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Parent and Child Face-Off: Stubborn or Independent?

Located in upstate New York, Oneonta gets dumped with 75 inches of snow annually. After most snowfalls, longtime resident Lois shoveled her sidewalk — even into her 80s — although she didn't need to go anywhere and her family begged her to stop.

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When Lois’ granddaughter, Allison R. Heid, was researching topics for her human development and family studies dissertation, she recalled her grandmother’s behavior and that of other older adults who insist on acting a certain way and, as a result, are labeled as stubborn personalities. She started researching how aging parents often respond to advice or help from their adult children by “insisting, resisting or persisting in their ways or opinions.”

One of her goals was to distinguish between stubbornness as a fixed personality trait or as a behavior in reaction to a particular situation that parents and children perceive differently. “My grandmother insisted on shoveling even at age 82, because she wanted to maintain her independence and sense of control. From my perspective, I wanted her to be safe and not have her arthritis act up,” Heid says. “She was not a stubborn personality but acting with stubbornness at the time.”

Heid, a project director at the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, found that stubbornness does not define a person but often reflects a difference in perception between the parent and adult child. The distinction is important, she says, because a personality trait is regarded as fixed and unchangeable, while a behavior can be modified.

The results of Heid’s research were published this month in the Journals of Gerontology. She surveyed adult children ages 45-65 and parents ages 63-95 from the same 189 families. Although the ages of “ adult children” are older than we typically discuss, the issue of stubbornness is one many of us face.

While doing research interviews, Heid found no shortage of anecdotes about parents acting stubborn. Adult children cited situations from parents insisting on driving or eating poorly to constantly clipping coupons or wearing certain clothes.

More than 75 percent of adult children and 66 percent of parents reported head-butting conflicts at least sometimes. But the two groups had different perspectives as to the cause. Children attributed the conflicts to the parent’s disability and their difficult personal relationship. Parents who admitted they were acting stubborn attributed it to their own “neurotic” or "disagreeable” personalities.

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Seeing stubbornness as a behavior rather than a personality trait means that there are ways to counter it.  “How should adult children respond to parents who are acting stubborn? Argue? Let it go? Wait for another day? Ask a third party to intercede?” asks Heid, who is looking for answers through her research. (Author Carolyn Rosenblatt offers suggestions in her book The Boomer's Guide to Aging Parents.)

What worked with Heid’s grandmother? “Sometimes she would stop shoveling to pacify us and other times do it anyway. She was a spitfire to the day she died!”

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21 ,  tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond. 

Photo: Paulbaleta/iStock

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