Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Quality of Parent-adult Child Relations

Children and parents' social characteristics and intergenerational relations

 It has been demonstrated that both children's and parents' social characteristics are crucial to an understanding of intergenerational relations. Three social characteristics play a particularly important role in determining the quality of parent-child relations in later life: age, gender, and race.


Theories of adult development and intergenerational relations suggest that the age of the adult child affects the quality of parent-child relations. These theories argue that as adult children become older, there is less conflict and greater closeness in the parent-child relationship because maturational changes reduce differences between parents and adult children, thus minimizing the bases for conflict between them. Further, these theories posit that as children and parents age, there is greater tolerance for any intergenerational differences that remain. Empirical studies conducted with both adult children and elderly parents provide support for these theories by showing consistently that relations are more harmonious when children are older.


A review of the literature suggests that the gender of both parent and child affects intergenerational relations. Studies of the effects of gender consistently demonstrate stronger affectional ties between mothers and daughters than any other combination. For example, mothers report more positive affect with adult daughters than sons, and they are more likely to rely on daughters than sons as confidants and comforters. In turn, adult daughters report greater feelings of closeness to mothers than fathers.

The literature on other parent-child gender combinations suggests that there is greater closeness and less conflict in both mother-son and father-daughter pairs than in father-son pairs. The preponderance of studies of intergenerational relations have found that adult sons report greater closeness to mothers than to fathers, whereas fathers report greater closeness to daughters than to sons.

Race and ethnicity

Research on ethnic diversity in families in the later years has grown considerably during the past two decades. Most of this work has focused on differences between black and white families; however, both Hispanic and Asian families have also received attention.

The literature has revealed some consistent differences in intergenerational relations between black and white families. In particular, elderly blacks are substantially more likely than whites to live in two- and three-generational households, and to be involved in their grandchildren's day-to-day activities. Further, it appears that there is greater closeness and less intergenerational conflict in black than in non-black families. C. V. Willie (1988) has argued that older blacks are less insistent that younger family members adhere to their elders' customs than are non blacks, which might reduce the basis for conflict over intergenerational value discrepancies; however, the few studies that have investigated this issue have not provided a consistent picture.

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Parent–adult child relations among Hispanics appear to differ from those of both blacks and whites. For example, parent-adult child contact is more frequent among Hispanics than whites or blacks, and Hispanic parents are more likely to live with their adult children than are blacks or whites. Further, several studies suggest greater intra-family support in Hispanic than non-Hispanic white families. However, because most of these studies do not separate the role of adult children from that of other close family members, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether parent-child relations are closer in Hispanic than non-Hispanic families.

Although the population of elderly Asians is growing rapidly in the United States, there is relatively little literature on parent–adult child relations among these ethnic groups. The literature that exists suggests that there are inconsistencies in the patterns of parent-child relations among Asian-American families. On one hand, filial piety is still normative, and parent–adult child co-residence is common, yet Chinese-American parents who do not live with their children have lower frequency of contact with them than do black, white, or Hispanic parents. Further, value differences which might lead to conflict between parents and children are increasingly common in Asian families.

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Life events, parent-child relations, and parents' well-being

Changes in either parents' or children's social characteristics may have profound effects on intergenerational relations. It is important to distinguish between transitions that are experienced by adult children and those experienced by elderly parents, as well as to make a distinction between two types of transitions: those that are normative—that is, transitions that are socially acceptable and expected to occur at a given time—and those that are non-normative.

Effects of adult children's normative transitions

Numerous studies have found a consistent pattern of increased intergenerational closeness and contact when children experience normative transitions. For example, parents and adult children appear to become closer when children establish separate households, marry, and become parents. In part, there is a positive change in intergenerational relations when adult children experience these normative transitions because such transitions confirm that the adult child is conforming to societal norms regarding maturational development. An often neglected point is that normative transitions also improve parent-child relations because these transitions increase the number of social structural positions that adult children share with their parents.

Effects of adult children's non-normative transitions

Considering that normative transitions generally intensify affectional bonds, it is not surprising to find that non-normative transitions sometimes affect parent-adult child relations detrimentally. However, whether the non-normative transition affects relations appears to be determined greatly by the extent to which the transition challenges parents' values.

Recent studies of adult children's transitions support this argument. For example, studies have shown that relations between middle-class sons and their parents often become strained when the adult children, particularly sons, lose their jobs. Further, adult children's relationships with their parents have been found to suffer when the children engage in illegal behaviors, regardless of whether the actions lead to legal action.

Non-normative transitions that do not challenge the parents' values appear to have far less impact on parent-adult child relations. For example, it appears that adult children's returning to live in their parents' homes creates little distress in the parent-child relationship. The preponderance of the literature suggests that a child's divorce also has little or no deleterious effect on the quality of parent-child relations. In fact, some findings suggest that there might even be an increase in parent–adult child closeness following a child's divorce.

However, studies have not examined whether the effects of an adult child's divorce on parent-child relations is affected by either circumstances surrounding the divorce or by the parents' values regarding marriage.

Children's stressful life events and parents' well-being

While negative life events in the lives of adult children do not necessarily affect the quality of the parent-child relationship, they do affect parents' psychological well-being. Studies have shown that problems experienced by adult children, and contact with children during these periods, can detrimentally affect elderly parents' well-being. For example, it has been found that parents whose adult children have had mental, physical, substance abuse, or stress-related problems experience greater depression and emotional distress than do parents whose children did not have these problems.

Further, parents of mentally ill adults have been found to experience both substantial psychological distress and reduced marital quality because of problems associated with their children's bizarre and threatening behaviors. Violence and abuse by adult children has been found to be particularly distressing to elderly parents.

Morale may also suffer if adult children's problems require parents to continue to provide them with care and support. Such continued assistance is associated with increased psychological distress among the elderly. Thus, to the extent that problems experienced by children lead to their increased dependency, the quality of the relationship tends to decline, and decrements in psychological well-being can result.

Effects of parents' normative transitions

Both retirement and widowhood have been identified as normative transitions that have potential for affecting relationships between parents and adult children. Some scholars have suggested that parental retirement might represent a major crisis for adult children because it could signify that parents could lose their productive roles and eventually die. Further, it has been argued that children might fear that the resulting decrease in parental income would require them to assume financial responsibility for their parents while they are still supporting their own children. However, recent studies that have been conducted on this issue have found either no effects of retirement on intergenerational relations, or greater contact and closeness between the generations.

In contrast to retirement, the widowhood of a parent involves a direct change in the lives of adult children. Widowhood has been found to be one of the most stressful of all life events, and marks a drastic change in the life of the surviving spouse. Adult children have been found to be a particularly important source of emotional support and instrumental assistance to the surviving parent during this time. Further, there appears to be a general pattern of stability and continuity in parent-child relationships following widowhood.

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Effects of parents' non-normative transitions

Divorce is among the most common non-normative transitions in the lives of parents of adult children. The preponderance of work on this topic has shown that the detrimental effects of parental divorce on intergenerational relations continue throughout the life course. For example, it has been found that both divorced and remarried parents provide less emotional support to their adult children, have less frequent contact, and report lower levels of parent-child solidarity than do parents who have not divorced. The effects of divorce on closeness vary by gender of the parent. Divorce appears to be more detrimental to fathers' than mothers' relationships with their adult children. In fact, many mothers and daughters continue to have very close relationships following the mother's divorce.

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