WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW: How their adult children feel when they are caught in the middle of parental conflict 

Although there is substantial research that investigates how parental discord affects children and adolescents, very little is known about how parental conflict between parents who chose to remain married affect children who are in their adult years. A family is defined as “a socially recognized group (usually joined by blood, marriage, or adoption) that forms an emotional connection and serves as an economic unit of society.”  When this unit is disturbed all members of the family are affected, irrespective of age. In Feeling Caught Between Parents: Adult Children’s Relations with Parents and Subjective Well-Being, Amato and Afifi (2006), found that children with parents in high-conflicting marriages were at a greater risk than other children to feel “caught between parents”. In addition, these feelings were associated with lower subjective well-being and poorer quality parent-child relationship. These feelings were more prominent in mother-daughter relationships than mother-son relationships. Lastly, the results indicate that compared to children with divorced parents, children with parents in conflicted marriages in the absence of divorce may be likely to experience these emotions even into adulthood.

Studies also indicate that a major consequence of marital conflict among continuously married parents is greater emotional distance between parents and their adult children. Despite the decreased exposure of parental conflict, children are likely to feel torn between parents.  As a mature adult yourself, you are able to understand and empathize with each parent’s perspectives. The adult child unknowingly becomes a referee and a messenger of information for the two people they admire and love the most. Moreover, adult children may find themselves questioning their loyalties after providing an empathetic and supportive ear to each of their parents as they recount all their miseries and pour it on you. On some days, you may tell yourself “it’s their problem, I shouldn’t get involved” while on other days you begin to feel like the sensible and responsible adult who needs to “fix” your parents’ relationship. The first approach may lead to feelings of guilt and feeling selfish for ignoring your parents while the second approach may evoke feelings of pain, frustration, and stress. Alternatively, siding with one parent prevents feelings of being “caught in the middle,” but it can lead to a build-up of negativity and resentment for the other parent and consequently, guilt for abandoning and rejecting the other parent. Either way children are left helpless and consumed in their parents’ battles. Parents need to be aware that they are a prominent role-model for their children even in their adult years and by displaying unhealthy ways of communicating, they are encouraging similar ways of problem solving.

Adult children may even begin to feel reluctant to share their personal stresses and challenges in order to prevent bombarding their parents with additional strain and may fear that their personal problems (e.g., social struggles, grades etc.) may cause additional conflict between their parents. Consequently, children may begin to feel less important, alone, and may distance themselves from their parents. Moreover, this can be a missed opportunity for parents to connect with their grown-up children and provide a sense of security.

There is considerable evidence that South Asian couples divorce at rates much lower than other communities in North America. Social Worker, Researcher and Community Activist Gary Thandi notes there are two primary reasons for this; that “South Asian communities place great value on the concept of marriage, so may not be as quick to divorce as other communities. And many within the community may hold perceptions that divorcing will result in stigmatization.” Thandi points out that such concerns over stigma is slowly changing, but “it can still be prevalent within some South Asian families.” He also points out that many South Asian young adults remain in the family home for much longer than other youth, and thus may their exposure to parental conflict may last much longer than with other communities. In fact, he notes that many South Asian young adult males may never leave the home. “The South Asian male may get married and his spouse may move in with him and his parents, and that adds another dynamic into the mix. In a home where there is great conflict, the young newly married couple is already starting their lives together in a tough situation. The man’s parents thus may be harming their adult children’s marriages.” Thandi suggests help is available, but it takes a willingness upon of family members to commit to change. “Families who are frequently engaged in conflict should consider counselling or find someone to help mediate issues. Change is possible.”