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The Challenge of Communicating with Aging Parents

Emerging studies have shown that both adult children and their aging parents identify stubbornness in the parents as a significant issue.

The stubbornness may manifest when an aging parent declines advice or help with daily problems and insists, resists, or persists in doing things in their way.

Until now, research has not examined how frequently such behaviors occur and what factors are associated with these behaviors.

Allison Heid, Ph.D., project director for the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, found that middle-aged adults and their parents report instances where parents act in ways that are commonly attributed to stubbornness.

Steven Zarit, Ph.D.,distinguished professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, explains that elders struggle for independence as they try to maintain the life they had and the people they were.

The researchers have published their results online in Journals of Gerontology: Psychology Sciences.

“It’s a topic everyone experiences,” Zarit said. “It just hasn’t been studied.”

The goal of the research was not to identify whether individuals are “stubborn,” but rather to understand perceptions of older parents and their adult children regarding such behavior.

The researchers demonstrated that individual and relationship-based factors are linked to the perceived expression of stubbornness by parents and that there is discordance in perceptions within families.

Researchers say their findings suggest a need for intervention to increase understanding.

“Finding better ways to have that conversation is really important,” Zarit said.

The researchers found that stubborn behaviors are reported to have occurred in the past few months at least once, but usually more often for more than 90 percent of families interviewed.

Three-fourths of children and two-thirds of aging parents in the sample say that at least one of the behaviors —¬†insisting, resisting, or persisting — is happening sometimes.

The children in these families are not providing high levels of support with daily activities or basic needs but rather the family members are providing everyday support to one another.

“A second finding,” Heid said, “is that adult children link perceptions of parent stubbornness with how children see their relationships with their parents, but parents link their perceptions to who they are as people. If parents see themselves as more neurotic or less agreeable, they report more stubbornness.”

“This finding indicates that adult children and aging parents may be seeing these behaviors differently,” said Heid.

Researchers also found that adult children perceive their parents as acting in ways commonly attributed to stubbornness more often than parents self-perceive such behaviors.

Again, adult children and aging parents may see these behaviors differently in their relationships, which may impact how they relate to one another or support one another.

“For practitioners or interventionists interacting with families, the work shows that stubbornness is a concern for families that likely should be discussed,” Heid said.

There are often basic differences within families about day-to-day goals that could impact how families provide care or support. It is likely, Heid says, that these differences are a barrier to providing support within families.

“Helping families learn how to talk about older adults’ preferences and about goal differences may be important in helping families best support older adults,” she said. “However, this may mean we need to do additional work and research to develop the best strategies to do so.”

“For families providing support to an older adult, this work confirms that these behaviors happen, but also that there is room for continued communication to ensure that there are shared goals in care and support,” Heid said.

Source: Pennsylvania State/EurekAlert

The Challenge of Communicating with Aging Parents

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). The Challenge of Communicating with Aging Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.