Conflict with Friends and Family Impairs Teens’ Social Functioning

It is normal for adolescents to conflict with family members, especially parents. In fact, this transition from obedient, caring, and emotionally attached child to sometimes distant, moody, and rebellious teenager is often seen as a normal stage of development. Adolescents begin to find their own identities, their own sets of friends, and their own interests during the teen years. During this exploratory period, they begin to pull away from the safety of family and assert their own independence as they start their foray into adulthood. But even though moderate conflict is viewed as relatively normal, researchers have raised questions about the effects of conflict on social functioning. In a recent study, Katherine B. Ehrlich of the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland took this question one step further. Using a sample of 189 adolescents, Ehrlich assessed how parental conflict and peer conflict affected social functioning independently and collectively.

The participants and their two parents, mothers and fathers, were observed as they engaged in conversations about topics that caused conflict. The adolescents were then asked to detail any conflicts in their closest peer relationships. Finally, the participants’ friends were interviewed about the level of social acceptance and general behavior of the participants while in social environments. Ehrlich discovered that although conflict with parents was linked to more aggression and risk taking, this effect was significantly amplified when peer conflicts were occurring simultaneously.

It has been suggested that conflict is a catalyst for social development and that adolescents need to experience disagreements in order to learn how to engage in problem solving and adaptive stress coping strategies. However, Ehrlich believes that when there is too much conflict present in teens’ lives, their resources may become quickly depleted, thus impairing their ability to function socially. It should be noted that the results gathered in this study were only obtained from married, heterosexual parents and were not examined independently. Future work should isolate mother-child conflict and father-child conflict to capture a more in-depth look at the individual influence of each. Additionally, single-parent environments should be examined in relation to parent-child conflict and its effect on social functioning. Ehrlich added, “We encourage researchers to continue using a multimethod approach to explore the ways in which conflict across family and friend relationship contexts influences adolescent development.”

Ehrlich, K. B., Dykas, M. J., Cassidy, J. (2012). Tipping points in adolescent adjustment: Predicting social functioning from adolescents’ conflict with parents and friends. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029868

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  • lisa

    September 14th, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    isn’t this true for all of us and not just teens?conflict in one sphere of life definitely has an effect on the other spheres of our life.and I can only imagine how much more this would influence a teen compared to us adults who have far more adaptive skills and are more matured mentally.we cannot have conflicts and expect a person to get over it and isolate it from the other aspects of his/her life and it is no different here.conflicts with parents and/or peers is bound to have a negative impact on teens’ social lives.

  • Ben D

    September 14th, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    I remember being this age and having all of these things going on life simultaneously, and it was hard to control your emotions sometimes.

    When you are young there are hormones and all kinds of emotions going on, and when there is conflict in one area of your life then naturally this will spill over into other areas of your life as well.

    The best that we can do for our children is to try to remember that we were young once, and try to keep a cool head and perspective about the multiple emotions and conflicts that they are having to cope with.


    September 16th, 2012 at 12:43 PM

    Well conflicts do occur and the growing up years are like the hotspot for conflicts.But how these conflicts are handled by the parents and the youngsters themselves is what is more important IMO.

    I know many parents who do tit for tat in a conflict with a youngster.They do not show any kind of maturity and act like they are talking to somebody their age,which is not fine at all.Parents need to show the maturity and patience in situations like these and that will help youngsters in a massive way in the long term.

  • dave

    September 17th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    I can remember some real knock down drag outs that me and my parents had, but I never saw that these fights kept me from just being a normal teenage guy. I still hung out with friends, and after a few days or so we just got over it. It isn’t like we were all holding a grudge for weeks to come. Maybe some families are just so dysfunctional to begin with that this kind of functioning will be their norm. But if they are strong to begin with, then all of this will go on, with or without the fighting.

  • david

    September 17th, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    while there is no doubt conflicts do influence social functioning for people,especially for teens that are just starting to get into serious social interactions, it is also true that these same conflicts can lend help in learning new things.You see when there is conflicts and disagreements it gives an opportunity to introspect and also to see things from others’ point of view.while all of this may not manifest in a teenager, it sure does add valuable experience for their adult lives.maybe conflicts are not all bad after all!

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