Ambivalent relations between parents and adult children


ITHACA, N.Y. -- Despite Father's Day and Mother's Day, which give children an opportunity to pay tribute to their parents, it's important to acknowledge that parenting is rarely an entirely positive or negative experience, says a new book co-edited by a Cornell University gerontologist. The book makes its point by examining the ambivalence of parent-child relations in later life.

"Parenting is fraught with mixed emotions, thoughts and attitudes. Such ambivalence is apparently universal and a fundamental characteristic of relationships between parents and adult children," says Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell and co-editor of Intergenerational Ambivalences: New Perspectives on Parent-Child Relations in Later Life (Elsevier Publishers, 2004).

"While the ties between parents and adult children typically involve immense warmth and affection, they also involve very strong feelings of anxiety, stress and upset for both generations," he says.

With increased life spans, many people have adult relationships with parents for 40 or more years, making these intergenerational bonds perhaps the most stable and enduring ties people experience in our rapidly changing world, Pillemer notes. "Yet, parent-child relationships are much more complex than typically portrayed in the media or in social sciences literature. Our book offers more complex models of looking at parent-child relationships."

With his co-editor, Kurt Lüscher of the University of Konstanz, Germany, Pillemer has brought together more than a dozen researchers to apply ambivalence -- and closely related concepts such as contradiction, dilemma, paradox and ambiguity -- to the field of intergenerational relations. The book's contributors look at the balance between positive and negative feelings in intergenerational relationships, their impact and how people work them out in daily life. One study in the book, conducted Gregory Maio of Britain's Cardiff University and his colleagues, shows, for example, that adolescents who are ambivalent towards a parent tend to develop less secure attachments to people in general, especially children who are ambivalent toward their fathers. Thus, intergenerational ambivalence can have a broad potential impact on attachment to others.

The 13-chapter book is intended for scholars and students in the areas of family, aging, life-course and gender studies. The book's first part offers a broad conceptual overview and an analysis of historical evidence of ambivalence in parent-child relations, part two looks at how ambivalence is measured in intergenerational relations, part three focuses on ambivalence when care is provided to dependent family members and part four examines intergenerational ambivalence involving young adults.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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