Parents of teens probably know this all too well. A conflict at home can mean sending your teen out the door in a funk, which can spur negative interactions outside of the home. Conversely, teens can come in the door having had a conflict with a friend and that means anyone in his or her path is in for it, too. This dynamic is what a recent study in the journal Child Development studied.

Chung and colleagues set out to examine whether or not there was spillover between conflict with parents/family and conflict with peers. As one may guess, the researchers found that when teens had a conflict with a parent or other family member they were more likely to report having a conflict with a peer, and vice versa. They referred to this phenomenon as “spillover”.

The authors discuss spillover in the context of a “transmission of negative emotions” and an extreme and negative quality that can color the adolescent emotional experience. Teens simply experience emotions with an intensity that is specific to being a teenager. With all of the changes that teens go through (remember puberty?), it would make sense that they would experience some fierce emotions.

The authors collected daily diary entries for two weeks from over 500 ninth-grade males and females from diverse backgrounds. Study participants reported on family and peer conflict, as well as emotional distress. Because the entries were subjective, the results certainly need to be interpreted within the framework of perception. That is, the diaries were the information that the teens reported to be their experiences. Asking someone else could have potentially offered different information.

In each situation of conflict, same predicted same at the highest rates. In other words, peer conflict predicted peer conflict more than family conflict predicted it. Conversely, family conflict predicted family conflict at a higher rate than peer conflict predicted it.

Although the effects were smaller, family conflict still significantly predicted same-day and next-day peer conflict. Interestingly, it also significantly predicted peer conflict two days later. Now that’s some spillover! Peer conflict significantly predicted same-day and next-day family conflict. Effects were stronger for girls than for boys and girls reported the experience of arguing with family members as being more stressful than arguing with peers.

Nobody suggests that parenting a teen is a walk in the park. On the contrary, it is a challenging time for both parent and teen and brings with it a host of trying situations unique to this phase of life. While parents can’t be there to keep peer conflict from happening, they do have some control over parent-teen conflict. And improving parent-teen conflict, according to this study, may have the added bonus of improving teen conflict with peers.

So what can parents of teens do to bring down the conflict at home? Oftentimes, learning how to talk about tough (or even not so tough) topics in a different way can make an amazing difference. I know, I know. Teens are especially clever at knowing exactly which buttons to push to make your face turn purple and your voice raise an octave or two. If you’d like to, in turn, be clever by learning some new ways to defuse these situations and make them productive rather than meet them with conflict, I definitely recommend Faber and Mazlish’s book “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk”. It’s chock full of different techniques and strategies that both parents and teens can use to increase respect and decrease conflict while helping teens become more responsible individuals. Enjoy! -Anita

Source: Chung GH, Flook L, & Fuligni AJ (2011). Reciprocal Associations Between Family and Peer Conflict in Adolescents’ Daily Lives. Child development PMID: 21793820

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