Same day associations in this study indicate co-occurrence of conflict in family and peer relationships, whereas one and two-day lagged spillovers show that conflict in one setting leads to higher levels of conflict in another. Though the non-experimental nature of this study prevents us from being conclusive about a causal relationship between family and peer conflict, our confidence in the directionality of the family-peer linkages observed was improved by controlling for prior levels of conflict in all analyses.
We found that the effect of family conflict persisted longer than that of peer conflict. On the one hand, peer conflict may be more quickly resolved and as a result perceived more favorably by adolescents, thus its effect might be less enduring. According to Adams and Laursen (2001)
, adolescents reported relatively friendlier affect and used more positive conflict resolution tactics after peer conflict as compared to family conflict. On the other hand, because our measure of peer conflict had a much narrower possible range of scores (e.g., 0 – 1;“yes” or “no”) than the measure of family conflict (e.g., 0 – 3; argued with mother, father, and/or other family member), there was less variability in peer conflict scores and it could affect the study’s results. For instance, our measure of peer conflict does not capture a possibility that a teenager could experience conflict with multiple friends on a given day.
As expected, on days when teenagers argued with parents or other family members, girls experienced more peer conflict than did boys. This finding provides additional support for greater reactivity to interpersonally stressful events among girls. In addition, the fact that no gender difference was detected in the reverse association suggests that arguing with parents or other family members (as opposed to friends) may be a distinctly more stressful event for girls during this period. It is possible that compared to boys, adolescent girls tend to use cooperative and prosocial tactics to solve conflict with peers more quickly and in a more pleasant manner (Noakes & Rinaldi, 2006
; Rose & Asher, 1999
) than conflict with family. This could be due to greater importance of intimacy and loyalty with friends than with parents during this period, especially among girls (Steinberg, 2008
Contrary to our expectation, the daily family-peer linkage operated similarly across ethnicities. However, more research is needed to confirm our finding. Previous studies documented ethnic difference in adolescents’ response to conflict when disagreements involved mundane issues (e.g., chores) versus fundamental issues (e.g., family values and cultural expectations) (Phinney, Ong, & Madden, 2000; Ying, Lee, Tsai, Lee, & Tsang, 2001
). Thus, asking what each argument was about could potentially capture ethnic difference in family-peer linkage. Further, tapping finer nuances of ethnicity (e.g., differences in acculturation status and dynamics of argument) rather than using self-reported ethnic labels might help ethnic differences to emerge.
The present study found somewhat weak support for adolescents’ daily emotional distress as a partial explanation for the daily spillover between family and peer conflict. Our small-sized mediation effect indicates that other things could be operating. For instance, adolescents’ anger, rather than depressed or anxious feelings, may be a stronger mediator of the conflict spillover. It will be important for future research to identify other daily level mechanisms through which the spillover between family and peer conflict might occur. Despite the small effect, conflict led to increase in emotional distress within the same adolescent, partially accounting for the daily spillover of conflict from family to peer.
Findings reported in this article must be interpreted with limitations of the study in mind. While adolescents might have multiple arguments with the same individual on any given day, our measurement of conflict variables did not reflect this possibility (i.e., we had no frequency measure). Daily experience of adolescents who had only one versus two or more arguments on a given day is likely to be qualitatively different. Another limitation is our reliance solely on adolescents’ self-reports to assess conflict, which may partially explain the spillover effects detected in the study. Further, given that “argument” was not defined for participants of the study and its definition might vary across gender, ethnicity, or emotional maturity, it is unclear to what extent adolescents’ perceptions of conflict accurately represent actual interactions. Lastly, we did not assess intensity of conflict. It is possible that the more intense the argument was, the more likely the spillover might be.
Overall, our understanding of family-peer linkage was advanced by a within subjects model, which examined changes in conflict that can be observed within the same adolescent over fourteen days. Adolescents’ interactions in the home as well as with peers shape each other on a daily basis in part through emotional distress.