Older Parents' Perceptions of Ambivalence in Relationships with Their Children

By Peters, Cheryl L.; Hooker, Karen et al. | Family Relations, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Older Parents' Perceptions of Ambivalence in Relationships with Their Children


Peters, Cheryl L., Hooker, Karen, Zvonkovic, Anisa M., Family Relations


Abstract: This qualitative study explores older parents' ambivalent perceptions of their relationships with their adult children. Interviews with 17 mothers and fathers (aged 67+) provided reports on 75 relationships (43 sons, 32 daughters). Two predominant sources of ambivalence emerged when parents discussed their current relationships. The first identified source of ambivalence relates to children being busy, so that parents were dissatisfied with the frequency and quality of time spent together. Help exchanges are also discussed in light of children's busyness. The second identified source of ambivalence explores parents' ambivalent perceptions about their children's romantic partners and parenting styles. Results are integrated into the developing theory of intergenerational ambivalence and practice implications for family communication are discussed.

Key Words: aging families, ambivalence, emotion, family interaction, intergenerational relationships, qualitative family research.

There has been a long history in the field of generational relationships documenting positive and negative aspects of social interactions within-family networks (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Lansford, 1998; Rossi & Rossi, 1990; Silverstein & Schaie, 2004). Early approaches characterized relationships as either "close" or "problematic" and often missed the nuanced complexities that characterize family relationships. In response to this criticism, Luscher and Pillemer (1998) introduced intergenerational ambivalence as a conceptual framework that allows for examination of confusion, mixed sentiments, and unsettled arrangements in relationships-in addition to positive aspects.

In everyday language, ambivalence implies simultaneously holding positive and negative feelings or perceptions about a situation. In the family gerontology literature, however, ambivalence has been defined in multiple ways, using different measurement strategies, with a universally agreed-upon definition yet to emerge (Lettke & Klein, 2004). Ambivalence may be experienced on a psychological levelinvolving feelings or thoughts of an individual-and on a structural level, involving dilemmas created by societal norms (Connidis & McMullin, 2002).

Recently, family scholars have focused on ambivalence as an improved framework in which to study intergenerational relationships. This approach has generated considerable theoretical discussion (see Journal of Marriage and Family, 64 [3] for a fivepaper symposium) and is starting to inform empirical work (e.g., Pillemer & Luscher, 2004; Willson, Shuey, & Elder, 2003). Much remains to be learned about sources of ambivalence, how it is experienced, who experiences it, and why it matters for family gerontologists. Ambivalent ties differ from relationships perceived as either solely problematic or solely close in nature (Fingerman, Hay, & Birdett, 2004; Pillemer & Suitor, 2002). Gaining a better understanding of family relationships from the newly emerging ambivalence framework has the potential to provide new insights into communication patterns, support exchanges, and family decision making. This study was conceptualized with the explicit goal of exploring the ambivalence framework in relation to intergenerational relations within a life course perspective.

A life course perspective emphasizes the importance of understanding development in context, with explicit attention paid to generational location in changing sociohistorical contexts (e.g., Hagestad, 1982; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). In general, life course researchers have demonstrated family ties as more ambivalent (close and problematic) than nonfamily relations (Fingerman et al., 2004). Additionally, more ambivalence is reported in vertical generational ties, that is, toward parents and sons or daughters than horizontal sibling ties or friendships (Fingerman et al.). From a life course perspective, changing historical circumstances and pressures, with their related shifts in roles and obligations, set the stage for intergenerational ambivalence at the structural level. …

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