Dan Chen and Yuying Tong write about their research, recently published in Journal of Marriage and Family, in which they examined the association between children’s delayed marriage and parental psychological distress in China.
Strong intergenerational ties between parents and children exist in nearly all societies. Parents and children have mutual expectations across the entire period of parenthood. One of the normative expectations of parents about their adult children is that they should be able to successfully manage their adulthood. Any non-normative transitions of adult children may be seen by their parents as going off track, which could potentially jeopardize parents’ well-being. As a result, children’s unfulfilled roles may have consequences for parental well-being. Parents may suffer from stress due to children’s delayed marriage, which manifests itself as being unmarried beyond the socially-expected age. In their children’s failure to establish a family life, parents may see a personal failure to fulfill their parental role.
In the Chinese social context, Confucian norms proscribe reaching established adulthood by the age of 30. Established adulthood is comprised of three aspects: “self-independence, family-independence and career independence”. Nevertheless, with rapid economic development and social change in China, age-associated marriage norms have been challenged and there is increasing disagreement between parental expectations and children’s marriage choices. At the same time, marriage is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many people. Children who remain unmarried beyond the socially-expected age are often negatively labeled “leftover” or “bare-branches” in China. As a result, many parents may feel depressed by their lack of control and authority in the children’s marriage formation process. Furthermore, from the parents’ perspective children’s delayed marriage may threaten perceived parenthood fulfillment due to concerns over lineage disruption and as a result of social pressure in the immediate context. Moreover, from a practical perspective, Confucian culture also encourages the social norm of receiving support from married children, especially from married sons, so in a circumstance in which a children fails to start a family, parents may foresee a less secure future in later life.
Stress Mechanisms between Adult Children’s Life Events and Parents’ Well-Being
The linkage between children’s life issues and parental psychological well-being can be largely explained by stress process theory, which originated from the life course perspective. Life course theory emphasizes the salience of interconnections within family members and how life chances are interconnected between children and parents. As suggested by stress process theory, undesirable life events induce role strain, eroding a sense of mastery and self-esteem, and leading to a diminished self-concept, resulting in stress. Given the closely linked lives of children and parents, adult children’s adverse life events would lead to strains on parents’ roles in parenthood, decrease the parental sense of mastery, and induce a feeling of “lack of control” in their own lives due to their deficit in helping children to achieve life success, all of which trigger stress. Thus, the distressing problems of adult children may jeopardize parental well-being directly by heightening negative emotions in the form of stigma, worry and disappointment.
Beyond the stress triggered directly by the failure of their adult children to form a family, economic support and quality of intergenerational relationships may mediate the stress process of children’s marriage formation on parental psychological well-being. Given the feedback pattern between children and parents structured by Confucian tradition, it is reasonable to speculate that unmarried status of adult children will influence economic support flowing to parents, and economic support in turn affects parental psychological well-being. As suggested by the “generational stake” perspective, the young generation is more concerned about autonomy, whereas the older generation emphasizes continuity. As a result, the intergenerational dissonance over children’s family formation may induce intergenerational conflict and lower the quality of the intergenerational relationship. Therefore, parents’ satisfaction with the intergenerational relationship is expected to partially explain the linkage between children’s delayed marriage and parental psychological distress.
We analysed data from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study, and restricted the analytic sample to parents with children aged 30-44 in the year 2015. Parents’ ages ranged between 50 and 85, and those born in 1930-1965 were included. To take into consideration parents’ and children’s individual characteristics in both the selection model and main analysis modeling, we randomly selected one child and one parent from each household. This study first proceeded by using Inverse Probability of Treatment Weighting (IPTW) to handle the pre-treatment bias and is then proceeded by testing potential mechanisms underlying the relationship between children’s marriage formation and parental well-being. IPTW is similar to propensity score matching (PSM) in balancing treated and untreated samples but has the advantage that estimates from IPTW are systematically less biased than PSM in case of low prevalence of the treatment.
Explaining Parents’ Depression
Our results show that parents of never-married sons tend to report higher levels of depression than parents with married sons. In contrast, daughters’ delayed marriage is not associated with parental depression. Moreover, the results of mediation analysis show that economic support reduces the negative effect of sons’ delayed marriage on the depression scale by 12%, but a son’s economic support per se does not show any statistically direct significant association with parental depression. Similarly, the inclusion of parental overall satisfaction with the intergenerational relationship significantly decreases the effect of a son’s delayed marriage on parental depression by 13%, and this variable is also directly associated with parental depression symptoms.
To check the robustness of our results, we conducted several sensitivity analyses. First, we tested whether unmarried children’s age affects the relationship between adult children’s unmarried status and parental psychological well-being. We widened the sample to include children of marriageable age between 20-49. Findings of this robustness check indicate that the detrimental effect of children’s unmarried status on parents’ psychological well-being increases after reaching a certain age. In the second sensitivity analyses, we examined whether our results are sensitive to lower or higher age cut-offs (age at 25 & 35). The results show a similar trend in gender differences in the manner that children’s delayed marriage is associated with parental psychological distress. The results of the robustness check which included the divorce status of adult children, samples of oldest children, as well as samples stratified by gender of parents, are largely consistent with our main analytic results.
First, our findings confirm that children’s delayed marriage is significantly associated with parental psychological distress. That is, parental concern over children’s marriage timing significantly affects their well-being. Second, our study also reveals that a son’s delayed marriage exerts a significant effect on parental psychological distress whereas a daughter’s delayed marriage shows no such adverse effect. Although daughters generally show a higher level of filial piety to parents, parents may still adhere to the norm of son preference, and perceive a higher responsibility to help their sons to form a family. Therefore, these findings demonstrate the resistance to cultural change in marriage formation timing and gender-specific role expectations related to the behavior of children as perceived by parents.
In addition, our further analysis shows that parental satisfaction with intergenerational relationships may partially help to explain the association between a son’s delayed marriage and parents’ depression. More specifically, the son’s delayed marriage may lower parental satisfaction with the intergenerational relationship, and the decline of parental satisfaction may contribute to a higher level of parental psychological distress. Moreover, unmarried sons are less likely to provide economic support for parents, but the economic support for parents is not significantly associated with parental psychological distress. Nevertheless, economic support for parents could similarly reduce the effect of son’s delayed marriage on parental depression.
Dan Chen received her Ph.D in Sociology from The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2021. Her research interests include social demography, population health, aging & life course, migration and social stratification.
Yuying Tong is a Professor of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She obtained her PhD in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in 2007. Her research areas crosscut social demography, migration and immigration, family and life course, gender as well as population health/well-being.
What I found most interesting is that it’s the singlehood status of sons, not daughters, that is important for parents’ well-being. For all of the attention to “leftover women” (Sheng nu) in China, it seems that perhaps the more pressing issue is the demographic imbalance associated with the one-child policy and sex-selective abortion that’s left Chinese men facing a marriage market squeeze.