In recent years, more and more research has been published showing the importance of parent-child connectedness as a protective factor related to several youth health outcomes including pregnancy, HIV/STD, drug abuse, tobacco use, and delinquency. In fact, at a recent World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Geneva, family connectedness was identified as one of the top five protective factors related to youth well-being.
Parent-child connectedness can be defined as the degree of closeness/warmth experienced in the relationship that children have with their parents. According to research, how children experience the connection with their parents seems to be more important than how the parent reports or perceives the level of connection.
The concept of “parent-child connectedness” takes traditional parent-child communication strategies a step further. Although parent-child communication is certainly part of “connection,” it is not the only factor that supports closeness in a relationship. In fact, in the recently released report titled “Mothers’ Influence on Teen Sex: Connections that Promote Postponing Sexual Intercourse” (Blum, 2002), the author states, “Simply encouraging parents to talk more to their teens about the risks of early sex without being more involved in their lives is unlikely to have much impact.”
An Overview of Parent-Child Connectedness Research
Recent reports from the University of Minnesota, Child Trends, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy describe the important role that parent-child connectedness plays in the health and well-being of young people. For example, in 1997 researchers from the University of Minnesota analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and found parent-family connectedness to be protective against early initiation of sex, as well as cigarette use and alcohol use (Resnick M., Bearman P., Blum R., et. Al. 1997).
Seven months later, the role of parent-child connectedness in preventing adolescent risk behaviour figured prominently in “Families Matter: A Research Synthesis of Family Influences on Adolescent Pregnancy” (Miller, 1998). In this research review, author Brent C. Miller, PhD states that “while parents cannot determine whether their children have sex, use contraception, or become pregnant, the quality of their relationships with their children can make a real difference.” (Miller, 1998)
In terms of influences on adolescent sexual behaviour, Miller puts parent-child connectedness on an equal footing with other parental influences, such as supervision and communication, with regards to its influence on adolescent sexual behaviour. Miller goes on to say, “The overwhelming majority of studies indicate that parent/child closeness is associated with reduced teen pregnancy risk.”
The current research literature suggests that parent-child connectedness plays a protective role in relation to a wide spectrum of risk behaviours beyond teen pregnancy. The above-mentioned “Families Matter” report demonstrates the protective value of parent-child connectedness in relation to cigarette and alcohol use.
The conclusions from this report have been supported more recently in Positive Parenting of Teens, a University of Minnesota Extension Service quarterly publication. In the Winter 2002 edition of this publication, in her article titled “A Happy, Healthy Home Life Helps Prevent Teen Drinking and Smoking,” author Laurie L. Meschke, PhD identifies aspects of parent-child connectedness such as “parents provide lots of support” and “teens feel connected to family” as factors associated with preventing adolescent substance abuse. Such parent-child connectedness factors are as important as factors such as “parents don’t use substances” and “communication.”
In April 1999, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) recognized the importance of parent-child connectedness for preventing juvenile crime and delinquency when it identified and promoted the use of effective family interventions under its Strengthening America’s Families Programs.
Evidence provided by the most recent research continues the trend of identifying the importance of parent-child connectedness. Family Strengths: Often Overlooked, But Real (Moore, K.A., Chalk, R., Scarpa, J., & Vandivere, S., 2002), published as a Child Trends Research Brief, lists “parent-child warmth and supportiveness” as one of six “family strengths” that significantly influence positive outcomes for youth. The authors of Family Strengths point out that: “Parent-child interactions can affect children’s behaviour over and above the influence of socioeconomic and demographic factors, such as income, family structure and parent education. High parental warmth and supportiveness contribute to healthy development.”
A conclusion of “Mothers’ Influences on Teen Sex: Connections that Promote Postponing Sexual Intercourse” (Blum, R.W., 2002) is that aspects of parent-child connectedness, such as “parents knowing their children’s friends and their friends’ parents” are likely to be among the greatest influences affecting children’s sexual behaviour.
A distinguishing feature of this recent research is how emphatically it underscores the need to translate research findings into interventions. In its “Implications” section, this report asserts that: “Youth-serving agencies need to develop strategies that promote high levels of parent-child connectedness, encourage parent-child relationships that may help delay early sexual intercourse, protect teens against a variety of other adverse outcomes and promote healthy adolescent development.”
Family Behaviors Leading to Family Connection
Below is a list of family behaviours that may lead to an increased sense of connection between parents and their children. Following is a possible list of determinants of those behaviours — an important list to consider in developing interventions designed to increase parent-child connection.
- Provide appropriate monitoring and supervision of teen
- Participate or “be involved” in teen’s activities (e.g., school, sports, play, music, etc.)
- Use active listening
- Ask questions about teen’s activities, interests, concerns (e.g., friends, teachers, where teen spends time)
- Show interest in child’s opinion
- Provide encouragement and praise to child
- Establish structure and predictability in home (e.g. chores, meal times, errands)
- Create opportunity for quality time and follow through on plans
- Use constructive discipline; avoid use of unreasonable discipline
- Communicate high expectations for school performance
- Clarify and communicate personal values, especially those related to health
- Communicate information related to healthy and unhealthy behaviors
- Model healthy behaviors
- Inform and invite parent participation in activities
- Participate in the decision-making regarding family’s structure and rules
- Abide by family rules and structure
- Use active listening
- Provide suggestions and planning for quality family time activities
- Participate in quality family time activities
Determinants of Family Behaviors:
- Time availability
- Employment responsibilities of parents
- Skills for monitoring and supervising, active listening, giving praise, constructive discipline, etc.
- Perception of need for monitoring, active listening, praise, etc.
- Knowledge of child’s activities, friends, interests
- Personality characteristics of parent and child
- Parents’ mental health
- Parent upbringing, values, beliefs about connectedness behaviors
- Clear values around health behaviors on the part of parents and skill to express them
- Parent knowledge of information related to healthy behaviors
- Skills for communicating healthy behaviors messages
- Parent and teen motivation
- Available transportation
- Available financial resources
- Language abilities
- Number of parents and number of children in the family