Open family conversations and mutual information sharing can improve the health of emerging adults


For many emerging adults, the time between 18 and 25 marks a stage in life for exploring what matters to them and taking on new legal rights and responsibilities, including their own private health information and medical decision-making. . But this transition to independence can create a sticky family dynamic, especially when emerging adults stay on their parents’ health insurance plans.

A new study from Iowa State University finds that open dialogue and reciprocal information sharing between parents and emerging adults reduces barriers to discussion about health, which may lead to better overall health outcomes for an emerging adult.

“If you are an emerging adult who is worried about what a parent might think, especially if it is a health issue that is stigmatized or your choices for dealing with the condition do not match to your parents’ values, then there’s a good chance you’ll avoid seeking treatment or looking for an alternative path, ”said Katherine Rafferty, associate professor of psychology and communication studies at Iowa State University, and co-author of the new publication published in Western Journal of Communication.

In the United States, being 18 means a person can make medical decisions without parental consent. They also assume legal ownership of their private health information. But with the Affordable Care Act, adult children can stay in their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26.e birthday. So although parents may not be aware of their adult child’s medical records, they still receive bills.

When mom and dad pay for the health of their adult child, every time they see a doctor or see a doctor, it lends itself to needing to have a conversation. “

Katherine Rafferty, Associate Professor of Psychology and Communication Studies, Iowa State University

To understand how conversations about private health information played out between emerging adults and their parents, Rafferty, along with Associate Professor of English Tina Coffelt and a research team of undergraduates, interviewed more than 300 university students; most were affiliated with their parents’ health insurance plans and came from a traditional nuclear family with a mother and father.

Researchers have found three important factors that affect whether an emerging adult discloses health information to a parent: relationship quality, reciprocity, and compliance.

“Basically how good do I have a relationship with mom or dad?” Did my parents share their own health information or decisions with me when I was young? Did I grow up in a family that talked about health issues? are my parents open to differences or expect me to conform to family standards? Rafferty explained.

Relational quality

Researchers have found that emerging adults who perceive their parents as open and respectful are more likely to talk about health issues, but these conversations tend to take place much more frequently with mothers than with fathers.

“Considering gender norms and how men and women are socialized differently, it makes sense that in a traditional family there might be this desire or willingness to be more open with mom than with dad. “said Rafferty.

Rafferty and the other researchers have pointed out that mothers are usually the ones who keep track of doctor’s appointments and health information in families. Sharing health information with the mother as an emerging adult may simply be a continuation of past behaviors and build on previously shared knowledge about the emerging adult’s health history.


Researchers found that emerging adults were much more likely to tell their parents about their health if their parents modeled this behavior early in the relationship. Rafferty said sharing information with each other also helps emerging adults manage their health better, whether they’re updating their family history at the doctor’s office or seeking additional care.

“We’re learning more and more about certain types of cancer and mental health issues that have genetic components. It is so important in these cases, especially for emerging adults, to know what they are predisposed to, that they are not alone, and that they have the support of their parents, ”said Rafferty.

Compliance guidance

Researchers found that stigma around certain health topics (eg, sexual behaviors) also had a strong effect on health disclosures. Emerging adults who feared shame or wanted to protect a relationship with their father were more likely to withhold private health information from them, especially if they came from families with “high compliance orientations.” However, it did not influence speaking with a mother about private health issues.

“With a strong focus on conformity, there’s a lot of pressure to meet family norms, usually from a father figure in a traditional family,” Rafferty explained, giving the example of Jack Byrnes (the character by Robert De Niro) from the movie “Meet the Parents.” “There is this expectation of what we can and cannot talk about with family members.”

Rafferty cited the TV show “Modern Family” as an example of low compliance guidance. In this show, family members are accepted and adopted to have different lifestyles.

The new findings highlight how family dynamics determine whether emerging adults share private health information and involve their parents when making medical decisions. Open and respectful conversations and the sharing of reciprocal information early on can improve the overall health of an emerging adult and reduce family conflict.

Rafferty, whose area of ​​research tends to focus on parents of medically complex children, also recommended that parents involve their children in the management of their health.

“If your child has diabetes, teach them how to administer their insulin or figure out what foods to eat to fight low blood sugar, rather than waiting for mom or dad to say, ‘OK, it’s time to take your insulin.’ , she said.

Rafferty said that including children in their own health management and medical decision-making together can ease the transition to emerging adulthood. Emerging adults will feel more empowered and know they have support when they are experiencing a health problem.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that health issues will affect us all at some point,” Rafferty said. “We’ve all had to take a break and re-evaluate our physical health and well-being. How parents model this for their children will influence the way they talk and approach health issues as they become emerging adults.”


Journal reference:

Rafferty, KA, et al. (2021) Understand the criteria that predict the disclosure of private health information between emerging adults and their parents. Western Journal of Communication.


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