The Darker Side of Family Communication

The Harmful, the Morally Suspect, and the Socially Inappropriate

by Loreen N. Olson (Volume editor) Mark A. Fine (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook XVIII, 339 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 5


This volume advances theory and research by presenting original, empirical studies as well as theoretical and methodological overviews on dark family communication processes.
Taking an interdisciplinary and international approach, the volume includes contributions from the most respected scholars in their specialty areas. It is the first published work on the dark side of family communication scholarship to include critical theorizing. This makes it an important contribution to family communication research in general and dark side work more specifically. Such chapters examine how gender, race, class, and sexual orientation impact and are impacted by dark family communication. In addition to a micro, interaction-based exploration of how social location and dark family communication processes intersect, some chapters offer more social critiques of dark family communication (and how it is socially constructed) at a macro-level.
The volume is intended for scholars, researchers, and graduate students interested in the dark side of family communication and family dynamics. It is also well suited for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses in family communication, dark side of family communication, family processes, family dynamics, family conflict, and family stress and coping.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editors
  • Series Editor Preface
  • Shining Light on the Darkness: A Prologue
  • Part One: Individual Traits, Characteristics, and Behaviors
  • Chapter One: Mental Health Problems in Family Contexts
  • Chapter Two: The Impact of Maternal and Paternal Communication Dominance on Offspring’s Negative Self-Talk, Depression, and Suicidality
  • Chapter Three: Parental and Sibling Behaviors that Encourage Daughters’ Continued Eating Disorders:An Inconsistent Nurturing as Control Perspective
  • Chapter Four: The ADHD-Diagnosed Child: Does Family Communication Environment Contribute to the Decision to Medicate?
  • Chapter Five: Dark Climates and Media Use in the Family: The Associations among Child Temperament, Maternal Mental Well-Being, and the Frequency of Mothers’ Use of Television Viewing to Soothe Their Children
  • Part Two: Family Interactions and Processes
  • Chapter Six: Marital Hostility and Parent-Youth Hostility During Early Adolescence
  • Chapter Seven: Hurt Feelings in Family Relationships: Social Pain and Social Interaction
  • Chapter Eight: Problematic Intergenerational Communication and Caregiving in the Family: Elder Abuse and Neglect
  • Chapter Nine: Is Love Blind to Abuse? Factors Affecting Victims’ Preferences for Love-Communication from Abusive Romantic Partners
  • Part Three: Social, Cultural, and Historical Structures and Processes
  • Chapter Ten: “You say you love me, but you don’t support me”: Coming-Out Communication within Religious Family Contexts
  • Chapter Eleven: Violence as Gendered Communication in Families
  • Chapter Twelve: The Effects of Economic Pressure on Couple Communication, Parenting, and Child Cognitive Development
  • Part Four: Methodological Considerations
  • Chapter Thirteen: Complicating the Dark Side of Family Communication Through Postpositivist, Interpretivist, and Critical Perspectives
  • Chapter Fourteen: Foucault, Poststructural Feminism, and the Family: Posing New Questions, Pursuing New Possibilities
  • Illuminating Darkness: An Epilogue
  • List of Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| IX →


Loreen N. Olson (PhD, University of Nebraska) is an Associate Professor in Communication Studies and an Affiliate Faculty member of the Women & Gender Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the immediate past editor of the Journal of Family Communication. Loreen also wears other administrative hats such as Director of Graduate Studies, Director of the Program to Advance Community Responses to Violence against Women, and the Coordinator of the Violence Prevention Network of Guilford County. Loreen teaches courses in family and gender communication as well as communication theory and the dark side of family/relational communication. Her research addresses communication issues related to gender, family, intimate partner violence, the dark side of close relationships, the communication of deviance, and the luring communication of child sexual predators. Currently, she and her colleagues are examining the relationships between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injury. Olson is a past chair of the Family Communication Division of the National Communication Association and co-author of the book titled, The Dark Side of Family Communication. Her work has appeared in various journals, including the Journal of Family Communication, Communication Theory, Communication Monographs, Journal of Applied Communication, Women’s Studies in Communication, and Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. When not co-editing books together, Loreen and Mark enjoy spending time with their nine-year-old twins, two older daughters, and three neurotic, but loving dogs. ← IX | X →

Mark A. Fine (PhD, The Ohio State University) is Professor and Chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Previously, Mark was a faculty member in HDFS at the University of Missouri Columbia from 1994–2011, serving as Department Chair from 1994–2002. In addition to being the editor of Family Relations and the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Mark was a member of the NIH-supported Early Head Start Research Consortium from 1995–2005. He is a Fellow of the National Council on Family Relations and serves on the editorial boards of eight peer-reviewed journals in family studies, personal relationships, and human development. His research interests lie in the areas of family transitions, such as divorce and remarriage; early intervention program evaluation; social cognition; and relationship stability. Mark has co-authored books titled Children of Divorce: Stories of Hope and Loss (with John Harvey) and Beyond the Average Divorce (with David Demo). In addition, he is the co-editor of several books, including the Handbook of Family Diversity (with David Demo and Katherine Allen), The Handbook of Divorce and Relationship Dissolution (with John Harvey), Keepin’ On: The Everyday Struggles of Young Families in Poverty (with Jean Ispa and Kathy Thornburg), and Family Theories: A Content-Based Approach (with Frank Fincham). He has published almost 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and books. When not working, Mark enjoys spending time with his family, playing tennis, and watching sports.

| XI →

Series Editor Preface

The darker side of family communication: The harmful, the morally suspect, and the socially inappropriate


Old Dominion University

The darker side of family communication: The harmful, the morally suspect, and the socially inappropriate, edited by Loreen Olson and Mark Fine, offers a significant addition that seeks to broaden the story of communication in the ever-evolving lives of contemporary families by examining dark communication processes. Since the early days of family communication studies in the 1980s, family communication scholars have labored to develop inclusive ways to think about and conceptualize “families” as well as to study a widening array of family communication processes. For all those who study, teach, and live family communication, this volume adds to our understanding of the rich discursive details of darkside of managing communication complexities, challenages, and opportunities at home. Professors Olson and Fine, together with their highly regarded coauthors, paint a compelling portrait of the current state of dark communication at home that will inform contemporary societal discursive strugles, positive-negative, prosocial-antisocial, within famlies, and will undoubtedly become a much-cited work in family communication.

Like this volume, the book series Lifespan Communication: Children, Families and Aging invites communication scholars to view communication through a panoramic lens—from first words to final conversations—a comprehensive communication vista that brings all children, adolescents, adults, and those in later life as well as lifespan groups such as the family into focus. By viewing communication panoramically it is also my hope that communication scholars and educators will ← XI | XII → incorporate into their work the widely accepted idea that communication (positive and dark) develops, that is, it has a starting point and a developmental arc, changing as we change over time. And further, that developmental communication arcs are historically contextualized. As infants, we begin our communication education in unique historical and familial contexts that shape our early communication learning as well as the foundations of our communication values. Children born in 2015, for example, will begin their communication learning in a time when humans are seeking to remake themselves to fit a rapidly changing and increasingly complex landscape that features a wider variety of types of family relationships. Of course, adults caring for these children—who could have been born anytime between the 1930s to the late 1990s—have experienced vastly different developmental communication arcs but yet must discursively span the generations, pass along their communication knowledge and values, as well as teach children how to communicate effectively within the current historical context, whether their relationships are grounded in birth or social agreement. Historically contextualized lifespan thinking also raises important new questions such as, what is to be passed along from one generation to the next as “timeless” communication knowledge and practices? Or in contemporary digital parlance, what is to become memetic, that is, analogous to genetic information—what survives to become the communication inheritance of future generations?

It is my hope that The darker side of family communication: The harmful, the morally suspect, and the socially inappropriate and all of the books published in the Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging series will offer the communication field new understandings and deeper appreciation of the complexities of all forms of communication as it develops across the lifespan as well as raise important questions about communication for current and future generations to study.

—Thomas J. Socha

| XIII →

Shining Light ON THE Darkness

A Prologue


Humans share one thing in common: we are all born into some form of family. Kinship can be a supporting, loving structure as well as a contested, conflictual terrain. The darker side of family life is the focus of this edited volume titled The darker side of family communication: The harmful, the morally suspect, and the socially inappropriate. Yet, as the reader will realize, darkness is only one side of the proverbial coin when it comes to examining such interactions. Instead, the complexity of family life means that there are both bright moments and dark fractures. The primary goal of this book is to advance theory and research by presenting original, empirical studies as well as theoretical and methodological overviews on dark family communication processes, revealing their bright and dark DNA.


The current volume extends Olson, Baiocchi-Wagner, Kratzer, and Symonds’ (2012) book titled The Dark Side of Family Communication in several ways. First, this edited volume advances the earlier work by showcasing current empirical tests of dark family communication processes and discussing in more detail issues related to the methodologies involved in dark research. To that end, this volume is ← XIII | XIV → one of the few books to provide advanced theorizing and empirical testing of dark communication processes within and about families instead of about relationships in general.

Second, the volume takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of dark family dynamics. More specifically, the co-editors—Olson and Fine—are family scholars from communication studies and human development and family studies, respectively. Further, the contributors represent additional disciplines, including sociology, psychology, and mass communication. The multidisciplinary approach allows us to see how the same concept—dark family communication—can be viewed from different vantage points while simultaneously building its conceptual muscle. The construct becomes more fully developed when such varied views are brought together to be examined.

Also new to this volume is the inclusion of critical theory and methodology. While several of the disciplines represented in this book have established histories of examining family through a critical, theoretical lens, family communication scholars do not. Although the field is in the midst of a sea change, a critical voice is surprisingly absent from (dark) family communication scholarship. Olson (2012) argued elsewhere that “Families are sites of power struggles that contain inequities, hegemonic patterns of discourse that reify dominant belief structures, material realities that constrain communicative interactions, and silenced voices that are in need of being heard” (p. 2). Readers will be exposed to this type of scholarship that challenges the status quo of familial interactions as well as to methodological treatises reviewing the role that critical theories, such as feminism and poststructuralism, can play in furthering our research. Likewise, it is our hope that other disciplines are exposed to how family communication scholars interrogate the symbolic, meaning-making system that is both the product of and the vehicle through which these struggles for legitimacy are enacted, exposed, and challenged.

Finally, we would like for this volume to capture our more current thinking about the definition of dark family communication. Before defining our central construct, it is important to present our thinking on the meaning of family itself. We agree with Allen, Fine, and Demo’s (2000) definition, which is similar to one proposed by Baxter and Braithwaite (2006), that “a family is characterized by two or more persons related by birth, marriage, adoption or choice. Families are further defined by socioemotional ties and enduring responsibilities, particularly in terms of one or more members’ dependence on others for support and nurturance” (p. 1). Building off of this definition of family, we adopt Koerner and Fitzpatrick’s (2002) definition of family communication as “messages that are intentionally or unintentionally exchanged both within a system of individuals who generate a sense of belonging and collective identity and who experience a shared history and future and between these individuals and outsiders.” ← XIV | XV →

Extending Olson and colleagues’ (2012) definition of dark family communication, we have come to believe that the family context itself needs to be more integrated into conceptions of this construct. It is the family context that sets this type of darkness and communication apart from other interpersonal interactions. In addition, dark family communication involves not only the type of messages being sent/received but also the ways in which familial bonds can be harmed, manipulated, or exploited. As such, we propose the following revised definition of dark family communication:

Symbolic exchanges between family members that are viewed through the lens of a family system and that are interpreted by family members and/or others as harmful, socially inappropriate, exploitative, or morally suspect.


Having discussed why we feel this book will make an important contribution to literature on the dark side of family communication, we now want to review the types of scholarship that will help us accomplish that goal. Inspired by Bronfenbrenner’s (1976) ecological systems theory, Olson et al.’s (2012) Darkness Model, and our current conceptualization of dark family communication, this volume is organized into four parts. We wish to highlight that the chapters in the first three parts all represent original empirical research. The contributors in these empirical chapters either reported the results of analyses of new data from a single study from their own research or presented an integrative summary of the results from multiple studies that they conducted in their area of interest.

In the first part, titled Individual Traits, Characteristics, and Behaviors, the contributors address the most proximal context affecting families—the individuals within the families. Segrin and Arroyo in Chapter 1 report the results of their programmatic line of research into how mental health problems can negatively affect families. In Chapter 2, Miller-Day, Dorros, and Day present findings addressing how parental communication patterns affect their children’s levels of depression and suicidality. Duggan and Kilmartin, in Chapter 3, share their findings pertaining to how parents’ and siblings’ behaviors can exacerbate children’s eating disorders. Duggan and Kilmartin’s findings are consistent with previous research that has found that control dynamics in families are closely related to the development and/or maintenance of eating disorders, but extend earlier work by examining the role of communication behaviors in the family context. Gibson, Webb, and Joseph, in Chapter 4, address a very timely issue that many parents confront—the decision regarding whether to medicate their children for suspected attention deficit disorder (ADHD). The final and fifth chapter in this section by Beyens and Eggermont ← XV | XVI → considers the effects that children’s temperament and maternal well-being have on the extent to which mothers rely on television as a way to soothe their children. As a collection, these five chapters shine light on the effects that challenging individually based biological, genetic, and/or psychological factors have on individuals’ interactions with others in the family system. In some instances, the research showed how particular individual characteristics were associated with other family members’ use of darker communication. Yet in others, an unhealthy family-based communication pattern was associated with the individual’s behavior. While the designs of these studies do not allow us to draw inferences regarding causal relationships between these variables, the message is clear: there is a bidirectional relationship among challenging individual traits, behaviors, and characteristics and unhealthy family communication.

Part II, Family Interactions and Processes, contains four chapters that emphasize contexts one level more distal than individuals—dyadic relationships and family dynamics. Buehler, Weymouth, and Zhou, in Chapter 6, present their findings on how marital hostility is linked with parent-adolescent hostility. Their results support the systems theory notion that processes within any particular family dyad will have reverberating effects on other family dyads. Chapter 7, authored by Vangelisti, examines hurt feelings in families, with a particular focus on family dynamics that affect hurt. Lin, Giles, and Soliz (Chapter 8) address how problematic intergenerational communication affects elder abuse and neglect. Their work highlights the unfortunate reality that dark communication affects individuals and families at all stages of the lifespan. Finally, in Chapter 9, Eckstein studied abused romantic partners’ preferences for the types of “love communication” they wanted to experience from their abusers. The chapters in this unit reveal that unhealthy communication patterns between family members can have long-terms effects on the individuals and dyads within the family unit and can impact the entire family system.

The three chapters in Part III, Social, Cultural, and Historical Structures and Processes, all address the most distal contexts affecting families, or the outermost concentric circle in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model—gendered patterns, religious doctrine, and economic instability. Etengoff, in Chapter 10, addresses communication processes involved in the coming-out process in highly religious families. Etengoff’s work demonstrates that the already difficult process of revealing that one is gay or lesbian becomes more challenging when it occurs within religious family contexts. Chapter 11, written by Anderson, focuses on a critical issue in any treatment of dark-side communication—family violence. More specifically, she examined the gendered nature of the communication used by domestic violence victims (men and women) filing civil protection orders in an attempt to legally protect themselves from their abusers. The final chapter in this section, Chapter 12, examines another macro-level context facing many American ← XVI | XVII → and non-American families—economic pressure. Neppl, Senia, and Donnellan studied the consequences of economic pressure on couple communication, parenting, and children’s cognitive development. The three chapters in this section are a sampling of how dark-side communicative processes are intimately affected by the macro-level contexts in which they occur. Whether it be gendered ideologies, religious beliefs, or economic disparities, this research underscores that family dynamics are heavily influenced by the social milieu in which they exist. We hope that these chapters spur future researchers to explore a wider array of intercultural, international, and societal contexts that can impact dark communication.

In Part IV, Methodological Considerations, we turn to a discussion of methodological issues related to conducting dark family communication research. Chapter 13, authored by Davis and Afifi, provides an integrative road map describing how future researchers can use postpositivist and interpretive methodological approaches in new and interesting ways (including more critical scholarship). Our final chapter, Chapter 14, by Harter, Thompson, and McKerrow, focuses entirely on how researchers may incorporate a critical lens into their dark family communication scholarship by specifically discussing poststructural feminism and the teachings of Foucault. The book is brought to a conclusion with a brief epilogue written by the Series Editor, Thomas Socha, who reminds us of the importance of seeing the darkness that co-exists with the light.


This book would not have been possible without the great contributions of all of these researchers. We are so appreciative of their efforts, in terms of the quality of their scholarship as well as their willingness to be flexible with us as deadlines shifted. We also would like to acknowledge the many people who helped turn the idea for this book into a tangible reality with actual words on pages, binding, and a cover. We sincerely appreciate the early help from Beatrice Rodderick and Melanie Pringle, who assisted with research and organizational matters. We also are thankful for the series editor, Tom Socha. Thanks, Tom, for your speedy e-mail responses and guidance along the way. To Mary Savigar, the Senior Acquisitions Editor, and other folks at Peter Lang—thank you for giving us the opportunity to publish this work and for being so gracious, professional, and understanding along the way. To our youngest children, we say thanks for understanding why our editing duties meant that we could not read a book with you from time to time or go outside and shoot the basketball. Hopefully, you will come to understand the constant struggle parents experience as they navigate the tensions between work and family and appreciate the love and commitment that are integral parts of that struggle. We are thankful to our older girls, who are living successful and happy ← XVII | XVIII → lives. We are both so proud of all you have accomplished and know there is more to come for both of you.

As we draw this prologue to a close, I (Loreen) would like to express a personal thank you to my mom, Bonnie, whom I lost during the editing of this book. Mom, you taught me how to love at all times, laugh when I felt like it, and be tough when needed. Being your daughter was an honor. I will forever remember the feel of your love and the essence of your being. I love you and miss you. I (Mark) express my deep gratitude and appreciation to my father, Burril, who passed just before work on this book began. My father was a renaissance scholar in the true sense of the word and taught me the importance of written communication. His love of literature (and clear but creative writing) led me to work tirelessly to be the best scholar I could be. Thanks for setting the bar so high, Dad. I miss you a great deal.


Allen, K. R., Fine, M. A., & Demo, D. H. (2000). An overview of family diversity: Controversies, questions, and values. In D. H. Demo, K. R. Allen, & M. A. Fine (Eds.), Handbook of family diversity (pp. 1–14). New York: Oxford University Press.

Baxter, L., & Braithwaite, D. (2006). Metatheory and theory in family communication research. In D. Braithwaite & L. Baxter (Eds.), Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 1–15). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513–531.

Koerner, A. F., & Fitzpatrick, M. A. (2002). Toward a theory of family communication. Communication Theory, 12, 70–91.


XVIII, 339
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
communication underlying message misunderstanding
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XVIII, 339 pp.

Biographical notes

Loreen N. Olson (Volume editor) Mark A. Fine (Volume editor)

Loreen N. Olson (PhD, University of Nebraska) is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the lead author of The Dark Side of Family Communication and was previously the editor of the Journal of Family Communication. Mark A. Fine (PhD, The Ohio State University) is Professor and Chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was previously the editor of Family Relations and the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and he is the author or editor of numerous books on families, family diversity, divorce, and family theories.


Title: The Darker Side of Family Communication
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
360 pages