Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. What Do Teens Think of Their Parents’ Relationships?


The quality of their parents’ relationship has important implications for youth. Past work has shown that parents’ marital hostility is associated with behavioral and emotional problems in their children (Buehler et al. 2007; Sturge-Apple et al. 2006). Some work suggests that it is worse for children for their parents to remain in a conflict-ridden marriage than for their parents to divorce (Amato et al. 1995; Morrison and Coiro 1999).

The parents’ relationship may also affect teens’ views on marriage and relationships and the quality of their later relationships. For example, a recent study found that adolescent girls with more negative perceptions of the level of conflict in their parents’ relationship had greater expectations of unhappiness and divorce in their own future marriages (Steinberg et al. 2006). Similarly, parental conflict after a divorce has been linked with less positive attitudes about marriage among adolescents (Peltz and Koerner 2006). In this section, we examine teens’ perceptions of their parents’ relationship.

  • Most teens with married parents think their parents have a high quality marriage. Girls and those with remarried parents are somewhat less positive about the relationship.

The 1999 wave of the NLSY97 asked its young respondents to rate their parents’ marital relationships with their partners, either the teen’s other biological parent or a step-parent.(2) These questions cover several aspects of relationship quality, such as how often the teen’s parents or stepparents scream at each other when angry, compromise, and are affectionate with each other. Responses are recorded on a five-point scale, indicating whether these events occur: never, rarely, sometimes, usually, or always. In our analysis, these questions were combined into a single measure of marital quality.(3) We use this composite score to divide relationships into those of low, medium, and high quality. We categorize a relationship as “low quality” if teens’ average responses to these questions are consistent with having reported that positive behaviors occur “never” or “rarely.” We categorize a relationship as “medium quality” if teens’ average responses correspond to reporting that positive behaviors occur “sometimes” and categorize relationships as “high quality” if the teens’ average responses correspond to positive behaviors occurring “usually” or “always.”

Teens’ perceptions of the parental relationship may not be the same as what the parents would say about their own relationship. The teens’ perspective, however, is important because it indicates how they are experiencing that relationship. If teens think their parents are always fighting, for example, they are likely to feel stress and turmoil, regardless of whether the parents believe their fighting is frequent. For our analysis, we were particularly interested in the teens’ perceptions of their parents’ relationship, since these perceptions may shape their attitudes about marriage and influence future choices about forming romantic relationships.

Most teens view their parents’ marriage positively. When asked about a range of behaviors, such as compromise, showing affection, and criticism, almost 60 percent of the teens in our sample rated their parents as usually or always showing these positive behaviors and never or rarely showing negative ones (Figure II.2). Another third indicated their parents sometimes showed these behaviors. Only 7 percent gave responses that suggested that they considered their parents to have a low quality or troubled marriage. These patterns were highly consistent across racial, ethnic, and income groups.

Girls, however, tend to view their parents’ relationship more negatively than boys. Girls were more likely to view their parents’ marriage as low quality (9 percent, compared to 5 percent) and less likely to perceive the relationship as high quality (56 versus 62 percent).(4) These differences may relate to the patterns discussed in the work of Dahl and Moretti (2004), who find that couples who have boys are more likely to get and stay married. Parents of girls may have poorer marital quality or be less committed to their relationship. Alternatively, girls may judge their parents’ relationships more harshly than do boys.

Figure II.2
Teens’ Assessment of Their Parents’ Marital Quality

Figure II.2 Teens' Assessment of Their Parents' Marital Quality. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave.

Note: Differences by income status are statistically significant at the .05 level for all groups presented.

Teenagers living with a remarried parent report that their parents have lower marital quality than those living with married biological parents. Among our sample members, teens living with a remarried parent were less likely to rate the marriage as high quality, a difference that was statistically significant. They were not, however, more likely to report that their parents had a low quality marriage. In other words, teens living with a remarried parent did not appear to be more likely to view the marriage as very conflicted or unhealthy. Instead, relative to teens living with both biological parents, teens with remarried parents may be more likely to see their parents as having moderately healthy rather than very healthy relationships.

Why might teenagers with remarried parents report lower marital quality for their parents? As described earlier, the measure of relationship quality analyzed here is based on the teens’ report. We might expect teens to judge a step-parent’s behavior more harshly than that of a biological parent, and report more negative behaviors or fewer positive ones. It is well established, however, that a remarriage is more likely to end in divorce than a first marriage (Bramlett and Mosher 2002), so the teens’ reports also may be capturing real differences in the way the adults interact with each other.

  • Teens with divorced parents report that their parents have more contact than teens with never-married parents do. However, divorced parents are seen as less friendly toward one another than never-married parents are.

About half the teens in our sample reported that their parents were no longer together. Teens with estranged parents hold a mix of views of their parents’ relationship. About 3 in 10 characterized this relationship as friendly, while a similar proportion indicated that their estranged parents had no contact with each other at all (Figure II.3).(5) More than a third described the relationship as being of “mixed” quality, with either neutral or both friendly and unfriendly aspects. Only a small proportion of teens (5 percent) characterized their estranged parents’ relationship as unfriendly or hostile (Figure II.3).

Teens with divorced parents and teens with never-married parents who were no longer together viewed their parents’ relationship differently. Divorced parents were more likely to be in contact than never-married parents were — with 74 percent of divorced parents having had some contact with each other in the past year, compared with 62 percent of parents who had never been married.(6)  However, teens with divorced parents viewed the quality of their parents’ relationship more negatively than those with never-married parents did. Among teens with divorced parents, 42 percent characterized the quality of their parents’ relationship as “mixed” or “unfriendly,” while 24 percent of teens with never-married parents described their parents’ relationship in this way (Figure II.3).

Figure II.3
Teens’ Assessment of Their Estranged Parents’ Relationship Quality

Figure II.3 Teens' Assessment of Their Estranged Parents' Relationship Quality. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave. Source: NLSY97, 1999 wave.

Note: Figures include 15-16 year olds living with a married parent. See the text and footnote 3 for definitions of low, medium, and high quality relationships. medium, and high quality relationships.

* Difference by gender or biological-remarried parent status statistically significant at .05 level. * Difference by gender or biological-remarried parent status statistically significant at .05 level.

Why would teens view the relationship of their estranged parents more negatively if their parents had been married to each other in the past? Experiencing a divorce may sour the parents’ relationship, even years later. Divorce has more legal repercussions and may be a longer and more drawn-out process than breaking a less formal bond, which could increase the animosity between partners. In addition, given the transience of many nonmarital relationships, never-married parents are more likely to have separated from each other early in the teen’s life. Therefore, the breakup may be a more distant memory for these teens than for those with divorced parents and thus less of an influence on their current perceptions of their parents’ relationship.

In addition, divorced parents may be more likely than never-married parents to remain in contact when their relationship is less friendly. The contact between divorced parents may depend less on how they currently feel toward each other and have more to do with other factors, such as child custody arrangements and other legal ties associated with marriage and divorce, as well as a greater earlier commitment between the parents. Whatever the explanation, teens with divorced parents are more likely than those with never-married ones to have parents who remain in contact with each other, although in many cases on less than friendly terms.

Teens’ perceptions of the quality of their estranged parents’ relationship are also tied to gender, race/ethnicity, and income. In particular, among teens with estranged parents, African-American, Hispanic, and low-income teens were more likely to report that their parents were no longer in contact. In addition, boys and African American teens were more likely to describe their estranged parents’ relationship in positive terms. The finding that teenage boys with estranged parents describe their parent’ relationship more positively than teenage girls do is similar to the results reported earlier, in which boys rated their parents’ marital relationship more highly than girls did.

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