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Teens want praise new BYU study finds

Parents' actions are not as important as how appropriate teens feel reaction is

Most teenagers feel that their parents focus too much attention on discipline and forget to acknowledge the things they do right, a new BYU study found.

Teenagers believe that more important than "how you discipline your children is what you do when they do something right," said Laura Padilla-Walker, senior author and assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU. "We focus so much on discipline that we fail to recognize when they do something right."

The study, published in the August issue of Social Development, sought to understand what teens think about the appropriateness of their parents' reactions to their behaviors and found that whether parents are perceived negatively by their adolescents or not depends on the situation.

Sister Walker and co-author Gustavo Carlo of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed 122 teenagers, asking them to tell how their parents would react to some hypothetical situations and to rate the appropriateness of the reactions. The researchers then ran statistical tests to validate the trends they saw in the data.

The researchers found that parents' actions — talking to, yelling at or punishing a child — are not as important to teens as is how well teens feel the reaction fits the situation. The teenagers felt parents should respond differently to moral violations, such a cheating or lying, than to infringements not morally based, such as curfews, table manners or chores.

Teenage responses are important, Sister Walker said, because if a child feels he or she is being treated inappropriately, the negative emotion accompanying the interaction may cloud the child's ability to understand and accept what the parents are actually trying to get across.

The take-home message of the study, however, was the desire by most respondents for more praise from their parents, she said.

"Adolescents find it relatively more unacceptable when parents fail to notice or respond to the times when they believe they've gone above and beyond their duty," Sister Walker said, noting that ignoring positive actions was related to heightened negative emotions from adolescents.

They don't want overpraise or sarcasm, she explained. Don't say, "It's a miracle you cleaned your room," for example. Instead, she suggested making eye contact and simply saying, "Thank you." Let the child know you appreciate what he or she did.

Praise is important, she said, so when a parent does discipline their child, it will not damage the relationship.

Sister Walker said teens thought it was OK that parents didn't praise them for making correct moral choices, because the adolescents believe such behavior is obligatory, she explained. But teens felt that parents could do more to recognize and praise their positive activities outside the moral realm, such as cleaning their rooms or getting good grades. The study found that parents acknowledging positive behavior that teens view as optional, or not an issue of right or wrong, leads to a teen's perception that the parents' responses are appropriate. Further, positive reinforcement can lead to future positive behavior.

However, Sister Walker noted that a common problem arises when parents feel they do acknowledge their children, but adolescents feel their actions go unnoticed. That parent/child communication divide also exists when disciplining a child. "Teens view situations very different," she said. "A parent will say, 'We talked about it.' The teen will say, 'She yelled at me.' "

The key, she said, is to develop a close relationship with the child and bridge that divide, to be more patient and understanding. Often, "something you perceive as talking is being perceived as lecturing to your child." Parents should be very clear that they have their child's best interest in mind and that they are simply looking out for him or her, she said.

And just as teens don't expect to be praised for making correct moral decisions, they also do expect to be punished for making incorrect moral decisions.

"Parents and adolescents rarely disagree about issues in the moral domain," Sister Walker said. "Both know that lying and cheating are wrong."

However, the study found that for infringements outside the moral domain, children may be more receptive to talking with a parent than a parent getting upset, yelling, grounding or punishing, she said. Teens surveyed felt that a parent yelling over an issue like breaking curfew was not the right reaction or response. Adolescents felt that parents tended to overreact in such non-moral settings, she said.

For Latter-day Saint families, moral issues may be more pronounced, she added. "The guidelines for moral behaviors are so clear in the Church," she said. "There is no gray in the Church."

That, however, leaves more leeway for disagreement between teens and parents on issues of a non-moral nature, like cleaning a room or getting good grades. Having clear family rules on non-moral issues is necessary; those rules could be made and emphasized in family councils.

"One thing that is important in the literature is adolescents having some amount of input into what happens," she said.

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