Changing family structures, workplace demands and social networking are driving a wedge between parents and children.
In a World Health Organization (WHO) ranking of developed countries, Canada ranks near the bottom – about 31 out of 38 – in the quality of the bond between teenagers and their parents.
The rankings were based on surveys of students in Grade 6 through 10 who answered questions about how often they confided in mom or dad, and how well they felt their parents understood them. The WHO's rankings raise some sobering concerns about the state of parenting in Canada, and are part of what prompted bullying expert Debra Pepler to explore the issue at an upcoming conference.
"Children and youth desperately need their parents for developing emotional and behavioural regulation, but also for finding a moral compass, for solving day-to-day problems," the York University researcher said.
Fraying family connections can have enormous impact on teenagers.
In a recent report in which Pepler and her co-authors, Wendy Craig of Queen's and Dilys Haner of York University, looked at teenagers' relationships with teachers, peers, their community and their parents and how they relate to 24 measures of health, ranging from bullying to victimization, drug use and academic achievement.
Parental relationships were the strongest influence, closely linked to 23 out of the 24 health measures (birth control use was the one exception).
Pepler has begun focusing on the roles relationships play in bullying, and she has been appointed by the Nova Scotia government to investigate what more health and education officials could have done to help Rehteah Parsons, who took her own life after an alleged sexual assault and harassment.
Some bullying experts believe parenting hasn't been given its due attention.
"We are barking up the wrong tree in our search to keep our children safe," said Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist who has developed a series of workshops and courses to help parents build better relationships with their children. "It surprises me that such a well-known and established factor in children's vulnerability as parenting is hardly ever talked about when discussing such matters."
Focusing blame on parents, however, can be problematic. Parenting strategies can't be legislated and parents these days are facing an uphill battle: It's harder than ever before to bond with teenagers, as more parents work, their demands at work have grown, and their children have 24/7 access to their friends through cellphones and social media.
That's evident in survey data reviewed by the WHO, which noted a concerning downward trend: In Grade 6, about 40 per cent of students reported having a high-quality relationship with their parents. By Grade 10, less than 20 per cent reported having a quality bond.
The worst rankings for Canadian parents came from children aged 11 to 15 who were asked about how well they communicate with their mothers and fathers. Only four of 38 countries measured fared worse in how comfortable 11-year-old children feel communicating with their fathers, and how comfortable 13-year-old children feel communicating with their mothers. (In general, girls were slightly less comfortable talking to their parents, a dynamic that transcends international borders.)
Neufeld has spent the last 30 years designing courses and workshops for parents to help reverse this trend. He says North American youth have been pulling further away from their parents and becoming more attached to their friends since the late 1940s – creating a "peer-oriented" culture in which children look to each other for guidance, a sense of identity and moral values.
According to Neufeld, flawed parental bonds are what lead children to become bullies. He teaches parents techniques for building the right balance of warmth and control in their relationship with their children, so that kids seek out adults for advice and guidance, rather than their peers. "We certainly have a huge problem in our society … where kids matter more to each other than the adults," he said.