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Don’t Let Your Kid Feel Caught Between Parents

Husband and wife may not always agree on the best way to parent kids. They sometimes might have different ideas on how to broaden their palates, limit screen time, as well as how to blend their respective family holiday traditions. When father and mother are grappling with the abovementioned or other parenting issues, they engage in what researchers call co-parental communication, which generally refers to how the two communicate with one another and kids when parenting.

It is no surprise that co-parental communication plays a vital role in a healthy family relationship. As a matter of fact, it is so important that parents’ communication skills when co-parenting, whether the parents still live together or not, is a powerful predictor of many results, including the quality of the parent-child relationship and the kids’ mental health. Basically, if the parents use supportive co-parental communication, for example, work together, present a unified front, and don’t undermine each other’s’ parenting methods, then the whole family benefits. However, if parents’ co-parental communication is antagonistic and they attempt to undermine one another, whether by playing ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’, or bad-mouthing one parent in front of the kids, things get much worse.

 Kid caught between parentsHowever, although the connection between co-parental communication quality and individual and family well-being are well-established, the underlying mechanisms have not been made clear. In another word, why and how do different types of co-parental communication lead to their good vs. bad results?

In a recent study, researchers proposed a hypothesis that the correlation between parental co-communication and several outcomes may exist since different types of parental co-communication affect the extent to which kids feel “caught” between two parents. And of course, feeling caught between parents is no fun for anyone.

In order to test the hypothesis, the researchers asked about 500 young adults around 20 years old to complete a survey that assessed their:
1. Perceptions of parents’ supportive co-parental communication (e.g., “My parents worked well together raising me”);

2. Perceptions of parents’ antagonistic co-parental communication (e.g., “My parents criticized each other’s parenting”);

3. Feelings of being caught between two parents (e.g., “How often do you feel like if you are loyal to one parent, you are being disloyal to the other?”)

4. Satisfaction with the relationship with each parent;

5. Mental health (e.g., how often do they feel depressed or nervous).

As expected, the results show that the extent to which kids felt caught between parents explained some, but not all, of the correlation between supportive and antagonistic co-parental communication and parent-child satisfaction as well as child mental health. Generally, kids who often felt caught between parents reported less supportive co-communication in the part of their parents. On the contrary, perceiving more antagonistic communication raised feelings of being caught between loyalties to each parent. If kids felt caught between parents, the quality of the parent-child relationship would decrease and the kids’ mental health would be negatively affected.

 Kid and two parents

However, as I note above, being caught between two parents did not completely explain the correlation between co-communication quality and satisfaction and mental health. That is to say, there exist other reasons or mechanisms to be investigated in the future. But in the meanwhile, the findings of this study offer important insight for clinicians who work with parents since it is clear that the way parents interact with each other when parenting is at least as much, if not more, important than the specific parenting skills parents may have. For parents, it is normal that each of the two has own theory, but they should communicate to their best and make compromises if necessary. Most importantly, they should present a unified front and never undermine each other.


  1. Schrodt, P., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2013). Feeling caught as a mediator of co-parental communication and young adult children’s mental health and relational satisfaction with parents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 977-999.

Source: Science Of Relationships