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Aging parents, adult children: Who’s stubborn?

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As parents get older, attempts to hold on to independence can be at odds with well-intentioned suggestions from their adult children. Entreaties to stop carrying the laundry up and down the stairs or to have someone come in to help one day a week may be ignored, which can lead to hurt feelings or frustration.

A new study may help adult children and their parents have more constructive conversations. Researchers examined differences in how the two groups perceive so-called “stubborn” behaviors in parents, as well as factors that may lead to these perceptions. The findings, reported in January in The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, aim to help family members understand each other better and strengthen support for older adults.

The researchers interviewed 189 pairs of middle-age adults and their parents to find out how often adult children perceive their parents as acting as stubborn, compared to how often parents see this behavior in themselves. (“Stubborn” was defined as insisting or persisting in actions and opinions or resisting help or advice.) The researchers also assessed individual personality traits, the quality of the parent-child relationship, and other factors that might contribute to perceptions of stubbornness.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, adult children saw their parents as acting stubborn more often than parents saw this behavior in themselves. More than three-quarters of children said their parents acted in stubborn ways “sometimes” during the past few months, while two-thirds of parents said this.

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Adult children also seemed to link perceptions of stubbornness with how they view their relationship with their parents. Children who reported positive relationships noted less stubborn behavior — perhaps because, as the researchers note, parents in better-functioning relationships “may be more amenable to their children’s suggestions, and children may be more sensitive to parents’ needs and goals.”

Parents, meanwhile, were more likely to link perceptions of their behavior to who they are as people. Those who saw themselves as less agreeable, more neurotic, or as having a stubborn personality were more likely to self-report “stubborn” behavior.

While the researchers noted that more work is needed to identify specific support and intervention strategies, coauthor Steven Zarit, distinguished professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, offered a piece of advice: Don’t try to win arguments.

“[These arguments] are often not based on reasoning or on careful examinations of advantages and disadvantages,” he said. “They’re tapping into a process that’s much deeper.”

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He recommends that children plant ideas, take a step back, and then bring up the advantages and disadvantages of an idea later on. The key is to stay engaged, but to tread lightly.

“When a child thinks, ‘my parent is stubborn,’ that’s the end of engagement with the parent,” Zarit said. “It’s easier to have a conversation if you think, ‘my mother is trying to hold on to the things that are important to her,’ not that she’s just stubborn.”

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.