Parents and Adult Children: Mutually Irritating

Family dynamics often fraught with tension, study shows

Investigators at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research have unequivocally demonstrated that our parents often get on our nerves — and we on theirs. “The parent-child relationship is one of the longest-lasting social ties human beings establish,” said Kira Birditt, the study’s lead. “This tie is often highly positive and supportive but it also commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence.”

Unsurprisingly, the survey of nearly 500 American parents and their age-22-and-older offspring revealed that the touchiest issues were “lifestyle choices”: whom we date, our money habits, our housekeeping savvy. Parents reported more tensions with daughters than sons. And daughters and sons noted more issues with Mom than Dad. Birditt suggests that this is because women tend to pursue more intimate relationships with more frequent contact — thus more opportunity for things to get ugly.

Overall, the study showed that the parents, not the children, felt more upset by these tussles. And why not? Mom calls with sage advice. We shunt her to voicemail. She phones back the next day, and guilt compels us to answer. Just about to call you! Can we reschedule for 8:30? Sorry, must run! How irritating.

The Michigan study also found that parents get more prickly as we age. This trend came as a surprise to Birditt — but I suspect it’s a familiar feeling to many of us with aging parents. Their dependence is increasing. Our lives, though, become more filled with people that depend on us, leaving us to carefully juggle our attentions.

What to do? Voicemail and other avoidance tactics will get you nowhere, says Burditt. Her other research efforts are showing that tackling issues as they come up leads to smoother relationships. Sure, sure — sounds logical. But caller ID is so much easier.

The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.