Communication Currents

Talking About Hurtful Communication in the Family

October 1, 2014
Interpersonal Communication

For parents and teenagers alike, the adolescent years might be one of the most difficult and challenging phases in family life. Frequent minor squabbles and occasional deeper conflicts can bubble up during this time of transition. Our study examined how parents and teenagers make sense of and communicate about hurtful messages in their relationship.

During the teenage years, the parent-child relationship is often characterized with changes and transitions that can sometimes result in misunderstanding, conflict, and difficulty. Although these changes are normal as parents and teens are redefining their relationship with one another, they usually spark intense emotions. One reason for this is that parents and teenagers are focused on different identity concerns. Teenagers are absorbed with their need for independence and separation from the family. They want autonomy and the chance to make their own decisions. Parents, on the other hand, are fixated on their role as socializing agents for their children. They feel responsible for the well-being of the family unit, so they are especially sensitive to any discord. These different levels of investment in the family are called generational stake. They are important for understanding why parents and teenagers might approach conflicts and hurtful incidents from different vantage points and with different identity concerns.

Hurt feelings arise when people feel emotionally injured, rejected, or devalued in some way. Unfortunately, hurt feelings are common in families, and people report being more intensely hurt by family members than any other type of relationship. Although we know that family members hurt one another’s feelings, past research has not examined how people make sense of these hurtful events on their own and how they talk about the hurtful event with one another. For example, whom do they blame for the hurt? Do they think the hurtful event was a big deal or a minor blip in the relationship?

The way people view the hurt also could affect the way they talk about it with the other person. For example, if they see the event as completely the other person’s fault, are they more confrontational when they talk with him or her about the hurtful incident? Answering these questions is important because it can potentially uncover the forces that might make conversations about negative events between parents and adolescents so challenging.

For our study, we brought in 98 pairs of parents and their teenagers (one parent and one child in that family). The teenagers were between 13 and 17 years of age and lived in the home with the parent. The study had two main parts. For the first part, we had the parents and teenagers write down a story about an event that hurt their feelings. So, for each pair, we had one event where the parent felt hurt by something their child said or did and one event where the child felt hurt by something the parent said or did.

Based on the types of hurtful events people reported in the first part of the study, we found that parents reported being hurt when their teenagers engaged in distancing behaviors, such as ignoring them or excluding them. On the other hand, adolescents were hurt by criticism more often than parents, such as when a parent critiqued their behavior, choices, or appearance. This is not surprising considering teenagers desire more independence; they might be especially sensitive to disapproval of their own choices. Both parents and teenagers were hurt because of parental control of adolescent behavior, but for different reasons. Teenagers were hurt when their parents disciplined them or erected boundaries around their behavior. On the other hand, parents frequently reported being hurt when the teenagers misbehaved or broke the rules.

When we looked at the written stories of the hurtful events by the parents and teenagers, we found some interesting differences. Teens said the hurtful events had less of an effect on them overall compared with the parents. They also told stories that portrayed the parents in a more positive light compared with the stories the parents told about the time when the adolescent did something hurtful. These differences are likely related to their generational stake. Adolescents tend to interpret conflicts very straightforwardly, without reading too much into the future implications for their behavior. Parents, on the other hand, tend to magnify even small conflicts because they see these moments as parenting opportunities to impart a larger lesson.

In the second part of the study, we had parents and teenagers discuss each hurtful event for five minutes. During this conversation, they were asked to resolve what happened, why it happened, and whether it affected their relationship in any way. A team of researchers watched all the videos of the interactions to determine characteristics of each of the pairs’ interactions, such as the level of warmth, confrontation, and their ability to tell a unified story of the hurtful event together.

The results again showed parents tend to be preoccupied with their role in socializing their children, so much so that they might not validate and acknowledge when their teenager’s feelings are hurt. In general, parents focused on the larger lesson for adolescents, rather than the child’s hurt or what the parent might have done wrong. For example, if a teenager was hurt by perceived preferential treatment toward a sibling, instead of acknowledging that might be experienced as hurtful, the parent focused on teaching the adolescent a lesson about why it is okay for parents to have different expectations of different children because of age. Even children tended to acknowledge this parental role as motivation for their parent’s behavior.

The stories of hurtful events, then, tended to excuse parents but hold children responsible. Although this bias is not inherently problematic, there were many missed opportunities for parents to validate their children’s feelings, which could have resulted in more understanding and connection between the parents and teenagers.

Our study also revealed findings related to how the family members’ individual stories about hurtful events related to their conversations with one another about those incidents. When people thought the other person hurt their feelings on purpose, the conversations about those events tended to be more difficult and negative. In other words, if a teenager believed a parent was intentionally trying to hurt his or her feelings, when the family members talked about that hurtful event, the conversation was more difficult. We also found when parents and children told similar individual stories of the hurtful events, their conversation was smoother and resulted in a more integrated and jointly told story.

What do all these findings imply about talking about hurtful events in parent-adolescent relationships? First, this study sheds light on ways in which parents and teenagers might view the same event through inherently different lenses. Also, when people feel hurt, it can trigger efforts to try to make sense of what happened. These internal stories or explanations for why the event happened can serve to dampen or prime emotional responses during later conversations. When parents and teens enter into a conversation about a hurtful event with similar understandings, the conversations tend to go more smoothly, with both parents and children displaying more warmth and less confrontation. So, it might be helpful to first establish an understanding of one another’s stories or explanations of the hurtful event before trying to resolve it.

Furthermore, parents might make careful choices about which issues to focus on and discuss with their teenagers and which issues to let go. Although parents tend to be more deeply affected by hurtful events, the conversations about their hurts tended to be more difficult and negative. So, if parents can try to cope with their feelings using other means, such as talking to another person, they might not have to confront their teenagers about every upsetting incident. This could potentially reduce the number of conflicts between parents and teens and might increase the likelihood that the conflicts that are discussed have more meaning or impact.

About the author (s)

Rachel M. McLaren

University of Iowa

Assistant Professor

Alan L. Sillars

University of Montana