Academic journal article Family Relations

A Test of Cognitive Dissonance Theory to Explain Parents' Reactions to Youths' Alcohol Intoxication

Academic journal article Family Relations

A Test of Cognitive Dissonance Theory to Explain Parents' Reactions to Youths' Alcohol Intoxication

Article excerpt

Studies have shown that parents reduce control and support in response to youths' drinking. Why they react this way, however, is still unknown. From cognitive dissonance theory, we derived hypotheses about parents' reactions. We used a longitudinal, school-based sample of 494 youths (13 and 14 years, 56% boys) and their parents. General Linear Model (GLM) analyses were used to test the main hypotheses. In accord with our hypotheses, parents who encountered their youths intoxicated became less opposed to underage drinking over time. In addition, parents who remained strongly opposed to youth drinking experienced more worries than parents who became less opposed. Alternative explanations for the results were tested, but were not supported. The findings suggest that to eliminate the dissonance between their strict attitudes against youth drinking and their knowledge of their own youths' drinking, parents changed their attitudes and became more lenient.

Key Words: cognitive dissonance theory, parental attitudes, youth alcohol intoxication.

Beginning in middle adolescence, there is a sharp increase in alcohol drinking (Patrick & Schulenberg, 2010). Because early onset of drinking is related to health and social problems, such as risky sexual behaviors (Cooper, Peirce, & Huselid, 1994), drug use, and delinquency (Komro, Tobler, Maldonado-Molina, & Perry, 2010), parents typically view underage drinking as a problem (Beck, Scaffa, Swift, & Ko, 1995). How parents react when they find out that their own youth has started to drink, however, has received little attention in the literature. This question is important, because theories suggest that escalations in youth problem behavior might best be seen as part of a transactional process in which parents react to youth problem behaviors and youths react to parenting behaviors (Patterson, 1982; Sameroff, 1975). To date, however, most of the research has focused on one part of the process - youths' reactions to parenting. The less understood part is parents' reactions to youth problem behaviors.

Most parents of young adolescents are opposed to youth drinking (van der Vorst, Engels, Meeus, & Dekovic, 2006), and when asked, parents report that they would do something about their youths' drinking if they found out about it. Most commonly, they envisage using a combination of discussion and disciplinary action (Beck etal., 1995; Tyler, Tyfer, Kaljee, & Hopps, 1994). There are few studies in which parents* actual reactions to youth drinking have been examined, but those that have been done have shown that adolescents' alcohol use predicts lessened parental control (Huh, Tristan, Wade, & Slice, 2006; Stice & Barrera, 1 995) and support (Stice & Barrera, 1995). These results are at odds with the ways parents say they would react to their youths' drinking if they found out about it. Up to now, however, theoretical explanations for parents' reactions to youth drinking have been lacking.

Longitudinal studies on parents' reactions to youth problem behaviors, more generally, show results similar to those on youth drinking: When parents encounter youth problems, they tend to lessen, rather than increase, their attempts to change their youths' behavior. For example, youths' externalizing behaviors have been related to decreases in parental control and support (Hafen & Laursen, 2009; Huh et al., 2006; Kerr & Stattin, 2003; Kerr, Stattin, & Pakalniskiene, 2008; Stice & Barrera, 1995) and degradations in family management (Dishion, Nelson, & Bullock, 2004). In addition, youth smoking has been shown to predict less restrictive house rules about smoking (Huver, Engels, Vermulst, & de Vries, 2007). These findings suggest that parents, when confronted with youth problem behaviors, tend to decrease their behavioral attempts to change their youths' behaviors. It is still unknown, however, why parents react this way to problematic behaviors in their youths. …

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