Parenting often isn’t glamorous. Changing seven diapers in a day, cleaning up vomit at 3 am, and trying to keep the peace between teenage siblings are just a few of the many challenges parents often face. In addition to parenting challenges, the external stressors of jobs, traveling for work, moving residences for a new job, paying bills on time, making ends meet, and saving money for the future leave many families feeling stressed and exhausted.
In other words, no family’s life is perfect—no matter how perfect their life may appear on the surface. Parenting, employment, and financial obligations can sometimes take a toll on parents’ relationship with each other. Perhaps without realizing, a toll on parents’ relationship with each other might impact how they parent their children, which might then impact their children, too.
Dr. Mallory Lucier-Greer and her colleagues were interested in how this phenomenon, namely how the parents’ relationship with each other might impact their teenager’s mental health, played out among families who typically have many external stressors. Using a sample of 229 families where the father was in the military, these researchers examined whether parents’ relationship quality with each other could predict their teenager’s depressive symptoms. Although the findings from their research might only apply to families in the military, the researchers propose that their findings could also be applicable to other families with many external stressors.
An interesting aspect of how Lucier-Greer and her team analyzed the parents’ relationship quality with each other was by asking both parents separately how their relationship is going. As predictors of their teenager’s mental health, these scholars used both parents’ reports of their relationship quality with each other. With this information, they sought to understand what aspects of family functioning might explain the potential connection between parents’ relationship quality with each other and their teenager’s mental health.
The researchers considered both parental warmth and parent hostility as aspects of their family’s functioning that could explain the association between parental relationship quality and their teenager’s mental health. These researchers separately asked the teenager in the family for their report of both parents’ warmth (for example, how much their parent seeks to understand them) and hostility (for example, how much a parent tends to say bad things toward the teenager) and their own mental health.
Before proceeding with their analysis, the researchers noted that there are often gendered expectations in parenting. For example, previous scholarship suggests that after the birth of a first child, mothers report two more hours of daily housework compared to fathers. In short, mothers might be expected to be more responsible for housework and childcare.
Fathers, on the other hand, might be expected to primarily focus on being breadwinners and earning income for their family, which could result in expecting less childcare and housework from fathers. In short, the scholars noted that parents’ impact on their children might depend upon whether we are considering father’s or mother’s impact.
This mention of gendered expectations for parenting was relevant for the study’s findings. Mothers reporting a better quality relationship with their partner predicted mothers exhibiting more warmth toward their teenager—which, in turn, led to less depressive symptoms for their teenager. In other words, as the parents’ relationship was going better, mothers were warmer toward their teenager, which benefitted their teenager’s mental health.
However, fathers reporting that their relationship with their partner was going well was not connected to how warm they were toward their teenager. Instead, father’s report of a better quality relationship with their partner led to fathers having less hostility toward their teenager—which, in turn, was associated with better mental health of their teenager.
Essentially, the study’s findings show that parents’ relationship with each other can impact their teenager’s mental health. Specifically, as mothers have a better quality relationship with fathers, they tend to be warmer toward their teenager, which benefits their teenager’s mental health. However, as fathers have a better quality relationship with their partner, they are typically less hostile toward their teenager, which also benefits their teenager’s mental health.
1. Parents’ relationship with each other can impact their teenager’s mental health.
It might be natural for parents to think their relationship with each other is ‘between them’ and does not impact their children. However, Lucier-Greer’s findings suggest otherwise. The researchers explained that when parents have a poor-quality relationship, the stress of this strained relationship might ‘spillover’ into how they parent their child. Worse parenting, perhaps resulting from the parents’ poor quality relationship, can then negatively impact their teenager’s mental health.
The principle from this finding is to recognize that parents’ relationship with each other is usually not separate from parents’ relationship with their children. To optimize how parents treat their children, parents might do well to intentionally develop, and maintain, their relationship with each other.
Making time for a weekly date night, even if the date simply involves staying up after the kids are in bed to talk with each other, might be a helpful practice. When both parents seek to understand each other and make regular, intentional efforts to help meet each other’s needs, their relationship tends to go better. The bottom line is any efforts parents make to maintain and develop their relationship with each other might also benefit their parenting of their teenagers.
2. Mothers and fathers might have different influences on their teenager.
As parents maintain and develop their relationship with each other, the manifestations of their quality relationship on their parenting of their teenager might play out differently. Although it is important for both parents to show warmth and lessen hostility toward their teenager, fathers and mothers might have differing impacts on their teenager, particularly among families where the father is in the military.
Because a quality relationship among parents was correlated with mothers being warmer and fathers being less hostile toward their teenager, which benefitted the teenager’s mental health, the recommendations for parents also depend on the parent. For fathers, it might be particularly important to focus on lessening hostile words and actions toward their teenager. For mothers, it might be especially important to focus on being warmer toward their teenager.
Any efforts to do so, according to this research,2 would be worth it. As parents both aim for a “happy spouse,” it might lead to a “happy house.”
Stroud, C. B., Meyers, K. M., Wilson, S., & Durbin, C. E. (2015). Marital quality spillover and young children’s adjustment: Evidence for dyadic and triadic parenting as mechanisms. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 44(5), 800–813. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2014.9007
Lucier‐Greer, M., Howard, S., & Mancini, J. A. (2021). Parental relationship quality and adolescent depressive symptoms: Investigating the role of parental warmth and hostility in United States military families. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 47(3), 566–580. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12451
Yavorsky, J. E., Kamp Dush, C. M., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. (2015). The production of inequality: The gender division of labor across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(3), 662–679. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12189