August 16, 2016

Daily interactions in the parent-adult child tie

By Megan Patrick

Woman discussing problems

When grown children struggle with problems, their parents report more negative parent-child relationship quality (e.g., nerves and demands) and poorer well-being. However, there is less understanding of the mechanisms that link adult children’s problems with parent’s distress.

Dr. Kira Birditt, SRC Research Associate Professor, and colleagues examined daily interactions of parents with their adult children to assess the quality of daily interactions (positive or negative) and the biological stress responses (daily cortisol patterns). Parents participated in 7 daily telephone interviews and 4 days of measuring cortisol (3 times daily). Problems of adult children were based on parent surveys and coded into two categories: physical-emotional (e.g., physical or psychological disability) and lifestyle-behavioral (e.g., financial or relationship problems).

Parents had more negative daily interactions with children with problems but had no fewer positive interactions and no less contact with children who had problems.

Interactions with children who had problems were associated with parent’s cortisol levels. Having any contact with a child with a physical-emotional problem was related to higher cortisol at waking that same day and negative interactions with these children was associated with a steeper decline to lower cortisol at bedtime. In contrast, negative interactions with children who had lifestyle-behavioral problems was associated with higher cortisol the next day.

The higher waking cortisol in parents with children who had physical-emotional problems, likely occurring before any interaction that day, may indicate that parents anxiously anticipate difficult interactions. These parents may benefit from strategies that reduce stressful anticipation and balance negative and positive interactions. For parents with lifestyle-behaviorally impaired children, the next-day higher levels of cortisol may suggest worry and preoccupation that last into the next day. Such parents may benefit from learning effective coping strategies for reducing stress.