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Family Tensions

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away

I called him up just the other day

I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”

He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time

You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu

But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad

It’s been sure nice talking to you.

–Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”

This 1974 folk song tells of a father too busy to spend time with his son.  Then his son grows up and the father finds the tables have turned.

It’s a scenario that happens in real life too.  As parents age they want closer relationships with their adult children, just at the time those offspring are becoming busy with their own lives and young families.

The “kids” don’t have time for the parents.  The result: family tension!  And it only gets worse as parents and children age. Those are the findings from a study done by Dr. Kira S. Birditt, a research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. She discussed her findings  in a recent phone interview with mothering21.com.

The reason for family tension  is simple: parents are typically more emotionally invested in the relationship than are adult children. The conflict comes from the two generations being at different junctures in their lives. “ Adult children are starting own  families and having own children and careers while parents are retiring and now have more time to spend with their adult children,” said Dr. Birditt. “Those different priorities become a source of tension.”

 Those tensions can be divided into two types: relationship and individual.  

Relationship tensions, Dr. Birditt explained, occur when “parents and child were irritated by personality differences, when they see each other too often or not enough.” Other relationship tensions include contact frequency, personality differences, unsolicited advice, past relationship problems, and child rearing.

Individual tensions arise when one of the pair is annoyed by the actions of the other.  For example, a mom is irritated because her son can’t manage finances, or a son perplexed why his mother because can’t keep the house clean. The individual tensions also include finances, housekeeping, lifestyle, job, education, and health.

Which type of tensions cause more hostility? “Relationship problems like basic personality differences and parents providing unsolicited advice tend to cause more problems,” Dr. Birditt said. “It may be that these kinds of tensions are longer-term, and reflect deep-seated conflicts that you just can’t escape, whereas conflicts about lifestyles, education or finances can sort of be put off to the side if you make an effort.”

Not surprisingly, the survey which used data from 158 families, found that mother-daughter relationships were more of a source of conflict than with dear old dad.  Probably because it’s usually the mom (sorry, ladies) who are more demanding of closeness—even friendship–with their daughters.  Also moms are more likely to offer unsolicited advice: “You’re wearing that???”

 So how do parents and children handle all that tensions? They yell.  They don’t speak to each other.  Most often, they try to talk it out. And that’s the best solution, according to Dr Birditt.

She originally surmised that the wisest approach was to follow the maxim: If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.  But she found that pretending a problem doesn’t exist creates its own problems, resulting is a less positive relationship.  More effective was using “constructive” strategies like discussing the sore points.

Dr. Birditt was encouraged that so many families seem to gravitate toward talking things out. “The big overall point from the survey was that although parents and children do sometimes feel irritated, most are able to deal with those problems in a constructive way.”

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