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Early and Middle Adulthood: Building Effective Lives

16 February, 2016 - 09:24


  1. Review the physical and cognitive changes that accompany early and middle adulthood

Until the 1970s, psychologists tended to treat adulthood as a single developmental stage, with few or no distinctions made among the various periods that we pass through between adolescence a nd death. Present-day psychologists realize, however, that physical, cognitive, and emotional responses continue to develop throughout life, with corresponding changes in our social needs and desires. Thus the three stages of earlyadulthood, middleadulthood, and late adulthood each has its own physical, cognitive, and social challenges.

In this section, we will consider the development of our cognitive and physical aspects that occur during early adulthood and middle adulthood—roughly theages between 25 and 45 and between45 and 65, respectively. These stages represent a long period of time—longer, in fact, than any of the other developmental stages—and the bulk of our lives is spent in them. These are also the periods in which most of us make our most substantial contributions to society, by meeting two of Erik Erikson’s life challenges: We learn to give and receive love in a close, long-term relationship, and we develop an interest in guiding the development of the next generation, often by becoming parents.

Psychology in Everyday Life: What Makes a Good Parent?

One thing that you may have wondered about as you grew up, and which you may start to think about again if you decide to have children yourself, concerns the skills involved in parenting. Some parents are strict, others are lax; some parents spend a lot of time with their kids, trying to resolve their problems and helping to keep them out of dangerous situations, whereas others leave their children with nannies or in day care. Some parents hug and kiss their kids and say that they love them over and over every day, whereas others never do. Do these behaviors matter? And what makes a “good parent”?

We have already considered two answers to this question, in the form of what all children require: (1) babies need a conscientious mother who does not smoke, drink, or use drugs during her pregnancy, and (2) infants need caretakers who are consistently available, loving, and supportive to help them form a secure base. One case in which these basic goals are less likely to be met is when the mother is an adolescent. Adolescent mothers are more likely to use drugs and alcohol during their pregnancies, to have poor parenting skills in general, and to provide insufficient support for the child (Ekéus, Christensson, & Hjern, 2004). 1 As a result, the babies of adolescent mothers have higher rates of academic failure, delinquency, and incarceration in comparison to children of older mothers (Moore & Brooks-Gunn, 2002). 2

Normally, it is the mother who provides early attachment, but fathers are not irrelevant. In fact, studies have found that children whose fathers are more involved tend to be more cognitively and socially competent, more empathic, and psychologically better adjusted, compared with children whose fathers are less involved (Rohner & Veneziano, 2001). 3 In fact, Amato (1994) 4 found that, in some cases, the role of the father can be as or even more important than that of the mother in the child’s overall psychological health and well-being. Amato concluded, “Regardless of the quality of the mother-child relationship, the closer adult offspring were to their fathers, the happier, more satisfied, and less distressed they reported being” (p. 1039).

As the child grows, parents take o n one of four types ofparenting styles—parentalbehaviors that determinethenature of parent-childinteractionsand that guide their interaction with the child. These styles depend on whether the parent is more or less demanding and more or less responsiveto the child (see Figure 6.5). Authoritarianparents are demanding but not responsive. They impose rules and expect obedience, tending to give orders (“Eat your food!”) and enforcing their commands with rewards and punishment, without providing any explanation of where the rules came from, except “Because I said so!” Permissive parents, on the other hand, tend to make few demands and give little punishment, but they are responsive in the sense that they generally allow their children to make their own rules. Authoritative parentsare demanding (“You must be home by curfew”), but they are also responsive to the needs and opinions of the child (“Let’s discuss what an appropriate curfew might be”). They set rules and enforce them, but they also explain and discuss the reasons behind the rules. Finally, rejecting-neglectingparentsare undemanding and unresponsive overall.

Figure 6.5 Parenting Styles

Parenting stylecan be divided into four types,based othe combinatioof demandingnesanresponsiveness. Thauthoritative style,characterizeby both responsivenesanalsdemandingness,is thmosteffectiveMany studies of children and their parents, using different methods, measures, and samples, have reached the same conclusion—namely, that authoritative parenting, in comparison to the other three styles, is associated with a wide range of psychological and social advantages for children. Parents who use the authoritative style, with its combination of demands on the children as well as responsiveness to the children’s needs, have kids who have better psychological adjustment, school performance, and psychosocial maturity, compared with parents who use the other styles (Baumrind, 1996; Grolnick & Ryan, 1989). 5On the other hand, there are at least some cultural differences in the effectiveness of different parenting styles. Although the reasons for the differences are not completely understood, strict authoritarian parenting styles seem to work better in African American families than in European American families (Tamis-LeMonda, Briggs, McClowry, & Snow, 2008), 6 and better in Chinese families than in American families (Chang, Lansford, Schwartz, & Farver, 2004). 7

Despite the fact that different parenting styles are differentially effective overall, every child is different and parents must be adaptable. Some children have particularly difficult temperaments, and these children require more parenting. Because these difficult children demand more parenting, the behaviors of the parents matter more for the children’s development than they do for other, less demanding children who require less parenting overall (Pleuss & Belsky, 2010). 8 These findings remind us how the behavior of the child can influence the behavior of the people in his or her environment.

Although the focus is on the child, the parents must never forget about each other. Parenting is time consuming and emotionally taxing, and the parents must work together to create a relationship in which both mother and father contribute to the household tasks and support each other. It is also important for the parents to invest time in their own intimacy, as happy parents are more likely to stay together, and divorce has a profoundly negative impact on children, particularly during and immediately after the divorce (Burt, Barnes, McGue, & Iaconon, 2008; Ge, Natsuaki, & Conger, 2006). 9