Parents and children. “Untitled” by 460273 Licensed by Pixaby

Many of us can easily identify which child in our families has kept our parents up the most at night—for example, the one who experimented with drugs early in life, suffered a concerningly long “bad luck streak” at the casino, or has been in trouble with the law. Research shows that older parents often experience more disappointment, strain, or complicated emotions in their relationships to their adult children with these sorts of problems. However, there is also some evidence that adult children who reform their deviant behavior are more likely to become their mothers’ favored child.

To build on this research, my collaborators (Marissa Rurka, Jill Suitor, Megan Gilligan, Karl Pillemer, Liam Mohebbi, and Nicholas Mundell) and I examined the reasons why adult children’s behavioral reforms are associated with changes in older mothers’ favoritism. More simply, we wanted to know how and why former “problem children” become “prodigal children” in their mothers’ eyes. To answer this question, we used qualitative interview data from the Within-Family Differences Study (WFDS). The WFDS contains interviews with older mothers (ages 65-75 at the first interview) and their adult children (interviewed separately) at two different timepoints, seven years apart. This dataset was well suited to help answer our research question because it is the same data that originally produced evidence (mentioned above) of the link between adult children’s behavioral reforms and their mothers’ newfound favoritism.

The WFDS measured deviance by asking mothers whether any of their children had experienced trouble with drugs, alcohol, or the law in recent years. Favoritism was assessed by asking mothers to which child they felt most emotionally close. Mothers were encouraged to explain their answers to closed-ended questions like these throughout the interview, thus providing qualitative data for our investigation.

We focused our main analysis on the 20 families that contained a “prodigal child”—a child who was considered deviant and not favored at the first interview, but was no longer deviant, and was favored at the second interview (seven years later). Our analysis revealed two reasons why these children’s behavioral reforms were related to newfound favoritism by their mothers: perceptions of familism and perceptions of need.

First, as they reformed their behaviors, mothers grew to see these children as more dedicated to their families of origin, and often their mothers specifically. The same children described as having a “mind of [their] own” at the first interview grew to be seen by their mothers as “very family-oriented,” “always checking on me,” or “a little mother to me” by the later interview. This pattern was especially clear in families that also contained a deviant child who did not reform their behavior..

For example, Faye had two daughters who were both deviant at Faye’s first interview—both had experienced teen pregnancies, drug issues, and moved away with romantic partners whom Faye felt were poor choices. Describing Kristen, the younger of the two, Faye said, “I don’t think her life is going, well, the way a mother wants for her children.” However, by Faye’s later interview, Kristen recovered from her substance abuse issues and repaired her bond with her mother by moving back nearby and involving Faye in her granddaughter’s life. In contrast to the new warmth Faye felt from Kristen, Faye felt like her older daughter Mary had fully “alienated” her by her later interview and had abandoned her family commitments due to her still ongoing drinking problem. Describing her disapproval, Faye said, “[Mary] decided she wanted to…be on her own. She thought, ‘well, I’m going out drinking again,’ and disrupted her [family], and now she’s getting [divorced]…Nothing to be proud of.” Faye’s remarks about Mary highlight how deviant behavior can weaken family bonds and negatively impact older mothers’ impressions of a child. Meanwhile, Faye’s relationship to Kristen helps us see why an adult child who reforms their behavior and strengthens their family commitments in the process can bring mothers particularly great joy.

The second pattern that emerged from our analysis was these children’s need for their mothers’ support. Mothers often saw their prodigal children as both needing and appreciating their support in ways that their other children, who they saw as more “on their own,” had outgrown. Feeling like their help and support played a role in their children’s positive changes made them feel like good mothers and created an emotional bond.

For example, when describing the substance abuse issues her son Joey experienced in early adulthood, Dorothy acknowledged “Joey was straying back then,” but became upbeat as she explained the closeness that came as a result of his behavioral reform, saying “He had some problems in the past and he came out of them with our help. And he’s been great ever since. He just shows his gratitude a lot…He shows that he came out of it very well.” If children did not change their behaviors, their ongoing need for help could be depleting, rather than affirming to mothers. But, as Dorothy described, if children “came out of it well,” their changes could be viewed as gestures of gratitude for their mothers. This dynamic allowed mothers to feel that their guiding role in their children’s lives was necessary and valuable, which fostered feelings of favoritism, particularly during a life stage when some had begun to feel like their other children’s need for their guidance and advice was lessening.

Taken together, our findings suggest that even children who engaged in behaviors that their mothers found troubling can become Mom’s Favorite in adulthood. Simply stopping the troubling behaviors may not be a surefire path to favoritism, but if disengaging from these behaviors is coupled with strengthening your commitments to family and showing your mother that you need (and appreciate!) her support, then there is a good chance that you might just become a Prodigal Child.

The full text of our article, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, can be found here.

Reilly Kincaid is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University. Her research focuses on parenting, gender, social psychology, family relationships across the life-course, and work-family issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @ReillyKincaid.