Mother-Child Conflict and Lack of Purpose in Life
Research links child-parent conflict with negative outcomes in young adulthood.
Posted March 25, 2019
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says if “we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how” (p. 468).1 Indeed, people whose lives have purpose and direction lead productive lives in pursuit of worthy goals—and are resilient and psychologically flexible enough to overcome many obstacles along the way.2 Many also enjoy better health, happiness, and general well-being. So the question is, where does such a sense of purpose come from? Might our childhood relationship with our parents predict whether our adult lives will be meaningful and purposeful?
Perhaps. In an article published in the January issue of Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Hill and colleagues argue that child-parent conflict influences the development of a sense of direction in early adulthood.3
Let us look at this study in more detail.
Demographics and measures
Researchers used data from 1074 students (85% Caucasian; equal number of boys and girls), 698 fathers, and 996 mothers. The participating students were part of the Oregon Youth Substance Use Project, a longitudinal study that followed five cohorts of first- to fifth-grade students and assessed them annually through childhood, adolescence, and one year after they had completed high school, with a final follow-up when they were 21/22 years.
One of the study’s measures assessed child-parent conflict and examined the frequency of fights and arguments, containing statements such as “We get angry at each other a lot.” Follow-up evaluations included additional measures assessing evaluation of purpose in life (e.g., “I know which direction I am going to follow in my life”), life satisfaction in different life domains (e.g., health, school, relationships with friends), and perceived stress (“In the last month, how often have you felt...you were unable to control the important things in your life?”) (p. 147-8).3
Though follow-up questionnaires were administered only to students, child-parent conflict questionnaires were administered to both students and their parents.
Child-parent conflict, well-being, and purpose in life
Data showed only a modest correlation between child-parent conflict as reported by the child and as reported by the child’s parents (child-mother = 0.27; child-father = 0.33). In other words, sometimes children reported conflict with their parents but the parents did not; and sometimes parents reported arguments which the children did not. As the researchers point out, this is why it is important to obtain reports from both children and their parents.
The results also showed correlations between:
-perceived stress & lack of life satisfaction (r=0.58)
-life satisfaction & sense of purpose (r=0.40)
-perceived stress & lack of purpose (r = 0.34)
The most significant findings were:
First, greater conflict with parents (as reported both by the child and the parents) predicted worse well-being at 21/22 years.
Second, “above and beyond the influence on general well-being, early conflict with mothers [not fathers] was associated with lower levels of purpose over a decade later” (p. 150).3 So children who reported having more conflicts with their mothers were more likely to lack purpose in life as they entered adulthood. Note that only the child’s perception of conflict with mother was predictive, not the mother’s.
Concluding thoughts on child-mother conflict
The present findings indicate that child-parent conflict is associated with worse well-being, and mother-child conflict is additionally linked to a weaker sense of direction and purpose in life at age 21/22 years.
Why do child-parent conflicts influence the development of life purpose? Perhaps because repeated conflict with parents “saps the child’s energy and enthusiasm, and in turn likelihood to live an active, engaged lifestyle, which has been suggested as a primary pathway by which individuals find what makes their lives purposeful” (p. 151).3
Another question is why conflicts with mother in particular have such a strong influence on the child’s sense of meaning and purpose?
It may be that mother-child conflicts have a stronger effect on adolescents’ separation-individuation process—when teenagers begin to separate from their parents, become more independent and autonomous, and establish their own identity. Adolescents cannot fully explore potential identities, paths, and purposes in life from a place of constant conflict. In support of this view, previous research has linked separation-individuation difficulties and sense of purpose in young adulthood.4 The authors of the present study recommend that future research examine how parents might “not only model purposive activity but also provide a secure base from which children can explore different life goals” (p. 152).3
1. Nietzsche, F. (1976). Twilight of the idols. In W. Kaufmann (Ed. & Trans.), The portable Nietzsche (pp. 463-564). New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1888.)
2.McKnight, P. E., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: an integrative, testable theory. Review of General Psychology, 13, 242–251.
3. Hill, P. L., Schultz, L. H., Jackson, J. J., & Andrews, J. A. (2019). Parent-child conflict during elementary school as a longitudinal predictor of sense of purpose in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48, 145–153.
4. Hill, P. L., Burrow, A. L., & Sumner, R. (2016). Sense of purpose and parent–child relationships in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 4, 436–439.