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

For many emerging adults, the age of 18 to 25 marks a milestone in life to explore what matters to them and to assume new legal rights and responsibilities, including their personal health information and medical decisions. But this transition to independence can create unstable family dynamics, especially when emerging adults remain in their parents’ health insurance plans.

A new study from Iowa State University finds that open dialogue and mutual sharing of information between parents and emerging adults reduces barriers to health conversations, which can lead to better overall health outcomes for the emerging adult.

“If you are a new adult who is worried about what a parent might think, especially if it is a health problem that is stigmatized or your choice to deal with the health problem is not in line with your parent’s values, then chances are to avoid looking for treatment or looking for an alternative path, “said Catherine Rafferty, an associate professor of psychology and communication research at Iowa State University and co-author of the new publication, published in Western Journal of Communication.

In the United States, turning 18 means that a person can make medical decisions without parental consent. They also take legal ownership of their personal health information. But with the Affordable Care Act, older children can stay in their parents’ health insurance plans until they are 26 years birthday. So while parents are unfamiliar with their adult child’s medical records, they still receive bills.

When mom and dad pay for their adult child’s health, every time they go to the doctor or seek medical help, it leads to the need for conversation. “

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

To find out how personal health information conversations are developing between emerging adults and their parents, Rafferty, along with Associate Professor of English Tina Kofult and a research team of students, surveyed more than 300 students; the majority were in their parents’ health insurance plans and came from a traditional, nuclear family with a mother and father.

Researchers have identified three important factors that influence whether an emerging adult discloses parental health information: relationship quality, reciprocity, and compliance.

“In general, how good a relationship do I have with my mom or dad? Did my parents share their own health information or make decisions with me when I grew up? Did I grow up in a family that talked about health issues? Are my parents open to differences or did they expect me to conform to family norms? ā€¯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 occur much more often with mothers than with fathers.

“Given gender norms and the way men and women socialize differently, it makes sense in a traditional family to have that desire or desire to be more open with the mother than with the father,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty and other researchers point out that mothers are usually the ones who monitor doctor’s appointments and family health information. Sharing health information with the mother as an emerging adult may simply be a continuation of past behavior and be based on previously shared knowledge of the emerging adult’s health history.


Researchers have found that emerging adults are much more likely to talk to their parents about their health if their parents model this behavior at the beginning of the relationship. Rafferty said sharing information also helps emerging adults better manage their health, whether they’re updating their family health history in the doctor’s office or seeking extra care.

“We are learning more and more about some cancers and mental health problems that have genetic components. It’s so important in these cases, especially for new adults, to know what they’re prone to, that they’re not alone, and that they have the support of their parents, “Rafferty said.

Compliance orientation

Researchers have found that stigma around certain health topics (such as sexual behavior) also has a big effect on health disclosure. Emerging adults who are worried about not being ashamed or want to protect their relationship with their father are more likely to withhold personal health information from them, especially if they come from “high compliance” families. However, this did not affect the conversation with the mother about personal health problems.

“With a high orientation to conformism, there is a lot of pressure to follow family norms, usually from a father figure in a traditional family,” Rafferty explained, citing Jack Burns (Robert De Niro’s character) in Meet the Parents. this expectation of what family members can and cannot talk about. “

Rafferty cited the TV show “Modern Family” as an example of low compliance. In this show, family members are accepted and embraced for a different way of life.

The new findings highlight how family dynamics affect whether emerging adults share personal health information and involve their parents in medical decisions. Open and respectful conversations and mutual sharing of information in the beginning can improve the overall health of the emerging adult and reduce family conflicts.

Raferti, whose research focuses on parents with medically complex children, also recommended that parents include their children when managing their health.

If your child has diabetes, teach him how to take his insulin or figure out what foods to eat to fight low blood sugar, instead of just waiting for mom or dad to say, “Okay, it’s time to take your insulin She explained.

Rafferty said including children in their own health care and making medical decisions together could make the transition to adulthood much smoother. Emerging adults will feel more empowered and know they have support when they go through a health problem.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that health issues will affect us all at some point,” Rafferty said. “We all had to pause and reevaluate our physical health and well-being. How parents’ role models for their children will affect the way they talk and approach health issues as they become new adults.


Reference in the magazine:

Rafferty, California, et al. (2021) Understanding the criteria for disclosing personal health information between emerging adults and their parents. Western Journal of Communication.

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