Parent–Child Disagreements About Safety During Preadolescence

Alexa Kane, PHD; Barbara A. Morrongiello, PHD


J Pediatr Psychol. 2019;44(10):1184-1195. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Objectives: Much research has examined how parents manage safety issues for young children, however, little is known about how they do so in the preadolescent years when children's demand for autonomy increases. The current study focused on youth in this transition stage (10–13 years) and examined parent–child disagreements about safety, including how parents learn of these, react to these, and resolve these (Aim 1), if the parent–child relationship or sex of the child impacts these processes (Aim 2), and the nature and reasons why children intentionally keep safety-relevant secrets from their parents (Aim 3).

Methods: A short-term longitudinal design was applied. Parents initially completed questionnaires and, with their child, retrospectively recalled safety disagreements. Over the next month, parents tracked safety disagreements and children tracked secrets they withheld from parents.

Results: The findings revealed significant gender differences: Daughters were more likely than sons to spontaneously disclose safety issues to their parents, and parents were more likely to discuss the issue and provide teaching to daughters than sons. Relationship quality emerged as an important factor, particularly for boys: A positive parent–child relationship predicted increased parental teaching in response to a safety-relevant issue for boys only. Children kept secrets from their parents about safety-relevant information in order to maintain their autonomy and independence.

Conclusion: Parent–child disagreements about safety are influenced by the positive nature of the parent–child relationship and differ for sons and daughters.


In Canada and the United States, as well as most other industrialized countries, injuries are the leading cause of death for youth under 19 years of age [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2016]. Research has shown, however, that most children's injuries can be prevented (Canadian Paediatric Society, Injury Prevention Committee, 2012). Past research has revealed the important role that parents play in injury prevention. Parents recognize that child safety is an important issue (Little, 2015). However, maintaining children's safety poses some unique challenges when children reach preadolescence because during this developmental stage (10–13 years) children demand, and it is appropriate to be granting, increased autonomy (i.e., allowing children more time without adult accompaniment and greater independence in decision-making; Wray-Lake, Crouter, & McHale, 2010). Hence, parents must somehow become aware of unsafe behaviors by their children (e.g., safety-rule violations) even though they have less direct observation of them during preadolescence. Although there is extensive knowledge about how parents become aware of safety issues and manage these during the preschool and early school years (Morrongiello, Ondejko, & Littlejohn, 2004a, 2004b; Morrongiello, Widdifield, Munroe, & Zdzieborski, 2014), much less is known about these issues in preadolescence. The proposed research addresses this gap by examining parent–child disagreements about safety, including how parents become aware of, react to, and resolve safety disagreements. Safety disagreements occur when the parent and child hold different views about how the child should behave (e.g., parent expects the child to wear a helmet when cycling but the child does not want to do so). We also considered if the parent–child relationship influences these processes, and whether they vary for daughters compared with sons (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Visual representation of relationships tested within Aim 1 (darkened lines) and Aim 2. Solid arrows represent planned regression analyses, and dashed arrows represent planned tests of moderation.

Parent Awareness of Safety Issues (Disagreements, Reactions, and Resolution)

There is surprisingly little research on parent–child disagreements about safety issues, and virtually no research on how parents react to and resolve safety disagreements. A few studies have examined young children's knowledge of safety rules (Mayes, Roberts, Boles, & Brown, 2006), but for older children the issue is not knowledge of safety rules but rather whether they agree with the parent's rules. Youth agree in principle that parents should set safety rules (Darling, Cumsille, & Martinez, 2007). However, it is the extent of youth agreement with rules that is the critical predictor of compliance (Jackson, 2002). Compliance is important, because safety rules are only effective in protecting youth to the extent that they are followed. To complicate matters, for a variety of reasons youth may choose not to disclose noncompliance with safety rules to their parents, thus making it difficult for parents to assess the actual prevalence of safety disagreements (Darling, Cumsille, Caldwell, & Dowdy, 2006). Youth disclosure, therefore, can be an important means by which parents are made aware of safety disagreements during preadolescence.

Child Disclosure and Parent–Child Relationship Quality

Child disclosure gains in importance for children's safety as they age. With age, children are increasingly supervised from a distance (e.g., periodic checking in) and the amount of time they are completely unsupervised (i.e., caregiver has not checked in and is not certain of their location and/or activity for at least 10 min) increases as they spend more time with peers during the typical course of the day (Borawski, Ievers-Landis, Lovegreen, & Trapl, 2003). Thus, as children develop, parents must rely more heavily on their children's willingness to disclose information about their activities and behavior (Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Without such disclosure, parental beliefs about child safety practices have been found to be highly discrepant from children's actual behaviors (Ehrlich, Longhi, Vaughan, & Rockwell, 2001; Reidler & Swenson, 2012). In fact, greater parental knowledge has consistently been related to decreased problem behaviors among youth (Lahey, Van Hulle, D'Onofrio, Rodgers, & Waldman, 2008).

While some research has considered youth disclosure and intentional nondisclosure to be extremes on a single continuum (Stattin & Kerr, 2000), increasingly researchers have increasingly noted that these are two related but distinct constructs (Smetana, Metzger, Gettman, & Campione-Barr, 2006). Frijns, Keijsers, Branje, and Meeus (2010) speak about the difference between nondisclosure (unintentional and effortless) and secrecy (requires conscious effort and a clear decision to conceal information). Their research suggests that secrecy is the important factor to consider in understanding the link between parental knowledge and adolescent delinquency. Importantly, most of the research examining secrecy has looked at secret-keeping generally, without examining the possible differential impact of keeping secrets about more mundane issues versus health-risk behaviors. To extend this research, the current study examined the nature of the information that youth withhold and the reasons why they choose to intentionally keep safety-relevant secrets from their parents.

The degree to which youth disclose to their parents is closely tied to parent–child relationship quality (RQ; Reidler & Swenson, 2012). Adolescents are reported to disclose more when they have a positive relationship with their parents, characterized by high levels of trust (Smetana, Metzger, Gettman, & Campione-Barr, 2006), warmth and acceptance (Hunter, Barber, Olsen, McNeely, & Bose, 2011), and an open communication style (Darling et al., 2006). All these data, however, come from research with adolescents. Very little is known about preadolescent youth disclosure, and how the parent–child relationship affects this. In addition, research specific to youth disclosure about injury-risk behaviors is extremely limited. One study which noted youth tend to avoid discussing "dangerous behaviors" with their parents (Guerrero & Afifi, 1995). Marshall, Tilton-Weaver, and Bosdet (2005) found that adolescents sometimes consider the likelihood of an activity resulting in injury when deciding whether to disclose. However, most research in this area has looked at disclosure related to feelings/concerns, school performance, and general delinquency (Kerr, Stattin, & Trost, 1999). The current research will address these gaps in the literature by examining youth disclosure specific to safety issues and whether the parent–child relationship impacts this disclosure.

Child Attributes and Parent Reactions

Whether the child is a son or daughter influences parental reactions to their child's unsafe behaviors. Responses to risk behaviors and safety-rule violations by sons tend to evoke anger and greater emphasis on behavioral control by parents (Morrongiello, Zdzieborski, & Normand, 2010). In contrast, unsafe behaviors by daughters evoke parents' disappointment and greater teaching efforts. These differential reactions to sons and daughters have been linked to different beliefs about the modifiability of children's risk taking, with parents assuming the behavior of daughters is modifiable with parental input, whereas that of their sons is not (Morrongiello & Dayler, 1996). Drawing on these findings, in the current study we examined if sex of the child statistically moderates how parents learn of, react to, and/or resolve safety disagreements, examining the possibility that these relations differ for sons and daughters.

Current Study

Preadolescence is a time of transition for families because as children spend increasing amounts of time on their own, their parents are forced to rely on means other than direct observation to learn of safety-related concerns. The current research considered this issue and addressed three aims. Aim 1: Does the way that parents become aware of safety issues (e.g., observed child not complying with a safety rule, child disclosure to parent about noncompliance) predict how they resolve these issues (e.g., compromise, commands)? We hypothesized (Hypothesis 1) that child disclosure might promote more compromise and fewer commands, whereas learning by observation would lead to the opposite pattern and possibly more consequences imposed by parents. Aim 2: Does the quality of the parent–child relationship influence how parents become aware of child safety violations, their reactions to these, and/or how these disagreements are resolved? Does child sex statistically moderate any of these relations? Based on research with adolescents, we hypothesized (Hypothesis 2) that a positive parent–child relationship might be associated with greater disclosure, more teaching reactions, and compromised outcomes. We did not have any specific hypotheses about if these relations would differ for sons versus daughters. Aim 3: What types of safety-relevant secrets do youth keep from parents, and for what reasons? We hypothesized (Hypothesis 3) that children might keep secrets in order to avoid undesirable negative outcomes, such as loss of independence or punishment.