Family Dynamics Can Help Establish Open Dialogue About Health Between Adult Children, Parents


Study investigators identified 3 significant factors that affect whether an emerging adult discloses health information to a parent.

Open dialogue and reciprocal information sharing between parents and emerging adults, defined as adults between the ages of 18 and 25 years, reduce barriers for talking about health and can lead to a better overall health outcome for emerging adults, according to a new study from Iowa State University.

"If you're an emerging adult who's worried about what a parent might think, particularly if it's a health issue that's stigmatized or your choices in handling the health issue do not align with your parent's values, then chances are you're going to avoid seeking treatment or look for an alternative route," Katherine Rafferty, PhD, an associate teaching professor of psychology and communication studies at Iowa State University, said in a statement.

In the US, when an individual turns 18, they can make medical decisions without parental consent and have legal ownership over their private health information. However, under the Affordable Care Act, adult children can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26 years old.

Investigators of the study identified 3 significant factors that affect whether an emerging adult discloses health information to a parent, including relational quality, reciprocity, and conformity.

Additionally, more than 300 college students were surveyed, and the majority of individuals were on their parents’ health insurance plans and came from a traditional family with a mother and a father. Investigators found that emerging adults who perceived their parents as being open and respectful were more likely to talk about health issues, but typically with their mothers more frequently than their fathers. Rafferty explained that mothers are typically the ones that keep track of medical and health information for families, so this could be a potential reason adult children will typically share information with their mothers.

Investigators also found that emerging adults were much more likely to talk to their parents about their health if parents reciprocated this behavior early in the relationship. Rafferty noted that reciprocal information could also help emerging adults better manage their health.

The stigma around certain health topics, like sexual health, also had a big effect on health disclosures. Emerging adults who were worried about feeling ashamed or wanting to protect a relationship with their father were more likely to conceal private health information from them. This concealment was particularly prevalent in families with high conformity orientations, but it did not influence their openness with their mothers.

"If COVID has taught us anything, it is that health issues will impact all of us at some point," Rafferty said in the statement. "We have all had to pause and re-evaluate our physical health and well-being. How parents model this for their children will influence how they talk about and approach health issues when they become emerging adults."

The new findings highlight how family dynamics can significantly impact whether or not adult children decide to share their health information with their parents. Specifically, open and respectful conversations early in that parent-child relationship can improve an emerging adult’s overall health and reduce the potential for family conflict.


Family dynamics can motivate and prevent talking about health. ScienceDaily. News release. December 9, 2021. Accessed December 9, 2021.

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