Purdue News

June 7, 2006

Purdue researcher: Parents, kids focus less on faults when busy

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — While busy, active lives often are accepted as a reality of modern times, a Purdue researcher has found that same factor might play a role in fostering a positive relationship between aging parents and their adult children.

Karen Fingerman
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Karen Fingerman, an associate professor of child development and family studies, led a team that studied parents and children and found they have conflicting emotions about each other.

"We initially predicted that people who had more demands on their time would have trouble staying close to their family," Fingerman said. "Instead we found that those demands actually enrich the relationships."

"Busy people were more positive and focused less attention on other's faults."

On the other hand, she said the study found that the family of these busy individuals may have mixed emotions — disappointment that they don't see more of each other but happiness that the other person is fulfilled and independent.

"Parents feel less conflicting emotions when their offspring have less difficult personalities and have achieved roles of adulthood, such as a successful marriage or being a parent," Fingerman said. "Parents also feel fewer conflicting emotions when their offspring rate them as more important, but the offsprings' ratings of their parents didn't depend on the parent's achievements or feelings about them."

The research, called the Adult Family Study, is detailed in the May edition of the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

Family members express conflicting emotions in a variety of situations, such as those involving health care, amount of contact, parental aging and age differences.

Purdue's Adult Family Study collected data through telephone and in-person interviews and questionnaires. The study involved 158 families with a son or daughter aged 22-49.

Parents and their grown children lived in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area in separate households. They rated the importance of their roles as parent or offspring, romantic partner or spouse, and as a worker. They also rated how important their parent or offspring was relative to other people they know and care about. Finally, they rated their positive and negative feelings for their parents or grown child. The researchers were interested in the mixture of positive and negative feelings, Fingerman said.

"We call these feelings ambivalent, because there are conflicting emotions," she said.

Many prior studies in the field focused on either positive aspects of the parent/adult relationships or on conflict and tension, Fingerman said. She said the most recent study helped explain how these tensions and positive feelings can co-exist.

Other authors of the study were Pei Chun Chen, then a doctoral student in sociology at Purdue; Elizabeth Hay, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Florida; and Kelly E. Cichy, a doctoral student in human development and family studies, and Eva S. Lefkowitz, associate professor in human development and family studies, both from Pennsylvania State University.

Fingerman plans to continue to study the implications of health on the emotional adjustment of relationships as people age.

The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Aging.

Writer: Maggie Morris, (765) 494-2432, maggiemorris@purdue.edu

Source: Karen Fingerman, (765) 496-6378, kfingerm@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: An electronic copy of the research paper is available from Maggie Morris, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2432, maggiemorris@purdue.edu.

Related Web sites:
Purdue Child Development and Family Studies



Ambivalent Reactions in the Parent and Offspring Relationship

Karen L. Fingerman and Pei Chun Chen, Purdue University; Elizabeth Hay, University of Florida; Kelly E. Cichy and Eva S. Lefkowitz, Pennsylvania State University

Theory suggests aging parents and their adult children experience ambivalence (conflicting emotions) due to unclear norms governing the tie. This study investigated personality differences and relationship context differences in ambivalence, as well as parents' and offspring's reactions to each other. As part of the Adult Family Study, 158 families (N = 474) with a son or daughter aged 22 to 49 and both parents (mother and father) completed telephone interviews, in-person interviews, and questionnaires. Multilevel models revealed parents' and offspring's neuroticism and poor parental health were associated with greater ambivalence. Surprisingly, investment in competing roles was associated with less ambivalence. Parents also experienced greater ambivalence when offspring scored higher on neuroticism, rated the parent as less important, or were less invested in their own spousal role. Parents' characteristics were not associated with offspring's ambivalence. Parents appear to react to their children's personality and achievements even after children are grown.


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