How Your Communication With Your Spouse Affects Your Child
The role of negative disclosures and feeling caught between parents.
Posted December 31, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Coordinating parenting efforts is one of the most important factors in raising a healthy family. Indeed, even more so than general marital quality, co-parental communication is more predictive of parents' and children's adjustment.
But how does co-parenting enhance or inhibit their children's mental health and well-being? Researchers Dr. Paul Schrodt and Dr. Tamara Afifi set out to examine this relationship and now report their findings in a recent article published in Personal Relationships.
To explore the relationship between co-parental communication and children's mental health, Schrodt and Afifi surveyed 170 first-marriage family triads (two parents and a child) as well as 55 divorced family triads. They administered surveys that assessed the parents' co-parental communication and their negative relational discourse to their children as well as their children's perception that they felt like they were caught between their parents and measures of their mental health.
They hypothesized that co-parenting communication would influence their children's reports of negative relational disclosures, which in turn, would influence whether their children felt caught; perceptions of feeling caught would ultimately influence their children's mental health.
Here's what they found: As the researchers predicted, parents' supportive and antagonistic co-parental communication directly predicted children's mental health through negative disclosures and feelings of being caught. This relationship was especially true when it came to mothers' supportive and antagonistic co-parental communication.
For fathers, the story was a bit more complicated. Specifically, fathers' supportive communication decreased their children's perceptions of being caught but increased the children's reports of their mother's negative disclosures about their father and their mental health symptoms. The researchers surmise that mothers and fathers might have different roles within the family. They venture to suggest that it is possible that fathers who have a supportive co-parental communication style might be relying too heavily on their (ex)spouse, which in turn, could create a level of resentment of which fathers are unaware.
Results from this study also support something called the spillover hypothesis; that spouses who struggle to co-parent in supportive ways are more likely to share their frustrations with their children. Thus, a strong co-parenting alliance reduces the temptation to disclosure unwanted or inappropriate information with children and strengthen's the children's perceptions of family security (which reduces their feelings of being caught).
What can parents do? Findings from this study ultimately suggest that parents who work together as a team, back each other's parenting efforts, and communicate in supportive and cooperative ways as they coordinate their parenting activities will improve family functioning and children's adjustment and well-being.
Indeed, successful co-parenting conveys to a child the family's solidarity and common purpose, even if the marriage does not last. Supportive co-parental communication is especially important for divorced parents considering this study found they were generally less supportive and more antagonistic than their married peers. Nevertheless, positive co-parental communication could be beneficial in any family.
Schrodt, P., & Afifi, T. D. (2018). Negative disclosures and feeling caught mediate coparental communication and mental health. Personal Relationships, 25, 480-496. doi:10.1111/pere.12256