Problem Children Torment Parents Even After They Grow Up

SAN DIEGO – Problem children can be a psychological burden for parents well after the youngsters have left the nest.

Having just one unsuccessful grown child was associated with poorer mental health for middle-age parents even if the parents had other children that were successful, a new study finds.

The more problem-ridden children that parents had, the worse off parents were in terms of their mental well-being. On the other hand, having several children who were successful in terms of their career, education and romantic relationships was associated with better mental health for parents.

The findings highlight the intimate connection between parents and their offspring — parents, to some extent, may view their children as an extension of themselves, the researchers say.

The study was presented here Thursday at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

Mixed blessings

The researchers surveyed 633 parents in the Philadelphia area who in total had 1,251 children. Parents rated the success of their grown children compared with other adults of the same age in terms of their education, career and relationship achievements.

Parents were also asked whether their children had experience specific lifestyle or behavioral problems including trouble with the law, drinking or drug problems, relationship problems, or divorce.

Parents rated their own psychological well-being and answered questions about their relationship with their grown children.

The majority of parents, 68 percent, had at least one child who had suffered lifestyle, behavioral, emotional, or physical problems within the previous two years. Nearly half of parents indicated at least one of their children was highly successful. Seventeen percent said none of their children suffered problems, while 15 percent said none of their children achieved above average success. Most families, 60 percent, had a mixed bag of successful and unsuccessful children.

Burden of failure

Having just one problematic child increased parents' risk for poor psychological health, even if other children in the family were considered successful.

Simply having one successful child did not appear to buffer the negative effects of having other troubled children, the researchers say. This finding suggests that parents feel a greater impact from their children's failures than from their successes, the researchers say.

"Having two children suffering problems may be more demanding than having only one child who suffers problems," study author Karen Fingerman a psychology professor at Purdue University said in a statement about the work. "By the same token, having a successful child did not buffer the effects of problem-ridden children," she said.

"Parents may react to even a little problem in grown children, whereas the success of a child doesn’t overwhelm them in the same way," said Toni Antonucci, of the University of Michigan, who presented here today on behalf of Fingerman, but wasn't involved in the research.   

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.