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Family Matters No. 32 - August 1992

No more than a phone call away

Robyn Hartley

Abstract

As part of the Institute's Becoming Adult Study of 23 year olds, questions were asked of the 85 respondents (62 per cent of the total group) who were not living with either parent about their contact with their parents. Those who were living with only one of their natural parents where the other parent was alive (25 respondents in all) were asked what contact they had with the absent parent. This article reports the findings, and shows that, although young adults often live far from parents and have very different lives, they generally place considerable importance on maintaining regular contact. However, different patterns of contact were found for young women and men, and for families with divorced and separated parents.

Sprawling city development and the need to search for employment often lead to young adults living far from parents. Time spent travelling to work, the general pressures of life, and different generational interests further add up to less time and fewer opportunities for regular contact between parents and young adults who have left home.

In addition, some have left home because of conflict with their parents or to escape a destructive family; relationships and loyalties are sometimes strained by parental separation and repartnering. All this might suggest that once young people leave home, parents take a back seat in their lives.

While this is certainly true to some extent, and the prime concern of most young adults is to establish an independent life, there are signs that maintaining regular contact with parents is important to young people, and that there is a considerable amount of mutual support.

Young adults may feel closer to their parents after leaving home (Kenny 1987). Greater understanding and more mutual tolerance is possible once young people have been able to separate from parents and establish their own identity (White, Speisman and Costos 1983).

There is also general acceptance that 'individuation' from parents implies autonomy but not necessarily emotional distance. Maintaining positive family connections is seen as a sign of healthy development for young people (Moore 1987), although there are certainly times when damaging family circumstances make it a lot healthier to avoid close contact.

The Institute's Becoming Adult study of 138 23-year-olds included young adults who had grown up in two-parent, single-parent and stepfamilies. We asked the 85 respondents (62 per cent of the total group) who were not living with either parent about their contact with their parents. We also asked those who were living with only one of their natural parents and the other parent was alive (25 respondents in all), what contact they had with the absent parent.

PATTERNS OF CONTACT

Telephoning and visiting were both important but since a high proportion of respondents did not live close to their parents, telephoning was the most frequent means of keeping in touch. Overall, 68 per cent said they had some contact with their mother or father at least once a week. Daily or almost daily contact was reported by a minority, and by considerably more women than men. Those who lived closest (up to about an hour's drive away) tended to have more frequent telephone contact; those living further away were less frequently on the phone. However, some parents and offspring who lived in different states still managed more than weekly phone calls.

It was not always possible to determine who called who, but it was clear that the 23-year-olds initiated a significant proportion of contact. Typical comments were: 'I ring her just to see how she is', 'to see what's she's been up to'.

Sometimes, when young adults lived close to their parents, visits and phone calls were both frequent, or there were regular visiting patterns such as going to the parents' home for dinner once a week, or calling in on the way to or from work. But more commonly, phone calls were frequent and visits less so, depending on distance.

For example, Glen's parents live in a country town about three hours' drive away. He only sees them two or three times a year, but he talks to one or the other on the phone two or three times a week. Angela and her parents live in suburbs about an hour-and- a-half's drive apart. She rings them up about twice a week and she and her parents alternate visits to each other's house nearly every weekend.

FAMILY TYPE

A respondent's background, whether from an intact, single- parent or stepfamily, did not appear to have a significant bearing on the frequency of contact with the parent or parents the young person grew up with. The pattern of at least weekly phone calls, less frequent visits, depending on distance, and the proportion of young adults and parents who had regular contact were both very similar across all family types. What was different was whether young adults kept in touch with one or both parents.

Those who had lived with both parents until their mid to late- adolescence tended to keep in touch with both. However, it was apparent that mothers often play a special part in maintaining contact. They tend to be the ones handling phone calls ('It's usually Mum I speak to because Dad's too lazy to answer the phone'), who organise visits and the celebration of special occasions, who are available to help out if they are not employed, and who generally have the role of carer ('My sister's having a baby and Mum's down for that, so I'm seeing her a bit'). Nevertheless, some fathers, too, had special relations with their adult children, such as the man who had a regular arrangement to play tennis with his son.

If parents separated during their children's teenage years, the pattern of contact with both parents after leaving home frequently changed (see Robyn Hartley's article elsewhere in this issue on the effects of parental separation on older adolescents and young adults).

Eight young adults had parents who separated after the respondents were 16 years old. Three still saw both their mother and father; five saw only one parent. In all but one instance, it was fathers who were no longer in contact, but whether it was the mother or father depended on a number of factors, including the circumstances of the separation.

Three-quarters of the young adults who grew up in a stepfamily maintained at least weekly contact with one natural parent and a step-parent, and in almost all cases, it was with a mother and a stepfather, reflecting the predominant custody arrangement. Of those who still had two parents alive, a little over 40 per cent had no contact with their other natural parent; however, those who did keep in touch with both parents had infrequent contact with the other natural parent. They visited, heard from, or telephoned them less than once a month. Again, the distant parent was almost always a father. These patterns did not just begin when young people left home; some had not seen their father (occasionally their mother) for years.

The pattern for young adults brought up in a single- parent family was similar. Sixty-four per cent had at least weekly contact with the parent they grew up with; just over 40 per cent who still had two parents alive had no contact, or very infrequent contact, with their other parent; those who did keep in touch with both parents tended to see or hear from the other parent about once a month or less frequently.

We asked young adults who grew up in a stepfamily or a single- parent family and who were still living with one natural parent, whether they saw or heard from their other parent. The numbers involved are very small so findings can only be suggestive. It seems that in both family types, young adults living at home may be even less likely than those living away from home, to have regular contact or any contact at all with their other parent (mostly fathers). Again, the lack of contact is frequently not a recent development and goes back to childhood.

GENDER

There were some interesting findings concerning women's and men's contact with their parents. Overall, there was a tendency for a greater proportion of women than men (73 per cent compared with 57 per cent) to be in touch with parents once a week or more frequently.

However, while this was pronounced among those who grew up in intact and stepfamilies, it was not the case for offspring growing up in single-parent families. In single- parent families, women and men were equally likely to see or hear from their parents frequently, and the women from single-parent families were slightly less likely than the women from other family types to have frequent contact. There are several possible explanations for this tendency, which needs to be further explored. Bonds between single parents and their children are often very strong and there may be a tendency for gender roles to be less defined (Stinson 1991), so men and women may feel similarly close to the parent they grew up with. However, opportunities for earlier independence in single-parent families may contribute to fewer women who grow up with a single parent having frequent contact with that parent.

HAVING CHILDREN

Some young adults said that marrying and having children tended to bring them and their parents (but most particularly mothers and daughters) closer together, partly because there are roles that they share. All but one of the 23-year-olds who had children and were living away from their parents had frequent contact with one or both parents, that is, phoning and/or visiting more than once a week. Some lived close by and this was easy; others didn't. Generally the frequent contact seemed to be welcomed and initiated by both parents and their adult offspring.

There are, of course, instances where having children fractures parent-child relationships, rather than strengthening or enhancing them. For example, one young woman lived in the same town as her parents but rarely saw them because they didn't approve of her long-term de facto partner, the father of her two children.

SUPPORT FROM PARENTS

The frequency of contact between young adults and their children is only an indicator of family networks and the interaction between separate households. It doesn't tell us about the nature of the relationships, or whether and how they are generally supportive. For that we can look partly to financial transfers and to emotional and general support between parents and their young adult offspring.

Just under half of the 23-year-olds living away from home said they had received some financial help from parents when they left. Most frequently, this was in the form of furniture and other household goods (40 per cent of respondents), or help with accommodation costs such as temporary subsidy of rent (32 per cent), or paying a bond (30 per cent). Less frequently, parents helped with loans or gifts of money, and a quarter of the respondents said their parents had given them general financial support in a crisis.

Approximately one in eight of those who lived away from their parents said they currently received some financial help, citing a variety of one-off amounts over the previous 12 months, ranging from $200 for unanticipated expenses to a loan of $6000; the median amount was $800.

We asked all the 23-year-olds in the study whether, since they were 16, there had been someone they could rely on most of the time, someone to support them when they needed it. Ninety-three per cent (all but nine of the 138 respondents) said there was such a person and a third of the respondents mentioned two people. Families figured very strongly: all of those who said they had someone to rely on mentioned some family member or other relative. Parents generally and mothers were most frequently mentioned, followed by fathers and brothers and sisters.

The much more frequent singling out of mothers compared with fathers is no doubt partly because the group included young adults from step- and single-parent families who had had limited contact with their fathers over a period of years. It may also be a result of mothers being generally more emotionally involved with their children.

Independence and autonomy are important to young adults. Being away from parents gives them greater opportunities to live their own lives and make their own decisions. Not all parent-adult offspring relationships are positive; some young adults are ambivalent about their parents, and a small minority neither see, nor want to see, their parents. Nevertheless, in general, family connections and mutual support remain important.

REFERENCES

  • Kenny, M.E. (1987), 'The extent and function of parental attachment among first-year college students', Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol.16, No.1.
  • Moore, D. (1987), 'Parent-adolescent separation: the construction of adultood by late adolescents', Developmental Psychology, Vol.23, No.2.
  • Stinson, K.M. (1991), Adolescents, Family and Friends: Social Support After Parents' Divorce Or Remarriage, Praeger Publishers, New York.
  • White, K.M., Speisman, J.C. and Costos, D. (1983), 'Young adults and their parents: individuation to mutuality' in Grotevant, H.D. and Cooper, C.R. (eds), Adolescent Development In the Family, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.