Parents’ Communication and Involvement Curb Influences for Violence Among Middle Schoolers

04/25/2011

Parents who encourage conflict resolution without violence and who play an active role in the lives of their young adolescent children buffer influences from peers and schools that foster aggression, a UIC psychologist and his colleagues found.

The researchers surveyed 5,581 students at the start of sixth grade, and repeated the survey each spring and fall over three school years. They measured the students’ perceptions of the pervasiveness and tolerance of violence in their schools, their perceptions of their parents’ support or low opinion of fighting, their parents’ monitoring and involvement in their lives, and delinquent behaviors of their close friends.

The researchers found several factors that “significantly moderated” influences toward aggression, all in parents’ hands: clear disapproval of fighting among their children, expectation or encouragement for them to resolve conflict without using violence and active involvement in their children’s lives.

Stepping over the threshold of adolescence, children in middle school can experience great vulnerability and risk, said David Henry, a professor in the School of Public Health and the Department of Psychology and an author of the study.

“For middle school, kids often go to a different, usually consolidated, school, which means they’re traveling further from home, they have contact with new peer groups, their friendships are reshuffled, and so on,” he said. “Such transition times are critical for prevention.”

Thirty-seven schools in Durham, NC, Richmond, Va., northeastern Georgia, and Chicago participated in the study. Most of the students were from low-income families. Almost half of the students were African American (48 percent), about a quarter (23 percent) were Hispanic and about half (52 percent) did not live with two parents.

The observational study took place in conjunction with the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involving one of the largest cohorts of middle school children ever studied in violence prevention research.

It is common to believe that parents have little influence on their children once they become adolescents. The Multisite Violence Prevention Project challenges that belief.

“The Multisite study found that intervening with parents had effects with middle schoolers,” explained Henry, who was an investigator on that study as well. “This study pushes that finding farther and specifies potential targets of intervention, specifically parental beliefs about violence and nonviolence and parental involvement in the child’s life.”

Henry conducted the work with researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Chicago. The study was published in the journal Child Development.

As a co-investigator of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, Henry and colleagues at the University of Chicago are now testing an intervention in several schools to address misperceptions of children who believe their peers support for aggression more than they really do. They hypothesize that if those misperceptions are corrected, adolescents will be less likely to use aggression as a strategy to solve their problems.

Read the abstract of “Parents as moderators of the impact of school norms and peer influences on aggression in middle school students (Child Dev. 2011;82(1):146-161).”

This news release was written by Veronica Johnston, IHRP communications director.