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Parents who are more supportive when communicating with their children from afar have children who are doing better

When parents and children are separated by distance for long periods of time, their relationships may suffer because it is harder to communicate about daily experiences and feelings as frequently or in the same way as when living under the same roof. In a recently published paper, my colleagues and I (Friedman, Sigelman, Rohrbeck, & del Rio-Gonzalez, 2016) referred to such communication as distance communication. While physical expression of affect like hugs and kisses are missing in distance communication, we hypothesized that distance communication has the potential to help maintain and nourish relationships between parents and their children as others have hypothesized regarding such communication between civilian adults and between grandparents and grandchildren. We also hypothesized that keeping in touch while geographically apart can support the functioning of the children involved.

Our study was a small first step toward exploring the latter hypothesis as it pertains to US military deployed parents and their adolescent children. We thought that if our study and others to follow support this general hypothesis or determine the optimal quantity and quality of distance communication for children of different ages, the new knowledge could serve as the evidence base for interventions for parents and their children and youth who must be separated for months at a time.

Distance communication between deployed parents and their children has received scant attention in research. It is often assumed that distance communication in the military family context would help families be more resilient, but evidence of links between distance communication during deployment and children's functioning is sparse, complex, and inconclusive and does not support the expectation that distance communication is always associated with greater resilience.

In our study, we focused on children between the ages of 11 and 18, since research suggests that youth have emotional and behavioral problems associated with parental deployment and since, unlike younger children, adolescents can independently complete online surveys about their communication with their deployed parents and about their emotions and functioning. We asked them questions that allowed us to report about (a) the quantity and quality of distance communication between their deployed parents and themselves and about (b) the association between the quantity and quality of the communication and their functioning. We asked 75 11-18 year olds about the quantity and the quality of the communication with their deployed parents. For quantity of communication, we asked about all kinds of communication: phone, email, social media, text, video chat, photo sharing and letters. We asked about the quality of communication with questions about two kinds of communication when the parent and child were conversing at the same time: (a) positive, supportive, listening and (b) controlling and dominant. We asked the young people questions like "How often did your parent ask you about what was happening in school?" "How often did your parent tell you he/she can't wait to see you again?" "How often did your parent tell you that you need to try harder / be nicer / be less upset?"

We also asked the young people about their health and functioning (e.g. "Have you felt fit and well?" "Have you felt lonely?" "Have you had fun with your friends?") and we asked them how unhappy or happy they were when a communication with the deployed parent ended. We asked the children's at-home parent/caregiver the same questions about the child health and functioning and about how the adolescent felt following distance communication. The at-home parents or caregivers were also asked questions about the children's problem behavior (e.g. "Does he/she have sudden changes in moods?" "Is he/she cruel or mean to others?" "Is he/she disobedient at home?").

We found great variation in the quantity and quality of communications as reported by the young people. We found an average of over 10 instances of communication per week with an average duration of 9.6 minutes per instance of communication. We also found great variation in the quality of communication but on the average, young people reported that they had positive communication most of the time. On the average, they reported experiencing controlling communication just sometimes.

Individual differences in the quantity of distance communication, especially communication by phone or video chats, may be linked to objective factors such as large time zone differences, lack of privacy, or lack of access to technology at the deployed parents' end. But the differences in the quantity of communication, including phone, video chats, email, tweets, Facebook messages, regular mail, or packages, may also be associated with families' styles of communication. Families are known to vary in terms of the extent to which they communicate when they are co-located and this may carry over to when they are apart. Family communication patterns theory describes two dimensions of family communication, conversation orientation and conformity orientation. The first dimension is relevant to our findings since it is defined by the degree to which families create a communication environment in which all family members are encouraged to participate in unrestrained interaction about a wide range of topics. While it is not known to what extent communication patterns while families live in the same space generalizes to communication when they are not co-located, this is certainly a topic worth examining in future theory-guided research. Variations in quality of distance communication may also reflect differences among families in their characteristic communication styles as well as differences in the quality of parent-adolescent relationships. In addition, variations in the quality of distance communication may partially reflect the conflicting suggestions that military families receive about communication during deployment. On the one hand, they are advised to communicate openly and truthfully. But at the same time, there may be restrictions on what service members can say.

We found that the quantity of communication was not linearly related to the young people's functioning. This suggests that the links between quantity of parent-child communication and adolescent adjustment during deployments deserves further investigation; for example, there may be a curvilinear association in which either too little or too much communication is maladaptive or quantity and quality of communication may interact. Discovering such relationships among variables will require study with many more participating families.

While quantity of communication was not linked to adolescent's adjustment, better quality communication (that is, positive communication) was related to better child functioning as reported by the adolescents. We also found that the adolescents reported more positive emotions as well as more sadness at the end of positive communications with the deployed parent. The at-home parents/caregivers also reported higher adolescent functioning and more positive feelings on the part of the adolescents who had positive communication with the deployed parent. The at-home parents/caregivers also reported more child behavior problems when the deployed parent was more controlling. If the findings are validated by future research, it would be important to identify the family conditions that promote positive distance communication and restrict controlling distance communication. We also expect that families' concepts about face-to-face communication would predict their distance communication practices and, indirectly, their links to adolescents' functioning.

Our work was based on military families in the US. While life conditions are different for military and civilian families, we assume that the principles underlying human communication, parenting and children's development are universal and not specific to either military or civilian populations.


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Sarah_Friedman.jpg Sarah L. Friedman, Ph.D.
Dr. Friedman received M.A. in Educational Psychology from Cornell University and Ph.D. in Developmental and Experimental Psychology from George Washington University. Previously she was employed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Education (NIE), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the CNA Corporation. From 1989 through March 2006 Dr. Friedman served as the NICHD scientific manager and one of the architects and primary investigators of a multi-site, collaborative longitudinal research project on the development of social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic and health development of children from birth through adolescence (The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development). She is currently a Research Professor of Psychology at The George Washington University.
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