Whether they are emerging adults in their 20s, settling down in their 30s or marching into middle age of their 40s and 50s, they are still our children, and that makes them a source of great joy and of dreadful anxiety. In a 2009 study of the relationships between adult children and their parents, Kira Birditt, the lead author of a University of Michigan study, notes that the parent-child is one of the longest lasting social ties human beings establish. "This tie is often highly positive and supportive," she notes, "but it also commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence."
In short, the study, which was published in Psychology and Aging, found that the majority of parents and adult children experience some tension and aggravation with one another. Those tensions and aggravations, however, are harder on us than they are on them, particularly when it comes to issues regarding our children's lifestyle or behavior (finances, housekeeping). According to Birditt, we may be more upset by those tensions because we have more invested in the relationship. We're more concerned than they are about seeing them launched into successful adulthood.
Other points from the report:
--Daughters were more of a source of tension than sons, not because sons are that much easier to get along with. Rather, daughters generally have closer relationships with parents that involve more contact and that may provide more opportunities for tensions.
--When it comes to unsolicited advice, moms are more the problem than dads. "It may be that children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness," Birditt said, "or that they are generally more intrusive than fathers."
--While the years when our grown children are in their 20s are filled with a lot of unresolved issues--what careers will they have, who will they chose as a life's partner--Birditt found it surprising that parental perceptions of tension increased with the adult children's age. "Middle-aged children," she said, "may be less invested in the parent-child tie than young adult children because they're more likely to have formed their own families and experience multiple role demands."
In related, unpublished research, Birditt analyzed the way some of us cope with the relationship tensions. While most of try to accept and understand our grown child's point of view, the more intense the tension level, the less likely we or our children are to use constructive strategies and the more likely we are to yell and argue or avoid the situation entirely.
But here's the kicker. Though many of us have learned to keep our mouth shut when we don't approve of something our adult children are doing--the way they dress or their choice of friends--Birditt suggests there are limits to such a strategy. "The old adage, 'If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all,' isn't good advice for parents and adult children," she said. "Avoidance doesn't work as a strategy for dealing with conflicts. It appears to make things worse."
Go figure. Clomping around on the eggshells may be the healthier way to behave.