the child chooses to go back to school. This way, the adult child is the one deciding rather than the parent.

In this way, the parents are engaging in authoritative parenting. Nelson said authoritative parents:

Have appropriate expectations for their children and provide appropriate levels of support to help them succeed.

Display physical warmth to adult children and express verbal and physical affection.

Avoid using love withdrawal as a punishment. Parents will inevitably disagree with some of their adult children's choices. While it is appropriate for the parent to communicate their disapproval of adult children's choices, they realize the overriding importance of relationships and that the adult children should know they are loved.