By Lindsey Tanner
CHICAGO — Defying the stereotype of the defiant teen-ager, new research suggests teens are much less likely to smoke if they think their parents disapprove of the habit.
Parental disapproval works even if the parents are smokers, and it can also blunt the effect of peer pressure, shown previously to be a strong influence on whether teens take up smoking, the study found.
"We overrate the rebelliousness of teen-agers," said Dr. James Sargent, an associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School.
"That works to our disadvantage," he said, because "parents underestimate their influence on their children. They have an overly heightened concern about coming down hard on their kids about things like smoking because they think it’s just going to make them more rebellious."
Sargent’s study, published in December’s issue of Pediatrics, the journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests the opposite is true.
Sargent and researcher Madeline Dalton surveyed 372 rural Vermont youngsters in 1996 in grades four through 11 who had never smoked. They re-questioned them in the following two years about their parents’ views on smoking, whether their friends smoked and whether they’d started smoking.
Of those youngsters, 284 initially said their parents disapproved of kids’ smoking and 19 percent of them became established smokers by the final survey. By contrast, 41 initially said their parents were lenient about smoking and almost 27 percent of them ended up becoming smokers.
At the start, 258 youngsters said none of their friends smoked and this group was less likely to take up the habit than the 113 with smoking friends. But even among the 113, youngsters whose parents set strong anti-smoking standards were less likely to start smoking than those whose parents were lenient, Sargent said.
In addition, "parents who smoked who set nonsmoking expectations on their kids … had just as much influence as parents who didn’t smoke," he said.
While other research has shown that peers have a big influence on teens’ behavior, the study shows that might be mitigated by strong messages from parents, said Elizabeth Robertson, chief of prevention research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids advocacy group, said the study echoes similar results found in research on alcohol and illegal drugs.
"Teen-agers are in fact as rebellious as people think, but they listen to their parents when they deliver clear messages far more than people realize," Myers said.
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