Academic journal article Family Relations

The Good, the Bad, and the Worrisome: Emotional Complexities in Grandparents' Experiences with Individual Grandchildren

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Good, the Bad, and the Worrisome: Emotional Complexities in Grandparents' Experiences with Individual Grandchildren

Article excerpt

The Good, the Bad, and the Worrisome: Emotional Complexities in Grandparents' Experiences with Individual Grandchildren* Karen L. Fingerman**

Researchers have treated the grandparenting role as though it were a unitary role within an individual 's role portfolio. There has been little consideration of how distinct relationships with different grandchildren shape gr-andparents' well-being. Ninet-one grandparents, evenly divided by gender and age, provided information about their relationships with each of their grandchildren (n = 346 grandchildren). They also provided descriptions of a grandchild who is particularly special, one about whom they worry, and a subset of grandparents described a grandchild who irritated them. The characteristics that render a grandchild emotionally salient to a grandparent and the association between these characteristics and grandparents ' well-being are considered.

Key Words: emotion, grandchild, grandparent, intergenerational relationships, later life, old age.

The importance of the grandparenting role for middle-aged and older adults' well-being has been largely ignored outside the context of grandparents who care for their grandchildren. Until quite recently, researchers interested in intergenerational relationships and individual well-being focused primarily on aging parents and their middle-aged children (e.g., Mancini & Blieszner, 1989). From this literature, it is clear that offspring continue to have an impact on their parents' psychological and physical states into midlife and old age. For example, Ryff, Lee, Essex, and Schmutte ( 1994) found that middle-aged parents' perceptions of how their grown children had turned out were associated with their own well-being; parents who felt their children had turned out all right also felt better about themselves. As an extension of the parenting role, grandparents may evaluate how well their offspring perform as parents and consider their grandchildren to be a reflection of their own parenting abilities (Troll, 1985). More specifically, grandchildren who are doing particularly well or particularly poorly may have an impact on their grandparents' wellbeing. A grandparent may incur anxiety over a grandchild who suffers problems, a grandparent may swell with pride over a grandchild with unique talents, or a grandparent may grow annoyed with a grandchild who misbehaves.

This study examined grandparents' descriptions of a grandchild who is special to them, a grandchild about whom they worry, and for a subgroup of grandparents, a grandchild whom they find irritating. These grandchildren are referred to as "emotionally salient" throughout this paper. None of the grandparents in this study had primary care responsibilities for their grandchildren and, thus, their feelings reflect psychological aspects of their relationships rather than actual demands. Three questions are addressed: (a) What are the characteristics that distinguish special, worrisome, or troublesome grandchildren from grandchildren who are not emotionally salient?; (b) How do grandparents describe emotionally salient grandchildren?; and (c) Which characteristics of these grandchildren are associated with grandparents, well-being?

Distinct Relationships with Different Grandchildren

The majority of studies addressing grandparenthood have treated it as a unitary role within an individual's role portfolio. For example, researchers have classified grandparents into different typologies (e.g., Neugarten & Weinstein, 1964; Roberto, 1990). Moreover, certain aspects of these typologies appear to be associated with individual well-being (Kivnick, 1982). Such research, however, does not capture the impact that relationships with individual grandchildren have on well-being. Although individuals' reactions to the grandparenting role may reflect aspects of their personalities and life circumstances, relationships with specific grandchildren may also contribute to individuals' experiences of the grandparenting role. …

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