Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

From Adolescent to Young Adult: A Prospective Study of Parent-Child Relations during the Transition to Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

From Adolescent to Young Adult: A Prospective Study of Parent-Child Relations during the Transition to Adulthood

Article excerpt

Longitudinal data from the National Survey of Families and Households were analyzed to explore continuity and change in parent-child relations as children make the transition to adulthood. Results support a social learning view that past relationship patterns continue to be played out when families enter a new life stage. The effects of earlier patterns of interaction on later relations are modest, however, and account for less than 10% of the variance in current parent-child relationships. Evidence of long-term effects was strongest in two aspects of parent-adult child relations: emotional closeness and control-conflict. The potential for discontinuity over time in parent-child relations also was examined. The hypothesis that children's transition to adult roles would bring about change in family relationships was supported, in part. Transitions to marriage, cohabitation, and fulltime employment (but not to parenthood) were associated with closer, more supportive, and less conflicted parent-adult child relations. The child's leaving home also weakened the impact of past patterns of interaction on some aspects of current relationship quality.

Key Words: intergenerational relations, life course, parentchild relations.

The parental and filial roles form a core part of identity over much of the adult life span (Amato, 1994; Rossi Ac Rossi, 1990; Umberson, 1992). The uniqueness of the parent-child relationship in adulthood derives, in part, from its distinctive history (White, 1993). Over the life course, the relationship evolves from a pattern of child dependence on parents to a relationship between two mature adults that is characterized by mutuality and reciprocity of care (Nydegger, 1991). A critical question is the extent to which the early history of the parent-child relationship determines its future. Do childhood patterns shape adult intergenerational relations? This is an area of human development we know little about. The few studies in this area have relied mostly on retrospective reports of questionable validity.

This article explores the extent of continuity in parent-child relations from adolescence to young adulthood and the life course factors that may lead to change over time. I focus on two research questions. First, do patterns of childrearing and parent-child relations during adolescence exert a long-term influence on relations between parents and adult children? Second, what are sources of discontinuity in parent-child relations? Here I focus specifically on the individual life course transitions that may precipitate relationship changes. These questions are examined in a prospective design using longitudinal data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). Analyses are based on parents' reports at both times of measurement.


The life course perspective on family development (Bengtson & Allen, 1993; Elder, 1984) guides my approach to the study of family relationships over time. This perspective emphasizes the interdependence of the life histories of family members (Elder, 1984) and the potential for both continuity and change in patterns of family interaction over the life course. Elder's (1984) model of the "dual dynamic of family development" suggests that family relationships change in response to the individual developmental paths of family members. At the same time, changing patterns of family interaction shape individual life paths. Research in this tradition has demonstrated the potential for continuity over time and over generations in family process and the ability of the life course transitions of individual family members to change patterns of family relationships (Caspi & Elder, 1988; Elder, Caspi, & Burton, 1988; Elder, Caspi, & Downey, 1986).

Continuity in Family Patterns: The Past as Prologue

How much continuity in parent-child relations should we expect to observe when children move from adolescence to young adulthood? …

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