Ask A Researcher

June 2019

“Giving rope and pulling it back”: Parental dilemmas to prevent adolescent substance use

Shweta Arpit Srivastava (formerly Shweta Sharma) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University. Dr. Ann Burnett is a Professor of Communication and Director of Women and Gender Studies at North Dakota State University.
This article is based on the scholarly article: Sharma, Shweta, & Burnett, Ann (2016). “Giving rope and pulling it back": Nurturing and control strategies used by parents to prevent adolescent substance use. Journal of Communication, Speech & Theater Association of North Dakota, 28(2), 42-55.

The current opioid crisis in the US warrants adolescent substance use prevention more than ever before, especially because drugs, alcohol, and suicides are contributing to an alarming drop in US life expectancy for the second year in a row. In such a scenario, parenting adolescents becomes increasingly challenging because, on one hand, parents learn scary facts from the media and feel the urge to protect their children; on the other hand, they need to continue to show love and care for their children. It is certainly hard to balance discipline and love. When a parent sees bad behavior, he or she might become stricter, and when he or she sees good behavior, it might be okay to grant some freedom. One might argue that these strategies are a part of normal parenting practices. However, communication research informs us differently. Beth Le Poire, a family communication scholar theorized that such intermittent use of strict control and lenience is problematic because it is confusing and frustrating for the child. Furthermore, such intermittent practices may reinforce the behavior (in this case adolescent substance use) that we try to curb.

Le Poire’s (1995) Inconsistent Nurturing as Control (INC) theory originally explained intermittent use of love and care as control by romantic partners of substance abusive individuals. The theory suggests that partners of substance abusers go through three stages:

1. Pre-labeling: This stage exists before the addictive behavior is labeled problematic. For example, a person may drink alcohol regularly but may not be labeled as an addict. In this stage, partners use communication and behaviors that nurture the habit, such as talking about benefits of taking alcohol in moderation, or participating in wine tastings, etc. Comparable behaviors for parents trying to prevent adolescent substance use could be allowing a sip of wine to demystify the concept of alcohol or allowing for more time at a friend’s place if the parents know the friend. Le Poire labelled such behaviors as nurturing behaviors.

2. Post-labeling: This stage exists after a noteworthy incident occurs, such as getting a warning email from the employer, or getting a DUI ticket. After such an incident, the addictive behavior is labeled as problematic, and most partners in this stage tend to withhold love and care, and become more controlling. They use strategies such as hiding car keys, or taking control over money. In a parent-child relationship, some of these behaviors can be compared to cutting back on screen time, stricter curfew times, or restricting access to certain friends. Le Poire called such behaviors as control (withdrawal of nurturing) behaviors.

3. Post-frustration:This stage begins after all efforts to curb the substance-abusive behavior fail. At this stage the partners have experienced that nurturing did not help in pre-labeling stage and withdrawal of nurturing did not help in post-labeling stage. Also, when using nurturing, the partners are afraid that they might be too lenient and they may give way to substance abusive behavior; in using control they may fear the possibility of losing trust and hurting the relationship. Therefore, in post-frustration stage, they unintentionally encourage the addictive behavior through inconsistent manifestation of nurturing and control. This is similar to parental dilemma of granting freedom and choices. We argue that in a parent-child relationship this stage exists even before pre-labeling because parents try similar strategies for prevention.

Parents nurture perceived good behavior and try to control perceived bad behavior by using a variety of communication strategies. They use strategies of nurturing by promoting open discussions, monitoring behavior and activities in respectful ways, and presenting models of responsible behavior. They use controlling strategies by enforcing rules, forcing discussions, and reprimanding deviant behavior.

Based on the understanding of nurturing and control, we conducted a study (Sharma & Burnett, 2016) to explore how parents respond to the possibility of adolescent substance use and what they are doing to prevent its occurrence. The results confirmed our assumption that parents are aware of the ill-effects of adolescent substance use and use communication strategies to attempt to prevent it. Parents often find themselves dealing with the dilemma of balancing love and nurturing with vigilance and control. Hence, they use communication strategies in hopes of controlling the adolescent’s behavior, but parents’ choice of strategy depends on the behavior.  One mother described this as, “giving rope and pulling it back.” In this study, parents explained that they did not want to be too strict so as to upset the relationship with their adolescent, but at the same time, they also wanted to make sure that their adolescent stayed away from the harms of substance use.  Parents revealed that they extend privileges if they observe good behavior, and they make rules stricter and controls tighter if the children do not match the standards created in the household to keep check on substance use. Overall, parents give “a little bit of rope at a time.”

Our findings indicated that nurturing and controlling strategies create three paradoxes (Sharma & Burnett, 2016) when parents try to prevent adolescent substance use. First, both parents and adolescents have agency and control in the relationship. This is why parents sometimes cannot hold a discussion because young people tend to drift away or check out. For example, on some occasions, parents may be successful in enforcing curfew times, but they also relax curfew times when adolescents show good behavior. Second, parents feel obligated to sacrifice for their children while simultaneously dealing with issues of self-fulfillment. For example, a parent might consider not having more than one glass of wine in front of children, and they might hide the second glass. Third, there is a need to control the adolescent’s behavior but there is also the desire to maintain love in the relationship.  A father might stay up until his adolescent comes home from a late night event, spend enough time with him to make sure the adolescent is sober, but refrain from accusing the adolescent of drinking.

As explained through the findings of this study, parents try to prevent adolescent substance use through intermittent use of nurturing and control. This stage can be labeled as prevention stage. INC theory explains that outcomes (Prescott & Le Poire, 2002) in one stage impact the choice of strategies in the next stage. If the use of nurturing fails in pre-labeling stage. This leads to the use of excessive control in post-labeling stage. Similarly, when withholding nurturing fails in the post-labeling stage, it leads to frustration. As per INC theory, such inconsistent use of nurturing and control reinforces the behavior we try to restrict. Therefore, it is important to re-examine the age-old parental script of “giving rope and pulling it back,” and it is necessary to address more effectively the dilemmas parents face when it comes to preventing adolescent substance use. We recommend a closer examination of parent-child communication regarding prevention of adolescent substance use.


Le Poire, B. A. (1995). Inconsistent nurturing as control theory: Implications for communication-based research and treatment programs. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23, 60-74. doi:10.1080/00909889509365414

Prescott, M. E., & Le Poire, B. A. (2002). Eating disorders and mother-daughter communication: A test of of inconsistent nurturing as control theory. The Journal of Family Communication, 2, 59-78. doi:10.1207/S15327698JFC0202_01

Sharma, S., & Burnett, A. (2016). “Giving rope and pulling it back": Nurturing and control strategies used by parents to prevent adolescent substance use. Journal of Communication, Speech & Theater Association of North Dakota, 28(2), 42-55.


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