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PARENTING APPROACHES: CAUSE OR EFFECT OF TEEN MISBEHAVIOR?

A cornerstone of sociological theories about adolescent behavior problems is that they stem from poor parenting. A new study, however, indicates that parenting styles typically are a response to, rather than a cause of, teenage girls' misbehavior.

David Huh and colleagues questioned 496 adolescent girls from eight different schools to determine their perceived parental support, parental control, and the presence or absence of externalizing behavior problems (lying, stealing, running away, etc.) or substance abuse. The researchers say their findings did not support either the "social mold" model (which posits that poor parenting causes children's behavior problems) or the "reciprocal" model (which holds that children's behavior affects parenting, which in turn affects children's behavior). Rather, they say, "Results suggest that problem behavior is a more consistent predictor of parenting than parenting is of problem behavior, at least for girls during middle adolescence."

Huh and colleagues say that increases in adolescent behavior problems predicted decreases in parental control and support, and that increases in adolescent substance abuse predicted decreases in parental control. Conversely, low parental control-while it influenced the development of substance abuse-played no role in escalating behavior problems. Deficits in parental support did not cause escalation of either behavior problems or substance abuse.

"In theory, increases in adolescent problem behavior raise parental tolerance of deviant behavior resulting in decreased parental control attempts," the researchers say. "As an adolescent's behavior becomes increasingly threatening, parents may respond by becoming less supportive and controlling. Eventually, parents may come to emotionally reject adolescents exhibiting problem behavior. In this fashion, early child characteristics may dynamically shape later parenting behaviors."

Editor's note: The entrenched belief that poor parenting is the primary or sole cause of children "going bad"-a belief that, as this study shows, is grossly inaccurate-has long prevented us from looking at the real (and largely biological) reasons for these children's problems.

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"Does problem behavior elicit poor parenting? A prospective study of adolescent girls," David Huh, Jennifer Tristan, Emily Wade, and Eric Stice, Journal of Adolescent Research, Vol. 21, No. 2, March 2006, 185-204. Address: David Huh, Oregon Research Institute, 1715 Franklin Blvd., Eugene, OR 97403.