Talking about conflict with parents: Five observations and two questions

Adolescence is frequently portrayed as a time of increasing parent-child conflict, thanks in large parts to the roles played by G. Stanley Hall and Anna Freud.  As adolescents and their parents actively negotiate new roles, responsibilities, values, and expectations on the way to adulthood, parents also tend to disclose more personal information with their soon-to-be-adult adolescents than with younger children.  However, parent-adolescent conflict, even in small doses, can be distressing to children and is associated with emotional distress and unhappiness. 

While the majority of the extant research has focused on the antecedents and consequences of parent-adolescent conflict, considerably less attention has been paid to the strategies adolescents employ to manage conflict between themselves and their parents.  Through a careful read of the coping literature, it is clear that adolescents can reduce conflict with parents by behaving in ways that parents approve (primary coping) or by changing the way they respond to conflict with parents (secondary coping).  However, based on some research we recently produced, I would like to suggest another way that adolescents cope with conflict with their parents:  namely, by talking with others about the conflict. In a paper we published earlier this year in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, we offer a hypothetical model of guided cognitive reframing to explain who adolescents talk to about conflict with their fathers.  Below are five observations and two unresolved questions based on what we found.

1. Adolescents do talk about their relationships with their parents. In our study we asked 7th grade adolescents who they talk to when they “are upset or bothered” by their relationship with their co-resident fathers.  (In our study, half of the co-resident fathers were stepparents.) Specifically, we probed whether they talk to their mothers, their fathers, and also asked whether they talk to “anyone else.”  Over 75% of adolescents said they talked to their mothers, 43% said they talked directly to dad, and 52% said they talked to someone else.  While it may seem surprising that only 43% spoke directly to dad, recall that almost half of our fathers were stepparents and were less likely to be sought out than biological parents.  If adolescents talked to others, they overwhelmingly talked to age-mates (e.g., siblings, friends) but adults were also sought out (e.g., aunts, uncles, grandparents, birthfathers).  Thus, contrary to stereotypes of brooding, distant adolescents, our results suggest they are willing to talk with parents and other sources about their relationships with their fathers.

2. Adolescents talk to parents who listen. Just as the classic book reminds us, there is an art to getting children to talk. We predicted whether mothers and fathers were sought out by their children to discuss the father-child relationship, and to make these predictions we used a bevy of constructs that assessed qualities of the parent-child relationship, the quality of the marital relationship, individual differences in the parents and children, and cultural value orientations.  A clear story emerged:  adolescents talked to mom about dad when she was a warm and accepting parent and they talked to dad about their relationship with him when he was a warm and accepting parent.  Apparently, adolescents are willing to talk to parents about the sensitive topic of conflict with a parent when that conversation is likely to be met with an open ear and an accepting mind.

3. Qualities of the marital relationship are linked to whether parents are sought. We also found that adolescents are less likely to talk to mom about the co-resident dad when the parents tend to disagree about parenting decisions.  Specifically, when parents reported low levels of co-parenting, the adolescents talked to moms about dad less.  Likely, adolescents are aware that mothers and fathers disagree about parenting and they are less likely to talk to her when they have concerns about fueling conflict between the parents. A healthy parent relationship likely promotes healthy parent-child relationships.

4. Largely, boys and girls follow similar patterns, with one notable exception. Contrary to some expectations that boys and girls disclose at different rates to parents, we found that boys and girls were equally likely to talk to their mothers and fathers about their relationships with their fathers. However, girls were notably more likely to talk to another source about their relationships with their fathers.

5. There are more similarities than differences in guided cognitive reframing between families of European and Mexican ancestry. In our sample, we had approximately equal groups of adolescents from Mexican origin and White families and overwhelmingly the patterns of the association explained similar patterns of seeking outsources to talk about the father-child relationship.  Surprisingly, even a number of indicators of cultural values (e.g., familism, expression of respect, gender beliefs, acculturation gap) didn’t explain patterns of seeking out others for support.  Although the science of cultural adaptation is progressing rapidly, our evidence suggests families of Mexican ancestry and White families follow similar patterns.

Despite these headlines, there remain two questions we need to explore further.

What’s happening with mothers? The focus of our study was on father-child relationships and although we asked hundreds of questions about mothering behaviors and the mother-child relationship, we didn’t ask about who the adolescents talk to when they have problems with mom.  It is possible that because mothers tend to spend more time with their children than fathers they will also be sought out to discuss the relationship.  We might also expect that fathers might be sought out to understand mothers’ behavior because, as an intimate partner, he might be thought of as a knowledgeable source on how to address her.  We plan to explore these themes in the future. 

Does the subject of the conflict matter? In our study we asked the general question, “When your dad does something…” but we didn’t ask about a specific incident and, thus, lost information that would let us know whether certain relationship conflicts require more support than others.  It’s plausible that adolescents would only seek the input of others if (a) they feel it is likely the father’s behaviors could change or (b) the adolescent is trying to make sense of the nature of the conflict.  More research is needed on this topic to identify the areas that require input and counsel from others. 

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