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date: 27 May 2017

Family Communication

Summary and Keywords

Families shape individuals throughout their lives, and family communication is the foundation of family life and functioning. It is through communication that families are defined and members learn how to organize meanings. When individuals come together to form family relationships, they create a system that is larger and more complex than the sum of its individual members. It is within this system that families communicatively navigate cohesion and adaptability; create family images, themes, stories, rituals, rules, and roles; manage power, intimacy, and boundaries; and participate in an interactive process of meaning-making, producing mental models of family life that endure over time and across generations.

Keywords: family, communication, family system, communication privacy management (CPM), communication boundaries, narrative, intimacy, power, control


At age 35, Heather, a bright and educated woman, finds herself alone with two young children, Jeff (age 10) and Jacqueline (age 7), after her husband, Ron, abruptly decided to leave the marriage and his young family. The family had been emotionally close and spent all holidays with extended family from both sides, including grandparents, siblings, and cousins. But when Ron called from a trip to say that he wasn’t coming home—ever—this understandably created turbulence in the family system. Ron’s parents didn’t want to get involved, while Heather’s parents were angry about his parents’ lack of involvement. Heather’s mother and father invited Heather and the children to live with them “until Ron came to his senses.” Heather had grown up in a household where she often heard the messages “Never give up” and “Family is the most important thing in your life,” while Ron repeatedly heard the messages “Don’t give up on your dreams” and “You are the only one who can make yourself happy.”

Now, weeks after Ron left the family, Heather receives unconditional support from her mother, father, aunts, uncles, sisters, and brothers. She says that she “won’t give up,” and she and her family pray every day for Ron to quit being selfish and come home to his family. Ron, on the other hand, moved to Hollywood and spends his days pursuing his dream of becoming an actor, posting messages on Facebook about his freedom and happiness at being able to pursue his passions. He communicates infrequently with his parents, but when they do talk, they try to support him and his dreams as best they can.

Families, as communication systems, repeat themselves within and across generations through their interactions with one another. Within each system, a family develops its own communication codes based on the experiences of individual members, as well as the collective family experience. As can be seen in the real-life case of Heather and Ron, Heather’s family of origin communicated a theme of “the importance of family above self,” while Ron’s family of origin communicated a theme of “the importance of pursuing individual dreams.”

These conflicting messages, transmitted from one generation to the next, can be interpreted as contributing to the current family crisis. Scholars of family communication might study the ways in which these messages are understood and transmitted across generations, how the marital couple manages the dialectical tensions of these opposing themes, how the extended family system is affected by family turbulence, how family messages serve to negotiate changes in family boundaries, or examine ways that family members make sense of multiple messages to create a revised definition of what constitutes “family.”

Drawing on this introductory scenario to illustrate key concepts, theories, and approaches to understanding communication within families, this article first presents a constitutive view of family, followed by a description of family as an interdependent system that manages connections and relationships over time. Processes central to system maintenance are discussed, such as maintaining connectedness, developing family themes and images, managing boundaries, telling family stories, maintaining rules and roles, communicating intimacy, and communicating power and control. A brief history of the field of family communication is then provided, followed by suggested readings. This entry is not a comprehensive listing of all approaches to understanding family communication, but it does provide an introduction to several of the salient concepts.

Constitutive View of Family

What is considered “family” varies culturally, socially, and politically, but what all images of family have in common is that they are based on, formed, and maintained through communication. Communication can be defined as a symbolic, transactional process of creating and coordinating meanings, involving verbal and nonverbal codes within a context. The transactional process of coordinating meanings is central to family life. In the case of Heather and Ron, Ron might say, “I still want to be a family, but just not living together”; and Heather might respond, “But sticking together even when things get rough is what it means to be a family.” Through both verbal and nonverbal messages, this family may need to renegotiate what it means to be a family while living in separate households. One of the primary tasks of family involves meaning-making and ongoing coordination of meanings as the family changes across time.

Family communication is the mechanism for most early childhood socialization experiences. It is by observing and interacting with family members in childhood that most people learn to communicate and construct personal and relational identities as communicators. Early models of interaction become the basis for learned communication skills and lay the groundwork for future interpersonal interactions. Infants and young children quickly learn through the messages that they exchange with caregivers what they should and should not expect from others, how to constitute relationships, and ultimately how to act within those relationships. It is through the process of communicating that children learn the rules of social interaction and how to coordinate meanings with others. These children grow up and enter relationships with their own world views and perceptual filters. These views are affected by factors such as sex, race, religion, and family history and traditions across generations, and these factors combine to influence how a person perceives and interacts with relational partners and family members.

In these relationships, meanings emerge as messages are exchanged and pass through the individuals’ perceptual filters, and over time, the interactants negotiate and coordinate shared or complementary meanings. Families are formed, maintained, and dissolved through the use of communication. This constitutive view of communication places communicative interaction at the core of familial experience. This view of family communication assumes that people socially construct their relationships and interactions through their communication and that communication is a situated, multiparty accomplishment.

Family communication is not solely the domain of family communication researchers. The study of family communication is often undertaken by those in psychology, sociology, and family studies, to name a few fields. Yet, as notable family communication scholar Leslie Baxter argues, it is the focus on this interactive process of meaning-making that makes family communication scholarship unique. In the field of family communication, communication is not typically conceptualized in terms of stand-alone messages from one sender to one receiver; rather, it is conceptualized in terms of the dynamic interdependence of messages shared among family members. The emphasis in this approach is on the shared nature of meaning-making within the family system—meaning-making that occurs, not in a vacuum, but within broader intergenerational and societal dialogue. Within this stew of messages, family members create cognitive models of family life, and it is through communication that those models endure over time and across generations. Within the field of family communication, families are considered to be complex, interdependent, meaning-making systems, where the whole system (i.e., family) is more than the sum of its constituent parts (i.e., family members).

Families as Systems

When individuals come together to form relationships, what is created (a system) is larger and more complex than the sum of the individuals within it. Viewing the family as a system is derived from general systems theory, which argues that human organizations such as families are living systems, highly interdependent, and complex. Viewing the family as a system also suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another; rather, they must be viewed as integral parts of a whole family unit. A system is defined as a whole made up of interacting parts, and because these parts are interdependent, if one part of the system changes, the other parts change in response, affecting the entire system.

The family system is often described as analogous to a baby’s mobile, with every movement of one part setting the other parts in motion. In the case example, when Ron called his family and announced that he was not returning home, this action touched every family member, from extended family members to his children, in meaningful ways. A change in one part of the system will affect the whole. This concept of wholeness emphasizes that the system as a whole is more than the sum of its parts, and to understand the family, it is necessary to look at it in its entirety—not just at one of its parts. A family system also has smaller units within it, which share similar characteristics and can be looked at in relation to their effects on the system as a whole. Examples of these subsystems include the marital dyad and sibling, parent-child, and grandparent-grandchild relationships.

In addition to the interdependence and wholeness of family systems, these systems coordinate their actions to create routines and patterns to maintain a level of constancy in and stability of the system. Humans continually monitor and self-correct or calibrate the family to maintain this stability. The analogy of a thermostat is often used to explain the concept of calibration to monitor and make corrections in a system. If an individual sets a room’s thermostat at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, then when the room warms up to 73 degrees, the air conditioning will start in order to return the system temperature to 72 degrees. Similarly, a family will calibrate—will make corrections—in family patterns to adjust to change.

One way that a family might calibrate family interaction through communication is coordinating new family rules. Family rules are agreements among members that prescribe and limit their behavior and regulate family interactions. In the case example, new communication rules emerged regulating conversations among Ron, Jeff, and Jacqueline. Many of Ron’s telephone conversations with his children resulted in them becoming depressed or anxious. Therefore, a new family rule was developed to regulate the conditions under which these conversations could occur. These conversations were subsequently scheduled and monitored by a third party. As a result, the children’s level of stress and negative impact on the family system decreased. This new rule, of course, affected the meanings assigned to conversations between parent and children, and those meanings needed to be renegotiated and coordinated among all the family members.

Communicating Within the Family System

Communication functions to maintain constancy and stability of family systems in a number of ways, as identified by Hess and Handel: (a) managing separateness and connectedness, (b) constructing family images or metaphors, (c) constructing family themes, and (d) constructing boundaries. Moreover, a variety of other family communication practices function to enhance meaning-making within the family system, such as telling stories, creating family rituals, communicating rules and roles, communicating intimacy, and communicating control. What follows is a brief discussion of each function.

Managing Separateness and Connectedness

Communication serves to facilitate the emotional connection or cohesion of families and balance the emotional distances among members. There are four levels of family cohesion. Disengaged family members maintain extreme separateness and independence, experiencing little belonging or loyalty. Connected family members experience emotional independence but share a sense of involvement and belonging. Cohesive family members have a shared family identity with emotional closeness and loyalty, yet they also respect individuality of members. Finally, enmeshed family members experience extreme closeness and demanded loyalty, with low levels of respect and tolerance for individuality.

In many enmeshed family systems, members cannot become properly differentiated (that is, become individuals with a strong sense of self and personal identity separate from others in their family). Research in this area suggests that people with a poorly differentiated self depend heavily on the acceptance and approval of others to whom they are so integrally connected, to the extent that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. Necessary convergence theory is a communication theory arguing that in family systems where there is a low tolerance for individuality and differentiation is discouraged, in order to obtain parental approval and avoid the withdrawal of affection, offspring will overaccommodate themselves to parents’ thoughts, attitudes, and feelings and converge with the parents’ assigned meanings at the expense of their own. Convergence communication has been linked to a variety of negative health outcomes, such as eating disorders. This research finds that interpersonal interactions with parents that are intrusive, rejecting, or both are likely to be internalized, result in self-attacks, and can increase the risk of suicide in later life.

Family Images or Metaphors

Relationship patterns in family systems are often viewed in terms of metaphors or images, allowing people to understand the family in terms of another idea. A family metaphor is a linguistic comparison that the family makes between themselves and some other idea or image. A family makes these comparisons because it helps their members construct and maintain their collective identity. Root metaphors reveal underlying world views, capturing a family’s core values. For example, a person might describe his or her family image as a tree, depicting strong roots, a solid base, and branches with a lot of people connected, but still going in different directions. A family image may change if, for example, a parent leaves, as in our case. After the father’s departure, the tree family image may be retained, but it is altered by depicting one branch broken and tenuously hanging from the larger branches.

Family Themes

In addition to images, a family theme establishes what is important to a family and offers behavioral prescriptions for how family members should interact with one another and with others outside the family. Like images, family themes may not be explicitly stated by family members, but they may be implicitly communicated through interaction. A family theme of “we always respect authority” may reflect the ideals of clear family roles, hierarchical family structure, and be manifested in family communication that encourages respect and deference to older members of the family. In our example, themes from Ron’s family of origin (“Don’t give up on your dreams,” “You are the only one who can make yourself happy”) and Heather’s (“Never give up,” “Family is the most important thing in your life”) came into direct conflict in their current family system.


Family boundaries mark limits within and outside the family. They refer to psychological/symbolic and physical separations that exist between and among members of the family (internal) and between the family and the outside world (external). These lines of demarcation indicate who is in and who is out of a system. Internal boundaries govern the way that members communicate within the family, such as who can talk with whom about what, and external boundaries convey family membership, as well as what information is permissible to share outside the family system. Younger family members learn about what information they can share with others through directions from parents and older members and, often, by making mistakes and being sanctioned. Members expect a certain amount of secrecy in their family, and setting boundaries in family relationships may be viewed as healthy family functioning.

Boundaries are characterized by permeability and the degree to which the system is open to influence. Permeability refers to boundary flexibility, or the ability for people and information to move easily across boundaries. Open boundaries support the flow of people, as well as information among family members. Closed boundaries restrict the flow of information among people. The flow of information in systems must be adapted to any system change. When closed boundaries impede system adaptation, boundary ambiguity and family stress may occur. Boundary ambiguity may occur when family members are uncertain about who is in and who is out of the system and what information is permissible to share with those individuals. In the case illustrated at the beginning of this entry, Heather, Ron, and the entire extended family in this scenario will likely need to negotiate new family boundaries. For example, who is in and out of the family system, new boundaries around who can and cannot share certain information, and with whom information can be shared.

Communication privacy management (CPM) theory explains how family members negotiate and regulate private information through privacy boundaries. Privacy boundaries can range from thin and porous filters to thick, impermeable barriers that shield deep, dark secrets. But whenever we share a portion of that information with someone, we are reshaping a privacy boundary. Boundaries change over time, and boundary rules may be altered. For example, a common boundary exists around the topic of sex. Information about sex and sexuality is typically restricted to the marital couple when children are young, but once a child hits adulthood, the boundaries between parents and children and the topic may become more flexible and permeable. In addition, the topic of death may be rigidly ignored in a family, with the topic being kept out of any dialogue; but when a grandparent becomes terminally ill, the family may adapt, change boundary rules, and increase the permeability of the boundary around the topic, thus allowing a more open flow of information around the topic within and outside the family system.

A central tenet of CPM theory is that individuals consider information as something that is owned (Petronio, Caughlin, Braithwaite, & Baxter, 2006) by themselves (e.g., “I have a tattoo that I am not telling anyone in the family that I have”), coowned by subsystems in the family (e.g., “My wife and I agreed not to tell anyone else in the family that I lost my job”), and by the family system (e.g., “We tell no one about our son’s struggle with heroin addiction—it is a family matter.”) Boundary rules are formed around information, regulating the flow of information between and among others. Once private information is shared with another, it is coowned. Those who share the information communicatively coordinate the rules of coownership. This is referred to as boundary rule coordination. Sometimes privacy boundaries are not coordinated effectively and this may result in boundary turbulence, and possibly a privacy dilemma. CPM is a very useful theory in the field of family communication because family members are often faced with making decisions about revealing and concealing information both within and outside the family system. One particular way of sharing family information within and outside the family system is through telling family stories.

Telling Stories

Families tell stories. They tell stories about critical events in family life and mundane occurrences that have meaning. The stories themselves, the meanings that they hold for families, how and when they are told, and who is doing the telling are all important when examining family communication because stories are used as a means of ordering and making sense out of family experiences. They are a way of enacting “family.” Some might assume that the word stories implies that the accounts are fiction, but this is not necessarily the case. Narrative theory explains how humans are natural storytellers. They tell stories—narratives—to make sense of their world and form identities, so stories both affect and reflect our families. Narrative as talk organized around significant or consequential experiences, with characters undertaking some action, within a context, with implicit or explicit beginning and end points, and significance for the narrator or her or his audience. This definition highlights the active role of characters, intentionality, and the contextual nature of narrative. Narratives can be fictional, but most family stories are nonfiction and are communicated in first or third person.

Two criteria characterize a “good” family story: narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. Narrative coherence refers to how consistent the story is internally—how the parts fit together in a way that makes sense. Narrative fidelity refers to how truthful or reliable the story is to the listener (i.e., “Does the story ‘ring true’?”). Finally, there are two different types of stories: recounting stories (stories/person narratives) and accounting for stories (accounts). Recounting is the telling of something that occurred in the past, such as “our wedding” stories or “when you were born” stories, whereas accounts provide reasons and explanations for behaviors or situations. A family theme might be “We value education,” and a family story might provide an account for why this is, such as the story of a grandfather who was denied an education, so he hid books in the loft of his barn to educate himself. Family stories are often woven into the fabric of everyday living, but often families may ritualize the telling (and retelling) of family stories during certain events or occasions.

Communicative narrative sense-making is an area of narrative research that addresses storytelling in families and how that storytelling is linked to the physical and mental well-being of the family members and to families as a whole. The work of Jody Koenig-Kellas has revealed that the kinds of stories that families tell, the ways that they are told, and the interpersonal interactions surrounding the storytelling all happen in patterned ways and have implications for the health of the family and coping abilities of family members. Narrative coping, in particular, has been studied in a variety of contexts, including adoption, miscarriage, divorce, cancer, bereavement, and other family stressors. Through communicative narrative sense-making, families can organize, make sense of, come to terms with, and potentially resolve challenges faced over the life course.

Creating Family Rituals

Rituals are repeated sequences of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a prescribed way. Since families tend to create routines and patterns to maintain a level of constancy in the system, family rituals are often enacted in ways that remind members who they are and how much they care about each other. These rituals tend to reflect the family system’s values. Always going to church together on Sunday and then over to Grandma’s house for dinner, celebrating Thanksgiving at Disneyland, going to see a film every Friday night, experiencing mother-daughter spa day once per year, always saying “I love you” before going to bed for the night or hanging up the phone, and family back-to-school shopping followed by dinner are just some examples of family rituals. These rituals are generally voluntary and connect members in meaningful ways.

Communicating Rules and Roles

Family systems are governed by rules. The rules may differ across families, but all family systems negotiate rules that allow some degree of control over family interaction, while managing change across the life course of family development. A rule can be conceptualized as a prescription that governs and regulates preferred, prohibited, and obligatory behaviors in particular contexts. Communication constitutes family rules, and family rules are instrumental in structuring family communication. For example, rules may be as simple and explicit as enforcing politeness by requiring children to say “please” and “thank you,” by addressing adults as “sir” and “ma’am,” or stipulating that family members do not interrupt when another member is speaking. Rules may also be more complicated, governing the flow of information within and outside the family, such as “We do not talk about Dad’s problem with alcohol outside of this family”; or implicit and unspoken, such as not to approach Mom with questions before she has had her first cup of morning coffee. Family members have a choice whether to follow a rule, but since rules offer prescriptions for behavior, there are often sanctions when rules are not followed. Guilt induction is a common sanction used by parents when family rules are not followed. Rules that are appropriate to govern families with small children may not be useful once children are grown, or they must be revised when new members of the family are introduced.

Rules evolve over time, across the life course of family development. A young married couple whose normal way of conversing includes profanities may revise their rules around the use of profanities once children are born and are learning to talk. Imagine if a child’s first word were a profanity! Moreover, families of origin introduce us to rules that we often carry over into our current families. A rule to never go to bed angry may be a functional rule that a spouse brings into his or her current family after learning it in his or her family of origin, but a rule that women must be in charge of the children and household chores, while men are in charge of the finances and working outside the home, may be discontinued as cultural rules on these responsibilities change. Family rules tend to work best when they serve the needs of individual family members as well as the family system, but the system needs to be adaptable enough to make changes as the members themselves change over time. A curfew of 11 p.m. for adolescents may serve all members of the family well until the child goes off to college. When the college student comes home on breaks, the curfew may need to be renegotiated. To ensure that rules are serving individual members as well as the family system, family members need to negotiate rules as needed. Rules guiding member behavior are also linked to family roles.

Studies of family communication investigate how a family system is rule-governed, but also how individual members enact their roles in that system. Roles are a critical component of family life and family functioning. They are socially constructed patterns of expected behavior that provide members with a position in the family. Influenced by mass media and other outside forces, this role behavior and expectations for individual family members are primarily developed in interaction within the family, including family rules. We learn our family roles in verbal and nonverbal communication with others. Role expectations are guided by family rules and communicated in daily interaction reifying what is expected of a good mom, dad, son, or daughter. But certain roles, such as the family scapegoat or black sheep, may not serve the individual, but they serve the family unit by creating alliances.

Gender roles in families are central to the study of family communication because sociocultural change in relation to gender also has profound effects on family systems. Family messages about what is considered feminine and masculine begins once the sex of a child is determined in utero or at birth. Which of the following groupings is considered feminine—pink rooms, dolls, and dresses, or blue rooms, trucks, and pants? Family communication can provide an understanding of how some people classify certain behaviors and objects as gendered. Parents communicate gender to their children all the time, from the toys they purchase and their division of household chores to messages about proper courtship behavior. In the United States, household chores are typically assigned differently to girls and boys, with girls assigned more household tasks such as dishes and vacuuming, while boys are assigned lawn mowing and taking out the garbage. As society changes to reflect a more multidimensional view of gender, the communication of gender roles in the family will likely be fluid and subject to change. Family rules and roles are key to understanding family processes, but the two central constructs underlying much of the study of family communication and family function are the communication of intimacy and the communication of control.

Communicating Intimacy

At the core of family functioning is family cohesion or closeness. As stated earlier, a central function of family communication is to manage separateness and connectedness in the family system. Communication serves to facilitate the emotional connection or cohesion of families and balance emotional distance among members. Families routinely interact in ways that intensify or decrease feelings of closeness and intimacy with one another and the family as a system. In the case of Heather and Ron, intimacy among members, as well as connection as a family, are being challenged and renegotiated. Even without catastrophic events, managing the tensions between closeness and independence is fundamental to family life. A close/connected relationship is characterized by intimate behaviors and intimate feelings; that is, an emotional bond with shared knowledge, interdependence, mutual devotion, and commitment.

Commitment is a key construct implying a focused energy directed toward maintaining the relationship. Yet, while this commitment might be interpreted in the United States as equivalent to love, these are actually different constructs. While love is the emotional bond formed among family members, commitment suggests a cognitive decision to devote energy to the relationship. Not all families have love, or even commitment, and these exist on continua that may be in opposition. Some families are estranged. There is also evidence that certain relationships, such as mother-daughter, can be particularly complicated when considering intimacy. Communication patterns that encourage intimacy, such as nonverbal affection, expressions of affection, and social support may promote closeness and connection, while communication patterns that discourage intimacy (e.g., verbal, psychological, or physical aggression, criticism, and contempt) may inhibit emotional closeness and result in emotional distance.

When promoting closeness and intimacy in family relationships, there are grand gestures and declarations of commitment (e.g., marriage), but also daily kindnesses. A private language may develop in family cultures, including but not limited to nicknames, inside jokes, phrases that only family members understand, and private meanings of ordinary words.

Family members may offer varying degrees of support to one another emotionally and tangibly by providing resources, and they also disclose private information to some degree. Self-disclosure is a communication behavior referring to voluntarily telling another person private information that the other person could not obtain in any other way. Sharing information and making the unknown known to others in families is seen a key strategy for nurturing healthy intimate relationships. However, disclosure is not without its risks. Family members also strategically manage private information and decisions about whether to share certain information in order to protect relationships. Spouses tend to disclose more to one another than children do to parents, and siblings are more likely to share disclosures with each other than with their parents. In sum, families employ a variety of strategies to construct a sense of closeness and intimacy among their members and these strategies are complex and multifaceted. Negotiating closeness is a primary task of the family.

Communicating Power and Control

In addition to negotiating closeness, another primary task of the family is negotiating power and control. Power relates to the possession of control or command in the family system, and it manifests differently across families and is shaped by the roles, rules, culture, and communication goals of each family. In individualistic cultures such as the United States, individual goals may be promoted; in collectivistic cultures such as Japan, group or whole-family goals may take precedence over individual-member goals.

The way that we look at how families interact is contextualized within larger cultural forces, and this is especially important when examining power and control issues. Power may be distributed in a family according to cultural practices or through ongoing negotiations across time. Often, distributions of power in families are affected by both culture and these ongoing negotiations. The study of family communication is interested in the verbal and nonverbal messages employed in negotiating power, as well as wielding power, in the family. Topics such as status, conflict, parenting, decision making, and relational control issues such as corporal punishment and domestic violence are all linked to how families communicate power and control.

Communication within families is a complex and fascinating phenomenon. Family communication is not restricted to single messages or to verbal communication among family members. It is a dynamic process of managing power, intimacy, and boundaries, navigating system cohesion and adaptability, and creating images, themes, stories, rituals, rules, roles; it is also an interactive process of making meanings and creating mental models of family life that endure over time and across generations.

Cognitive Orientations and Communication

In addition to the constitutive view of families and viewing families as a self-regulating system, one of the largest bodies of research in family communication focuses on family communication patterns. Family communication patterns (FCP) theory explains why family members communicate in the way they do based on their cognitive orientations to one another. Rooted in media studies, early FCP research was interested in how family members process mass media messages. This work focused on the coorientation of family members in interpreting objects in their social environment. This research discovered that one way of coorienting is to conform to the interpretations of other family members. This approach was initially labeled socioorientation, but was later labeled conformity orientation when the FCP measurement instrument was revised. Individuals within a family with a conformity orientation tend to rely on more powerful others in the family system to interpret the world around them. The second way of coorientating is to discuss the object in the social environment and develop a collective interpretation. This approach was initially labeled concept orientation, but was later labeled conversation orientation. Individuals within a family with a conversation orientation tend to rely on an open flow of information in conversation to mutually construct a shared interpretation of objects in the social environment.

These cognitive orientations have direct impacts on the ways in which families communicate in general, so research on FCP quickly expanded beyond media studies. A large number of studies have tested FCP. This research reveals that families have varying degrees of both conformity and conversational orientations. Broadly, conformity orientation refers to the degree to which families create a climate that stresses similarity of attitudes, values, and beliefs. Families on the high end of this dimension are characterized by uniformity of beliefs and privileging harmony and obedience in family interactions. Families on the low end of the conformity dimension are characterized by a respect for divergent attitudes and beliefs and for individuality among family members.

Conversation orientation has been developed to refer to the degree to which families create a climate of open discussion about a wide variety of topics. In families on the high end of this dimension, family members frequently interact with each other, without many limitations or sanctions. In families on the low end of this dimension, family members interact less frequently with each other, with few topics openly discussed.

A typology of family communication patterns have emerged from this body of research, classifying families into four possible family types. Families that are high on both conversation and conformity orientation are labeled consensual. Their communication is characterized by discussion of ideas, but with pressure toward agreement and not disturbing the legitimate power structure within the family. Children in these families may feel compelled to adopt their parents’ views even in adulthood. Families high in conversation orientation but low in conformity orientation are labeled pluralistic. Communication in these families is characterized by open, unrestricted discussions that involve all family members and independent ideas. Families low on conversation orientation but high on conformity orientation are labeled protective. Communication in these families is characterized by an emphasis on obedience and little concern with engaging members in discussion. Children in these families are easily influenced and persuaded by outside authorities. Families low on conversation and conformity orientation are labeled laissez-faire. Their communication is characterized by very little communicative interaction, low involvement, and high independence rather than interdependence. FCP has a rich history in the study of family communication and provides a foundation for future study.

Family Communication Scholarship

Family communication was recognized as a distinct scholarly area of study by the National Communication Association in 1989. Heavily influenced at first by family studies, social psychology, and interpersonal communication theory, family communication scholars soon began developing theories and conducting research focused on the pivotal role of communication within the family system. It was not until 2001 when the first issue of the Journal of Family Communication, the flagship journal for the study of family communication, was published.

There was no formal acknowledgment of the study of family communication in the United States until the 1970s. During this period, communication scholars interested in family processes were strongly influenced by work in family therapy and family systems, with the Palo Alto groups’ studies of family interaction leading to major conceptual advances in communication theory and research. Work by Satir (1972), Minuchin (1974), Kantor and Lehr (1975), and Olson, Sprenkle, and Russell (1979) influenced thinking about the interdependence of family and the role of communication in family functioning. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that family communication began shaping an identity as a field. This was initiated by the appearance of an article by Bochner (1976).

By the early 1980s, family communication research was being published in major journals, with the first family communication textbook published in 1982. At this time, family communication research in scholarly journals was often limited to the examination of marital communication, with some work addressing lifespan communication, including sibling communication, marital communication, and even intergenerational communication across the lifespan. In 1989, the Speech Communication Association (SCA), which later became the National Communication Association, recognized family communication as a distinct area of study by forming the SCA family communication division.

Family communication research exploded in the 1990s with the publication of a number of family communication research–based books and a flurry of studies in academic journals. By the mid-1990s, scholars began turning their gaze to topics such as privacy boundary management, family secrets, relational dialectics, communication and race, parenting, family violence, and family interaction. In 1995, the Journal of Applied Communication Research published a special issue on “Applied Communication Research in Families,” and in 1999, the Handbook of Marriage and the Family included a chapter titled “Family Communication” that explained family communication as a unique area of study.

By the turn of the century the interest in examining family communication was at its peak, and in the early 2000s, the first issue of the Journal of Family Communication a was published. At this time, scholars within the field of communication began testing and building family communication theories rather than relying exclusively on theories originating in other fields. A few theories within the field of communication existed that could have been applied to families before the turn of the 21st century, but theories such as CPM, relational dialectics, and FCP were not fully developed until the early 2000s. This led to the publication of the first book in the field on family communication theories in 2006. Research throughout the early part of the 21st century has touched on a range of topics, such as storytelling, stepfamily communication, accomplishing work and family, and widening the family circle by examining sibling communication, in-laws, grandparent-grandchild relationships, same-sex unions, and children. In 2013, a study revealed that fewer than 4% of all family communication studies addressed children as communicators in the family. Most recently, a flurry of research attention has been paid to family communication and health. A number of scholars are addressing issues such as caregiving, family communication in medical contexts, and family communication about risky topics such as sex and substance use.

A great deal of progress in examining family communication has been made since the 1970s. Research examining diverse family structures such as stepfamilies, same-sex parent families, and one-parent households has grown. In addition, there has been a great deal of interest in the “dark side” of family communication, including topics such as the role of family communication in suicidality and self-harm, divorce, hurtful messages, and family violence.

There are, however, currently a number of knowledge gaps in the field of family communication that suggest promising directions for future research, including culture and family communication. Culture and family communication is largely understudied in this field. Research grounded in international cultures is lacking, and family cultures that embrace alternative structures such as polygamy have very little research focus. In addition, communication in mother/father–daughter/son relationships, relationships among aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and grandparents, and foster relationships are all areas in need of more research. Finally, with the pervasiveness of social media, research addressing family media practices is desperately needed to help guide family communication scholarship in the next decade.

Further Reading

Braithwaite, D., & Baxter, L. A. (2006). Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives. Los Angeles: SAGE.Find this resource:

Floyd, K., & Morman, M. T. (2014). Widening the family circle: New research on family communication (2d ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.Find this resource:

Hess, R. D., & Handel, G. (1959). Family worlds: A psychosocial approach to family life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Socha, T. J., & Stamp, G. H. (Eds.). (1995). Parents, children, and communication: Frontiers of theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Find this resource:

Vangelisti, A. L. (Ed.). (2003). The Routledge handbook of family communication. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Whitchurch, G. G., & Dickson, F. C. (1999). Family communication. In M. Sussman, S. K. Steinmetz, & G. W. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (pp. 687–704). New York: Plenum Press.Find this resource:

Williams, A., & Nussbaum, J. F. (2013). Intergenerational communication across the life span. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:


Baxter, L. (2004). A tale of two voices: Relational dialectics theory. Journal of Family Communication, 4, 181–192.Find this resource:

Baxter, L. A. (2010). A dialogic approach to interpersonal/family communication. In D. Carbaugh & P. M. Buzzanell (Eds.), Distinctive qualities in communication research (pp. 13–31). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bochner, A. (1976). Conceptual frontiers in the study of human communication in families. Human Communication Research, 2, 381–397.Find this resource:

Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.Find this resource:

Braithwaite, D., & Baxter, L. A. (2006). Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives. Los Angeles: SAGE.Find this resource:

Galvin, K., & Brommel, B. (1982). Family communication: Cohesion and change. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.Find this resource:

Galvin, K. M. (2001). Family communication instruction: A brief history and call. Journal of Family Communication, 1(1), 15–20.Find this resource:

Galvin, K. M., Braithwaite, D. O., & Bylund, C. (2015). Family communication: Cohesion and change (9th ed.). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Guerrero, L. K., & Afifi, W. A. (1995). What parents don’t know: Topic avoidance in parent-child relationships. In T. J. Socha & G. H. Stamp (Eds.), Parents, children, and communication: Frontiers of theory and research (pp. 219–245). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Hess, R. D., & Handel, G. (1959). Family worlds: A psychosocial approach to family life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Kantor, D., & Lehr, W. (1975). Inside the family: Toward a theory of family process. New York: Harper.Find this resource:

Kellas, J. K. (Ed.). (2013). Family storytelling: Negotiating identities, teaching lessons, and making meaning. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kellas, J. L., & Horstman, H. K. (2015). Communicated narrative sense-making. In L. H. Turner & R. West (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Family Communication (pp. 76–90). Los Angeles: SAGE.Find this resource:

Koenig Kellas, J., & Trees, A. R. (2006). Finding meaning in difficult family experiences: Sense-making and interaction processes during joint family storytelling. The Journal of Family Communication, 6(1), 49–76.Find this resource:

Koerner, A. F., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2002). Toward a theory of family communication. Communication theory, 12(1), 70–91.Find this resource:

Koerner, A. F., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2006). Family communication patterns theory: A social cognitive approach. In D. O. Braithwaite & L. A. Baxter (Eds.), Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 50–65). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

McLeod, J. M., & Chaffee, S. H. (1972). The construction of social reality. In J. Tedeschi (Ed.), The social influence process (pp. 50–99). Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.Find this resource:

Miller-Day, M. (2004). Communication among grandmothers, mothers, and adult daughters: A qualitative study of women across three generations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishing.Find this resource:

Miller-Day, M., Pezalla, A., & Chesnut, R. (2013). Children are in families too! The presence of children in communication research. Journal of Family Communication, 13(2), 150–165.Find this resource:

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Nussbaum, J. F. (Ed.). (1989). Life-span communication: Normative processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Find this resource:

Olson, D., Russell, C. S., & Sprenkle, D. H. (2014). Circumplex model: Systemic assessment and treatment of families. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Olson, D. H., Sprenkle, D. H., & Russell, C. S. (1979). Circumplex model of marital and family systems. I. Cohesion and adaptability dimensions, family type, and clinical applications. Family Process, 18, 3–26.Find this resource:

Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

Petronio, S., Caughlin, J. P., Braithwaite, D., & Baxter, L. (2006). Communication privacy management theory: Understanding families. In D. O. Braithwaite & L. A. Baxter (Eds.), Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 35–49). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Ritchie, L. D., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (1990). Family communication patterns measuring intrapersonal perceptions of interpersonal relationships. Communication Research, 17(4), 523–544.Find this resource:

Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books.Find this resource:

Shiminoff, S. B. (1980). Communication rules: Theory and research. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Vangelisti, A. L. (Ed.). (2003). The Routledge handbook of family communication. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Whitchurch, G. G., & Dickson, F. C. (1999). Family Communication. In M. Sussman, S. K. Steinmetz, & G. W. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (pp. 687–704). New York: Plenum Press.Find this resource:

Wood, J. (Ed.). (1995). Special issue: Applied communication research in families. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23(4), 239–326.Find this resource: