families untied

The ties that unbind

Study looks at young adults with no parental ties

From emotional and financial support to good old unconditional love and affection, it’s hard to overstate the value of a close relationship between parents and their children. 

But what about the relationship between young adults and their parent figures? What about the 25-year-old whose father is incarcerated and whose mother is deceased? What about the 30-year-old who has never known either parent? 

What is the incidence of severed or nonexistent parental ties among young adults in the U.S. and how does a lack of parental support affect the emergence of inequalities over the course of their life?

A new study by sociology assistant professor Caroline Hartnett and a pair of co-investigators from the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin addresses some of these questions and raises others.

Using data from the 2008-09 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Hartnett and her co-investigators estimate that 20 percent of young adults age 25-32 lack relationships with a father figure in the U.S. compared to 6 percent of young adults who lack relationships with a mother figure. 

But even the maternal figure is higher than Hartnett expected. “For mothers, we tend to assume the presence of mothers in their kids’ lives, and those bonds tend to be strong, so I was expecting the percentage to be below 5 percent,” she says.

The study also yielded valuable information about the reasons relationships sever between young adults and their parents.

“For those who lack relationships with mother figures, the overwhelming reason is that mother figure has died,” says Hartnett. “In contrast, those who lack relationships with father figures are more evenly split across the three pathways — i.e. their father figure has died, they’re estranged from their father figure or they never had a father figure to begin with.”

And these relationships — or lack thereof — have become increasingly important in recent decades, in large part because it takes so much longer for young adults to become financially independent.

“It’s useful to have financial help from your parents, or at least financial help when there are emergencies, as well as advice and emotional support while navigating the process of charting a career,” says Hartnett. “Young adults are also marrying later, so parents are partially filling in for the supportive role that a spouse might have played in the past.”

When the next wave of data comes in, Hartnett plans to look more closely at what happens over time to young adults who lack parental relationships in terms of their educational attainment, career trajectories, and physical and mental health.

“I’m also interested in looking at fluctuation in parental relationships over time,” says Hartnett. “Do young adults who lack parental ties in my data re-establish ties by the next wave of data collection? Conversely, how common is it for young adults who had active parental ties at the first time point to lack contact later?”

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