Associations Between Parenting Styles and Teen Driving, Safety-Related Behaviors and Attitudes

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEda,b, Dennis R. Durbin, MD, MSCEa,c,d, J. Felipe García-España, PhDa, Ewa A. Kalicka, BSa and Flaura K. Winston, MD, PhDa,d,e,f

a Center for Injury Research and Prevention
b Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine, Department of Pediatrics
c Division of Emergency Medicine, Department of Pediatrics
e Division of General Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
d Department of Pediatrics
f Leonard David Institute for Health Economics, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This study demonstrates the strong association between parenting style and teen crash risk and begins to explain this risk in terms of related driving behaviors and attitudes regarding those behaviors. Parental rules and monitoring are key determinants of safe teen driving behaviors and attitudes. When rules and monitoring are accompanied by parental support, the benefit is amplified and is most consistently protective. This study confirms that safe driving belongs on the list of adolescent behaviors (including substance use, sexual initiation, delinquency, and aggression) known to be positively influenced by authoritative parenting.3133,55,56

Our data affirm that engaged parents, in contrast to uninvolved parents, were protective to youths in the domain of safe driving. Permissive parents (high support alone) had few statistically significant effects on driving safety. Notable exceptions were effects on driving while angry and attitudes about intoxicated driving. Parents offering strong rules and monitoring with little support had their greatest effect on topics reinforced by laws, including seat belt use, speeding, racing, and substance use.

Because the NYDS included behaviors and attitudes, it offers a rich view into how parents potentially promote desirable teen driver safety behaviors. Reported behaviors reveal present actions. Data on attitudes deepen our understanding by suggesting how likely teens are to adopt or to dismiss a behavior.57 Current behavioral theories point to the importance of both attitudes and perceived norms as strong antecedents to adopting safe behaviors.5759

Parental monitoring is known to affect driving safety.1720 Current driving legislation supports monitoring. Most states have graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws that restrict early independent driving (eg, limiting peer passengers and nighttime driving), to allow teens to gain experience under low-risk driving conditions.41 GDL contributed substantially to the decrease in driving-related adolescent fatalities between 1995 and 2005.60 GDL potentially can enhance the effect of monitoring because parents can point to laws supporting their actions. Even in states with weak or nonexistent GDL laws, parents are aware of the benefits of enforcing similar restrictions to protect their children.61,62 To promote teen driver safety further, parents should monitor other safety-related behaviors that affect focused driving (eg, substance use, fatigue, and distractions).63,64

Hartos et al17,18 found that, although most parents do set limits for newly licensed teen drivers, restrictions tend to be short-lived and lenient. When parents imposed stricter rules regarding teen passengers and nighttime driving, teens reported safer driving behaviors18 and fewer crashes.65 Various parent-teen agreements have been used to codify restrictions,22,66,67 to offer an understanding of both teen and parent responsibilities and expectations, and to create a framework whereby restrictions are reduced with increased experience.2123,68 Perhaps because of the clarity and structure they provide, parent-teen agreements have both short-term and sustained benefits.21,65

Monitoring may facilitate effective targeted discussions or may be construed as controlling.69 Shope et al19 found that it was the combination of parental monitoring, nurturing, and family connectedness that decreased crash rates. Our data revealed that an orientation involving firmness only did affect certain domains; however, support coupled with clear rules, expectations, and monitoring was more consistently protective.

Although parenting style is rooted in personal experience, it does not need to be static.70,71 Parents adapt their style for different children and different circumstances,70,71 responding to the specific needs and temperament of each child. An irresponsible teen may be more likely to elicit an authoritarian response ("you'll do this because I say so"), whereas a responsible teen may engage easily in the responsive discussions valued by authoritative parents.20 Although it is difficult to determine when parents' behavior drives teens' behavior and vice versa, this dynamic may provide an opportunity for intervention.

The added protective benefit of warmth and support to balance parental control may be explained in part by the effect on teens' willingness to disclose. Monitoring is dependent on parents' knowledge of teens' behavior.69,72 Responsive warm parents create an environment in which adolescents are more likely to share their activities and whereabouts.73,74

For parents to be part of the solution, we need to approach them with sensitivity regarding the unique challenge posed by the process of learning to drive. Although it represents the single greatest risk to adolescent health, parents' attitudes about driving are more nuanced than are those regarding other behaviors. Parents uniformly want their children to avoid drugs and delinquency and to forgo early sexual initiation. In contrast, parents want adolescents to drive because it offers benefits to family functioning and can be a healthy step toward independence.62 The challenge is not to prevent the behavior but to ensure that it is acquired with appropriate safety measures in place. This can be accomplished best by instituting unwavering safety rules regarding seat belt use44,75 and substance use,19,63 by introducing more-complex driving tasks only as experience is gained,76 and by minimizing distractions.77,78 To promote these safety issues, parents need to have a high level of involvement in task acquisition and then monitor driving behaviors closely.

The American Academy of Pediatrics 2006 policy statement on teen drivers recognizes the important role of pediatricians in working with families to promote teen driving safety.79 It recommends that pediatricians alert parents and teens to high-risk situations for teen drivers, encourage parents to be positive role models, and encourage written teen-parent contracts.79 Our findings suggest that pediatricians also should apply their knowledge about parenting and adolescent development to their anticipatory guidance about driving. They can offer parents guidance on how to insist on appropriate consistent monitoring while remaining warm and supportive. This may help teens understand that driving-related monitoring and restrictions are not about "control" but rather about caring and parents' desire to ensure their safety.

Because the NYDS collected data at one time point, we cannot determine whether parenting practices produced desired outcomes or adolescent behavior evoked the parenting styles. Furthermore, although youths who characterized their parents as authoritative demonstrated desired driving safety outcomes, we cannot know whether parents' behavior or teens' subjective interpretation of that behavior offered protection. Although teens' reporting of parenting behaviors has limitations, research suggests that obtaining information from adolescents is promising80 and has predictive validity.81 Glasgow et al82 emphasized that adolescents represent fundamental informers with accurate perceptions concerning family dynamics.

The constructed variable of parenting style did not measure all of the dimensions of control/demandingness or support/responsiveness covered with longer, more-complete measures. Because we needed to limit the length of the NYDS to make it appropriate for the school setting, we asked questions limited to the core constructs of parental style, that is, support and control. Future studies might include both teen and parent reports,81,83 more-comprehensive measures of parenting style,84,85 or assessments of parenting styles and teen behaviors and attitudes at multiple time points.31 Those studies could include both general and driving-specific parenting style measures to determine the importance of preexisting parenting styles for driving-specific rules and monitoring (eg, parent-teen agreement and in-vehicle monitoring technology) effectiveness.

Because the 4 parenting styles are not equally distributed, our ability to note significant differences between the less-common parenting styles (authoritarian and permissive) and uninvolved parenting was reduced. Therefore, these data should not be overinterpreted to conclude that there is little benefit of giving support or rules/monitoring alone, compared with being uninvolved. Most importantly, although we can report that parenting style is associated with reported behaviors and attitudes, only future, well-researched interventions will be able to conclude that an altered parenting style changes behavior.


Parents matter. Driving safety can be added to the growing list of positive health behaviors associated with parental involvement. Youths who perceived their parents as involved, including those with orientations involving rules and support (authoritative), rules only (authoritarian), or support only (permissive), generally had more-desirable attitudes and behaviors regarding driving safety than did those with uninvolved parents. However, adolescents with supportive active parents (rules, monitoring, and support) were most protected.

These results have a clear, actionable message for parents. To protect teens from crashes, parents should set rules and effectively monitor driving behaviors. On the basis of our results and other health behavior literature, effective monitoring typically is most effective when given in a supportive context. Clinicians and other trusted parenting sources should be conveying this message to parents.

Our findings call for further work to explore how parents can be most effective in fostering safe driving behaviors. Parental support remains a poorly defined concept, and optimal monitoring strategies need to be established as new technologies are created to support this important parental role. Moreover, evidence-based interventions need to continue to be developed to increase awareness and implementation of authoritative parenting behaviors, as well as to help teens become more receptive to parental involvement in their safety.

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