Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Ties That Bind: Midlife Parents' Daily Experiences with Grown Children

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Ties That Bind: Midlife Parents' Daily Experiences with Grown Children

Article excerpt

Parents are often in touch with their grown children; more than half of midlife parents report contact with a grown child every day, and 75% to 90% report contact at least once a week (Arnett & Schwab, 2013; Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe, Birditt, & Zarit, 2012). Indeed, rates of contact between adults and parents have increased over the past 25 years, in part because of cellular phone, e-mail, and other technologies that render communication convenient and low cost (Cotten, McCullough, & Adams, 2012; Fingerman, Cheng, Tighe, et al., 2012). The implication of such frequent contact warrants consideration. In childhood, daily interactions with children affect parents' mood and well-being (Larson & Richards, 1994; Repetti, Wang, & Saxbe, 2011), and the same may be true in adulthood. Despite frequent contact and the potential impact of grown children on parental well-being, however, few studies have examined daily experiences in this tie.

In this study we examined the modalities parents use to be in touch with grown children on a daily basis (e.g., phone, text, in person). We also examined the emotional valence of daily experiences (i.e., pleasant, stressful). We then asked whether positive and negative relationship qualities with each grown child are associated with different modes of contact and daily emotional experiences. Finally, we considered parental daily mood as a function of daily experiences with grown children.


Although extensive research has documented frequent contact between adults and their parents, little is known about how this contact occurs. In this study we examined contact in person, by phone, and by text messaging or e-mail. On the basis of pervasiveness of use (Cotten et al., 2012), we expected parents to be most likely to report telephone contact with their grown children. Texting is equally convenient, but it may be less familiar to some parents ages 45 to 65. We were interested in what modes of contact parents and grown children use and how those modes of contact may be associated with the emotional valence of parents' daily experiences with grown children.

With regard to emotional valence, minor stressful or pleasant experiences in everyday life may accumulate to influence well-being. Indeed, daily stressors and supportive exchanges in marriage have been associated with daily mood and general well-being (Almeida, Wethington, & Kessler, 2002; Birditt, 2014; Gleason, Iida, Shrout, & Bolger, 2008); the same may be true in intergenerational ties. We considered pleasant encounters, stressful encounters, and stressful thoughts involving grown children each day.

Daily Pleasant Encounters

In studies relying on global reports, parents have described frequent pleasant encounters with grown children (Fingerman, 2000). Thus, we expected parents to report pleasant encounters often when asked on a daily basis. Pleasant daily encounters may occur even when the parties do not see each other in person. For example, parents might exchange jokes with a grown child via e-mail or text. The family science literature is surprisingly silent on laughter, yet popular psychology suggests that ties to grown children may be punctuated with humor (Covey, 1997), and we examined laughter in this study.

Daily Stressful Experiences

We expected parents also to report stressful experiences with grown children throughout the study week, though less often than pleasant experiences. Prior research has found that parents report their grown children sometimes irritate them, that grown children get on their nerves, or that parents may regret how they behaved toward a grown child (Birditt, Miller, Fingerman, & Lefkowitz, 2009; Fingerman, 2001; Levitzki, 2009).

Cognitive behavioral theories suggest that individuals' thoughts about events and other people also influence their mood. Throughout childhood, parents invest energy thinking about their children's problems, and old habits may persist after children are grown. …

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