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Monday
Jan062014

Stuck in the Middle: When Kids Feel Caught Between Parents

 

My wife and I don’t always agree on the best way to parent our two kids. We sometimes have different ideas about how to broaden their palates, limit screen time (here’s hoping one of those freakish talking animals turns on Diego very soon), and how to blend our respective family holiday traditions. When we’re grappling with these and other parenting issues, we engage in what researchers call co-parental communication, which generally refers to how she and I communicate with one another and our children when parenting.

It should come as no surprise that co-parental communication is a pretty important family dynamic. In fact, it’s so important that parents’ communication skills when co-parenting, whether the parents still live together or not, is a powerful predictor of many outcomes, including kids’ mental health and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Basically, if parents’ use supportive co-parental communication, such that they work together, present a unified front, and don’t undermine each other’s’ parenting attempts, then the entire family benefits. But things get much worse if parents’ co-parental communication is antagonistic and they undermine each other, whether by playing ‘good cop’ to the other parent’s ‘bad cop’, or by bad-mouthing one parent in front of the kid(s). Although the links between parental co-communication quality and individual and family well-being are well-established (supportive communication = good; antagonistic communication = bad), the mechanisms underlying these associations have not been made clear. In other words, why/how do different types of co-parental communication lead to their respective good vs. bad outcomes?

In a recent study, researchers hypothesized that the link between parental co-communication and various outcomes might exist because different types of parental co-communication influence the extent to which kids feel “caught” between their parents.1 And feeling caught between parents is no fun for anyone.

To test their hypothesis, they asked almost 500 young adults (around 20 years of age) to complete a survey that assessed their:

  1. perceptions of their parents’ supportive co-parental communication (e.g., “My parents worked well together raising me”)
  2. perceptions of their parents’ antagonistic co-parental communication (e.g., “My parents criticized each other’s parenting”)
  3. feelings of being caught between their parents (e.g., “How often do you feel like if you are loyal to one parent, you are being disloyal to your other parent?”)
  4. satisfaction with their relationship with each parent
  5. mental health (e.g., how often they felt nervous or depressed)

What did they find? As expected, the extent to which kids felt caught between their parents explained some, but not all, of the link between supportive and antagonistic co-parental communication and parent-child satisfaction and child mental health. Basically, kids who felt caught between their parents reported less supportive co-communication on the part of their parents. In contrast, perceiving more antagonistic communication increased feelings of being caught between loyalties to each parent. Feeling caught between parents also decreased the quality of the kids’ relationship with their parents and negatively affected kids’ mental health.

Now, as I note above, feeling caught between parents didn’t fully explain the connection between co-communication quality and satisfaction and mental health (in research terms we’d call ‘feeling caught’ a partial mediator). Thus, there are other reasons or mechanisms why co-communication could negatively affect parent-child quality and child mental health, and future work will have to uncover those mechanisms. But in the meantime, the results of this study provide important insight for clinicians who work with parents because it’s clear that the way parents interact when parenting is at least as much, if not more, important than the specific parenting skills parents might have. Put another way, it’s okay for parents to have different ideas about parenting. My wife and I certainly do at times. But it’s critical that we approach parenting as a unified front and don’t undermine each other’s parenting attempts.

1Schrodt, P., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2013). Feeling caught as a mediator of co-parental communication and young adult children’s mental health and relational satisfaction with parents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 977-999.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

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