Understanding and Strengthening Healthy Relationships Between Adult Children and Parents

Lynda K. Fowler, Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Crawford County

Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships between parents and children is important and challenging at any age and stage in life. About 80 percent of the older American population have living children and about 10 percent of older Americans have adult children who are also 65 or older. Today, increased life expectancy means that family members will spend more time in intergenerational roles requiring negotiation and understanding in dealing with change.

Research by Dr. Debra Umberson found that the parent/adult child relationship has a strong effect on the psychological state of both parents and children and provides an enduring social tie. It is important that the generations work together to make the relationship satisfying rather than strained.

Adult Children and Parents as Ambivalent Relationships

Intergenerational relationships between adult children and parents can be understood as "ambivalent relationships." Ambivalent relationships include both positive and negative perceptions by one individual toward another. These feelings between adult children and parents include love, reciprocal help, shared values, and solidarity at one end of a continuum of emotions and feelings of isolation, family conflicts and problems, abuse, neglect, and caregiver stress at the other end of a continuum. Ambivalent feelings are greater during times of transitions such as retirement, death, illness, marriage, birth, and career changes. A recent review of the research on intergenerational relationships in later life by Dr. Kurt Luescher and Dr. Karl Pillemer describes three aspects of parent-adult child relations that are especially likely to cause ambivalence:

1) Ambivalence between autonomy and dependence. Adult children and parents have the desire for help, support, and nurturance and the contrasting desire for freedom. (Example: Mothers feeling caught between their adult daughters' needs for closeness and support and their own desires for self-fulfillment and independence. Adult daughters struggle with their desire to remain daughters, but independent wives and mothers).

2) Ambivalence resulting from solidarity. Families that demonstrate solidarity (co-residence or close proximity, mutual dependency for help, frequent interaction) are likely to have feelings that are the opposite, such as dissatisfaction about the relationship, struggles for independence, and conflict.

3) Ambivalence resulting from conflicting norms (social expectations) regarding intergenerational relationships. Social norms may include obligations between kin and commitment to assist members of another generation.

Sources of Stress Between Adult Children and Their Parents

Differences in values and beliefs can become a source of stress to intergenerational relationships. Parents and adult children who report more agreement on how to spend money, raise children, choices in friends and partners, religious beliefs, and other values have less stress in their relationships.

Differences in developmental stages of family life can be a source of stress. Older parents may be dealing with aging, health, retirement, or relocation, and their children must accept that their parents are older and cannot do as much as they once could or may need help from the children. This may happen when adult children are dealing with relocation, greater job responsibility, and caring for children, which leaves less time to give to parents.

Differences in parents' expectations for their children and children's dreams and behavior may be a source of stress. Children may also achieve all that their parents hoped for but their relationship with parents may lack affection, warmth, respect, open communication, and honesty. Adult children may also have differences in expectations for their parents and their parents' behavior. Parents may not be able to provide requested financial support or they may interfere in their children's lives. Parents may not be available to help with grandchildren. The result may be disappointment.

Adult Children/Parents: Building and Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Dr. Kathryn Beckham Mims, Albany State University, Georgia, offers some suggestions for building and maintaining healthy relationships between adult children and their parents:

· Be honest. Come to terms with your mistakes and misgivings. Fears, self-doubts, blame, and guilt keep us from understanding others and changing our behavior.

· Communicate. Listen to and try to understand the experience of the other person. Share your own expectations, feelings, hopes, and concerns.

· Validate feelings and beliefs. Recognize that the feelings and beliefs of adult children and parents are real. Each deserves the right to their own opinions, even if they are different from the other.

· Respect one another. Respect breeds respect and recognizes individuality.

· Let go! Recognize that each generation makes decisions and must suffer or enjoy the consequences. Allow each generation the opportunity to learn from each situation.

· Don't take all of the blame or the credit. Each generation has unique experiences.

· Choose for yourself. Make the decision to build and maintain a healthy relationship between the generations in your family.

Relationships between adult children and their parents continue throughout life and last longer today. In addition to increased longevity, these relationships are challenged by life transitions such as changes in residence, job, health, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Building and maintaining healthy intergenerational relationships can give individuals and families knowledge, respect, and appreciation for one another. Skills of understanding provide a legacy to future generations that will also have to deal with the transitions and stresses of life.


Atchley, R. (1994). Social forces and aging. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Luescher, K., & Uhlenberg, P. (1998). Intergenerational ambivalence: A new approach to the study of parent-child relations in later life, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60 (2).

Mims, K. B. (1998). They're all grown up but I'm still a parent!, Family Information Services, Minneapolis, MN.

Umberson, D. (1992). Relationships between adult children and their parents:

Psychological consequences for both generations, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (3).

For more information, visit the Human Development and Family Life website at: http://www.hec.ohio-state.edu/famlife/


A very helpful post for those of us who daily wrestle with our relationship with adult children. Since the relationship is daily changing as our children develop and as we parents grow older, the relationship is really like a moving target.

To improve the quality of the relationship, we really have to be adaptive and be willing to grow.

Theresa Froehlich
<a href="http://www.transitionslifecoaching.org>http://www.transitionslifecoaching.org</a>

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