Provo, Utah, April 4, 2005 – Kathy Williams-Palmer had a terrible relationship with her mother. Their arguments over even insignificant topics were so stressful it made them both sick. After bad encounters, Mom would end up in the emergency room with chest pains while Kathy would come down with colds or fall into depression.
According to a new VitalSmarts Web survey, Williams-Palmer isn’t alone. More than 30 percent of adults say their relationship with their mother or father is less than satisfactory. One in three adults say they can’t spend more than a day with their parents before they feel emotional stress, while 17 percent of respondents say they can’t last three hours.
What’s more, previous studies have linked patterns of bad relationships to illness – even serious diseases. For example, the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study, a 35-year longitudinal study of 126 healthy college graduates, showed 95 percent of those who had bad relationships with a parent acquired serious diseases by midlife including high blood pressure, ulcers and alcoholism. Only 29 percent of those with good relationships had the same problem.
Joseph Grenny, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, says the surprising finding in the study is that just because you experience high amounts of conflict with your parents doesn’t mean you can’t have happy, fulfilling relationships.
“Those who were skilled at holding crucial conversations with their parents were just as happy as those who had no conflict at all,” says Grenny. “The key to a happy relationship is how skilled you are at holding crucial conversations with your loved ones – children and parents alike. A little more skill can lead to a lot more happiness, and perhaps better health.”
Williams-Palmer realized becoming skilled at talking with her mother candidly and respectfully would produce the relationship she wanted.
“I realized if my mother and I began to treat each other based on today’s actions and stopped worrying about changing the past, we would both be able to love each other easier,” Williams- Palmer says.
Grenny says he and his colleagues were also surprised by the root cause of the parent/child conflict reported in the VitalSmarts survey.
“The biggest surprise was almost half of those 40-60 years old say the conflict stems from childhood,” says Grenny. “Adult children ‘act out’ old grudges through avoidance or hostility.”
In Williams-Palmer’s case, she agonized over wanting her mother to acknowledge past abuses. However, after conscious work on improving how she communicates, the relationship has profoundly changed – as has her health.
“Now I show up to family functions and leave without incident,” says Williams-Palmer. “I don’t get sick before I have to see her and suffer days of depression after. When an issue arises, I deal with it in the moment – confidently and candidly. Our relationship works now, and that’s the best Mother’s Day present I could ever give her or myself.”
Leaders in organizational performance and leadership, the founders of VitalSmarts have co- authored three books including two New York Times bestsellers: Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. VitalSmarts has trained more than 300,000 people worldwide including leaders of 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. www.vitalsmarts.com
Note to editors: Please contact us for tips to begin the process of healthy communication. Joseph Grenny and Kathy Williams-Palmer are available for interviews. Citation for Harvard Study: Russek LG, Schwartz EG. Feelings of parental caring predict health status in midlife: A 35-year follow-up of the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study. J Beh Med. 1997; 20: 1-13.