Having involved parents — those who know a lot about their children’s friends, activities, and performance in school — can help children overcome peer influence to start smoking, according to a study by a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
The study also confirmed earlier findings that the more widespread children think smoking is, the more likely they are to start. Moreover, children who are socially competent — who have the ability to exercise self-control and good judgment — and have parents who monitor their behavior tend not to start smoking. The study, which was published in the December 2002 issue of Prevention Science, surveyed students in four middle schools in a suburban Maryland school district.
Why Parental Involvement Is Key
While researchers have known that both peers and parents play an important role in whether young teens and preteens start smoking, they’ve known less about whether the effects of peer influence on starting smoking is affected by other factors, such as parents’ involvement and children’s adjustment to school and degree of social competence.
“Many children start to experiment with smoking in early adolescence,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the NICHD. “Many then go on to develop a life-long addiction that can cause them serious health problems later in life. This study shows that by staying involved in their children’s lives, parents can help them to avoid the smoking habit.”
Bruce Simons-Morton, Ph.D., of NICHD’s Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research, surveyed 1,081 students in four middle schools at the beginning and again at the end of sixth grade. The students completed a questionnaire that measured a variety of factors, including their friends’ behavior and expectations; their own ability to resist dares, resolve conflicts and retain self-control; and how well they follow rules, complete school work on time, and get along with classmates and teachers. The questionnaire also asked children about their parents’ involvement in their lives, their parents’ expectations for them, and whether their parents check to see if the children have done what they’ve been asked to do.
The researchers found that teens with friends engaging in problem behavior — those who smoked, drank, cheated on tests, lied to parents, bullied others or damaged property — were more likely to smoke if their parents were relatively less involved than if their parents were relatively more involved. This finding pertained to all of the children studied — boys, girls, African-Americans, whites, children living with one parent, and children with mothers who had not attended college. Parents’ expectations about smoking and whether an adult at home smokes did not significantly influence children’s decision to start smoking.
“Parents’ involvement may be particularly important during early adolescence,” said Dr. Simons-Morton. “It is a time when many young people first begin asserting their independence from their parents, but before peer influences reach their full strength. It’s also a time when young people are still sensitive to their parents’ values and concerns and may be reluctant to try smoking because they know their parents would disapprove.”
The study also confirmed two earlier findings. The researchers found that students who provided higher estimates of how much other youth smoke were more likely to smoke than those who provided lower estimates. This finding was true regardless of whether children had relatively more or relatively fewer friends who smoked. In addition, the researchers found that sixth-graders who had the ability to exercise self-control and good judgment and had parents who monitored their behavior, were less likely to start smoking. Dr. Simons-Morton noted that the study was not a nationally representative survey, but was limited to four middle schools in one suburban location. Also, some groups of children may not have been fully represented in the study, because their parents did not give permission for them to participate, or because they were absent from class on survey days.