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Did you know that the quality of parent-child relationships is transmitted from one generation to the next?

January, 2018

Sociologists have been investigating the intergenerational transmission of social inequalities (such as educational opportunities) for a long time now. Along the same lines, demographers have shown that, for example, parents’ fertility behaviors or divorce risks affect their children’s related outcomes. However, barely any research has been conducted yet investigating whether the quality of parent-child relationships in the older generation is transmitted to the younger generation in a family.

ISS researcher Karsten Hank and his colleagues Veronika Salzburger and Merril Silverstein assessed this issue in a study using data from the German Family Panel (pairfam). The authors exploited pairfam’s so called multi-actor design, which allowed them to gather information about three generations in the same family: the youngest generation of children, aged 16-18 at the time of the interview, reported about the quality of their relationship to the middle generation, whose members reported about their relationship to the oldest generation of parents. Three specific dimensions of relationship quality were considered: emotional closeness, frequency of contact, and ambivalence (that is, the simultaneous occurrence of closeness and conflicts).

The study shows that greater emotional closeness, more frequent conflicts and stronger ambivalence between parents and children in older generation tends to translate into a similar pattern of parent-child relations in the family’s younger generation. The authors interpret this finding as indication of intergenerational transmission of relationship quality within families. Further analyses suggest that this kind of transmission more strongly originates from grandfather than from grandmother ties.

Whereas these gender specific findings call for further investigation, the study overall suggests that a comprehensive understanding of parent-child relationships requires a perspective that conceptualizes families as a complex multigenerational system.