The Best Way for Adult Children and Parents to Communicate

What kind and how much contact with grown children is emotionally rewarding?

Posted Apr 04, 2016

Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Source: Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I speak with other parents of adult children, I often wonder if I am being a negligent parent. Since sending our children off to college, to jobs, or marriage, some of my friends talk to and text their children endlessly. I, on the other hand, do not. I notice disbelief on their faces when I report not speaking to my married son for two-week stretches at a time.

Adult children—particularly daughters as I learned from the research for my book Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father —report speaking with a parent two, three or more times a day in conversations that range from important to trivial. Cell phones and texting have made sharing information inexpensive, easy and more immediate. But, is keeping in close or constant touch—in any mode of communication—beneficial for parents?

Current forms of communication can be frustrating for parents. Many adult children don’t answer their cellphones; they keep the voicemail boxes full; and if you can leave a message, it’s doubtful they listen to it. Emails don’t get read unless you send a text to alert them to read your email.

However as one study reveals, parental feelings after contact with grown children are varied; they can be quite uplifting or upsetting in different circumstances. In short, it may be a mixed blessing that you can’t reach your adult child.

How Contact with Grown Children Affects Parents’ Mood

Calling and texting grown children—versus face-to-face interaction—may not be the emotionally best choice for parents. In the study, “The Ties That Bind: Midlife Parents’ Daily Experiences With Grown Children,” lead author Karen Fingerman at the University of Texas, Austin found that 96 percent of the sampled 247 parents with children over the age of 18 spoke with, texted or saw them in person during a one week period.  A surprising number had daily contact.

But researchers wanted to know whether the mode of communication was influenced by the quality of the parent-child relationship, and if the encounters had a significant impact on the mood and well being of the parent.

A Mixed Bag of Reactions

“Pleasant and stressful experiences with grown children were associated with parents’ positive and negative daily moods,” the study found.

Fingerman and her team used daily diaries for parents to report their contact intervals and whether their interaction was pleasant or negative. Of the many parents that communicated with their children in the study week, 88 percent spoke on the phone, three-fourths saw them in person and two thirds texted. “Nearly all” subjects laughed or had a pleasant interaction.

But, more than 50 percent had stressful experiences, such as a child “getting on nerves,” or having thoughts of anxiety over children. Most parents experienced either an overall positive or an overall negative communication, with few having neutral interactions.

The Most Rewarding Ways to Stay in Touch

The quality of the parent-child relationship does matter; both the frequency of contact and its nature hinge on it. Parents who had more positive relationships with their adult children were more likely to report daily contact using all three modes of communication (phone, text, in person). Those who rated their overall relationship as positive were almost one and a half times likelier to see their children in person.

Also notable is that parents reported more negative relationship quality when they communicated with children via phone or text message. By contrast, in-person parent-child contact was not significantly associated with more negative relationships.

One aspect of the study questioned what kinds of relationships were more rife with parental worry; researchers questioned whether positive relationships had more parents worrying about children—wondering about their wellbeing, for example. The opposite was found: “Stressful thoughts were more likely to occur regarding offspring with whom parents had less positive relationship qualities.”

Positive Chats Heal Negative Interactions

A positive parent-child interaction appeared to “mitigate the effects” of a negative one no matter which adult child caused the initial parental upset on a given day:

“ ...A grown child may call with a problem, upsetting the parent. Later that day, the same child or a different child may call and share a joke at work or a funny story about how his or her toddler sings the ABCs to fall asleep. The amusing story may alleviate the distress over the problem.”

How do you communicate with your adult children? How often? Do they ignore your phone calls, texts, and emails? Are in-person visits less upsetting than your electronic connections?

Related:

Why You Should Support Your Adult Child Now;

Living with Parents: Stunted Development or Opportunity?

The College Grad Comes Home: Essential solutions for living with your college graduate again 

Resources:

Fingerman, Karen L., Kim, Kyungmin, Birditt, Kira S., Zarit, Steven H. “The Ties That Bind: Midlife Parents’ Daily Experiences With Grown Children.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12273

Newman, Susan. Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. New York: Walker & Company, 2003; Kindle Edition, 2009.

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman