- Fewer than half of parents report excellent relationships with their teens
- Ideological conservatives report relatively harmonious relationships
- Household income is mostly unrelated to relationship quality
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Whether parents and children report having a healthy, low-conflict relationship varies by certain key characteristics of the parents and children. Adolescent children have lower-quality relationships with their parents than younger children do, but their parents are less likely to view them as out of control or argue frequently with them. Married or divorced parents (compared with never-married parents) generally report higher-quality relationships, as do biological parents compared with other relatives, adoptive parents -- or other arrangements. Finally, ideologically conservative parents report higher-quality and more harmonious relationships with their children compared with liberal or moderate parents.
There are few if any nationally representative surveys that collect information on parent-child relationship quality. Gallup’s work in this area is meant to provide baseline results to inform future research and better understanding about the circumstances and beliefs that drive mental health and wellbeing.
The findings on parent-child relationships, from Gallup’s 2023 Familial and Adolescent Health Survey, expand on recently published research that found social media use is high among U.S. teenagers and associated with poor mental health and less parental regulation of screen time. Another study in this series found that warm, disciplined parenting practices and high-quality parent-child relationships predict better mental health among teens.
Child’s Age, Parents’ Political Ideology Among Factors in Relationship Ratings
Gallup asked parents and caretakers to describe the overall quality of their relationship with a child from their household. For caretakers with more than one child in the household, the parent was asked to select the child with the next birthday. Response options ranged from very poor (1) to excellent (5). The majority of U.S. parents/caretakers report an excellent relationship (60%), with only 1% describing it as poor or very poor.
Both the parent’s and the child’s sex are unrelated to the parent’s assessment of the overall quality of the relationship. That is, fathers and mothers evaluate relationships with their children similarly, as do parents of girls versus boys. Measures of socioeconomic status, such as education, household income, race or ethnicity, also do not predict higher- or lower-quality relationships.
Ratings depend greatly on the age of the child, however. When talking about their toddler (aged 3 and 4), 80% of parents rate the relationship as excellent, compared with only 48% of parents asked about their teenager (aged 13-19).
Other parental characteristics are also associated with the quality of their relationships with their child, including parental marital status, genetic relatedness, and the quality of their relationship with their spouse or partner, which was asked of those in a romantic relationship.
- Biological parents are more likely to report an excellent relationship with their child (62%) than are grandparents or other family members (54%), adoptive parents (50%), or stepparents (31%).
- Additionally, parents who report a high-quality relationship with their spouse or coparent are much more likely to report an excellent relationship with their child compared with parents who report a lower-quality spousal or coparent relationship (67% versus 50%).
- Likewise, both married and divorced parents are more likely to report an excellent relationship with their child than never-married parents.
Parental political ideology is also associated with child relationship quality. Parents who self-identify as conservative, ideologically, are somewhat more likely to report having an excellent relationship with their child (65%) than those who identify as moderate (58%) or liberal (59%).
Previous work from Gallup finds that conservative parents are more likely to adopt the parenting practices that best predict youth mental health and foster high-quality relationships. The style has been described as authoritative and is characterized by warm responsiveness combined with limit-setting and discipline.
There are no differences between liberals and conservatives on the items, “I respond quickly to my child’s needs” or “I hug or kiss my child every day,” but there are large differences on items pertaining to limit-setting, such as “My child completes the priorities I set for them before they are allowed to play or relax” and “I set well-established rules for my child.” Conservative parents are significantly more likely than liberal or moderate parents to express agreement with these statements, and significantly less likely to agree with the statements, “I have a hard time saying 'no' to my child” and “I find it difficult to discipline my child.”
Six in 10 Parents Say They Have an Affectionate, Warm Relationship With Child
Parents were also asked to what extent they agree that they “share an affectionate, warm relationship with [their] child.”
Similar to responses about having an excellent relationship, about six in 10 U.S. parents (62%) agree with this statement. Education, household income, and race or ethnicity were not significant factors on this measure either -- nor was the sex of the child.
- Parents report greater warmth and affection in describing younger children relative to teenagers.
- Parents who enjoy a better relationship with their spouse or partner also describe having more relational warmth and affection with their child.
- Biological parents are more likely than other caretakers to rate the relationship as warm.
- Parents who are married or divorced report more affectionate relationships with their children than parents who have never married.
- Mothers -- or female parental figures, including grandmothers -- are more likely to report an affectionate, warm relationship than fathers/male parental figures (66% versus 57%).
- On this measure as well, conservative parents are slightly more likely to report a warm, affectionate relationship (65%, compared with 62% and 60% of liberal and moderate parents, respectively).
Children's Ratings Similar to Parents’ Ratings With Some Key Differences
Adolescent children were asked to rate their relationships with their parents on a 0 to 10 scale, where 10 is the strongest and most loving relationship they can imagine, and 0 is the weakest and least loving. These ratings tended to be higher when parental ratings were higher. Across adolescents, 70% rated their relationship as high-quality (at least an 8 out of 10), and 8% rated their relationship as a 5 or below. This high-quality share stands at 86% among adolescents whose parents rated the relationship as excellent. By contrast, just 33% of adolescents gave this response when their parent/caretaker rated the relationship as only “fair” or worse.
A key difference compared with the parent-reported results is that boys are much more likely than girls to report a strong, loving relationship (77% versus 61%), defined as an 8 out of 10.
Also, children of parents with graduate degrees are somewhat more likely than those with lower levels of education to report a high-quality relationship.
Adolescents in households with incomes above $175,000 are slightly more likely to have stronger relationships than households with middle or lower incomes (74% versus 68%). Youth are much more likely to report a strong relationship with parents when the parent reports a strong relationship with their spouse/partner (76% of those who report such a relationship versus 58% for those who do not). Children of moderate (72%) and conservative parents (71%) are more likely to report a strong, loving relationship than children of liberal parents (64%).
Several parental characteristics are unrelated to how adolescents reported the quality of their relationship, including marital status, whether the child is biologically related to the caretaker, and parental sex.
Experiences With Conflict and Control Vary Across Characteristic Groups
The survey also asked parents about more contentious aspects of their relationship, including level of agreement on a 1 to 5 scale with the following statements.
- My child easily becomes angry at me.
- I argue frequently with my child.
- My child is frequently out of control.
Responses were coded as expressing agreement if the parents chose either of the top two response options (strongly agree or agree).
While parents report a stronger overall relationship with their youngest children, they do not report that teenagers become more easily angry with them; if anything, parents are less likely to argue with teenagers than with younger children. Parents are slightly more likely to report frequently arguing with children aged 5-8 than with teenagers.
Moreover, parents of children younger than 10 are about twice as likely to say their child is frequently out of control. Parents are also more likely to report that boys are out of control compared with girls (9% versus 5%).
Parents with incomes of at least $60,000 per year are less likely to report that their child is frequently out of control (6%) compared with those who have household incomes below $60,000 per year (10%). There are no differences between Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic White parents in reports of whether children are frequently out of control, with Asian parents reporting somewhat lower rates. White parents are more likely to report frequent arguments.
The political ideology of parents is unrelated to parental perceptions of whether the child is out of control but significantly correlated with parental reports of the child becoming easily angered and the frequency of arguments. Liberal parents are the most likely to say their child is easily angered (21%). This compares with 17% of moderate parents and 14% of conservative parents. Liberal parents are also slightly more likely to report that they argue with the child frequently (15%), compared with 12% of moderates and 13% of conservatives.
Parents who enjoy a strong relationship with their spouse or romantic partner are much more likely than those who do not to avoid arguments with their child, and they are much less likely to report that their child is easily angered or frequently out of control.
Stepparents and adoptive parents are much more likely than parents with a biological relationship to report that their child is easily angered, but stepparents are the least likely to frequently argue with the child. Grandparents and other family members are relatively unlikely to argue with the child they care for, but -- with the exception of adoptive parents (16%) -- they are more likely than other caretakers to report that the child is frequently out of control (10%).
Parental marital status is unrelated to reports of anger or the frequency of arguments, but married parents are significantly less likely than divorced or never-married parents to report that their child is frequently out of control.
Given the importance of children to parents and parents to children, a high-quality relationship is important to the wellbeing of both. Children in a high-quality relationship with their parents are much less likely to show signs of depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation, and generally exhibit behaviors associated with positive social development, according to the research literature. Moreover, these benefits predict stronger mental health decades into the future, as discussed in Gallup’s recent work.
The lack of notable differences by race, ethnicity, income and education indicate that high-quality relationships can be consistently achieved in a wide range of social circumstances, which is consistent with previous findings in this series that parental practices are largely unrelated to these characteristics.
The relatively strong relationships exhibited by more conservative parents could shed light on why other scholars have found that liberal children are at higher risk of experiencing the symptoms associated with mental health disorders. As found in this survey, conservative parents are more likely than other parents to adopt disciplined and structured parenting practices. These include limit-setting and the consistent enforcement of rules, which have been found conducive to adolescent health and psychological development when combined with parental warmth and responsiveness, which liberal parents are just as likely to report practicing. Parents and leaders around the country may want to consider steps to promote these practices in their own families and in their communities.
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