A quick search on the internet returns all kinds of resources aimed at helping parents communicate with their young kids or teenagers. But, what happens when teens turn into young adults? When it comes to disclosing important news to young adult children, how can parents do so in a way that results in closer relationships?
"My previous research had indicated that parents really struggle with how to deliver important news effectively to their grown kids," says Erin Donovan, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Health Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Donovan is the lead author of a new study recently published in the National Communication Association's journal Communication Monographs, and highlighted in the association's newly released research digest, Communication Currents.
"You can find information online like 'how to tell your kindergartener that you have cancer in a way she can understand,'" says Donovan, "but there's virtually no guidance for how to talk to young adult children, even though parents, understandably, worry about how to do this. I wanted to be able to say to parents: Here's how to disclose important news well to your adult children."
In their study, Donovan and her co-authors Charee M. Thompson of Ohio University, Leah LeFebvre of the University of Wyoming, and Andrew C. Tollison of Merrimack College identified three tips that could help parents communicate big news to their adult kids, while making sure that their relationship grows stronger: providing access to information, relating as peers, and communicating with candor.
Nearly 300 college students were asked to recall and describe in detail a time when a parent had shared important information with them. Topics of disclosure included a parent's illness, the death of a loved one, a change in parental employment, a move, and family secrets or family turbulence. The participants wrote about what contributed to the success or failure of the conversation. They were also asked what they would keep the same or change were the conversation to happen again.
Access to Information. Students indicated that parental disclosures were evaluated based on how cooperatively parents seemed to offer access to a sufficient quantity of information. Responses mentioning this dimension tended to focus on how parents "filled us in as much as they could" or whether a participant felt that he or she had "learned everything I needed to know." When a parent had been relatively unwilling or unable to provide access to information, participants noted their dissatisfaction with the lack of information provided.
Candor. Another aspect students noted was "candor," which was related to participant descriptions of how honest, straightforward, and unambiguous parents were when disclosing. When children knew or felt that parents had been dishonest, the communication was deemed unsuccessful. One participant explained:
Recently my mom was having surgery and had to have some tests run the day before. I called her to ask how her tests had gone and she explained that they went fine. That was the end of the conversation. Then the next day I talked to her, she explained that she had lied to me the day before and one of her tests had come back with an abnormality. I was devastated because she tried to hide it from me.
Relating as Peers. Another theme that emerged was that children deemed disclosure more successful when "relating as peers" with their parents. When parents opened up in a manner that reflected an appreciation for a child's maturity, participants perceived that the communication was more successful. They described their parents as "being real," treating them as adults and confiding in them the way a friend or peer would, rather than shielding them the way parents do with young children.
In a follow-up study, the researchers confirmed that providing access to as much information as possible when communicating with their young adult children and relating to them as peers during these disclosures could predict increased disclosure quality, which in turn predicted relational closeness. Candor didn't predict either disclosure quality or relational closeness.
This study provides a needed analysis of how emerging adult confidants view parental openness and its relational outcomes. Disclosure may be an important way to promote and maintain relational closeness even as young adults become more independent from their parents.
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