As we’ve reviewed previously, it’s hard for parents to fight the natural expectations kids develop regarding their right to privacy; as kids grow older and become more independent they naturally desire more privacy which causes them to disclose less and less to their parents. As a result, how much parents know about what their kids do on a daily basis (i.e., parental knowledge) declines during adolescence.
But much of the past work on the topic of parental knowledge focuses on mean, or average, levels of parental knowledge rather than considering the possibility that different types of families might show different patterns of change, or trajectories, in such knowledge over time. Such heterogeneity in parental knowledge would have important implications and applications as it would help researchers identify those families (and their potentially resilient characteristics) that are able to ward off declines in parental knowledge versus those that demonstrate more typical patterns (and, as a parent, I can imagine that information being very useful).
In an analysis of over 700 German, middle-class adolescents (aged 10 to 14), researchers tested whether there are some families for whom parental knowledge remains steady or even increases during adolescence. Alas, it doesn’t appear so. Although some parents started out with higher levels of knowledge about their kid’s activities than others, that knowledge declined for all parents (at least according to the kids). Boys, shy kids, kids with lower quality friendships and those with lower quality family relationships were more likely to indicate that their parents had the lowest levels of parental knowledge. Importantly, it’s not clear the extent to which the results generalize beyond the specific sample studied here, and other studies, particularly those involving more diverse or at-risk samples, suggest any natural decline in parental knowledge can be offset in some contexts. For example, some of the research on the topic of parental knowledge suggests that kids’ expectations of privacy (or parental respect for that expectation) might be less strong for families living in particularly unsafe environments. For middle-class families, however, and especially families characterized by lower quality relationships, declines in parental knowledge over time appear to be the norm.
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Spaeth, M., Weichold, K., & Silbereisen, R. K. (in press). Developmental trajectories of parental knowledge during early adolescence and their psychosocial predictors. Journal of Family Issues. doi: 10.1177/0192513X15576965
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.