You probably want your children to behave within certain limits. However, there are certain behaviors you are likely more concerned about, such as using alcohol, drugs, or pornography, because these have harmful effects on children. You want to prevent these behaviors. The question then arises, “What parenting methods make it less likely that your child will engage in risky and problematic behaviors?”
The study of how to keep kids from getting involved in such behaviors is called Prevention Science, and there has been a lot of research done in this area. Prevention Science does not just study what works but also what does not work. Some seemingly helpful parental actions actually make kids more likely to act in dangerous ways.
Sometimes steps that sound like they should help prevent kids from engaging in problematic behavior do not.
What Does Not Work
Let’s start with some things that are not effective in helping kids avoid problematic behaviors (from Society of Prevention Research, 2017):
Education Alone. Making a good case for why a behavior is “bad” doesn’t hurt but a child’s brain is not equipped to reliably recall this information when an impulse to take a risk arises.
Scare Tactics. This approach is especially poor when kids know of people who have done the behavior in question who, in the kid’s view, seem to be completely fine now.
Warning About Future Damage. Saying, “If you do this now it will ruin your life later,” is not effective for children because the future seems so far away from them. Trying to imagine how their behavior now will affect them as adults is too abstract to motivate a child or even a teenager.
Normalizing Behavior. Saying things like, “Other kids are doing this but you shouldn’t” often has the reverse effect as intended. Kids don’t want to be left out. If they think other kids are doing something they will probably want to as well.
The D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) of the 80s backfired because of these issues. The program did not address any of the reasons why kids might use alcohol or drugs in the first place, which was a huge oversight. In addition, the program focused on education, scare tactics, and warning about future damage, and inadvertently normalized the idea that a lot of kids use drugs.
Several organizations studied the kids who went through D.A.R.E. and by their 20s the kids were found to either use drugs at the same rate as kids who had not gone through D.A.R.E. or they used drugs at a higher rate than those who did not take part in the program. I doubt this is what you want for your kids.
What Does Work
After that depressing note, what are some things parents can do that DO help? The following are things parents can do that are proven to reduce the likelihood their child will engage in problematic behaviors:
Explain the consequences of breaking rules ahead of time
Use natural or logical consequences when rules are broken
Basically, all of the above boils down to making your child’s world predictable and reasonable. They know what is expected of them, they know what will happen if they misbehave, and they are praised when they behave as expected.
However, there is one more parenting trait that is more effective than above all of these. That is creating a warm parent-child relationship. Just as most adults are usually motivated to work harder for a boss they like and respect, your kids will be much more likely to follow your rules if they feel loved and respected.
Over and over research into the behavior of children and adolescents shows that the stronger the parent-child bond is the less likely the child will engage in destructive behaviors.
In other words, kids don’t resist harmful behavior because they know better or because they are afraid of punishment, they obey because they want to please a parent they are bonded to. While expectations, limits, and guidance are needed in childhood and adolescence, it is parental warmth that makes kids more receptive to parental influence.
What About the Dangers of Technology?
When it comes to preventing pornography use, it is easy to focus primarily on trying to make technology safer. However, as you probably know, kids can get very creative in finding ways around a parent’s attempt to make technology safe if they really want to see pornography. The parent-child bond is still the most important, even when it comes to technology use.
Children with parents who are willing to create joy and emotionally warm companionship tend to develop a healthy well-adjusted personality with a high index of well-being. That is, they are more likely to recognize when technology is harming them. Sometimes parents can get distracted in our digital age thinking that successful parenting is about technology management. At the core, parenting in a digital age is no different than what has always been true: it is about relationship-building and nurturing a child through life.
In 2021 a large study was done across 11 cultural groups around the world focusing on child behavior over time. They found that higher parental warmth at ages 9 and 10 predicted steeper increases in child prosocial behavior (ie, not doing things like binging on porn) during later adolescence. In all cultures, it was the parent-child bond that helped more than rules and managing harmful influences.
You will not be able to prevent your child from being exposed to pornography. However, you can help your child not become addicted to it and learn how to resist it. Pornography addiction develops when a child has no other ways to find comfort and connection.
A Note of Caution
There is one note of caution I found in all the research I studied on this topic. When parents use harsh verbal discipline it erases the positive effects of an otherwise warm parent-child bond.
Even in a warm and loving parent-child relationship, harsh verbal discipline reinforces the child's misbehaviors and depressive symptoms, which are often the very behaviors that parents aim to improve. While parental warmth creates trust and reciprocity between parent and child, harsh verbal discipline may compromise those bonds and reinforce the child's use of problem behaviors.
Harsh verbal discipline creates a “rupture” between parent and child. However, all hope is not lost when a parent ruptures their relationship with their child through harsh words. That rupture can be repaired through intentional apology and making amends on the part of the parent afterward.
There are, in fact, positive benefits of repairing a rupture with a child. This process can be a discipleship moment with your children to model how to rebuild a connection with God after we sin. So while you should do all you can to avoid using harsh words toward your child, when you do fail in that area you can turn your failure into a positive moment of reconnection and modeling good behavior with your child.
What Does “Warmth” Look Like?
Warmth | ‘wôrmTH | noun: To act in loving, affectionate, interested, and positive ways toward your child as well as noticing and responding in caring ways to your child’s emotions and experiences.
To be clear, a close parent-child relationship is not when a parent and child both enjoy watching the same shows together or can both laugh at the same jokes. Warmth is a relationship that creates an emotional bond. Warmth is not about quantity time, but quality time. In fact, spending a lot of time together talking about superficial topics is unlikely to create warmth in the relationship.
Your child needs to know that they have your attention, that you listen to them, that you hear them, and that you care about their feelings. To make that happen, consider the following.
How to Create Warmth
Try to spend 10 minutes with each child each day. For some of you that may not sound like much, but for others giving each child one-on-one attention may be challenging. Nonetheless, make this a goal, even if you cannot always meet it.
Ideas for Time with Younger Children
Engage your child with play now and then. Play a board game, engage in imaginative play, or play with your kid’s toys together.
When possible, allow your child to pick the activity.
Avoid asking too many questions about why they play the way they do. Don’t correct how your child wants to play. Let them be imaginative.
On days you cannot do an activity with them, just talk for a bit.
Ideas for Time with Older Children
Go on a walk with them or just sit and talk.
When you have time, take them to a coffee shop or ice cream store to change the environment.
Share how your day went as an opener. What significant things happened to you today, both good and bad?
Share the feelings you had throughout the day.
Ask them if they will share what they have experienced recently and how they felt.
Some days sharing will be serious and others light-hearted and funny. Let conversations come out naturally and don’t try to force their direction.
For All Children
Don’t use electronics during times you are trying to connect with your child. Things like video games or movies do not allow you to interact at the level needed.
Remove distractions during your time together. Turn off the TV, get away from other siblings, and silence your phone. Make this all about them.
Use affection and touch. Touch is a basic need of all humans and is a powerful way to connect. Rub their back, put a hand on their shoulder, or give them a side hug. Some kids do not respond well to hugs. For such children, leave them notes around the house or send texts saying, “I love you.”
That’s a lot of stuff to remember! However, I am not hoping you remember all of this. It’s great if you remember to have clear rules and consequences and praise good behavior. However, if you have to pick just one thing to take away and work on, I recommend focusing on creating warmth.
A 2020 study compared four parenting styles with adolescents:
Indulgent (not strict but warm)
Neglectful (no warmth or strictness)
Authoritative (strict and warm)
Authoritarian (strict but not warm)
The study found that both Indulgent (not strict but warm) and Authoritative (strict and warm) parenting styles resulted in well-adjusted adolescents. The absence of warmth, however, actually created a risk factor for problematic behaviors.
The impact of a warm parent-child relationship on your child’s behavior cannot be overestimated.
Of course, this will not stop all negative behavior—we have yet to find a cure for childish impulses. However, a close parent-child bond should reduce the frequency of your child’s mistakes and make it easier to work through them when they occur.