Researchers have known for a while that closeness to parents is linked to less risky sexual behavior by teenagers.
Now, they're turning their microscopes on the dating rules parents set, with some surprising results: The limits you place on your teenager's dating may say more about your own love life than your teen's needs. Also, parents' satisfaction with their own life roles shapes the kind of rules they set.
Parents who are involved in stable romantic relationships with spouses or partners tend more than other parents to set rules limiting teen dating behavior, such as curfews, minimum ages for dating, limits on places teens can go and explicit rules against sexual activity, says a new study of 169 parents and 102 teens by Stephanie Madsen, an associate professor of psychology at Maryland's McDaniel College. While the reason isn't clear, the author suggests these parents may hold more conservative beliefs in general; many of the rules involved sexuality.
Ironically, in what other researchers have called the "Romeo and Juliet" effect, such rules may tend to drive teenage lovers closer; teens of these parents reported closer, more positive relationships.
Parents who are unhappy, dissatisfied or insecure in love, however, go beyond limits and try to dictate or control how their teens treat their dates, the study found. These parents try to influence their kids to value certain things and act in specific ways. Parents would tell teens to open doors for dates, "act like a gentleman" (or a lady), or resist letting a date "walk all over" them. The goal may be to launch their teens on a romantic path happier than their own, Dr. Madsen says. But kids often regard this advice as intrusive, and again, it tended to have the opposite effect. The teens affected weren't particularly content with their dating relationships.
The research rings true to me. As a single working parent of two, my love life is near the bottom of my list of priorities. Like the parents in the study, I find myself prescribing behaviors to my teenage son, like "be a gentleman" -- advice he listens to respectfully. But, I suspect, he keeps his own counsel.
A better way for parents to expend their energy, Dr. Madsen says, is to emphasize constant, warm oversight over just setting rules. She calls this setting "supervisory" rules, or keeping up a free flow of communication without intruding too much. This means asking teens to disclose plans, check in by phone and inform parents when plans change. In such cases, the adults were focusing on their roles as parents rather than their own love lives. These parents also had the healthiest relationships with their children.
Debby Shulman and her husband, Allen, fall into this category. When their 16-year-old son dates, says the Northbrook, Ill., mother, "he can't leave one place without calling and letting me know where he's going." She knows his friends' parents and checks in with them now and then. "It's a great way to keep tabs on the kids without making them feel you're breathing down their necks." Dr. Madsen says supervisory parents also may arrange to meet their teen's dates and sometimes the date's parents.
Some 64% of parents in Dr. Madsen's study had dating rules for their 17-to-19-year-olds, the age of the teens in the study. The rest generally either had teens who weren't dating or gave their teens autonomy in dating. Marni Kan of the research group RTI International says many parents may be setting rules in response to research showing parental supervision and communication with teens protects against risky sexual behavior.
More recent studies have fine-tuned those findings by drawing a line between supervision and meddling: Parental oversight seems to have positive effects mainly when teens volunteer information about themselves -- suggesting a trusting, respectful relationship is the real foundation for the gains.