Handle with Care: How Parenting Shapes Adolescents’ Values

New research reveals how different parenting “styles” foster the development of different sets of values among teens.

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Image by pixel-shot/adobestock

Some parents might despair about whether they have any influence over their adolescents, but there is cause for hope. For adolescents, values are an important foundation for self-regulation and pro-social behaviour. So it’s understandable that parents want to teach values. But how best to do this? To answer this question, we need to consider different types of parents - and different types of values.

Are there ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ values?

All values help motivate positive behaviour in social groups, but some are more helpful than others. Self-transcendent values such as kindness and honesty serve to build personal investment in a community, helping members suppress selfishness and avoid conflict. Self-enhancement values such as power and wealth serve as a kind of safety valve, allowing people to express their personal ambitions and desires so they do not become frustrated and withdraw from the group.

Nevertheless, past research suggests it is unhealthy to prioritise self-enhancement values. Over-emphasis on self-enhancement may reduce the quality of relationships, prompt social comparison, and place the individual in environments that are stressful, controlling, or competitive. Spending too much time and energy pursuing such values takes away from activities that are more likely to satisfy basic human needs for connection with other people.

What about ‘good’ parenting?

There are three styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive.  Authoritative parents are warm, involved, have high expectations, and are willing to provide reasons for rules and demands. Authoritarian parents rely on constant monitoring, power, fear, and guilt to control their adolescents psychologically. Permissive parents are responsive but do not provide consistent supervision or structure, make few demands, and avoid confrontation. Research has consistently demonstrated that authoritative parenting is generally most effective for promoting adjustment and achievement among adolescents. In theory, this parenting style should also help adolescents to understand, accept, adopt, and live by values.

A six-year longitudinal study

We asked almost 300 Australian adolescents to rate their parents on the three parenting styles described above, once at the beginning of high school (Grade 7) when they were around 12-13 years of age, and again in their final year (Grade 12). We also gave adolescents a long list of values such as justice, friendship, and power, and asked them to consider how important the values were in their own lives, how pressured they felt to adopt each value, and how successful they felt in putting each value into action. Values were measured through online surveys in the final year of high school and again about one year later, when they were young adults.

What did we find?

As expected, authoritative parenting both early and late in adolescence led to positive values development in young adulthood. Young people were more likely to report strong (that is, highly important) values if their mothers had been authoritative (warm, involved, consultative) at the start of high school, and if authoritative mothering increased over time. Young people also felt less pressure on their values if their parents were authoritative during Grade 12.

Authoritarian and permissive parenting styles had the opposite effect. Adolescents whose parents became more authoritarian (coercive and controlling) over their high school years and those who had permissive fathers in Grade 7 reported poorer outcomes once they left school. These young people felt great pressure to adopt self-enhancement values such as power and wealth.

What does this mean for parents?

Values shape and reflect our ideas about how best to live and get along with other people. Authoritative parenting promotes development of strong, self-transcendent values which are held autonomously (that is, without a sense of pressure) by young people as they start their adult lives. This parenting style seems to be effective both early and later in adolescence, and both parents have important roles to play.

Our results suggest that a warm, structured family environment in which rules are backed by reasoning creates a foundation for values development. Authoritative parents set boundaries but provide reasons and flexibility; they do not intrude into adolescents’ private thoughts and emotions; and they gradually relax control as their adolescent matures into a young adult. Such parents have a better chance of producing young adults who choose positive values that are personally important, rather than having values imposed upon them by others.

However, an increasingly coercive home environment in which parents use excessive monitoring, guilt, or fear to control adolescents’ behaviour may backfire, leading young people to feel pressure to adopt negative values such as pursuing power above all other things. Lacking the positive, internal standards that values provide, these young people may be more inclined to disregard society’s norms – when no-one is looking.

Read the complete study here.

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Dr Kathryn E. Williams, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Health Services Research Institute, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. [email protected]
AHSRI: https://ahsri.uow.edu.au/index.html
University of Wollongong: https://www.uow.edu.au/



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Professor Joseph Ciarrochi, Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Australian Catholic University, NSW, Australia. [email protected]
Australian Catholic University: https://www.acu.edu.au/

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