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Troubled Children Can Increase Parents’ Stress, Even as Adults

Addiction and mental illnesses have been called "family diseases" because these types of behavioral health problems affect the well-being of the entire household. Now, researchers have proven that children who have led poor lifestyles—such as substance abuse, chronic behavioral health issues, problems with the law, or financial troubles— well into adulthood still pose a major threat to their parents’ overall well-being, even if their siblings were more successful in life.

Researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, University of Michigan, and Pennsylvania State University presented their study’s findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, in San Diego on Thursday. The researchers sought to discover whether parents who had a mix of successful and non-successful children had varying levels of stress and happiness. Researchers were hoping that parents who had at least one problematic child while having one or more other successful children would improve their overall wellbeing.

The researchers surveyed 633 middle-aged parents from the Philadelphia area via telephone interviews. Parents were asked to rate the achievements of their adult children regarding their career, education, relationships, and family situations. Parents were also asked to report whether their children had experienced any "voluntary" (preventable) behavioral or lifestyle problems within the previous two years, including alcohol use disorders, substance abuse, physical problems, trouble with the law, and financial difficulties. Likewise, parents were asked to report whether their children had any "involuntary" (non-preventable) problems including chronic health conditions or disabilities. Next, parents were asked to rate their children’s level of success in comparison to other adults of the same age. Last, parents were surveyed on their own psychological health and well-being and the nature of their relationships with their children.

Overall, most of the parents surveyed had two or more children, and almost three-quarters reported having a mixed amount of problematic and successful adult children. According to the researchers’ findings, parents who had at least two successful children had higher levels of psychological and physical wellbeing. However, if parents had even one problematic adult child, they were more likely to have higher levels of psychological stress. One child experiencing preventable problems in adulthood was enough to create a negative influence on the parent’s overall wellbeing and happiness, in spite of their other children’s successes. Also, children with preventable problems created the same amount of stress on their parents as children with non-preventable problems.

The researchers surmise that even the positive emotions generated by a parent’s one or more other well-functioning children wasn’t enough to offset their grief over the one dysfunctional child. As a parent, it is difficult to watch one’s children grow with dysfunctional problems, and fail to overcome these problems as adults. Parents seem to suffer right along with their children, even into adulthood. Regardless of their other children’s accomplishments, parents tend to be just as happy as their most unhappy child, according to lead researcher Dr. Karen Fingerman.

Parents tend to attribute so much of their energy to their one troubled child that they in turn are neglecting the positive feelings their other children’s accomplishments could bring to their lives. Researchers recommend that parents under these conditions should find a balance to help them cope with overwhelming stress and depressed moods related to their children’s lifestyles. Instead of blaming themselves for their adult children’s problems or trying to fix the problems themselves, parents should find a center ground where they can maintain separation between their own lives and their children’s lives while still offering love and support.

The researchers’ study was the first to measure the prevalence of parents’ affected psychological well-being when parents have a mix of problematic and successful children.

Sources: HealthDay, Madonna Behen, One Troubled Adult Child a Drag on Parents’ Mental Health, August 12, 2010

Health.com, Amanda Gardner, When adult children fail, parents suffer too, August 12, 2010

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