Parents fighing with teen girl covering her ears.
Published on: Jun 22, 2021

When parents who are fighting with each other draw their adolescent children into their conflicts, the children may perceive those conflicts very differently than their parents, according to a new Penn State study.

"Parents may not realize the impact they are having on their children," said Devin McCauley, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies and principal investigator on the project.

Parents may bring their children into a conflict — called "triangulation" — for different reasons, such as to diffuse tension or to ask their children to side with them in an argument.

Involving children in verbal or physical hostility can be damaging, as children may blame themselves or feel threatened, McCauley noted. Possible outcomes from frequent triangulation can include depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, or trouble in school.

The research team analyzed data from 150 families with adolescents who were asked about occurrences of triangulation, interparental conflict, and their feelings of family cohesion once per day for 21 days. They found that on days when triangulation happened more often, the children reported significantly higher levels of interparental conflict and less feelings of family cohesion than their parents did. Their findings are published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

McCauley said feelings of family cohesion — often resulting from emotional support from family members — can help bolster adolescents' well-being.

"Knowing that your family has your back can be helpful because they are your main source of security and support," McCauley said. "Adolescents are becoming very attuned to emotional cues and what's going on around them. They may be anticipating interparental conflict even before it happens."

Because parents and children can have vastly different perceptions of the same events, McCauley recommended getting input from multiple family members to get a more complete picture of what's happening.

"When parents bring their kids into conflicts, it may not be as stressful for parents as it is for the kids," he said.

How adolescents feel about their families can fluctuate widely from day-to-day, and that can have important implications for how to better understand and support adolescents' well-being, McCauley added.

Collaborators on this project included Carlie Sloan, graduate student in human development and family studies; Mengya Xia, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama; and Gregory Fosco, associate professor of human development and family studies and associate director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

Support for this project was provided by the Karl R. and Diane Wendle Fink Early Career Professorship for the Studies of Families, the Penn State Social Science Research Institute, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.