Texas Tech University

Professors Analyze Communication Motives, Patterns Between Parents and College Students


September 27, 2019

The research shows how communication between students and their mothers and fathers differ based on gender and intact-versus-divorced families.


The research shows how communication between students and their mothers and fathers differ based on gender and intact-versus-divorced families.

Traditionally, families portrayed in media show a happily married mother and father living in the same house.

Narissra Punyanunt-Carter
Narissra Punyanunt-Carter

Few shows focus on divorced families, something Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication associate professor and assistant dean of international affairs Narissra Punyanunt-Carter realized when watching television with her own children.

As they were watching cartoons together, one of her sons pointed out that not many families on television have divorced parents like he does.

This led to a realization for Punyanunt-Carter — children from married families interact with their parents differently than children from divorced families, as do boys compared to girls.

This begged the question, how do gender and family dynamics play a role in the way children communicate with their parents?

Punyanunt-Carter, along with co-authors Jenna LaFreniere, assistant professor in communication studies; Mary Norman, assistant professor of practice in public relations; and Malinda Colwell, a professor in the Human Development and Family Studies department in the College of Human Sciences, set out to answer this question by surveying college students about their family communication patterns, since they have more maturity than young children.

"The college age is right around the time where you're maturing, figuring out who you are, and you're into adulthood," Punyanunt-Carter said. "I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to look into something like this."

Communication behaviors

The team conducted two surveys that focused on students' motivations for communicating with their parents and how having divorced or still-married parents influences those motives.

The first survey included more than 250 responses that gauged students' motives and patterns when communicating with their mothers, fathers and family in general. As a result, four primary motives were uncovered — pleasure, inclusion, escape and relaxation.

The survey also asked students about their communication history with their parents, including how and what they communicate about. After analyzing the results, they classified each student's family pattern into one of the three categories based on the amount of conformity and conversation present.

Contrary to previous research, the group discovered that male college students were more motivated in all four areas to communicate with both their mothers and fathers, compared to female college students.

The researchers also found that female college students reported coming from a more protective family pattern, which focuses on obeying values and beliefs, while the males reported being in a family that emphasized communication as well as the family hierarchy. This connected to their findings that males were more motivated to communicate with both parents, possibly because they believed it was more encouraged.

More than 230 students participated in the second study, which asked similar questions to the first survey. This time, the researchers compared students' responses from still-married and divorced families to see if there were differences in the reported patterns and motives as well as perceived closeness to their parents.

They found that students from divorced families are statistically more motivated in all four areas to communicate with their fathers, but there was no difference in the two family types in regard to communication with mothers.

The closeness students felt with their parents differed significantly based on family pattern and type as well, highlighting that how and why students from still-married and divorced families communicate with each parent is dependent on who they are talking to and what their family background is.

"There are ways in which children from intact and divorced families communicate with their parents in general, with their mothers and with their fathers," Punyanunt-Carter said. "Our research shows there's specific motives for when they communicate with their mom and their dad. These results can help explain behaviors to make families happier and healthier."

Though communication focused, the scope of this study extends far past one discipline. Punyanunt-Carter said understanding the motivations behind communication patterns, and how family dynamics and gender play a factor in these motives, can ultimately improve parent-child relationships.

This knowledge, if put into practice, can help with future interventions, especially for parents who are struggling to talk with their children.

"I'm hoping this research will be put into practice so people can use it in their own lives to have more successful and happier families," Punyanunt-Carter said.

Further research 

Research on this topic doesn't end with this study for the group. Punyanunt-Carter wants to continue this research for younger age groups and see how their communication patterns differ between divorced and intact families, because she suspects there will be different results.

"We wanted to see how college students vocalize how they feel," Punyanunt-Carter said. "Then we're able to possibly use those words to help children because they're still trying to develop and figure out what they feel."

She also wants to take parts of this study and use them to analyze how college students talk about divorce with their parents and what they deem appropriate.

This study also is something Punyanunt-Carter plans on incorporating into her teachings, especially in the family dynamics section of her interpersonal communication class. She said these findings can help those in her class, along with college students in general, be more aware of how they communicate with their parents, which can strengthen their relationships.

"Hopefully it causes them to be aware of what they're doing and then possibly change their communication behaviors," Punyanunt-Carter said. "Because sometimes we're just doing things that we don't even realize."

Originally published on Texas Tech Today.