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Parental monitoring: Getting it right for your family – your kids, your decisions!

I was speaking to a teacher recently who had just returned from maternity leave. I have known Cherie for years and it was wonderful to see her so happy (although still a little tired), with motherhood being everything she had expected and so much more. When I saw her last year she was elbow-deep in baby books, trying to absorb everything she could about how to get the whole ‘parenting thing’ right and I asked her if there was one book or other resource that she’d found most useful when it came to what went down in real-life. Cherie’s answer didn’t really surprise me but it was so succinct and ‘real’, I asked if I could use it to highlight a key issue I think all parents need to remember regardless of their child’s age. She said – My head was practically exploding with all the advice that I was given or read about being a good parent. In the end, my husband and I took it all, tried to absorb what we thought was useful and would work for us and then did the best that we could at the time. I’d love to say that we followed all the ‘rules’ but some of them simply wouldn’t have worked for us. We wouldn’t have survived!”

Trying to sort through all the different parenting theories and ‘what works?’ and ‘what doesn’t?’, particularly when it comes to keeping your child safe is incredibly difficult. Over time, views have changed and we must never forget that what seemed to work well for one child may not necessarily work for another. There’s no rule book here and you can only do the best you can do at any particular point in time. Cherie’s response was perfect – she and her partner tried to access as much good quality information as possible, identified what they thought would work for them and then applied it to their family the best they could. You can’t get much better than that. In a perfect world where they had access to an endless supply of family support, nannies, time and energy, perhaps they would have done things differently but few parents have those luxuries so they did the best with what they had. With that in mind, what’s the best advice I can come up with in terms of keeping your teen as safe as possible when it comes to alcohol and other drugs?

Research shows there are a number of things parents can do that, at the very least will delay, but may also even prevent early alcohol and other drug use. Although parents sometimes doubt their importance, particularly during the teen years, research indicates just the opposite. Parents can protect against a range of potential problems where parenting skills, parent-adolescent communication and levels of warmth and affection are high. Attachment to the family is also considered to be a protective factor that may contribute to teens choosing not to drink to excess and/or use other drugs.

Without doubt, however, ‘parental monitoring’ is vital. So, what do we mean by ‘parental monitoring’ and how does this work when we don’t live in a perfect world? Put simply, when parents are putting an effort into finding out what’s going on in their child’s life —what they are doing, who they’re with, and where they are, we say they’re monitoring their child. As well as knowing what their teens are doing, parental monitoring includes:

  • the expectations parents have regarding their teen’s behaviour – what rules are being made?
  • the actions parents take to keep track of their teen – i.e., how do you gather information to ensure that rules are not being broken and what checking is done to effectively monitor actual behaviour?
  • how parents respond when rules are broken – what are the consequences and is there ‘follow-through’?

Effective parental monitoring practices have been found to reduce the risk of teens having sex at an early age, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being physically aggressive or skipping school. Interestingly, it not only can prevent drug use, but has been shown to reduce drug use according to some studies. Put simply, the greater the perceived parental control, the lower the adolescent’s alcohol and other drug use.

It’s important to remember that monitoring needs to be age appropriate and change over the course of the child’s life to match their stage of development. That doesn’t mean, however, that when they hit 15 or 16 you throw your hands in the air and say “now it’s up to you!” Appropriate levels of monitoring still need to be applied that supports positive parent-child communication. This will hopefully encourage disclosure by the child, thus ensuring that parents are able to access accurate monitoring information. A crucial element of monitoring is ‘parental knowledge’. This refers to what the parent actually knows versus what information parents are trying to get. Monitoring represents the seeking of information, while knowledge deals with the possession of the information, whether it be accurate or not.

How you do this with your child is your decision. Every parent will monitor their teen in a different way, with most ending up monitoring each of their children slightly differently. Simply asking a child where they’re going and who they’ll be with may not actually result in a truthful response and, as such, parents are encouraged to do more than just access information from their child. But only you can work out how you do this within your family and you have to ‘own’ whatever decision you make. Don’t try to ‘blame’ others for your parenting decisions. No one should be making you do something you don’t want to do as far as your child is concerned. If you believe you have to ‘up’ the monitoring of your teen (for whatever reason), then own that and let them know that it’s what you want to do – don’t blame me, the school or anybody else. Your kids, your decisions!

The adolescent years are a difficult time for both the young person and their parents. It’s a time when the child-parent relationship will change and that can be frightening, particularly for parents.  Even though they’re often told that their teens do not value them or their opinions and that they can do little to influence their behaviour, research continues to highlight the importance of ongoing parenting during adolescence. What ‘ongoing parenting’ means for your family, however, is for you to decide.

As Cherie and her partner discovered, there’s so much information out there around effective parenting and what to do and not to do. If you tried to follow every bit of advice you were given or read you’d be driven insane. You can only do the best you can do at any point in time. Sadly, regardless of your best efforts, I can almost guarantee that if you do attempt to monitor your teen effectively they’re going to ‘hate’ you, at least for a little while. Nevertheless, doing your best to know where they are, who they’re with and when they’ll be home is one of the best ways to keep them protected through the teen years. Sometimes this’ll work out wonderfully, while at other times you’ll feel like a terrible failure – that’s parenting for you. I guarantee, however, that if you do the best you can do in this area, based on good quality information, but at the same time, be true to yourself and your values, they’ll come back to you in their 20s and thank you for it.

Published: October 2017

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