Adult children with problems: How they affect parents’ well-being

October 15, 2015

ANN ARBOR—You did everything you could to raise them right and keep them safe, but their lives aren’t turning out the way you’d planned. Maybe they’re drinking too much. Or they’re heading for divorce. Or they can’t seem to manage their money. Or maybe they’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness.

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When adult children aren’t doing well, it can have a big effect on parents’ lives. Now a University of Michigan study provides details about exactly how parents are affected.

“We found that the type of problems adult children have make a difference,” says Kira Birditt, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). “And we also found that when adult children have problems, parents have more negative encounters with them, but they have just as many positive interactions.”

For the study, published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, Birditt and colleagues conducted a daily diary study of 197 middle-aged parents who reported their interactions with adult children for seven consecutive days. The parents also provided saliva samples at different times during the study, allowing the research team to assess daily fluctuations in cortisol levels – a widely used marker of stress.

More than 60 percent of the parents surveyed reported having at least one adult child with a problem, and 34 percent reported that all of their adult children had at least one problem.

Two types of problems were examined in the study: physical-emotional problems (including physical and mental health problems and developmental disabilities) and lifestyle-behavioral problems (including financial trouble, drug and alcohol abuse, trouble with the law, and serious relationship trouble, such as divorce).

“We found that interactions with adult children who had physical or emotional problems had more immediate, same-day associations with cortisol whereas interactions with adult children with lifestyle or behavioral problems resulted in more delayed, or next day, associations,” reported Birditt.

The findings have some implications for parents trying to manage their distress. “Parents with adult children who have lifestyle and behavioral problems may want to focus on learning effective coping strategies for reducing stress they already have. In contrast, parents of adult children with physical and emotional problems may spend more time anticipating problems, and may benefit from strategies to help prevent stress.”

Another way for parents to reduce the stress of negative interactions with children who have problems is to attempt to balance these interactions with positive encounters, which buffer the harmful effects.

“If you have a conversation that makes you feel irritated, hurt or annoyed, try to follow it with one that makes you feel good,” says Birditt.

Even in the midst of conflict and worry, these positive interactions are not only possible, Birditt’s research shows, but their helpful effect may be particularly important.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the MacArthur Network on an Aging Society. Birditt’s co-authors included Karen Fingerman and Timothy Loving from the University of Texas at Austin, Kyungmin Kim from the University of Massachusetts Boston, and and Steven Zarit from Pennsylvania State University.

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By Diane Swanbrow

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