Unsuccessful adult children can negatively affect their parents’ mental wellbeing

Siblings may receive similar upbringings, but they may or may not be equally successful. Unsuccessful children negatively influence their parents' mental health.

Adult children’s success can affect their parents’ mental health.  If one adult child is unsuccessful or struggling, even if other adult children are successful, a parent is negatively affected by the one child’s seeming inability to thrive.

“What this study finds is that the children may have their own lives and moved on, but their ups and downs are still deeply affecting their parents,” psychology professor Karen Fingerman, PhD, said August 12 at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Fingerman, of Purdue University.

In Fingerman’s study, 633 middle-aged parents in the Philadelphia area rated their grown children’s individual achievements in relation to those of other adults the same age as their grown children.  The parents rated achievements in the areas of relationships, education, career and family life.  Many of the parents had more than one child; thus, there were 1,251 reports of grown children in Fingerman’s study.

In addition to answering questions about their children’s success, the parents answered questions about their own mental health.  They touched upon their relationship with their children and whether or not their children had ever “experienced specific physical, emotional, lifestyle and behavioral problems” (Science Daily). These lifestyle and behavioral problems included getting into trouble with the law, drinking and/or drug problems, divorce and other serious relationship problems.  The parents were asked to consider whether their children’s struggles were involuntary, which was defined as being the result of a health issue; Fingerman controlled for involuntary struggles.

The lifestyle and behavior problems identified in Fingerman’s study are destructive, regardless of whether or not they are caused by health issues.  Learning disabilities, when untreated, can breed frustration.  This frustration can manifest as disruptive behaviors, and eventually become disruptive habits.

Of the 633 parents Fingerman surveyed, 68 percent had at least one grown child suffering at least one problem in the last two years. Nearly 49 percent of parents said that at least one of their grown children was highly successful.  Sixty percent of parents had a mix of successful and unsuccessful children.  Fingerman found that 17 percent of parents had no unsuccessful children while 15 percent reported that they did not have any grown children that they would rate as being above average on life achievements.

The effects of adult children’s successfulness on their parents’ psychological wellbeing was apparent. In Fingerman’s research. Parents with more than one successful child reported better well-being, although having even one child who was “unsuccessful” negatively affected parents’ mental health, even if they had other, successful children.  Having only one successful child did not translate into a heightened psychological state for parents. The study’s findings suggest that parents react more strongly to their children’s failures than their successes.

Fingerman elaborated, “Having two children suffering problems may be more demanding than having only one child who suffers problems. By the same token, having a successful child did not buffer the effects of problem-ridden children.”

Learning disabilities can lead students into a mental state in which they feel as though they are somehow lacking in comparison to other children.  This general sense of not feeling good enough can deepen into an overall attitude of frustration and potentially anger with school and with the individuals they feel are foisting negative, threatening situations upon them.  The malaise that learning disabilities can foster may lead children into detrimental behavior patterns, and these can become habits that may jeopardize children’s ability to become viable adults.  If children are not taught how to learn in their own particular style,  working with the abilities inherent in their “disabilities,” they are at risk for far more than decreased academic achievement.  Fingerman’s study illustrates the effect that unsuccessful adult children can have on their parents’ mental health, but it is not too late to address children’s learning disabilities, dissuade them from negative behaviors that may stem from their frustration with their perceived inabilities and set them on a positive road.


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