A Disorganized Household Is A Breeding Ground For Troubled Mother-Daughter Relationships

New research sheds light on how a chaotic home environment influences the dynamics of family communication.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 19, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that a chaotic home life has a negative impact on how families interact and communicate, with increased chaos leading to less sharing (or disclosure) between adolescents and their mother.

Here is my conversation with psychologist Jackie Nelson, the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Texas.

What inspired you to investigate the impact of household chaos on mother-child communication? How did you study it?

Household chaos is stressful. My past research has shown that it can be particularly stressful for mothers, perhaps because they feel like they need to manage the home environment.

I am very interested in how parents' stressors can deplete their emotional resources and impact interactions with their children. We all experience daily hassles in our lives, so I think this area of study is relatable and important.

Can you give a brief explanation of what you mean by 'adolescent disclosure'? Why is it important?

Adolescent disclosure is how much information teens spontaneously share with their parents – mothers, in this case – without a solicitation or prompt from the parent.

In other words, the adolescent is the one who initiates sharing that information. It is the most important contributor to parents' knowledge of what their teens are up to because teens can withhold information or lie if parents are the ones initiating.

When adolescents share more information with their parents, they tend to have a more positive relationship with them and engage in fewer risky behaviors.

How do you define 'household chaos' in your study? What impact does it have on adolescents?

Household chaos is an aspect of the physical home environment. It is characterized by confusion, disorganization, noise, unpredictability, clutter, and a lack of routine.

We are still learning what impact this has on adolescents; most of the research focuses on younger children. Adolescents tend to have poorer mental health and poorer quality parent-adolescent relationships in more chaotic household environments.

Based on your findings, how do household chaos and responsiveness impact adolescent disclosure? Did it differ from your expectations?

Generally, results were consistent with our expectations that perceiving more household chaos would relate to less mother and adolescent responsiveness, which would, in turn, relate to less adolescent disclosure with mothers.

However, one of our daily direct effects was unexpected. On days when adolescents perceived more chaos, they reported sharing more information with their mothers.

Perhaps those days were more eventful. Interestingly, mothers didn't share this perception.

Were there any differences in the relationship between responsiveness and adolescent disclosure when comparing mothers and adolescents? If so, can you explain those differences?

Findings were consistent between mothers and adolescents for our day-to-day effects. On days when one person perceived more responsiveness from their relationship partner, they perceived greater adolescent disclosure.

However, our average findings across the week were a bit different. Adolescent responsiveness to mothers across the week was most important; that is what predicted more adolescent disclosure according to both mothers and adolescents.

How did you account for other factors such as individual characteristics, family income-to-needs ratio, and adolescent age and gender in your study? What impact did they have?

We accounted for the effect of family income, adolescent age, and adolescent gender in our analyses by relating them to study variables at the average between-family level because these characteristics do not vary from one day to the next.

Interestingly, these characteristics did not have much of an impact on study variables with the exception of girls sharing more information overall than boys according to mother reports.

At the daily level, we controlled for the day of data collection. Like many diary studies, participants get fatigued after reporting day after day. Participants reported somewhat less adolescent disclosure as the week went on, so this was accounted for in the analyses.

What reasons would you theorize for adolescents withholding information? What would make an ideal environment to encourage sharing?

Our study shows adolescents share more with mothers on days when mothers are open and warm towards them. Adolescents may withhold information from mothers if they worry they will be criticized or get in trouble.

An ideal environment for adolescent disclosure would be one where parents are available to listen without judgment. Of course, this is harder for parents to manage when life feels rushed and disorganized.

In your opinion, what are some potential ways that families experiencing high levels of household chaos could work to improve their communication and responsiveness with one another?

Unpredictable environments are stressful because we feel like we don't have control over our day. We can create more predictability through daily routines, like eating together at a consistent time or having time to connect each evening before bed.

There's not one right way to structure your family routine; do what works for you but make it consistent so everyone knows what to expect and can feel more at ease.

When we are at ease in our homes, parents and adolescents are more likely to respond positively and talk to each other.