Parent – Child Caregiving Relationships

By Pamela D Wilson CSA, CG, MS, BS/BA

family relationships and conflictHow does the quality of relationships and career success impact the way parents feel about their children? How might support between grown children and parents predict the quality of future caregiving relationships?  Is there a link between the perception of success and day to day relationships between parents and adult children?

Research (Cichy, Lefkowitz, Davis & Fingerman, 2013) shows a significant link between the quality of parent – child relationships and perceptions of the success of children. “Parents report strained relationships with children who have failed to achieve adult statuses.”

Day to day relationships are supported by the idea of reciprocity. The term “conflicted support” relates to the idea of support provided to an adult child or to an adult parent when a sense of repayment, change in personal habits or lack of appreciation occurs. Conflicted support is common in many parent-child relationships and often results in negative feelings.

How then — considering these complicated relationships factors — might adult children and parents work though these issues that will ultimately affect caregiving relationships — or is this asking the impossible?

How does success or a perceived lack of success in the life of an adult child affect parent – child relationships? Belief exists that unsuccessful children are a drain on the emotions and financial resources of parents. Is there a certain age at which adult children should be totally independent of parental support? How many adults well into their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s do you know who continue to rely on parents for housing, money or emotional support?

Guilt, anger and disappointment are common parental emotions relating to the success of children. Parents ask themselves if they might have taken a different action or responded differently so that a child did not turn out a certain way (guilt). Could a parent have set more boundaries or have been strict with a child regarding expectations related to independence and success (anger)?  Did a parent allow a child an easy way out, allowing the child to not put forth sufficient effort to achieve a goal (disappointment)?

Mothers experience greater distress when children experience failed relationships while fathers experience greater distress when children fail to achieve career success and are unable to financially provide for themselves. These differences relate to perceived responsibilities of a mother and a father relative to setting an example for their children and a feeling a sense of failure when children are unsuccessful.  (Cichy, Lefkowitz, Davis & Fingerman, 2013)

How then, do feelings of guilt, anger and disappointment relate to ongoing support throughout the lifespan of adult children and parents?

Middle-aged parents’ feeling about helping children depends on how children respond to assistance in terms of thankfulness, resistance or an entitled attitude.  Conflicted and negative feelings exist when parental expectations of children’s responses to support are not met, however this does not mean that parents will not continue to support adult children. (Cichy, Lefkowitz, Davis & Fingerman, 2013)

However, it may mean that parents will make different plans for their future relative to retirement and caregiving needs knowing that relationships with adult children will continue to be strained and relationships less than ideal.

In the case of adult children who have a sense of entitlement to parental property and money, providing support is even more complicated.  Parents in these situations must learn to set appropriate boundaries, limit demands by adult children and remind children that support has been provided — and will no longer continue to be provided.  In many of these situations the looming idea of “I will continue to provide support if,” exists; meaning that there is an expectation that the adult child will change the behaviors that led to the problem at hand. Ultimately, there is a time to walk away and to allow children to succeed or fail because of their own choices and decisions.

According to research, (Fingerman, K., Cheng, Y., Cichy, K., Birditt, K & Zarit S., 2013) adult children who receive support to alleviate problems experience a poorer daily mood because the idea of needing support from a parent attention and focus on a inability to problem solve and to an absence of coping skills. For parents, the idea of offering continued support may only serve to alleviate the distress they feel as a result of a failed child rather than fostering an improved relationship.

Admittedly parent-child relationships are complicated. The best possible situation results from children who become emotionally and financially independent, foster positive relationships and build careers enabling self-support. This allows a parent-child relationship that is not based on a need for support but that is based on standards of mutual respect and reciprocity.



Cichy, K.E., Lefkowitz, E.S., Davis, E.M., & Fingerman, K.L. (2013) “You are such a Disappointment!”: Negative Emotions and Parents’ Perceptions of Adult Children’s Lack of Success. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 68(6), 893-901. Doi 10:1093/geronb/gbr053. Advance Access publication June 2, 2013.

Fingerman, K.L., Cheng, Y.P., Cichy, K.E., Birditt, K.S. & Zarit S. (2013). Help with “strings attached”: offspring perceptions that middle-aged parents offer conflicted support.  Journals of Gerontology, Series B” Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 68(6), 902-911, doi: 10:1093/geronb/bgt032. Advance Access publications May 24, 2013.

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©2014 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

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