Parents of teenagers are doing a good job

30 July 2009

Parents of teenagers are doing a good job, and poor parenting is not the reason for the increase in problem behaviour amongst teenagers, a new briefing paper published today by the Nuffield Foundation reveals.

Research undertaken by a team led by Professor Frances Gardner from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Oxford found no evidence of a general decline in parenting.

The findings show that differences in parenting according to family structure and income have narrowed over the last 25 years. However, the task of parenting is changing and could be getting increasingly stressful, particularly for some groups.

Improvements in parenting

Parents and teenagers are choosing to spend more quality time together than 25 years ago, with 70% of young people regularly spending time with their mothers in 2006 compared to 62% in 1986. For fathers, the figure had increased from 47% to 52%.

Today’s parents are more likely to know where their teenage children are and what they are doing than their 1980s equivalents. In 2006, 85% of parents routinely asked their children where they were going, compared to 79% in 1986. Similarly, the proportion asking what their children were doing has increased from 47% in 1986 to 66% in 2006.

Differences in the monitoring of teenage children, according to family type and income, have narrowed. For example in 1994, 14-15 year olds from single parent families were more likely to be out late without their parents knowing where compared with two parent families, but by 2005 this difference had disappeared.

“Despite public concern about declining family life, the research funded by the Nuffield Foundation has found no evidence of a decline in parenting over recent decades. To the contrary, most parents of teenagers seem to be doing a good job,” said Dr Ann Hagell, Head of the Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Adolescence Programme and author of the briefing paper, Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people.

Increase in problem behaviour not caused by poor parenting

The trends in parenting over the last 25 years, showing increases in time spent together, supervision and monitoring, led Professor Gardner’s team to conclude there was no link between overall standards of parenting and the increase in youth problem behaviour.

“’We found no evidence for declining standards of parenting overall, and this leads us to believe this factor does not generally explain the rise in problem behaviour,” Professor Gardner said.

Parents are getting more stressed

However, today’s parents face a different set of challenges compared to 25 years ago. Young people now are reliant on their parents for longer, with higher proportions of 20-24 year olds living with their parents. Many more remain in some kind of education or training into their late teens. In addition, the development of new technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet, has created new monitoring challenges for parents. It is also possible that parents are increasing monitoring as a reaction to a perceived increase in the risks their children are exposed to.

“Today’s parents have had to develop skills that are significantly different and arguably more complex than 25 years ago, and this could be increasing the stress involved in parenting,” Professor Gardner said.

Parents of teenagers are increasingly likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety themselves, particularly one-parent families and those on low incomes. For example, the proportion of parents from the most economically disadvantaged group who reported symptoms of depression and anxiety had increased by more than 50% between 1986 and 2006.

“It seems that many aspects of parenting may have improved but parents can't do it all on their own. We now have to consider whether external influences, such as peer pressure or wider cultural influences are playing a part, given the rising number of young people with problem behaviour in the UK today,” Professor Gardner said.


Contact: Frances Bright, Communications Manager, on 020 7681 9623.

Download the briefing paper.

Notes to editors

  • Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people will be available to download from the Nuffield Foundation’s website, from Friday 31 July 2009. It is the first in a series of briefing papers examining aspects of social change and adolescent experiences.
  • Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people was written by Dr Ann Hagell and summarises the results of a research review undertaken by Professor Frances Gardner, Dr Stephan Collishaw, Professor Barbara Maughan and Professor Jacqueline Scott, from the Universities of Oxford, Cardiff, King’s College London and Cambridge. The briefing paper also draws on a Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellowship awarded to Dr Stephan Collishaw, and two earlier Foundation awards on time trends in mental health awarded to Professor Barbara Maughan and colleagues.
  • The research team reviewed published evidence, and analysed two sets of UK nationally representative data. The first was the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), with annual data on parenting reported by teenagers and their parents from 1994 onwards. The second data source comes from a related Nuffield-funded project, led by Dr Stephan Collishaw – ‘Youth Trends’ – a study specifically designed to explore causes of trends in youth mental health. Youth Trends compares a large representative sample of 16 year olds (members of the 1970 British Cohort Study) studied in 1986 with a new representative sample of 700+ 16 year olds studied twenty years later, in 2006. Identical questions were used to assess parent-related behaviour problems and youth ratings of parenting behaviours in both studies.
  • ‘Problem behaviour’ in this context refers to conduct problems such as lying, stealing and disobedience. A 2004 Nuffield-funded study identified an increase in both adolescent conduct and emotional problems over the last 25 years (Collishaw S, Maughan B, Goodman R and Pickles A (2004) Time trends in adolescent mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45)
  • The Nuffield Foundation’s Changing Adolescence Programme is a programme of research on time trends in adolescent mental health. It was established in 2005 and focuses on various aspects of social change and adolescent experiences in order to reveal some of the changes in adolescents’ lives today.
  • The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust established in 1943 by William Morris (Lord Nuffield), the founder of Morris Motors, with the aim of advancing social well being. The Foundation funds research and practical experiment and the development of capacity to undertake them across the fields of education, science, social science and social policy.