Study: Mothers and Fathers Only As Happy As Their Least Happy Child

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I have a couple of friends who have grown children. Grown children with problems. Things like alcoholism, inability to keep a job, and poor-decision making when it comes to mates. These problems gnaw at them and sometimes I worry their children’s problems are making them sick. Even though they also have a child who is very successful with a loving spouse and healthy and happy children, they can’t get over the drama caused by their other children.

And then one of my best friends is in her 70s. She even has great-grandchildren now. It hasn’t all been easy. Her husband died too young and she had to take care of an ungrateful mother. But her kids turned out very well. And their kids turned out well. And the next generation is too young to tell, but they seem to be cooing and rolling on their tummies well. And she’s a very happy woman.

There are many other differences between these friends, but a new study suggests that those children might be the difference between emotional well-being and emotional wreckage. University of Texas at Austin family sciences professor Karen Fingerman ran a study that found the emotional well-being of parents is linked to the successes and struggles of their grown children. That may not be the most surprising finding in the world. What is interesting to me is that even having successful children isn’t enough to mitigate the problems associated with having struggling children.

Turns out mothers and fathers are only as happy as their least happy child. Here’s what Fingerman had to say:

“We had expected that a successful child might mitigate the negative impact of having a child who suffers problems. The successful child might give the parent something positive to focus on. But parents still seem to suffer even when one of their grown children does,” said Fingerman, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.

“It could be the case that parents empathize with their children’s distress, they are embarrassed that their relationships with these grown children suffer, or that grown children who have problems may place excessive demands on the parents,” she said. “Any one or all of these factors may contribute to parental worry and depression.”

This is the first research to examine the positive effects of having successful grown children and the aggregate effects of multiple children. Most American parents have more than one child. This study was unique because it looked at how multiple grown children’s accomplishments and failures affect the parents’ psychological health.

The study was published in the Journals of Gerentology.