Parental warmth on high-conflict days helps teens to feel loved

While parent-teen conflict is inevitable, parents expressing warmth and support on high-conflict days can bolster how much their teen feels loved, according to a study conducted by Gregory Fosco, Penn State associate professor of human development and family studies and associate director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

According to the researchers, the study — titled “When Do Adolescents Feel Loved?” and recently published in the journal Emotion —  is the first of its kind to examine fluctuations in how loved teens feel at a daily level.

“By using 21 consecutive days of daily diaries, we were able to disentangle the day-to-day ways that parents’ behaviors are linked to how loved their teenagers were feeling,” said the study’s lead author, John Coffey, assistant professor at Sewanee: The University of the South. “The daily methodology is uniquely suited to providing caregivers with practical suggestions for daily life.”

The study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting daily fluctuations in feeling loved are common even in long-term relationships. How parents and teens communicate and resolve conflict may be most important to maintaining a healthy relationship long-term, said the researchers.

“Even if you have a fight with your kids, you can impact how they feel about the relationship,” said Fosco. “Parents may give teens the ‘cold shoulder’ following a conflict, believing that withholding love and affection may encourage children to act in the way the parents want. Our findings suggest that being warm and supportive can take the sting out of conflict.”

The researchers noted that the study’s findings may be particularly useful now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Parents and their children are spending so much more time together, often with restricted space and under additional stress,” Coffey said. “Finding ways to be kind and warm will help mitigate potential conflicts and ensure children feel loved.”

Irrespective of the general closeness of the parent-teen relationships, the researchers found that teens reported feeling more loved on days when parents reported showing more warmth in the form of affection, understanding and praise. Likewise, teens reported feeling less loved on days when parents reported more conflict than usual.

More importantly, the researchers said, they also found that parents can mitigate the impact of conflict by showing their teen warmth. In other words, on days when parents were warm, high levels of conflict didn’t reduce how loved teens felt.

To mitigate conflict, warmth had to be conveyed on the same day — but the warmth and conflict did not need to be related, the researchers found.

“Parents often stress about the conflicts they are experiencing with their children,” said Coffey, “but our study suggests conflicts are manageable as long as children experience warmth from their parents at some point during the same day.”

To reach these conclusions, the researchers collected nightly surveys self-reported by one teen and one parent from 151 different families. Participating teens were in the 9th and 10th grades, and ranged in age from 13 to 16 years old. Slightly more female teens participated, and the vast majority (95%) of participating parents were female.

Parents and teens also filled out initial baseline surveys about how close they were in general. The researchers used their answers to examine whether general closeness moderated daily fluctuations in parent-reported warmth and conflict, and teen-reported love.

Teens who reported feeling generally closer to their parents did on average feel more loved.

“But even if they felt close to their parents,” said Coffey, “daily parent-reported conflict and warmth still predicted how much love a teen felt that day.”

This study was conducted with funding from the Penn State Social Science Research Institute and the Karl R. and Diane Wendle Fink Early Career Professorship awarded to Fosco. Mengya Xia, assistant professor at the University of Alabama, was a co-author on the article and conducted statistical work for the project.

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