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Parenting style and adolescents' substance abuse in Danish families

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How do family resources and parenting interact when it comes to explaining adolescents’ substance use? Can variations in parenting styles between different societal groups explain the overall relationship between family resources and adolescents’ use of substances? Or do we rather find different relationships between parenting and substance use in families with high and low socioeconomic resources? A recent PhD from SFI and the University of Copenhagen explores these issues.

It is well known that intense and early use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana in youth is associated with heavier use in adult life and might affect young people’s health and later chances of inclusion in the educational system and the labor market.

Compared with adolescents in other European countries and North America, Danish adolescents have one of the highest uses of alcohol, however their use of marijuana and tobacco is moderate. At the same time Danish families, like other Scandinavian families, live in an institutional context characterized by a high standard of living, low economic inequality and a family culture that places great emphasis on adolescents’ individuality, independence and equality with their parents and other authorities. This could make parenting an adolescent a challenging affair in Denmark, as both adolescents and parents might see acts of direct authority as offensive and illegitimate.

Prior to this PhD project, little was known about: 1) how Danish parents of teenagers typically parent their adolescent children; 2) how parenting adolescents is related with the socioeconomic resources of the family; 3) how the use of substances among Danish adolescents is related to the socioeconomic resources and parenting practices in the family; and finally 4) how socioeconomic resources and parenting interact when it comes to explaining adolescents’ use of substances.

These were some of the central questions in my PhD project “Freedom, equality and friendship in the family with teenagers”, which was defended in January 2014.

Three types of parenting

The PhD project investigated the relationship between the family’s socioeconomic resources, parenting types and adolescent substance use, using the Danish Longitudinal Study of Children (two separate surveys from 2011 with 4200 mothers and their adolescent children combined with register data (1996-2007)).

Three typical forms of parenting are identified based on survey questions about mothers’ involvement in the everyday lives of their adolescent children, and mothers’ use of proactive (rules and norms) as well as reactive (disciplinary actions) forms of parental authority. The parenting types are named authoritative, permissive and authoritarian-neglecting parenting.

Authoritative parenting (high involvement, high use of rules and norms) is related to lower levels of substance use among adolescents, while authoritarian-neglecting parenting (low involvement, medium use of rules and norms but high use of disciplinary actions) is related to higher levels.

Difference between high and low resource families

More importantly, however, the PhD project finds that the relationship between parenting style and substance use differs between high-resource Danish families and low-resource Danish families:

Adolescents who have authoritative mothers and come from low-resource families have the same or a lower use of substances than adolescents who also have authoritative mothers but come from high-resource families.

In contrast, adolescents with authoritarian mothers and low resource families use substances significantly more than adolescents who also with authoritarian mothers, but come from high-resource families.

The PhD- project was funded by SFI and The Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen.

Karen-Margrethe Dahl: Freedom, equality and friendship in the family with teenagers - Ph.D-thesis, January 2014 (Three English papers).

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