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Experiencing Interactive Interpersonal Communication author, Dr. Alusine M. Kanu is a native of Sierra Leone, West Africa, and the first son from a polygamous .
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They develop perceptual skills cognitive complexity that contribute to their ability to develop communication competence Pecchioni et al. Likewise, their communication competence can enhance their cognitive complexity. As children age, they utilize their cognitive abilities to engage in a trial-and-error process to piece together the communicative puzzle pieces of the world. Children increasingly absorb these explanations and adjust their understanding accordingly, becoming more competent communicators as they mature and gain life experiences.

For example, older children are better at comforting their peers and use more frequent messaging and empathy than their younger counterparts, indicating an increased ability to navigate communicatively complex contexts Burleson, Language skills are also developed in this manner and especially nurtured through parent often mother —child communication. Language and cognitive aptitude development in childhood are also tied to socioemotional growth.

It is through parent—infant communication that an individual first develops the ability to form secure bonds with other individuals. Attachment Theory Bowlby, posits that the quality of bond between a child and their primary caregiving system lays the foundation for later psychological development and future understanding of trust, caring, and relational quality.

These long-lasting consequences then impact future relational development and, thus, relational communication competence. For example, children raised in reassuring, supportive homes are more likely to be satisfied with future relationships, whereas those raised in unpredictable, neglectful homes are more likely to develop negative self-perceptions and are less secure in future relationships Bowlby, They start to become competent at interpreting their social experiences.

Ultimately, parent—child communication is the key agent of socialization during childhood, contributing to cognitive and language development as well as socioemotional health. As children move into adolescence, their familial interactions continue to play a prominent role in their socioemotional development, but it is their peer relationships that take center stage. The development of a stronger sense of individuality i. Adolescents may prioritize the opinions of their peers over family and may spend more time with friends than in their family environment.

Adolescence is also a time ripe with self-discovery and, as such, doubt. Many adolescents exhibit heightened perceptions of social judgment. This peer interaction can have both healthy and unhealthy consequences. However, peer interaction is also experienced within social structures of hierarchy and power. While peer friendships assume egalitarian dynamics, these relationships are also embedded within larger group dynamics, which can be characterized by competition and power struggles both within and between groups.

Children form peer groups, often joining with others they perceive to be like them. Aggressive behavior like teasing, name-calling, confrontations, and physical attacks may be enacted as an attempt to hold a particular social status e. Bullying behavior is detrimental to health. It can lead to social isolation and peer rejection and, on an individual level, low self-esteem, shame, depression, embarrassment, insecurity, and a fear of school.

It can also develop into profound mental health distress, including anxiety, that can manifest as psychosomatic illness e. As adolescents struggle for acceptance and develop their first close non-kin or peer relationships and group memberships , peer interaction becomes a prioritized social environment for adolescents. As a result, adolescence is a time period rich for conflicts that are typically define by power struggles.

Learning how to manage conflict is a critical aspect of developing communication competence in adolescence. Yet, by adulthood it is critical that individuals use more solution-oriented approaches to conflict management Pecchioni et al. The emerging adult cohort exercises adult-like responsibilities and decision-making skills while simultaneously enjoying a psychosocial moratorium in which individuals can freely experiment with their roles and abilities.

Arnett explains further:. Since their parents still often function as an emotional and fiscal support system, emerging adults are able to take more social risks in the exciting pursuit of self-discovery. Still, this time period is not easy. This time period is rich for development in social skills like decision-making. Although they may exhibit behaviors indicative of not needing their parents in early adulthood, especially after leaving the house, emerging adults do seek their insight when making decisions.


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This is not always an easy conversation for parents to navigate with their emerging-adult children. Moreover, when parents consistently engage in controlling behaviors, emerging adult children may not be able to develop a separate sense of self and become enmeshed in the relationship, not affording separate or individual identities.

Doing so can result in the development of mental health disorders related to anxiety, depression, risky behavior, suicidality, and disordered eating behavior Miller-Day, It is critical that parents not engage in overcontrolling behavior in adolescence and emerging adulthood and that they engage in conversation styles that allow for them to be there for their child but also allow them their own independence. Another notable area of social exploration and development for emerging adults is in intimate or sexual communication.

Interpersonal Communication Across the Life Span

The Guttmacher Institute discovered that an increasing number of adolescents are waiting until emerging adulthood to explore sexual relations. Engaging with different partners offers individuals an opportunity to refine their identities within the context of mature, adult relationships. Yet mixed with these exploratory desires may also be risky behaviors. Over half of all new cases of sexually transmitted disease STD and unplanned pregnancies are found within the late adolescent and emerging-adult population CDC, And emerging adults may not view all risky sexual behavior as problematic.

During emerging and young adulthood, men and women also may encounter a common life transition: Committed bonds like marriage afford adults the opportunity to develop critical social skills see McManus, , for a review on commitment and marriage. Committing to a relationship provides various communicative experiences in which one can develop relational maintenance behaviors e. These social skills are critical not only to sustaining intimate connections but also to enhancing them. During midlife, individuals are more comfortable with their identity and enter a period of communication defined by their relationships with others.

Individuals in their thirties to fifties are at a time in life where their social network is the largest, but they are also pulled in many competing directions, which can lead to a sacrificing of the self or individual needs. During midlife, relational challenges and concerns are at the forefront. Much of midlife is defined by family and intimate communication tied to the development of family identity, maintenance of relationships, and rearing of children.

Committed bonds or marriage can have notable health benefits. Yet maintaining a healthy marriage, or family, is not without challenges. A central feature of healthy relational and familial dynamics in midlife is the cultivation of a shared identity. Having children in midlife introduces new responsibilities. Becoming a parent is a life-altering experience filled with relational and individual benefits. Parenting offers an opportunity to pass down cultural attitudes, beliefs, and values. Thus, parents may tailor their own parenting style to reinforce lessons they enjoyed while changing things they feel did not work as well.

In short, midlife adults view parenting as a process where they can reinforce their own core values through a new generation. Though they have gained independence, mid-lifers may frequently receive parenting advice from both in-laws and their own parents. Childrearing practices can often serve as a point of contention and strain the relationship between midlife adults and their parents Pecchioni et al.

However, at the same time, having a child often binds the adult child and parent closer as the adult child gains the perspective of what it means to fulfill the parent role Fischer, However, communication challenges between aging parent and middle-aged adult child can manifest when the former encounter declines in mental, social, and physical ability.


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  • These aging-related changes present situations warranting challenging but necessary conversations. Unfortunately, as Soliz and Fowler note, rarely do aging parents and adult children talk about the future need for care prior to imminent need. With the little scholarship that has been done, one approach in particular has been helpful. Even though midlife is dominated by relational communication in intimate or familial bonds, much communication experienced during this time period is done in the workplace.

    Although we may enter the full-time workforce in our early twenties, it is usually not until midlife that individuals have settled into a career or organizational culture Gouran, Job stability allows mid-lifers to secure their own residence, develop their own approach to daily life, and take ownership of fiscal responsibilities. Additionally, increased stability allows for the adoption of long-term goal-setting behaviors e. Thus, midlife adults work not only for themselves but for the future of their families as well. As Duckworth and Buzzanell note, this has led to new social discourses in society that also manifest in familial culture about what it means to be a father or mother today: In addition to changing social conceptualizations of familial roles, the workplace is more multi-generational in nature.

    For many individuals, their interpersonal lives in the workplace are a defining feature of their identity across the life span. This can be complicated by intergenerational dynamics. Generational differences also impact whether an employee prefers face-to-face interaction as opposed to talk facilitated through technology.

    Not surprisingly, Baby Boomers value interpersonal connection in person, whereas Millennials currently emerging adults have a strong need to always be technologically connected. In Western societies, later adulthood is colloquially viewed negatively. We live in a society that characterizes getting older as a failure, trying to preserve physical youth by all means. Yet, research shows that later adulthood can be an exciting new chapter in life where old relationships take on new meaning and new relationships can be formed.

    After years of sacrificial effort, adults in middle and later adulthood will go through the process of launching children just as their parents did. Later adults may develop feelings of loneliness after their children leave home for the first time Kenny, Acitelli and Antonucci report that marital support plays a significant role in marital satisfaction for older adults, meaning there may be an inherent desire within the dyad to re-establish commitment to one another. Likewise, while retirement may also lead to challenging identity shifts particularly for Baby Boomer men , this can also be a time of heightened self-discovery of old hobbies or loved pastimes and friendships that one had less time to engage in during midlife.

    Being single as an older adult can be challenging.


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    • Yet the lack of familial relationships need not necessarily mean a lack of meaningful relationships. Older adults often report that their most meaningful friendships were formed long ago and conceptualize these relationships as mutually beneficial and rewarding, even when current contact is infrequent Nussbaum, These friendships can become important sources of social support. In addition, the sibling bond finds renewed strength in later life. Life changes and events like the loss of an aging parent, widowhood, and retirement can lead to sibling communication increasing later in adulthood due to a desire to reconnect as well as simply having more time available to interact Pecchioni et al.

      Online dating is more prevalent today for older adults, and these encounters can lead to long-lasting bonds Malt, While dating in later life can be exciting, it is not without risks. Older adults today are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, having been socialized during a historical context in which contraception was used for the protection against pregnancy not STDs. This also suggests a lack of communication among older adults about healthy sex practices.

      Older adults may also have new opportunities for special relationships with younger generations like grandchildren. Grandparenting is often less stressful than rearing children, as one can often limit their own involvement and enjoy the flexibility of serving as a supportive, rather than primary, caretaker. Additionally, grandchildren offer an opportunity for grandparents to develop a close, intimate bond, sometimes even a closer tie than they share with their own children Miller-Day, Sanders and Trygstad discovered that later adults place more value in relationship formation with grandchildren if they are dissatisfied with other familial relationships.

      Grandparent—grandchild communication can also be an important buffer of stress for grandchildren. For instance, in the face of divorce, grandparents can provide a sense of continuity or stability for grandchildren as well as a sense of togetherness Soliz, Later adulthood is also defined by more interactions with healthcare providers. Thus, older adults are likely to engage in interpersonal communication within a myriad of health contexts. Despite diversity of patient—provider interactions and health conditions, older adults may develop long-term, close relationships with physicians, nurses, or other health workers.

      Some of our earlier healthcare interactions can have profound long-term effects on our health beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as well as our trust in healthcare providers at large. Older adults interact with informal and formal healthcare providers more than any other age group Hartman et al. Older adults must learn to manage more chronic health issues in a fractured healthcare system. In addition to their own growing health concerns, later adults may still be engaged in care of aging parents.

      Interpersonal skills

      As a result, it is imperative that later adults remain conscious of their own mental state while caregiving. The final stage of life is often difficult for the individual and family system. To date, the scholarship on end-of-life communication largely focuses on either talking about death and mortality or communication during the end of life.

      This is true regardless of age and even when families face a life-threatening illness like breast cancer Fisher, Talking about death in the moment of dying is likely more difficult. Lo, Quill, and Tulsky remind us that listening plays a critical role in the dying experience. Lannamann, Harris, Bakos, and Baker caution against overestimating patient and family knowledge and urge practitioners to clarify a prognosis whenever possible as silence and vague answers could be misinterpreted.

      Patients in this final phase of the life span are looking for closure, and both active listening and empathy on the part of family and practitioner can ease the process for all involved. These conversations can facilitate healing and relational repair for each partner while buffering the grief process for surviving loved ones. Communication competence is critical to adaptation across the life span, not only when adjusting to developmentally related normative transitions but also in response to non-normative changes unexpected transitions one encounters. Enacted social support is an interactional transaction in which an individual expresses support to a relational other, who receives that support and has a perception of it.

      Social support refers to what people say and do for each other and how such behavior can enhance well-being Goldsmith, It may be offered and received but not necessarily reciprocated, and it takes many forms. Social support is one aspect of communication that predicts quality of life across the life span. A number of theoretically grounded studies in social support and stress demonstrate support as both a means of buffering one from stress and enhancing wellness e. Some studies narrowly examine this communication process as a resource having network ties or seek to ascertain whether or not it exists perceived availability see Trees, In line with what Harwood advocates, it is critical that interpersonal communication scholarship further examine the enactment of social support—the interaction that occurs between two or more individuals when one or more individuals send supportive messages for the benefit of the communicative partners.

      By capturing the quality, scholars can better understand how supportive communication is not always helpful, that it is contextually based, and that many variables age, gender, etc. While social support is an important communication factor in quality of life across the life span and in managing daily struggles encountered in everyday life, competence in supportive communication is especially critical in the context of stressful changes or unexpected crises. Health challenges are common but unexpected crises individuals and families are bound to encounter at some point in time.

      Scholarship on interpersonal communication has revealed the importance of social support in navigating a wide range of health issues from life-threatening illness like cancer and HIV to debilitating health events like stroke or heart attacks, as well as more chronic concerns that disrupt daily or family life like infertility, diabetes, and dementia.

      Some studies show that women provide more emotional support Verhofstadt et al. Other studies have shown that developmental phase of life, age, and generational differences impact whether or not the supportive communication is helpful. As such, familial norms impact the nature of support and guide families as to who should be there, how they should be supportive, and when. Like social support, being open or the opposite—being closed, avoidant, or secretive has implications for health outcomes.

      In contrast, avoidant behavior keeping things private, secret, or refusing to share tends to be linked with unhealthier outcomes, including increased mental distress or physiological stress such as increased stress hormones. However, not all openness functions in a healthy manner, and not all avoidance functions in an unhealthy manner.

      These communicative behaviors are complicated and influenced by a number of issues age, relationship type and role, gender, culture. One notable influential factor is whether or not the issue at hand is stigmatized in society, as well as who they may or may not disclose to. Still, not disclosing about stigmatized issues can have detrimental effects.

      Part of this communication competence involves issues like partner choice, feelings of trust, and safety. Similar trends may be found in adolescents dealing with highly stigmatized issues such as self-harm behaviors or homosexual identity Hegna, At the same time, avoidance can function in a healthy manner under the right conditions. Research on cancer coping has revealed that individuals tend to hide or not share experiences as a means of buffering friends and loved ones from unnecessary distress e.

      Ultimately, negotiating levels of openness and avoidance are complex and developing competence in this regard a fluid skill that needs to be adjusted with each situation, relationships, and issue. While interpersonal communication across the life span has been investigated using a number of theories developed both within and outside the communication discipline, a handful of theories have been most widely utilized and are in line with what Harwood advocates—bringing interpersonal communication to the forefront of our lived experiences.

      Applications of such theories have largely focused on aging and intergenerational interaction or in intimate relational contexts. The theories highlighted were selected with two factors in mind: Much of this communication is enacted in intergenerational bonds and, as such, is not without its challenges.

      When two generations interact they come to the conversation from two divergent historical experiences that impact their beliefs, goals, and needs. A number of theories are especially useful in illustrating the challenging intergenerational dynamics that can emerge, as well as the critical role communication between generations plays in successful aging across the life span. This theory provides a useful lens to examine how we change our communicative behavior based on to the person with whom we are speaking.

      Grounded in social identity theory, CAT is based on the premise that our sense of self is, in part, based on our membership in various groups age, gender, ethnicity, etc. It is useful in understanding how social identity impacts behavior, particularly why we converge or diverge our language with those we interact with based on how similar or different we perceive we are. The theory has sensitized us to how cultural and age differences and, as such, age- and culture-related stereotypes impact the way in which we communicate.

      Thus, this framework holds notable value in understanding challenges and bonding processes in familial intergenerational bonds such as grandparent—grandchild communication, multi-generational and multi-ethnic families, as well as intergenerational communication in the healthcare setting or workplace e. Theories developed in life-span developmental psychology have also been insightful for successful aging and intergenerational communication, particularly during times of change.

      The theory posits that individuals change their communication and prioritization of interactive partners based on how much time they perceive they have left in life, prioritizing emotionally related goals and intimate communication more as they age or have life threatened in some way.

      Interpersonal skills

      Communication in intimate relational contexts is another widely studied area that often overlaps with successful aging and intergenerational communication scholarship. Two of the most widely used theories in this realm are communication privacy management theory and uncertainty management theory, both of which are grounded in another widely utilized theory: All these of theories originated within the communication discipline.

      This concept of dialectics is also inherent in other widely used theories. Deciding whether or not to disclose is a socialized experience informed by rules and boundaries.

      Carla L. Fisher and Thomas Roccotagliata

      CPM has been useful in understanding how different types of families e. Individuals vary in their need for certainty versus uncertainty, which is also influenced by the situation at hand. UMT is concerned with the meaning of uncertainty, its connection to emotion, as well as how a person responds to uncertainty. This theory has expanded knowledge of how patients manage uncertainty related to health threats early in the life span.

      For instance, this theory has revealed the various types of uncertainty facing patients with HIV, as well as how families and practitioners manage uncertainty related to disease risk due to an inherited genetic mutation Brashers et al. As is likely evident, much of the interpersonal communication scholarship both intimate and not intimate concerned with life-span issues is situated within the family environment.

      While the aforementioned theories have all proven well suited in making sense of communication in family contexts, it is important to note that other frameworks are especially useful in capturing the life-span component of family interaction. This approach allows us to view a family as a system that functions in patterned ways across the course of their history together—patterns defined by elements of togetherness, adaptability, and growth. Using systems theory, Maquire introduced a model to examine family communication during stressful changes also informed by the Double ABC-X Model.

      Additionally, scholars have used more micro-level theories from within and outside the discipline in conjunction with systems theory that highlight the developmental nature of communication in the family. For instance, attachment theory is widely used to explore how individuals develop bonds intimate connections over time in familial relationships. Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Aging families and family communication.

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