The Role of Maternal Communication Style in Adolescents’ Motivation to Change Alcohol Use: A Vignette-Based Study


Among numerous factors, parents are considered as important for understanding adolescents’ alcohol use, including the degree to which parents set clear and consistent rules about alcohol use. In our study, we explored whether the style of parental rule-setting contributes to adolescents’ motivation to change alcohol use. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000), the style of rule-setting is crucial for understanding if limits will be accepted or rejected. Indeed, an autonomy-supportive style (e.g., acknowledging child’s feelings, giving a rationale for rules and providing choice) would be more effective at changing one’s motivation because such a style satisfies adolescents’ basic needs – for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Grolnick, 2003; Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2010). Conversely, a controlling style (e.g., guilt-induction, love-withdrawal) would be ineffective because it frustrates adolescents’ needs. In turn, need frustration would elicit maladaptive reactions to the request, such as oppositional defiance or submission (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013). One study partly supported those considerations (Van Petegem et al., 2015), showing that a controlling (vs. autonomy-supportive) style of communicating a request (i.e., study more after a bad grade) was related to adolescents’ autonomy need frustration, which elicited defiance and, in turn, related to less motivation to change study habits. To extend this work, our study aimed to explore those dynamics in the context of alcohol use, thereby testing the association between communication style and intention to change alcohol use, and considering the intervening role of adolescents’ need frustration and both oppositional defiance and submission in this association.


A vignette-based study was conducted among 134 Swiss adolescents (53% women; Mage = 17.46 years). Participants were randomly assigned to a vignette describing a hypothetical maternal reaction (either controlling or autonomy-supportive) to an episode of alcohol overconsumption, which involved a request to change alcohol use. After reading the vignette, participants reported upon their need frustration (autonomy and relatedness), their anticipated reactions (oppositional defiance and submission), and their motivation to change alcohol use patterns (abstention and moderation).


Results of Structural Equation Modeling analyses indicated that adolescents assigned to the controlling vignette experienced more autonomy and relatedness need frustration. Interestingly, autonomy and relatedness need frustration were associated respectively with two distinct anticipated reactions. First, adolescents who experienced autonomy need frustration reported they would submit to the maternal request which, in turn, was positively related to adolescents’ motivation to abstain or moderate alcohol use. Second, adolescents who felt frustrated in their relatedness need reported they would engage in oppositional defiance, which, in turn, was negatively related to change motivation. In other words, a controlling communication style indirectly related to motivation to change alcohol use through two opposing processes.


Our study highlights that the effectiveness of maternal rule-setting regarding alcohol use depends upon the parents’ communication style. In terms of practical implications, these findings are important as it suggests that parents should not abstain from setting rules when confronted with adolescents’ excessive alcohol use; what seems more important is to refrain from using a controlling style when communicating those rules.


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