Links Between Parental Responses to Adolescent Distress and Adolescent Risk Behavior: The Mediating Role of Thought/Emotion Suppression

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The rates of substance use and unsafe sexual practices among America's youth are a major public health concern. The goal of this study was to examine novel inter- and intrapersonal predictors of adolescent risk behavior. Aim 1 of this study was to examine how supportive and unsupportive parental responses to adolescents' negative emotions relate to adolescent substance use and sexual behavior, and to test whether the tendency to suppress unwanted thoughts and emotions mediates this link. Aim 2 was to further explore the putative link between suppression and adolescent risk behavior by testing whether physiological arousal when viewing negative emotional stimuli mediates this link. Participants included 115 adolescents (mean age = 17.19 years, SD = 1.27; 48% female) and 109 mothers. Aim 1 analyses revealed limited support for the hypothesized links: (a) adolescent-reported unsupportive maternal responses were associated with greater self-reported suppression (but not the other two measures of suppression), which in turn was related to more frequent sexual behavior in the past year and (b) adolescent-reported supportive maternal responses were negatively associated with adolescent substance use in the past year. Aim 2 analyses did not support any links between suppression and physiological arousal or between physiological arousal and adolescent risk behavior. Overall, these results suggest some potential links among parents' responses to their adolescents' negative emotions, suppression, and adolescent risk behavior. However, the hypothesized links that were significant in the path models were between variables measured by adolescent self-reports; therefore, the findings should be viewed as preliminary. I discuss these findings in the context of the available literature on parental emotion socialization, suppression, and adolescent risk behavior, and suggest directions for future research that could move this area of inquiry forward.