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date: 22 July 2017

Parent–Child Interaction

Summary and Keywords

The parent–child relationship is one of the most influential, important, and meaningful relationships in an individual’s life. The communication between parents and children fuels their bond and functions to socialize children (i.e., gender, career and work, relationship values and skills, and health behaviors), provide social support, show affection, make sense of their life experiences, engage in conflict, manage private information, and create a family communication environment. How parents and children manage these functions changes over time as their relationship adapts over the developmental periods of their lives. Mothers and fathers may also respond differently to the changing needs of their children, given the unique relational cultures that typically exist in mother–child versus father–child relationships.

Although research on parent–child communication is vast and thorough, the constant changes faced by families in the 21st century—including more diverse family structures—provides ample avenues for future research on this complex relationship. Parent–child communication in diverse families (e.g., divorced/stepfamilies, adoptive, multiracial, LGBTQ, and military families) must account for the complexity of identities and experiences in these families. Further, changes in society such as advances in technology, the aging population, and differing parenting practices are also transforming the parent–child relationship. Because this relationship is a vital social resource for both parents and children throughout their lives, researchers will undoubtedly continue to seek to understand the complexities of this important family dyad.

Keywords: parent–child communication, parent–child relationships, family communication, mother, father, life span communication, diverse families

Introduction

The parent–child relationship is one of the most influential relationships in a person’s life. Young children rely on their parent(s) to provide them with basic needs, and parents provide for their children in order to sustain them and build toward future generations (Floyd & Morman, 2014). In accordance with evolutionary psychology, humans’ motivation to love, protect, and provide for their children has evolved from the principles of natural selection (Floyd & Morman, 2014). Most parents invest in their children through providing resources such as time, affection, finances, education, and health care. This investment and subsequent interdependence fuels an important interpersonal bond between parents and children, socializes them into adulthood, and molds their communication skills (i.e., Afifi, Granger, Denes, Joseph, & Aldeis, 2011).

Because of the life-long attachment between parents and children, this dyad has received much attention from scholars and still has ample room for future research. Fingerman and Hay’s (2002) meta-analysis of articles published in family and relationship journals between 1994 and 1999 reported that 25.6% of articles focused on relationships with young children, and only 16.6% of the articles studied relationships with parents. Further, in their content analysis of communication-focused family relationship research between 1990 and 2003, Baxter and Braithwaite (2006) found that 35.6% of scholars focused on parent–child communication. Yet, children (i.e., those younger than 18 years old) are not often studied in family communication research and deserve more scholarly attention (Miller-Day, Pezalla, & Chestnut, 2013). Thus, there is a strong body of research parent–child communication that scholars can build upon when investigating the of the ever-changing landscape of parenting in the 21st century.

Adjusting to the many changes experienced by the parent–child dyad over the life course requires communication. As such, this entry will explicate past research on parent–child communication in the United States as well as call for future research on many facets of parent–child communication. In so doing, this article explores: (1) the functions of parent–child communication, (2) parent–child communication in the life cycle, (3) communication in particular types of parent–child dyads, and (4) current topics in communication between parents and children.

Functions of Parent–Child Communication

Communication researchers are interested in the way communication functions in any given relationship. Seven functions of parent–child communication emerge as important in past and current research—socialization, social support, affection, communicated sense-making, conflict, privacy management, and family communication patterns. The following section will highlight the foundational and current literature on these functions, with special attention to communication-specific research.

Socialization

One of the most influential and frequently studied functions of parent–child communication is socialization. In general, socialization is the process of exchanging values, behaviors, and worldviews (Giddens, 1979). Parents’ influence on children is particularly pervasive and long-lasting because there are many opportunities for socialization throughout a child’s life and the repeated exposure to particular socialization messages is quite powerful (see Bandura, 1961). Parents socialize children toward values such as religion (i.e., Soliz & Colaner, 2015), finances (Thorson & Kranstuber Horstman, 2014), and morals (Waldron, Kloeber, Goman, Piemonte, & Danaher, 2014). Parent–child socialization occurs through communicative processes such as storytelling (Stone, 2004), modeling (Ebersole, Miller-Day, & Raup-Krieger, 2014), creating and enforcing rules (Ndiaye et al., 2013), conversing (Holman & Koenig Kellas, 2015), and providing memorable messages—or critical messages that individuals “pull forward” to influence their decisions and behaviors (Medved, Brogan, McClanahan, Morris, & Shepherd, 2006). The contexts of parent–child socialization that are most studied in communication research include—but are not limited to—socializing children’s gender, careers and work, and health.

Gender Socialization

Research shows that a child’s understanding of gender begins to develop at an early age and the same-sexed parent is the child’s primary source of gender socialization (Marks, Lam, & McHale, 2009). Gender socialization occurs through parents’ attitudes regarding gender-specific toys, reactions toward characteristics stereotyped for boys/girls, encouragement of helping at home, and values about education and marriage (Blakemore & Hill, 2008). In addition to parents’ communicative behaviors, their own gender ideologies may also mirror their gender socialization efforts. For example, feminist parents report showing their children their gender ideologies through their behaviors and talk (Colaner & Rittenour, 2015). These parents often alter “normative” parenting to reflect their feminist values. Feminist parents report intentionally demonstrating their feminist ideals about work by discussing women’s place in the world as well as maintaining their position in the workforce after having children (Mack-Canty & Wright, 2004). As a whole, this vast body of literature on gender socialization highlights the important role of parents’ communication in molding children’s understanding and performance of gender.

Socialization of Career and Work

Parents also exert substantial influence on children’s expectations for work. Through both indirect and direct communication, parents deliver important messages to their children about their potential future careers (Lucas, 2011; Medved et al., 2006). For example, college students perceive that a majority of memorable messages about college came from their parents and that these messages directly influence their behavior in college (Kranstuber, Carr, & Hosek, 2012). These memorable messages include ideas such as “work hard and/or play hard” and “college is necessary” (e.g., “My dad told me, ‘The best thing you can do is get as much education as you can because that opens doors and allows you to do many different things,’” Kranstuber et al., 2012, p. 54). Young adults report using memorable parental messages from their childhood to make decisions in their adulthood.

In addition to being foundational influencers in the career and work realm, parents also influence their children regarding their balance of work and family life (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003; Medved et al., 2006). Men and women receive similar messages from parents about the role that work and family should play in adult life (e.g., “Your work defines you—it makes you who you are”; Medved et al., 2006, p. 162); however, women receive significantly different messages than men about choosing particular careers and exiting the paid labor force in relation to anticipated family obligations (e.g., “It’s important to establish yourself in a career before you raise a family”; p. 162). These findings demonstrate gendered notions of work and how parental communication may fuel these expectations in ways that influence young adults’ career decisions.

Health Socialization

Finally, parents socialize their children toward particular attitudes, values, beliefs, and practices regarding health behaviors. Researchers have studied parental communication with regard to alcohol and drug use (Ebersole et al., 2014), sex (Holman & Koenig Kellas, 2015), dementia (Alemán & Helfrich, 2010), nutrition (Ndiaye et al., 2013), organ donation (Pitts, Raup-Krieger, Kundrat, & Nussbaum, 2009), breast cancer (Fisher, 2014), and intimate partner violence (Babin & Palazzolo, 2012). Parents try to select the most effective methods for socializing their children based on the context and family communicative environment. For example, in their study on low-income parents’ socialization about nutrition, Ndiaye et al. (2013) found that children could not recall specific memorable messages or stories their parents told them about food, but they could readily recall rules about eating (e.g., “clean your plate”).

Research has also found that the parent–child communication environment is an essential component of influencing children’s health behaviors (Babin & Palazzolo, 2012; Miller-Day, 2008). For example, adolescents’ perceptions of parental overall communication competence and effectiveness in teaching children about sex have been found to be the strongest negative predictors of adolescents’ permissive sexual attitudes and sexual risk taking (Holman & Koenig Kellas, 2015). In other words, children best learn from and change their behaviors when they view their parents as knowledgeable and able to competently discuss health behaviors. In sum, research on parental socialization provides researchers with a rich understanding of the power of parental communication in guiding their children’s understanding of appropriate ways to operate within the world. The next section will explore parents’ abilities to provide support for their children during life’s difficult experiences.

Social Support

Across the life course, one of the most important sites for social support is the parental relationship. Social support is studied in a variety of fields and contexts, but communication scholars focus on social support as “responsiveness to another’s needs and more specifically as acts that communicate caring” (Cutrona, 1996, p. 10). The enactment of social support in close relationships—particularly parent–child relationships—predicts many individual and relational health outcomes (see Burleson & MacGeorge, 2002; Goldsmith, 2004). People expect to receive support from their parents and turn to their parents quite frequently for comfort (Griffith, 1985). This social support is imperative, given that young adults who perceive their parents as supportive are more likely to experience greater individual and relational well-being than those whose parents are rated as non-supportive (e.g., Burleson & Kunkel, 2002). Adolescents regard their mothers as a particularly important source of support (Hunter & Youniss, 1982) and feel closer to their mothers because of their social support (Morman & Whitely, 2012).

Although parents are largely the support provider in the parent–child relationship, research shows that support can be transactional. For example, in times of divorce, a child may become a confidant to a parent (Afifi, McManus, Hutchinson, & Baker, 2007). Similarly, in later life, parents may call upon children to provide instrumental support (Silverstein, Parrott, & Bengtson, 1995). Sex differences emerge in the motivation of a middle-aged child to provide instrumental support for an aging parent such that daughters are motivated by a sense of affection for their parent, whereas sons are motivated by a sense of familial obligation (Silverstein et al., 1995). Research demonstrates that the enactment and reception of social support is often transactional in the parent–child relationship and predicts their individual and relational health.

Affection

Affection, or any verbal or nonverbal message that implies a deep sense of caring for another, is often commonplace in the parent–child relationship. According to affection exchange theory, affection conveys a commitment to and emotional investment in the relationship (Floyd, 2006). This neo-Darwinian theory proposes that individuals are innately driven to perpetuate their own genetic lineage and thus favor giving affection to genetic offspring. Floyd and Morman (2001) examined fathers with genetically linked sons and fathers with a non-genetic son (e.g., adopted or step-son) and found that fathers of genetically linked sons express significantly more verbal and nonverbal affection compared to fathers of non–genetically linked sons.

Affection exchange research has also established that the expression and reception of affection have positive health outcomes (Floyd, Pauley, & Hesse, 2010). Researchers have found that the more affectionate communication relational partners share, the better able they are to manage life stressors (Floyd, 2006). Regarding the parent–child dyad, the need for authentic affection is ubiquitous in children (Harlow, 1958). Wismer Fries, Shirtcliff, and Pollack (2008) found evidence that the deprivation of affectionate interactions early in life can have a prolonged negative impact on a child’s well-being. In short, affection is an evolutionarily adaptive communicative behavior that can cultivate a sense of belonging and has implications for the individual and relational health of a parent and child.

Communicated Sense-Making

The process of communicated sense-making (CSM) involves telling stories and using story-like devices (e.g., memorable messages, attributions, accounts, and communicated perspective taking) to organize and process one’s life experiences, identities, and relationships (Koenig Kellas & Kranstuber Horstman, 2015). CSM is particularly salient in parent–child relationships because it is a context in which life experiences, identities, and relationships are formed and re-formed. Given their characteristically high rates of relational closeness and emotional support (Floyd & Morman, 2014; Miller-Day, 2004), parents and children often use stories and storytelling to cope with difficulty and to manage identities.

Narrative theorizing suggests that parents and children cope with difficulty by organizing their experiences into stories, which helps them process and cope with those experiences (Koenig Kellas & Kranstuber Horstman, 2015). When telling a story of difficulty together, the more parents and children take each other’s perspective and are able to create a coherent story, the more cohesive and supportive the family environment (Trees & Koenig Kellas, 2009). Similarly, mothers’ and daughters’ CSM behaviors predict daughters’ abilities to more positively make sense of their difficulties over time (Horstman et al., 2015). These findings show that parents and children who attend to each other’s viewpoints, solicit and listen to each other’s ideas, and incorporate family members’ perspectives into their own stories enjoy greater facilitate individual and family well-being than those who do not.

Parent–child storytelling also has important implications for identity work. For example, the content and process of telling “adoption entrance narratives”—or the story of how a child came to be placed for adoption, how s/he came to the adoptive family, and what it means to be an adoptee—helps to build the child’s identity (Krusiewicz & Wood, 2001). The content of adoptive parents’ adoption entrance narratives contributes to the adopted child’s well-being (Kranstuber & Koenig Kellas, 2011) as well as sets a foundation for the relationship with birth parents in open adoptive families (Hays, Horstman, Colaner, & Nelson, 2015). As a whole, research shows that CSM facilitates coping and identity work within the parent–child dyad and provides an opportunity to relate to one another.

Conflict

Researchers note that conflict may arise in any meaningful relationship and is particularly commonplace for the parent–child dyad (Sillars, Canary, & Tafoya, 2004). For example, mothers and toddlers are thought to experience roughly one conflict every five minutes on average (Eisenberg, 1992). Although conflict is common in this dyad, researchers have found that parents and children perceive their conflict conversations quite differently. During conflict, parents tend to focus more on the dynamics of the conversation, whereas children take a more literal approach to understanding the content of the conversation (Sillars, Smith, & Koerner, 2010). Parents and children lack an awareness of one another’s differences in perceiving conflict, as parents tend to overattribute negative and avoidant thoughts to their children and children overattribute controlling thoughts to parents.

In addition to routine conflict in the parent–child dyad, stressful life events—such as parental divorce—can also ignite conflict in the relationship. Afifi, Merrill, and Davis (2014) note that how conflict is managed during a divorce is central to the child’s adjustment. Importantly, parents’ communication skills are essential to how children respond to the divorce. For example, children who perceive their parents as more communicatively skilled (i.e., more communicatively competent, socially supportive) felt less caught between their parents and were better able to recover physiologically from the interaction (Afifi et al., 2011).

Unfortunately, in some situations, parent–child conflict takes the form of abuse. Wilson and colleagues’ studies on parent–child abuse risk have found that mothers’ verbal aggressiveness (i.e., an attempt to challenge another person’s perception of self) positively predicted her risk for committing child abuse (Wilson, Hayes, Bylund, Rack, & Herman, 2006). Children of mothers who are “high-risk” to abuse showed less pro-social and positive behaviors during play (Wilson, Morgan, Hayes, Bylund, & Herman, 2004). These research findings highlight the important role of communication in conflict between the parent and child.

Privacy Management

Throughout the life cycle, parents and children must work to manage their privacy in ways that build a functional and satisfying relationship (Petronio, 2010). Communication privacy management theory (Petronio, 2002) is built on five principles of private information management: (a) ownership of information, (b) control, (c) regulation through privacy rules, (d) co-ownership or guardianship of another’s private information, and (e) turbulences or regulation of privacy breakdowns (Petronio, 2010). When individuals mutually own some information, as in the case of parents and children, privacy is jointly managed, thus requiring parents to explain to children the family’s privacy rules.

Parents and family members are often the first teachers of the concept of privacy (Petronio, 2002, 2010). Parents are responsible for communicating to children the societal expectations of privacy in terms of information, bodily privacy, and physical/environmental privacy (Morr Serewicz, 2013). In early adolescence, mothers often play a significant role in teaching their daughters what secrecy means. Mothers teach their teenage daughters that secrets can be valuable within a social structure (Merten, 1999). As children develop their own secrets, they may decide to keep certain topics private from their parents if they perceive that their parents will be unreceptive to the disclosure (Guerrero & Afifi, 1995). As young adult children experience developmental changes of adulthood including launching a career, forming romantic relationships, marriage, and parenthood, their communication and privacy with their family of origin evolves. Particularly with parenthood, parents and their children must communicatively renegotiate their privacy boundaries as the child works to maintain harmony with both their family of origin and their own new family (Morr Serewicz, 2013). Ultimately, managing privacy between parents and children is a life-long and constant negotiation process.

Family Communication Patterns

Over time, parent–child communication becomes patterned and creates an overall family communication environment characterized by family communication patterns (FCP; Fitzpatrick & Ritchie, 1994). FCP theorizing explores how families create a co-orientation (i.e., a shared understanding) of their family communication environment. Theorizing and research have illuminated two orientations of FCP: conformity and conversation. Conformity orientation is the extent to which the family communication climate either stresses homogeneity of attitudes, values, and beliefs or emphasizes the importance of individual beliefs and opinions (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). Conversation orientation is the extent to which the family communication climate either encourages all family members to participate freely in interaction about numerous topics or is characterized by less frequent interaction about a variety of topics (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). These orientations can be blended to create four family types: pluralistic (i.e., low conformity, high conversation), protective (i.e., high conformity, low conversation), consensual (i.e., high conformity, high conversation), and laissez-faire (i.e., low conformity, low conversation) (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). Several studies have revealed that (a) conversation and conformity orientations are inversely associated with each other, (b) conversation orientation tends to produce positive outcomes in families and in individual family members, and (c) the influence of conformity is less clear and more dependent on the subtle nuances of authority that are enacted within the family (see Schrodt, Witt, & Messersmith, 2008, for review).

FCP researchers investigate how the family communication environment predicts children’s information processing, behavioral, and psychosocial outcomes (Schrodt et al., 2008). Studies related to children’s behaviors find that, in general, children from families high in conversation are more competent and flexible communicators in a variety of contexts (Schrodt, Ledbetter & Ohrt, 2007). When parents create a climate in which all family members are encouraged to participate in unrestrained interactions about a variety of topics, children develop greater self-esteem, report less perceived stress, and exhibit fewer mental health issues. Through investigations of FCP, researchers further the understanding of the various ways in which the family communication environment facilitates family functioning and ultimately contributes to children’s well-being (Schrodt et al., 2008).

Parent–Child Communication Over the Course of the Life Cycle

The second section of this article explores research on important developmental periods in parent–child communication. It first investigates the dynamism of parent–child communication, beginning with parenting infants and young children, then moves into adolescence, and ends with emerging adulthood/adulthood.

Parenting Infants and Young Children

The relationship between parents and children begins in utero and continues into infancy. Immediately following the birth of the child, scholars recognize that initial parent–newborn interactions provide a critical foundation for emotional, cognitive, and social development (Van Egeren & Barratt, 2004). The communicative interactions that take place between the newborn and caregiver lay the foundation for the child’s ability to function as an effective communicator in subsequent settings, tasks, and relationships. Despite their neurological immaturity, newborns notice their parents’ signals and parents are intuitively expert at providing signals that capture the infant’s attention, thus laying the groundwork for the parent–child communicative relationship (Van Egeren & Barratt, 2004).

Throughout infancy, a life-long attachment between the parent and child is built around parents’ care for and interaction with the child. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1958, 1969) asserts that humans are dependent on care providers during the early years of their lives. Each person’s attachment style can be determined by his or her response when separated from his or her caregiver during infancy. Infants are classified as secure when their separation distress is effectively relieved upon their caregiver’s return; insecure if they either ignore their primary caregiver upon reunion (i.e., insecure-avoidant) or simultaneously seek, yet resist, their caregiver upon reunion (i.e., insecure-resistant); or disorganized when they exhibit momentary breakdowns of one of these organized strategies (Main & Solomon, 1990). The quality of a child’s attachment relationship with his or her primary caregiver is theorized to shape the kind of attachment the child develops and carries through life (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). Parental communication reinforces this attachment; for example, children who perceived that their parents were significantly lower in verbal aggression and higher in responsiveness tend to have a secure attachment style (Roberto, Carlyle, Goodall, & Castle, 2009).

Adolescent Children

As children move into adolescence, parent–child encounters become more complex as conflict increases, peers become more influential, and exploration of risky behavior takes hold (e.g., Holman & Koenig Kellas, 2015; Sillars et al., 2010). Scholars have found that adolescents are more likely to confide in mothers, as opposed to fathers, regarding a host of issues including those related to sexuality (Afifi, Joseph, & Aldeis, 2008) and substance use (Miller-Day & Dodd, 2004). Additionally, the family communication environment shapes adolescents’ communicative development and their likelihood of successfully rejecting peers’ requests to partake in risky behavior. Koesten and Anderson (2004) found that adolescents from families that stress a communication climate of challenge and expression of opinions develop certain interpersonal skills that are important to creating productive peer relationships and managing some risky behaviors. Scholars explore how certain messages are interpreted, how that impacts the child’s behaviors, and the implications of that talk for the parent–child bond (Holman & Koenig Kellas, 2015). As a whole, communication between parents and adolescents, although tricky and fraught with complexity, greatly affects adolescents and their ability to develop successful and healthy communicative behaviors with their peers.

Emerging Adults and Adult Children

Emerging adulthood is a distinct developmental time period between late teen years and late 20s that greatly impacts the parent–child relationship (Tanner & Arnett, 2011). During this time, young adult/adult children undergo numerous life changes including renegotiating one’s identity, gaining independence in college,1 and falling in love (Miller-Day, Fisher, & Stube, 2014). Often when young adults first fall in love, parents monitor carefully and attempt to control their child’s decisions regarding mate choices (Buunk, Park, & Dubbs, 2008). Parents sometimes give unsolicited advice regarding their child’s romantic relationship, yet this advice is less likely to be accepted than advice directed toward other types of relationships (e.g., friends, family, co-workers; Carlson, 2014). Carlson speculates that the acceptance of parental advice might depend on the relational history and interpersonal communication within the parent–child relationship. In testing Carlson’s speculation, Hays and Metts (2015) found that emerging adults who feel supported by their parents were more likely to accept their parents’ unsolicited advice regarding the termination of their romantic relationship, regardless of how close they were with their parents.

Later in life children shift into a caregiver role, and this marks one of the final interactional stages in the parent–child relationship. The health of the aging parent becomes important, given that older parents’ health may affect their ability to interact with their children (Nussbaum, Baringer, & Kundrat, 2003). Studies have found that strong family relationships are significant predictors of mental and physical health of older adults (Nussbaum et al., 2003). As many adult children—particularly daughters—become caregivers for their aging parents, parent–child roles are re-negotiated (Harwood, Rittenour, & Lin, 2013; Pecchioni & Nussbaum, 2001). Although this time period is fraught with complexity and difficult conversations, it is also characterized by benefits such as increased closeness with the parent (Koerner, Kenyon, & Shirai, 2009). The strains of caregiving—such as emotional stress, financial loss, threats to occupation, time away from family/spouse, and ethical dilemmas in providing support for parents instead of own children (Koenig, 2004)—receive greater attention in the research. These strains, although common, can be reduced with improvements to communication between parents, the child, and the surrounding family system (Harwood et al., 2013). At the intersection of changing roles, decision-making, and health, the context of aging parents and their adult children is an area ripe for future research on parent–child communication.

Unique Communication Considerations of Mothers and Fathers

Mothers and fathers have different relational cultures and communication tendencies with their children. Recent research has focused on the unique influences of mother–child and father–child relationships on children, as well as the changing cultures of motherhood and fatherhood. This section focuses on the specific differences in mothers’ and fathers’ communication with their children.

Mother–Child Communication

The mother–child relationship is a particularly important source of support, identity work, emotional development, and socialization in a person’s life (Colaner & Rittenour, 2015; Fisher, 2014; Miller-Day, 2004; Morman & Whitely, 2012). The quality of the mother–child relationship is consequential for both boys and girls. Compared to fathers, mothers often develop closer relationships with their children (Lawton, Silverstein, & Bengtson, 1994) and disclose more frequently and with more emotionality to their children (Mathews, Derlega, & Morrow, 2006). Following is a review of research on communication in mother–daughter and mother–son relationships.

Mother–Daughter Communication

The mother–daughter relationship is one of the most influential, emotionally connected, interdependent, and dynamic relationships in a woman’s lifetime (Miller-Day, 2004; Miller-Day, Fisher, & Stube, 2014). The mother–daughter relationship develops and re-develops over time, changing with the differing roles and identities of the women. The intensity of this bond may be due to their frequency of involvement, females’ focus on relationships, and identification as women (Chodorow, 1974). The mother–daughter relationship, although important, is also complex and often contradictory (Miller-Day et al., 2014). These relationships can be characterized by tensions between competing expectations and/or desires (i.e., “dialectics”), including dialectics of stability and change, connection and separation, and openness and privacy (Miller-Day, 2004). Illustrating these dialectics, Miller-Day found that women rely on their mothers and grandmothers for advice, support, and help with child care, but also find them controlling or stifling. Penington (2004) reported that African American mothers and daughters more often emphasized connection in their mother–daughter relationship (e.g. “daughter as best friend”), whereas European American mothers and daughters valued autonomy.

How mothers and daughters communicate about health issues and decisions also has implications for women’s mental and physical health, including issues of breast cancer (Fisher, 2014), disordered eating patterns (Prescott & LePoire, 2002), caregiving decisions (Pecchioni & Nussbaum, 2001), and gynecological health (Browne & Chan, 2012). After a breast cancer diagnosis, women often report that validating communication in their mother–daughter relationship is a vital source of support for them (Fisher, 2014). The importance of this validating communication is shown in the conversations of gynecological health as well (e.g., Browne & Chan, 2012). Mothers and daughters are more influential on each other’s decisions to get mammograms if they value and engage in bidirectional—rather than mono-directional—conversation. These findings demonstrate the importance of the mother–daughter relationship on women’s physical and mental health.

Mother–Son Communication

Mothers have a considerable influence on sons’ communication skills (see Morman & Whitely, 2012 for a review) and patterns of behavior and well-being (Morman & Floyd, 2006a, 2006b). For example, Heller, Robinson, Henry, and Plunkett (2006) found that openness in the mother–son relationship significantly predicted the development of sons’ empathic concern. Theorizing on gender socialization also points to the role mothers play in molding their son’s masculinity (Diamond, 2006). Diamond posits that men’s formation of a healthy masculine identity relies, in part, on his mother’s “recognition and affirmation of her son’s maleness” (2006, p. 1099). Interdisciplinary research on mothers and sons demonstrates the importance of the relationship, and communication scholars are currently teasing out the communicative dynamics characterizing this relationship (Mormon & Whitely, 2012).

Answering calls for researchers to investigate the nature of communication in mother–son dyads, Morman and Whitely (2012) explored mothers’ and sons’ perceptions of the most important times in mother–son relationships. Mothers and young adult sons described incidents of social support, conflict, and the son marrying as among the most important events affecting closeness in the mother–son relationship. Specifically, following a son’s marriage, the mother and son report a decrease in relational closeness. This finding supports theorizing that men rely first on their mothers and then on their spouses as their primary form of social support (MacGeorge, Clarke, & Gillihan, 2002). These results highlight the dynamism of the mother–son relationship in its responses to life changes over time.

Father–Child Communication

Compared to the literature on mother–child communication, there is considerably less work on father–child communication. Yet, in the current “changing culture of fatherhood,” men are beginning to be more highly involved, affectionate, and emotive with their children (Johansson, 2011; Morman & Floyd, 2006b). Present-day fathers report more closeness, relational satisfaction, and affection with their sons than they had with their fathers (Morman & Floyd, 2002). Modern fathers are working to make sense of and construct their identities as more involved, affectionate, and dedicated fathers (Golden, 2007). In Golden’s study on the “masculine concept of caregiving,” fathers often describe their childrearing tasks as “work,” which highlights their masculinity by demonstrating their ability to plan, execute, and control events in a typically masculine way.

The shift in the master narrative of fatherhood is important because the father–child relationship plays a vital role in child development. Morman and Floyd (2006a) found that both fathers and sons describe “good” fathers as loving, available, good listeners, affectionate, involved, and supportive. Also, the more positive and frequent general father–child communication, the more likely it is that fathers and children will discuss difficult topics such as sex (Wright, 2009). Wright found that fathers are more likely to discuss sex with their sons than their daughters, and that black and Latino fathers are more likely to discuss sex with their children than white or Asian fathers. These findings are important given that father–child sex talk predicts children’s sexual attitudes, particularly regarding premarital sex and condoms (Wright, 2009).

Another line of research in father communication has centered on the mechanisms behind fathers’ intergenerational transmission (or lack thereof) of communication behaviors. Floyd and Morman (2000) proposed that fathers either uphold the modeling hypothesis (i.e., fathers match the behaviors of their fathers for their sons) or the compensation hypothesis (i.e., fathers reject their fathers’ modeling and enact opposite behaviors for their sons). They found support for both the modeling and compensation hypotheses regarding affectionate communication such that those fathers who highly identified with their father were more likely to engage in modeling, whereas those fathers who did not identify with their father were more likely to follow the compensation path. Later, Odenweller, Rittenour, Myers, and Brann (2013) found that sons are likely to model their fathers’ conformity orientation but not their conversation orientation. Odenweller et al. (2013) surmised that fathers mimic their own fathers’ disciplinary tactics, criticism, or controlling behaviors because it is easier than reflecting upon and creating new tactics for handling sons’ defiance.

Most father–child research focuses upon fathers’ influence on children but fails to account for children’s influence on parents. Yet there is evidence that the father–son relationship also affects fathers. Floyd and Morman (2000) claim that the father–son relationship is the most influential same-sex relationship in both men’s lives. Odenweller et al. (2013) proposed that men may learn skills of emotional expression, affection, and nurturing from their mothers and then “teach” their fathers those skills. Fathers may, then, enact those communication skills in order to gain approval from their sons (Mormon & Floyd, 2006a). This reciprocality of the father–son relationship deserves more scholarly attention in order to better understand the nature of this complex relationship.

Current Topics in Parent–Child Communication

To conclude the exploration of parent–child communication research, this article addresses the current state of parent–child relationships in the United States and corresponding research on these dyads. In light of these changes, the article first briefly surveys parent–child research in diverse families and then explores potential future research about this important dyad.

Communication in Diverse Parent–Child Dyads

Because of changing expectations, discourse, and laws surrounding families, the American family—and parent–child relationships in particular—is rapidly becoming more diverse and “discourse dependent” (i.e., reliant upon communication to make sense of and create a family identity; Galvin, 2006). Families are being created through complex biological, legal, and social avenues and challenging society’s conception of a “normal” family (Floyd, Mikkelson, & Judd, 2006). Communication research has focused on relationships in diverse families including, but not limited to bilingual and multi-language families (Guntzviller, 2015), families created through reproductive technology (e.g., Harrigan & Miller-Ott, 2013), families with a child with a disability (Canary, 2012), foster families (e.g., Suter, Baxter, Seurer, & Thomas, 2014), grandparent-headed households (Alemán, 2014), interfaith families (Colaner, Soliz, & Nelson, 2014), multiracial/ethnic families (Nuru & Soliz, 2014), and single-parent households (Afifi et al., 2014).

To date, most of the research on diverse families has centered on four family types: divorced/stepfamilies, adoptive families, LGBTQ families, and military families, all of which hold specific challenges in parent–child communication. First, parents undergoing divorce are responsible for tactfully discussing the divorce/or remarriage with their child (Afifi, McManus, Hutchinson, & Baker, 2007), creating new family rituals (Braithwaite, Baxter, & Harper, 1998), and managing their child’s competing understandings of the divorce (Baxter, Braithwaite, Bryant, & Wagner, 2004). As a whole, parents’ communication during divorce and remarriage is an important predictor of child well-being following the transition (Afifi et al., 2014).

Second, adoptive parents and children communicate to make sense of their family and grapple with questions about adoptees’ “layers of difference” (Dunbar & Grotevant, 2004; Galvin, 2003). Adoptive parent–child communication is essential for establishing a supportive family environment that addresses adoptees’ questions of difference (Colaner & Kranstuber, 2010), creates and tells stories of the adoption (Hays et al., 2015; Kranstuber & Koenig Kellas, 2011), addresses outsiders’ questions and comments (Suter & Ballard, 2009), and helps adoptees build functional adoptive identities (Colaner & Soliz, 2015).

Third, although same-sex parented families are becoming more visible and accepted in the United States, these families continue to face societal pressures that deem them “discourse dependent” (Breshears & Braithwaite, 2014; Suter, 2015). Lesbian mothers, for example, report encountering four main challenges to their legitimacy as parents: comparison questions (e.g., making comparisons to biological mothers), direct questions (e.g., rebuking the lesbian family form), nonverbal challenges (e.g., nonverbally hostile behaviors), and master narrative challenges (e.g., citing conservative religious qualms with homosexuality). These and other types of challenging questions affect the tenor of and communication within their family (Koenig Kellas & Suter, 2012).

Fourth, given the visibility of the military family post-9/11 and the significant challenges faced by military members and their families, research on this family structure has surged within family communication (Sahlstein Parcell, 2014). The topics of stress and coping are among the most significant areas within the field. Here, communication scholars are working to identify the stressors military family members experience as well as how they manage them (e.g., Maguire & Sahlstein, 2012). How family members maintain their relationship in the face of separation (e.g., Wilson, Chernichky, Wilkum, & Owlett, 2014) as well as how they manage conversational topics (e.g., Knobloch, Theiss, & Wehrman, 2014) are also common lines of research in military families. Because of their unique challenges and dependence upon communication in their families (Galvin, 2006), diverse families will continue to be an area ripe for parent–child communication researchers.

Current Issues and Future Research in Parent–Child Communication

The parent–child relationship is transforming rapidly with changes in legal, social, and cultural expectations (Galvin, 2006). Current issues of concern in parent–child relationships include parent–Millennial children communication, particularly involving “helicopter parents” (Givertz & Segrin, 2014). In their exploration of “overinvolved parenting,” Givertz and Segrin found that helicopter parenting is associated with young adults’ beliefs that they are unable to accomplish difficult tasks. Yet, helicopter parenting is also associated with young adults’ belief that they deserve favorable outcomes. Future research should continue to investigate the changing nature of parenting, particularly considering young adult Millennial children.

The influence of technology on parent–child relationships is also an area apt for exploration. For example, parent–child communication may predict a child’s preferences for communicating online. Ledbetter (2010) found that conformity orientation positively predicted young adult children’s likelihood to prefer self-disclosure online rather than face-to-face. He surmised that because conformity orientation is often associated with decreased ability to interpret messages (Schrodt et al., 2008), the asynchronous communication offered online might be appealing to children of high-conformity families. Parents also use social media to connect with their children. Young adults generally accept their parents’ Facebook friend requests and make few restrictive privacy rule adjustments for their parents (Child & Westermann, 2013). As social media expands and changes, so too will the ways parents and children connect through this medium, and researchers are called upon to keep up with understanding these changing trends.

Finally, parent and child health will continue to be an important topic of research. As explored above, shifting demographics toward an older American society will affect parent–child relationships in myriad ways (Nussbaum et al., 2003). Also, with increased diagnoses of disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities, scholars are becoming more interested in studying parent–child communication in the context of child disability (Canary, 2012). Parents of a child with a disability communicate to manage contradictions during and after the diagnosis of the disability. For example, after a child is diagnosed with autism, parents use both internal and external discourse strategies to communicatively construct their family’s identity as a “normal family” (Hays & Colaner, 2016). Such findings provide important insight into the ways in which a childhood disability greatly impacts the parent–child relationship.

This article provides an overview of current research on communication in the parent–child dyad. It highlights the functions of parent–child communication, the dynamism of parent–child interactions throughout the life cycle, unique qualities of mother and father relationships, and current topics of study. Given that the parent–child relationship is one of the most prominent and foundational relationships in an individual’s life, this dyad will inevitably continue to serve as an important topic of study in communication research.

Further Reading

Affection

Floyd, K., & Bowman, J. M. (2006). Closeness and affection in father-son relationship. In V. H. Bedford & B. F. Turner (Eds.), Men in relationships: A new look from a life course perspective (pp. 147–163). New York: Springer Publishing Company.Find this resource:

Mansson, D. H., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2011). Grandparents’ expressions of affection for their grandchildren: Examining grandchildren’s relational attitudes and behaviors. Southern Communication Journal, 76, 424–442.Find this resource:

Communicated Sense-Making

McLaren, R. M., & Sillars, A. (2014). Hurtful episodes in parent–adolescent relationships: How accounts and attributions contribute to the difficulty of talking about hurt. Communication Monographs, 81, 359–385.Find this resource:

Trees, A. R., & Koenig Kellas, J. (2009). Telling tales: Enacting family relationships in joint storytelling about difficult family experiences. Western Journal of Communication, 73, 91–111.Find this resource:

Communication in Diverse Parent–Child Dyads

Bergen, K. M., Suter, E. A., & Daas, K. L. (2006). “About as solid as a fish net”: Symbolic construction of a legitimate parental identity for nonbiological lesbian mothers. Journal of Family Communication, 6, 201–220.Find this resource:

Erbert, L. A., & Aleman, M. W. (2008). Taking the grand out of grandparent: Dialectical tensions in grandparent perceptions of surrogate parenting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 671–695.Find this resource:

Conflict

Koerner, A. F., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2002). You never leave your family in a fight: The impact of family of origin on conflict‐behavior in romantic relationships. Communication Studies, 53, 234–251.Find this resource:

Wilson, S. R., Norris, A. M., Shi, X., & Rack, J. J. (2010). Comparing physically abused, neglected, and nonmaltreated children during interactions with their parents: A meta-analysis of observational studies. Communication Monographs, 77, 540–575.Find this resource:

Current Issues and Future Research in Parent–Child Communication

Faw, M. H., & Leustek, J. (2015). Sharing the load: An exploratory analysis of the challenges experienced by parent caregivers of children with disabilities. Southern Communication Journal, 80, 404–415.Find this resource:

Galvin, K. (2013). The family of the future: What do we face? In A. L. Vangelisti (Ed.), The handbook of family communication (2d ed., pp. 531–545). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Family Communication Patterns

Baxter, L., & Akkoor, C. (2011). Topic expansiveness and family communication patterns. Journal of Family Communication, 11, 1–20.Find this resource:

Schrodt, P., Ledbetter, A. M., Jernberg, K. A., Larson, L., Brown, N., & Glonek, K. (2009). Family communication patterns as mediators of communication competence in the parent/child relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 853–874.Find this resource:

Parent–Child Communication Over the Course of the Life Cycle

Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 333.Find this resource:

Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it, and what is it good for?. Child Development Perspectives, 1, 68–73.Find this resource:

Johansson, T. (2011). Fatherhood in transition: Paternity leave and changing masculinities. Journal of Family Communication, 11, 165–180.Find this resource:

Mathews, A., Derlega, V. J., & Morrow, J. (2006). What is highly personal information and how is it related to self-disclosure decision-making? The perspective of college students. Communication Research Reports, 23, 85–92.Find this resource:

Sillars, A., Koerner, A., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2005). Communication and understanding in parent-adolescent relationships. Human Communication Research, 31(1), 107–128.Find this resource:

Privacy Management

Petronio, S. (2013). Brief status report on communication privacy management theory. Journal of Family Communication, 13, 6–14.Find this resource:

Petronio, S., Sargent, J., Andea, L., Reganis, P., & Chichocki, D. (2004). Family and friends as healthcare advocates: Dilemmas of confidentiality and privacy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 33–52.Find this resource:

Social Support

Burleson, B. R., & Kunkel, A. W. (2002). Parental and peer contributions to emotional support skills of the child: From whom do children learn to express support?. Journal of Family Communication, 2, 79–97.Find this resource:

Trees, A. R. (2000). Nonverbal communication and the support process: Functional sensitivity in interactions between mothers and young adult children. Communication Monographs, 67, 239–261.Find this resource:

Unique Communication Considerations of Mothers and Fathers

Punyanunt-Carter, N. M. (2008). Father-daughter relationships: Examining family communication patterns and interpersonal communication satisfaction. Communication Research Reports, 25, 23–33.Find this resource:

Warren-Jeanpiere, L., Miller, K. S., & Warren, A. M. (2010). African American women’s retrospective perceptions of the intergenerational transfer of gynecological health care information received from mothers: Implications for families and providers. Journal of Family Communication, 10, 81–98.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1.) Notably, much of the parent–emerging adult child communication research has focused on college students and their parents, resulting in relatively non-representative samples. As explored in the Communication in Diverse Parent–Child Dyads section, current scholars are working to understand diverse family relationships in an effort to expand scholarly attention to a wider range of family experiences.