In this study a prospective, longitudinal, multi-informant design was used to examine the antecedents and behavior-problem correlates of monitoring and psychological control. Consistent with the hypothesized linkages, monitoring was anteceded by an earlier proactive parenting style, whereas psychological control was anteceded by earlier harsh parenting and, for mothers’ reports of psychological control, by earlier maternal judgments of child externalizing behavior problems. This is the first empirical study known to demonstrate that these two key forms of parental control of adolescents have distinct early childhood precursors. Also consistent with expectation, and with prior research, monitoring and psychological control showed a coherent pattern of relations with anxiety/ depression and delinquent behavior in late middle childhood and adolescence. High levels of monitoring were associated with lower levels of delinquent behavior, and psychological control was associated with higher levels of anxiety/ depression and delinquent behavior. As discussed later, the patterns of relations involving psychological control differed somewhat for boys and girls, for children with high versus low levels of behavior problems in late middle childhood, and for mother versus adolescent reports.
The primary goal of this study was to determine whether monitoring and psychological control have common or unique antecedents in early parenting, child adjustment, and family ecology. Monitoring was hypothesized to have its roots in an early proactive/preventive orientation to parenting. This hypothesis received support in that monitoring, as reported by both mothers and adolescents, was associated significantly with an earlier parenting style marked by a preventive orientation toward dealing with children’s problematic social behavior. Proactive planning and anticipatory guidance have been shown to be effective socialization tools with preschool-aged children (Pettit & Bates, 1989
; Russell & Russell, 1996
). These aspects of parental control also have been found to converge modestly with other positive and supportive parenting behaviors in early childhood (Pettit et al., 1997
). Parental monitoring in adolescence likewise reflects elements of anticipation and planning, in terms of structured rules and regulations, as well as in “behavior tracking” (Dishion & McMahon, 1998
). According to Dishion and McMahon, tracking skills are necessary for the monitoring of children of all ages, but are insufficient for effective monitoring of older children and adolescents. At these later ages—when children increasingly spend time in extrafamilial settings—new monitoring skills are needed, especially skills in communication and effective listening. Such skills facilitate parents’ ability to keep abreast of their children’s whereabouts and companions, and increase the likelihood that children will abide by family rules regarding how discretionary time is to be spent.
Together, these two strands—anticipation and tracking of child behavior, and positive involvement and communication with the child—may account for the significant association between the early childhood measure of proactive teaching and the early adolescent measure of monitoring. Also underlying this association may be the presence of an enduring proactive childrearing philosophy in some mothers that expresses itself in different ways depending on the age of the child and prevailing socialization demands. In early childhood this philosophy may be manifest in the endorsement of planful, before-problems-arise approach to teaching interpersonal problem-solving skills. In early adolescence this philosophy may be evidenced in parents’ regulation and relatively distal (owing to the adolescents’ increasing autonomy) supervision of their teens’ activities and whereabouts, and in fostering a relational climate that is conducive to information sharing and communication.
We also predicted that mothers’ monitoring would be anteceded by favorable family background characteristics. This hypothesis was derived in part from research on the determinants of parenting (e.g., Belsky, 1984
; Bogenschneider, Small, & Tsay, 1997
), which consistently has found effective parenting to be linked with a variety of ecological and social-contextual supports and advantages. The findings reported here are consistent with this hypothesis, in that mothers’ reports of monitoring were found to be associated with early family ecological factors as a set, as well as with individual background characteristics, that is, with higher SES and intact marital status. Adolescents’ reports of monitoring were related to background characteristics as a set but not with any individual background characteristic.
The link between mother reports of monitoring and family ecological characteristics may reflect a cultural norm regarding the “appropriateness” of this kind of parental behavior (i.e., that middle-class mothers in conventional families may be more apt to acknowledge the desirability of supervising their children and tracking their whereabouts, whereas lower SES mothers may consider it less important to do so). The empirical link between monitoring and family background also could reflect a maternal stressor effect whereby mothers in more affluent and maritally intact families, where stress is presumably less severe and less likely to color perceptions, describe their parenting in more positive ways. Conversely, in economically disadvantaged, single-parent families, where greater stress may engender pervasively negative perceptions, mothers may report their own parenting in more negative ways (Wahler & Dumas, 1989
). Family ecological characteristics were not predictive of mothers’ (or adolescents’) reports of psychological control, however, which casts some doubt on the biased-perception interpretation. It may simply be that low-SES, single-parent mothers find it more challenging to track and supervise the whereabouts of their children (Pettit et al., 1999
We advanced two predictions with respect to the antecedents of psychological control: first, that it would be associated with earlier harsh parenting, and second, that it would be predicted by mothers’ earlier reports of their children’s externalizing behavior problems. Both predictions were supported by mothers’ reports of psychological control; only the prediction for earlier harsh discipline was supported by adolescents’ reports. Barber and Harmon (in press)
has argued that psychological control is a marker of a hostile and dysfunctional parent–child relationship, and as such it might be expected to be rooted in historical patterns of parent–child negativity. In the present context, mothers who were harsh and punitive in disciplinary encounters in early childhood were more likely to be psychologically intrusive and manipulative in the early adolescent years. This cross-time connection suggests that, consistent with Barber and Harmon’s (in press)
arguments, in some families there is an enduring undercurrent of hostility and lack of respect for autonomy that may span the early childhood to early adolescent years. It is not clear whether it is the harsh and restrictive discipline style that contributes to later conflict about autonomy issues in adolescence, or whether parenting attributes that accompany harsh discipline (e.g., rejection or ineffective and coercive control) set the stage for the later conflict (Baumrind, 1989
; Patterson et al., 1992
). That coercive parents might be viewed as psychologically controlling years later is understandable if the parents’ intrusions and overmanaging of behavior and autonomy continued through the childhood years.
The question remains as to why the measure of harsh discipline used here—which has been found to be consistently associated with externalizing problems (Dodge et al., 1994
; Pettit et al., 1997
)—forecasts the later use of a parental-control strategy that predicts anxious/depressed behavior more strongly than it predicts delinquent behavior. Two possibilities might be considered as explanations of this effect. The first is that some of the parents who engage in early harsh discipline are intent on controlling not just their children’s overt behavior but their children’s budding psychological autonomy as well. This subset of harshly disciplining parents may later become psychologically controlling parents. A related possibility is that the hostility that may be present in both harsh discipline and psychological control may have a differing impact on child adjustment depending on the age of the child. In early childhood, when compliance issues are paramount, the likely outcome of such hostility might be noncompliance, resistance, and other externalizing-type behaviors (Patterson et al., 1992
). In early adolescence, when autonomy and individuation issues are in ascendance, parental hostility and related psychological intrusions might be expected to lead to withdrawal, insecurity, and other internalizing kinds of behaviors (Steinberg, 1990
Mother-reported psychological control was predicted by both an early proactive parenting style and mothers’ ratings of their children’s externalizing problems. It should be noted that proactive parenting and psychological control were not significantly related at the bivariate level, which suggests the possibility that proactive parenting emerged as a significant predictor in the regression analyses because of a suppressor effect. Interpretation of such an effect should be made with caution. In the discussion that follows, the predicted (and found) relation between psychological control and mothers’ earlier reports of their children’s behavior problems is highlighted, and a highly speculative account of a possible link between early proactive parenting and later psychological control is offered.
If mothers’ ratings of externalizing problems in early childhood mark their judgments about their children’s manageability, and if such judgments covary with a harsh, coercive discipline style, then a prediction of later psychological control might be expected, along the lines described earlier. This interpretation implies that mothers’ characteristics (e.g., a coercive style) are the driving force behind this cross-time prediction. Clearly, however, child characteristics may figure prominently in this longitudinal connection, with difficult-to-manage youngsters eliciting harsher parental treatment, which then contributes to the development of even higher levels of child problem behavior (Bates, Pettit, Dodge, & Ridge, 1998
; Patterson et al., 1992
The regression results that showed a significant association between early proactive parenting and later psychological control were unexpected and in some ways would seem to run counter to previous research showing that a proactive orientation forecasts fewer behavioral adjustment problems in childhood and adolescence (e.g., Pettit et al., 1997
). It is speculated that what may link proactive, preventive parenting in early childhood with psychologically controlling parenting in early adolescence is consistency over time of a tendency to overmanage (or show undue concern for) children’s expressions of assertiveness and independence. That is, some mothers may make use of a prevention-oriented style when there is little reason to do so; that is, their children rarely engage in misbehavior or test the limits imposed by their parents. Proactive teaching in such a context might be viewed as an intrusive form of behavior management. As noted earlier, intrusiveness has been considered by some to be a key indicator of psychological control (Barber and Harmon, in press
). Thus, under certain conditions (i.e., in the absence of apparent need), proactive involvement may link up with later psychological control because each is concerned, at least in part, with overmanaging the child and restricting the development of autonomy and personal responsibility.
Central to this formulation are the contexts or conditions within which proactive parenting is applied. Such a contextual perspective was recently used as a guide in an analysis of moderators of associations between parenting in early childhood and parenting in early adolescence (Pettit & Laird, in press
). Mothers’ perceptions of their children’s behavioral adjustment were found to moderate the relation between proactive parenting and later parental control: Among those mothers who rated their children as high in externalizing problems, proactive parenting was significantly associated with later monitoring but not with later psychological control. For the group of mothers who rated their children as low in externalizing problems, proactive parenting significantly predicted later psychological control but not later monitoring. These findings provide preliminary support for the proposition that connections between early and later parenting are conditional, that is, that the direction and magnitude of such relations varies as a function of the broader social and ecological contexts of family life (Pettit & Laird, in press
Do Parental Monitoring and Psychological Control Have Distinct Behavior-Problem Correlates?
Consistent with prior research (e.g., Barber, 1996
; Herman et al., 1997
), the bivariate correlations showed that absence of monitoring—whether reported by mothers or adolescents—was associated more strongly with delinquent behavior problems than with anxiety/depression. The magnitude of these relations was comparable for mother-reported, teacher-reported, and adolescent self-reported delinquent behavior. There was one modest but significant negative correlation between mother reports of monitoring and mother reports of adolescent anxiety/depression. This study joins with many others (e.g., see Dishion & McMahon, 1998
) in highlighting lack of monitoring as a risk factor in children’s development of delinquent, antisocial behavior problems.
Also consistent with past research (e.g., Barber, 1996
; Conger et al., 1997
), the bivariate correlations indicated that mothers’ use of psychological control was associated with both anxiety/depression and delinquent behavior problems, as reported by mothers and by adolescents themselves. Teacher-rated anxiety was unrelated to any parenting variable, which probably attests to the difficulty of detecting—or even noticing—anxious behaviors in middle-school settings (Achenbach et al., 1987
). Further evidence of teachers’ difficulty in rating anxiety/depression is suggested by the very modest cross-year composite internal consistency for teachers’ ratings of anxiety/depression.
Although the bivariate correlations suggest predictive overlap between psychological control and both types of behavior problems, the regression analyses—in which the covariation among problem behaviors, as well as the alternate form of parenting, were controlled—indicated that anxiety/depression was uniquely predicted by psychological control but not by monitoring. This is consistent with the Barber et al. (1994)
interpretation that parents’ use of psychologically manipulative control strategies may undermine their adolescents’ developing autonomy and sense of self, and contribute to fearfulness, insecurity, and other anxious behaviors. Alternatively, it may be that increasingly anxious children tend to elicit more highly critical parenting.
With respect to gender differences in these patterns of relations, mothers’ monitoring was associated with fewer mother-reported delinquent behavior problems among girls than among boys, after controlling for preadolescent delinquent problems. Likewise, girls’ perceptions of high levels of psychological control were associated with higher levels of mother-reported anxiety and delinquent behavior (again, after controlling for analogous preadolescent problems). These findings suggest two possibilities: that girls who perceive their mothers as psychologically controlling may react in ways that lead their mothers to judge them as being more antisocial, or, taking a more bidirectional view, that as girls increasingly show signs of behavior problems, their mothers’ use of psychologically controlling strategies escalates, which in turn encourages the development of more problem behaviors.
Why might girls be particularly sensitive to their mothers’ controlling behaviors? We might speculate that because girls tend to be monitored more closely than boys (e.g., Pettit et al., 1999
), it is possible that through increased vigilance, mothers become aware of girls’ incipient behavioral problems and modify their monitoring and supervision strategies accordingly. Because delinquent behavior is comparatively more “normative” for boys than for girls, mothers may grant boys more leeway and work less hard (in the sense of monitoring and supervising) to alter their boys’ behavior. On the other hand, girls show higher levels of anxious behaviors than do boys, on average, and girls’ anxiety may be especially vulnerable to exploitation by psychologically manipulative parenting (Conger et al., 1997
This study also sought to identify whether links between mothers’ monitoring and psychological control and early adolescent behavior problems were conditional in the sense that patterns of relations differed as a function of preadolescent adjustment. Higher levels of parental monitoring were associated with lower levels of delinquent behavior both for children who previously had exhibited higher levels, as well as those who had exhibited lower levels, of delinquent behavior. Links between psychological control and behavioral adjustment did vary according to the adolescents’ adjustment history, however. Specifically, high levels of psychological control were associated with more teacher-reported delinquent behaviors among teens who exhibited fewer delinquent behaviors prior to adolescence, and with more teacher-reported anxiety/depression among anxiety-prone adolescents. It is unclear from these results whether mothers’ use of psychological control in some way alters the course of development of behavior problems, or whether mothers adjust their parenting in response to adolescent adjustment problems. Of course, in all likelihood, bidirectional processes are operating whereby teens “pull” certain behaviors from their parents and parents “push” their adolescents in particular ways.
Conclusions, Limitations, and Future Directions
The data presented here suggest that the constructs of monitoring and psychological control have distinct patterns of early childhood antecedents and behavior-problem outcomes. Moreover, the data suggest that the antecedent patterns differ somewhat as a function of which family member—mother or teen—provides the parenting information, and that the outcomes differ depending on whether boys’ or girls’ problem behaviors are being considered, as well as whether the teens previously had displayed relatively high or low patterns of adjustment in middle childhood. Informant differences were most evident for psychological control, which might be expected, given its presumably more subjective nature. Gender differences in outcomes were evident for both monitoring and psychological control, with both forms of control showing stronger (relatively speaking) links with girls’ adjustment than with boys’ adjustment. Finally, prior adjustment moderated relations between psychological control (but not monitoring) and adjustment outcomes.
The empirical links between the early childhood antecedents and the early adolescent parenting scores were uniformly of modest magnitudes. Given that the 9-year predictive span of the study overlapped two major developmental transitions—that of preschool to school-age and that of school-age to early adolescence—one probably should not expect to account for large variations in the later parenting measures. It also is important to acknowledge the modest reliabilities of some of the parenting measures, most notably proactive parenting. Constraints imposed by these reliabilities may have attenuated the predictive relations between earlier and later parenting orientations. The small portions of variance accounted for in mothers’ monitoring and psychological control of their early adolescents, however, also suggest that it might be fruitful to consider a broader array of early parenting and social experience predictors. In so doing, it should be possible to outline more clearly the parameters—and limits—of the differential- antecedents framework.
In summary, the findings from the current prospective study suggest that mothers’ monitoring practices in early adolescence were anteceded by a proactive parenting style and by advantageous family background characteristics. Mothers’ psychological control in adolescence was anteceded by mothers’ harsh, restrictive discipline and by earlier reports of child externalizing problems. Early adolescents (especially girls) whose mothers provided high levels of monitoring had fewer delinquent behaviors in middle childhood and adolescence, and early adolescents (especially girls) whose mothers used psychologically controlling strategies had higher levels of anxiety/depression and delinquent behaviors in middle childhood and adolescence.