U.S. a Leader in Tension Between Adults and Their Parents
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Parents in the United States are more likely to have conflict in their relationships with their adult children than are parents in European countries, a new study finds.

The study looked at intergenerational relationships in six developed countries: England, Germany, Israel, Norway, Spain and the United States. Overall, responses from 2,698 parents were included.

American families were more than twice as likely as those living anywhere else to have so-called disharmonious relationships, or those defined by strong negative feelings, such as disagreement and tension, without any strong positive feelings, including feelings of closeness and amicability.

The differences between countries could partly result from health care systems, as countries without universal health insurance could mean children must care for their elderly parents – a partnership that can lead to conflict, the researchers suggest.

Relationship tensions

That's not to say affection was rare in adult-parent relationships — far from it. In all the countries surveyed, the majority of respondents had affectionate relationships with their adult children that were relatively free of conflict. Amicable relationships were most prevalent in England, with 75 percent of parents reporting harmonious ties with their grown-up kids. In Spain, 63 percent reported positive relationships, in Germany, 49 percent, and in the United States, 51 percent.

Other results include:

  • Parents in the United States and Israel were far more likely than parents in England and Germany to have negative feelings toward their adult children.
  • Parents in Israel who reported negative emotions in their relationships with adult kids also reported strong positive emotions more often than elsewhere, indicating emotional intensity and ambivalence, the researchers say.
  • While German parents were unlikely to have negative feelings toward their adult children, they also lacked positive feelings, indicating overall detachment.

"The simultaneous presence of affection and conflict in intergenerational relationships reflects emotional complexities that are intuitively obvious to anyone who is part of a family," said study researcher Merril Silverstein a professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California.

Results also showed older parents with difficulty climbing stairs were more likely to have a disharmonious relationship with their adult children. That's in line with prior research showing quality of life for older persons, including both mental health and physical health, depends heavily on how well older parents get along with their adult children.

"Parents in poorer functional health tended more to have detached and disharmonious relationships with their children, and those who received help from children tended more to have ambivalent relationships with them," Silverstein explained. "Together, the finding suggests that frailty and dependence on children introduce elements of friction and strain into intergenerational relationships."

Behind the conflict

It's possible that a country's welfare system could affect how well parents get along with their kids when they're older, the researchers suggest. Situations in which adult children are required to take care of their parents, and parents feel they have to depend on their children, can spur conflict between the pair. On the other hand, in countries with universal insurance systems, such as some Scandinavian countries, parents and children might experience less of these conflicts.

Cultural aspects can also affect relationships between parents and children, resulting in the differences seen between countries. For instance, previous research has found tendencies among the British to "get along with others, inhibit hostility, and exhibit self-restraint," all characteristics that might diminish conflict , the researchers write in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family

The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), concentrated in Southern California, and a multinational study of intergenerational relationships funded by the European Commission, OASIS.