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Families with children form a substantial number of households in the United States. In the best of times, families can be complicated, and the complex nature of families is not restricted to their structure (e.g., two-parent, single-parent, or multigenerational families). Unlike sociologists, whose main interests tend to be focused on family structures and the changing nature of families in the United States, communication researchers tend to be interested in the complexities of how families are created by both structure and interaction. That is, they tend to focus more on the private nature of interactions among family members than only on family structure itself. This is the purview of most 21st-century research in family communication: to study family interactions and the meanings that arise from them. This research paper does not undertake the complex task of presenting an exhaustive compilation of research published in the field of family communication in general; numerous books and chapters have already completed that task with care (e.g., Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006a; Vangelisti, 2004). Rather, this research paper provides an overview of some history, theorizing, and research conducted on intergenerational communication by those identifying themselves primarily as communication researchers.
Intergenerational communication refers generally to communication that occurs between individuals from different generations (e.g., parent-child, grandparent-grandchild). The study of communication among family members has a long tradition. Research over the past 20 years has revealed to both clinicians and scholars that family communication is consequential to personal development and relational satisfaction. Family members are interdependent; that is, they influence and are influenced by each other, and family life is constituted through this social interaction. It is through communication that family members come to know family roles, rules, and expectations; how they form and maintain their relationships with one another; and how they learn to interact with others. The family is our first communication classroom. But, despite the centrality of communication in family functioning, it wasn’t until the turn of this century that the field of communication supported a professional journal for the publication of original research on family communication.
Until the late 20th century, study of intergenerational communication perpetuated the trend across disciplines to focus almost exclusively on (Caucasian) mother-child communication. Historically, parenting was conceptualized as the domain of mothers, and the mother-child relationship was viewed as the primary intergenerational relationship in the family. It has been only recently that fathers, grandparents, and the role of culture and ethnicity have begun to play a significant role in family communication research. At the crossroads of the 20th and 21st centuries, communication research is now assuming a greater focus on the larger family system, on the complex nature of the family itself, and on understudied family relationships. The study of intergenerational communication is complex due to life span issues (e.g., from infancy to elder years), different family relationships (e.g., mother-daughter, father-son, grandmother-granddaughter), and family structure (e.g., single parent, two parent, biological parent, stepparent, multigenerational), along with a host of other complicating variables such as culture, ethnicity, and socioeconomics. Indeed, there is no one kind of family. There is no universal theory of families and no single recipe for effective communication. Families are diverse and have unique past experiences of communicating that carry into the present and have implications for the future. This makes the study of intergenerational communication such a challenge (and so much fun).
Theories are important because they provide a lens through which we can describe and explain findings, and they provide direction for future research and understanding. Thus, to understand intergenerational communication research, it is necessary to become familiar with the theories that have been used to explain it. There is a long list of theories that have been employed to explain communication processes relevant to families; however, many of these theories originated outside the field of communication studies. Theories such as systems theory, attachment theory, and social learning theory have historically been effectively applied to explain family functioning and intergenerational communication interaction in family contexts. Nevertheless, until the latter part of the 20th century, there were few indigenous theories developed by communication scholars. As we enter the 21st century, this is changing. Braithwaite and Baxter (2006a) pointed out that several theories have been developed by communication researchers, and these theories have a presence in current research efforts to advance our knowledge and understanding of intergenerational communication. Communication-based theories of families and intergenerational relationships are guided by several assumptions explicated in the following sections. Whitchurch and Dickson (1999) argued that several assumptions describe how family communication tends to be conceptualized and that these assumptions imply a direction for intergenerational communication research efforts.
Assumption: Family Relationships Are Constructed Through Interaction
This assumption includes the belief that family relationships are constituted through verbal and nonverbal interaction, including the sharing and withholding of messages. There are four communication theories that serve to enhance understandings of intergenerational communication through a focus on the meanings that arise from that interaction: (1) communication privacy management (CPM), (2) family communication patterns (FCP), (3) necessary convergence communication theory (NCC), and (4) communication accommodation theory (CAT).
Communication Privacy Management Theory
Communication privacy management theory (CPM) (Petronio, 2007) maintains that people have a sense of ownership over their personal information; thus, they feel entitled to decide when to reveal personal information and to whom. In addition, people use privacy rules to control their personal information. When people share this information, the recipient is expected to abide by the privacy rules, which often means keeping the information secret.Yet people may, at times, break the rules and breach privacy boundaries. Revealing information to another person entails a degree of risk as that person may disclose the information to others. In deciding to share private information, people may regulate their privacy more rigidly for one person than another. Thus, privacy rules control who receives the personal information, the amount of information disclosed, the type of information disclosed, and the reasons for revealing the information (Caughlin et al., 2000).
CPM and Intergenerational Communication. Privacy rules in families can be complex. Decisions to reveal or conceal information are predicated on the relationship of the communicators, the family role (child/parent/grandparent), and a host of situational factors. In families, people form privacy boundaries around themselves, themselves and others in the family (e.g., sibling groups, parent-child), and around the family system as a whole. Establishing privacy boundaries is a rite of passage in adolescence. Adolescents often avoid certain topics with their parents in their quest for developing an independent, autonomous identity. In fact, research suggests that keeping some information from their parents can be a useful way for adolescents to establish their own autonomy. Yet topic avoidance becomes complicated in stepfamily systems. Afifi and colleagues (Afifi, 2003; Golish & Caughlin, 2002) reported that older adolescents were often frustrated with the tensions between revealing and concealing information among custodial parents, noncustodial parents, and stepparents. Moreover, developments such as changes in family structure and transitions from adolescence to adulthood require the renegotiation of privacy management rules. Research in this area often addresses issues of privacy rules, privacy boundaries, and boundary turbulence.
As with many of the other theories discussed here, grandparents are largely absent from the research on privacy. An exception is work conducted by Barker (2007) focusing on painful and personal self-disclosures by grandparents to their young-adult grandchildren. He discovered that maternal grandmothers made more disclosures compared with maternal grandfathers. Moreover, this study found that some grandparents shared private information to enhance their connection with a grandchild, but they also shared private information for control purposes. Likewise, family members may share or withhold information from elderly grandparents to protect or control. For example, in one ethnographic study of grandmothers, their adult children, and their grandchildren, certain truths were often kept from elderly grandmothers “for their own good” (MillerDay, 2004). In this study, one of the grandmothers became ill and was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Her daughter and grandchildren conspired and “decided not to tell her she had cancer.” Despite these studies, we know very little about privacy management across generations in families.
Family Communication Patterns
Family communication patterns (FCP) describe a “family’s tendency to develop fairly stable and thus predictable ways of communicating with one another” (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2004, p. 180). These patterns include a conversation orientation and a conformity orientation, which help scholars define four different family types and predict family processes, such as how members coordinate meanings in communicative interaction. A conversation orientation refers to the degree of openness in family interactions and emphasizes individuality and individual contribution, whereas a conformity orientation refers to the degree of conformity required by the family and emphasizes compliance with common family ideals and values.
Using high and low discriminations on the two orientations, four family environment types have been identified: (1) laissez-faire, (2) consensual, (3) pluralistic, and (4) protective families (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie, 1994). Because both dimensions of conversational and conformity orientations interact continually with one another, both dimensions need to be investigated together. Laissezfaire families are low on conversation and conformity orientations, not really encouraging individuality nor requiring compliance. These families are characterized by low engagement with each other, and offspring are predicted to be more influenced by external influences (e.g., peers) than by family members. In direct contrast are consensual families, which are high in both conversation and conformity orientations. Consensual families are open to discussing ideas and expressing opinions but are expected to ultimately agree with the opinion of those in positions of power, such as parents. Pluralistic families are high on conversation orientation but low on conformity orientation. In these families, open discussion of ideas is encouraged with little pressure to conform to other members’ perspectives. Finally, protective families are low on conversation orientation but high on conformity orientation. These families emphasize obedience and compliance with expectations, providing little opportunity for dissent or autonomous thinking.
FCP and Intergenerational Communication. FCP research has almost exclusively addressed communication in individual households among intact families of parents and children with almost no inclusion of grandparents or multigenerational families. Research discoveries include descriptions of families at the high end of the conformity orientation dimension who tend to emphasize obedience. Findings suggest that children in these families may be more susceptible to peer pressure, be less willing to test new ideas, be less able to take the perspective of others or empathize, tend to engage in conflict avoidance, and be less likely to develop psychological and social competence. Conversely, findings suggest that families at the low end of the conformity orientation dimension tend to emphasize individual autonomy and are more apt to be tolerant of divergent opinions and ideas and more experienced in decision making. Families at the high end of the conversational orientation dimension highlight open discussion, and research has suggested that children from these environments value cooperative conflict resolution and are competent in expressing their ideas and feelings. Conversely, children from families at the low end of the conversational orientation dimension tend to be less comfortable sharing personal feelings or thoughts, and this seems to predict some future distress in personal relationships.
Necessary Convergence Communication
Necessary convergence communication (NCC) theory is a relatively new theory that enhances and extends work in the area of family communication patterns. NCC is one of the few theories grounded in multigenerational research including three generations of family members. Originating from research with grandmothers, mothers, and adult daughters (Miller, 1995; Miller-Day, 2004), this theory explains how co-orientation between two individuals toward the sharing of a common reality (to attain agreement, accuracy, and congruence of both partner’s cognitions) can become coercive in family relationships.
NCC is a type of communication “script”—an interaction routine—that is played out when conformity is required. In family environments that are high in conformity, children feel compelled to interpret the world around them in ways consistent with the parent (or grandparent), often altering their own opinions, beliefs, or attitudes to conform to their parent’s perspective, and this may, in time, inhibit the children’s thinking for themselves. In NCC, conformity to the parent’s perception is perceived as required, as necessary to maintain the relationship. NCC argues that most of us defer to others to a certain degree, but chronically high levels of submission—across time and different domains—can predict negative outcomes for children.
NCC and Intergenerational Communication. Studies of grandparents, parents, and grandchildren suggest that convergence communication patterns may be perpetuated across the life span, with elderly parents enacting the script across time with their adult children. Moreover, this research suggests that convergence communication patterns might be transmitted intergenerationally, that is, learned and habituated in one generation, then passed down to the next. Other research reports that convergence communication, when sustained into adult parent-child relationships, may be linked to relational dissatisfaction and may place adult children at risk for depression and eating and identity disorders. This theory holds promise for understanding the actual communication interactions that are performed under conditions of high conformity orientation, but little is known about how these patterns are perpetuated across time and transmitted across generations.
Communication Accommodation Theory
Communication accommodation theory (CAT) posits that when people interact they often attempt to meet the other person’s needs and abilities by altering their communication (Coupland & Giles, 1988). The communication predicament model extends CAT with the assumption that people’s perceptions of the other’s needs and abilities may be based on stereotypes and attitudes toward that person, particularly when the communicators are from different groups (e.g., grandparents, parents, or children). People may accommodate by adapting their behaviors to meet their conversational partner’s needs. Yet being aware of what another person needs may be a difficult endeavor, resulting in overaccommodation or underaccommodation.
People overaccommodate when they excessively change their communication, surpassing the other’s needs. Several examples include increasing volume or slowing down speech when their conversational partner does not require such adjustments. Underaccommodation occurs when people do not alter their behaviors to meet their conversational partner’s abilities. Examples include not slowing down speech or increasing volume when the partner requires these modifications. CAT, then, elucidates the process wherein people alter their communication, either successfully or unsuccessfully, based on their perceptions, stereotypes, and attitudes regarding the other person as being a member of another group.
CAT and Intergenerational Communication. CAT and the communication predicament model have most extensively been examined focusing on communication between grandparents and young-adult grandchildren. For instance, CAT research would suggest that when young-adult grandchildren interact with one of their grandparents, they may do the following: (1) encounter their grandparent, (2) identify the grandparent’s old age by his/her physical features, (3) draw on their stereotypes and expectations of older adults, and (4) alter their communication toward their grandparent by either over-, under-, or appropriate accommodating (Williams & Nussbaum, 2001).
As CAT research tends to consider young-adult grandchildren stereotyping their grandparents and other older adults, it is important to acknowledge that grandparents and older adults in general may also stereotype, overaccommodate, and underaccommodate when interacting with their grandchildren and other younger cohorts. Research by Harwood and colleagues (e.g., Soliz & Harwood, 2003, 2006) along with Hummert and colleagues (e.g., Hummert, Garstka, Ryan, & Bonnesen, 2004) has focused on the ways that older and younger adults overaccommodate or underaccommodate to one another in interaction. For instance, painful self-disclosures (e.g., health problems, loneliness) by older adults are perceived as underaccommodating by younger adults. Likewise, patronizing communication (e.g., talking down to the younger person) is perceived as an overaccommodative behavior. Similarly, communicating in a ‘‘baby talk’’ style to older adults may be perceived by older adults as overaccommodation. Thus, CAT has been shown to be applicable to numerous types of interactions, ages, and relationships.
Assumption: Families Are Constantly Managing Dialectical Tensions and Transitions Across the Life Span
The theory of relationship dialectics provides a dualistic perspective of communication and relational processes by explaining how people manage contradictions that stimulate certain types of communication in their relationships (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006b). Contradictions are defined as unified oppositions, consisting of two concepts that are connected but are on opposite ends of a continuum. Although a vast number of contradictions or dialectical tensions exist, communication researchers tend to reference the following three: (1) autonomy-closeness, (2) openness-closedness, and (3) predictability-novelty. People attempt to balance their desire for independence from parents or grandparents while also maintaining some degree of intimacy. During their relational history, the involved parties also exhibit openness by divulging personal information and allowing for affective vulnerability, yet they also attempt to protect themselves by intentionally withholding other types of personal information. Finally, predictability reflects people’s feelings of certainty and consistency; however, at times, people desire novelty, excitement, and change (Graham, 2003). As the contradicting concepts form a dialectical tension, both concepts are essential to the relationship (LePoire, 2006). When people experience dialectical tensions, such contradictions stimulate change in the relationship as people balance between the opposite ends of the continuum.
Dialectical Theory and Intergenerational Communication. Dialectical theory helps us to understand how family relationships evolve over time and how they experience transitions. Similar tensions are negotiated in parent-child and grandparent-grandchild relationships; however, some research suggests that the management and negotiation of these tensions are more of a challenge with parents and children due to identity entrenchment. In fact, the personal-positional tension is one that is managed across the life span in these relationships. There are competing views of the other person as a unique person and the view of her as the daughter, mother, or grandmother. Developmentally, young-adult children begin to look beyond the family role a person plays to the unique characteristics of the person, such as his or her ambitions, desires, and faults. Research on mother–adult daughter relationships suggests that viewing mothers as sexual beings and “seeing the person behind the role” is one of the more difficult tensions for daughters to manage as they enter adulthood (Fisher & Miller-Day, 2006).
The following dialectics, however, have also emerged specifically in parent-child communication research: real and ideal (the ideal image of a mother in contradiction to the mother I have) and powerful and powerless (among stepfamily systems, the tension between new and old). Parents, children, and grandparents negotiate and communicatively manage these dialectics across the life span. Yet studying family relationships in different family structures at different developmental stages and experiencing different life transitions (e.g., adopting a caregiver role to an aging grandmother) can provide us with possible strategies for management of these tensions across a variety of contexts.
As dialectical theory introduces contradictions as stimuli for relational change, turning points further capture the ebb and flow in relationships. Turning points refer to events, incidents, or experiences that are associated with change in the relationship (Baxter & Bullis, 1986). In the past, communication researchers conceptualized relationship development as occurring in a linear manner such that people establish greater intimacy as they exchange information over time. Yet turning points capture a more dynamic pattern of communication and relationship management across people’s life spans. Because turning points are defined as events that alter a relationship, researchers have a number of ways to consider how a relationship changes over time. For instance, a child may go away to college, thereby decreasing or increasing the communication, emotional closeness, or relational satisfaction with his/her parent(s) and grandparent(s). Thus, as turning points are associated with changes in a relationship, the challenge is to identify patterns of changes unique to different relationships.
Turning Points and Intergenerational Communication. Although there is little research on turning points in children’s relationships with their fathers, research reveals several common turning points in mother-daughter relationships. With the exception of any childhood illness, the first significant transitional experience in the mother-daughter relationship is when the daughter enters adolescence with the accompanying distance and struggle for autonomy. Throughout the life span, other common turning points include changes in proximity (when one person moves out of the household, e.g., to college or to establish a separate household), a daughter’s own pregnancy and childbirth, the transition from a positional orientation to a personal orientation (seeing your mother as a woman, a person, and not just in her role of mother), and the transition to caregiving of the other due to age or infirmity. Mothers often admit that daughters define them, at least partly, as women and that turning points in the motherdaughter relationship are difficult to navigate because of the reflection of those changes on a mother’s own identity.
To date, a limited number of studies exist that have explored the possible turning points that grandparents and grandchildren experience across their relational history. Investigating the turning points for this dyad is necessary, given that some researchers suggest the emotional closeness between grandparents and grandchildren decreases over time. Holladay and colleagues (1998) conducted a study with young-adult granddaughters who reported changes in their emotional closeness with their maternal grandmother when they experienced a particular life event. Among the types of turning points that Holladay and colleagues found, were engaging in shared activities, decreases in geographic distance, transition to college, and maturity. Thus, the study revealed that emotional closeness within the dyad is better represented as a mountainous terrain than a single slope. Granddaughters experienced increased and decreased closeness at multiple times throughout their relational life span, thereby indicating that the relationship does not continuously decrease over time.
The next step in turning-point research may be for communication scholars to determine the messages exchanged during and after turning points to determine how grandparents and grandchildren communicatively react to these life events. Additionally, fathers seem to be absent from the turning-points literature; there is much to be learned about how fathers and grandfathers negotiate transitions in their relationships with their children and grandchildren.
This research paper has discussed several theories that have guided research in the area of communication among parents, children, and grandchildren. Yet to fully understand this information, it is important to recognize the methods that researchers tend to use to collect and analyze the information they gather about this communication.
Entering the 21st century, there are two dominant discourses in communication research on parents, children, and grandparents: logical-empirical and interpretive. Logical-empirical research seeks to discover universal covering laws. A researcher poses predictions based on a theory and then determines if the predictions were supported by the observations of the study and can be generalized to a select population. The tools used to achieve this are often the administration of questionnaires, experiments, and measuring or rating observations of interactions. Conversely, interpretive research does not seek to discover universal truths but seeks to make transparent how social worlds are experienced subjectively and how understandings are mutually coordinated, understood, and maintained in relationships. In family research, this often means revealing how family members negotiate daily routines communicatively or uncovering patterns of experience within and across families. The tools used to conduct interpretive work are often in-depth interviews, direct observations of daily behaviors, focus groups, and participant journaling of experiences.
Although the logical-empirical discourse represents the majority of research in family communication (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006a), there is currently a resurgent interest in interpretive work. A 2007 professional discussion about methodological approaches to studying families conducted as a panel at the National Communication Association’s annual convention resulted in four overarching recommendations for scholars: (1) conduct more case studies with families, examining the daily communication routines of families and exploring family communication dynamics within the household environment; (2) conduct longitudinal research to track families during times of transition and development; (3) conduct more research in the laboratory, collecting physiological data; and, finally, (4) become proficient in new techniques for statistically managing the complexity of family data. Moving into this century, there are a variety of new statistical techniques available that will allow the next generation of researchers to examine the entire family as a system and not just dyadic pairings or subsystems within the family. Furthermore, mixed-methods research is increasingly important in communication research—mixing tools, such as observation and questionnaires, as well as mixing quantitative approaches (e.g., questionnaires) and qualitative approaches (e.g., in-depth interviews). These mixed approaches allow researchers to survey the terrain of communication experience in families (quantitative) while mining the depths of that experience (qualitative). Given the professional discussion and the range of new techniques now available to social scientists, we suspect that the 21st-century approach to research on families will honor the integrity and strengths of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to data collection and analysis.
Promising Areas of Research
In reviewing the communication theories that are employed to guide research in the area of parents, children, and grandparents, it is apparent that there is a lack of coherent multigenerational research, that is, intergenerational research focusing on relationships within and across multiple generations of a family. The majority of the research focuses on parent-child communication, with some focusing on grandparent-grandchild communication; however, substantially less research attention is paid to family communication across three generations. This is important because, due to the increase in the older population and increasing longevity, the grandparent-grandchild relationship can last for decades: more younger children and adults have living grandparents today than at any time in history (Mares, 1995).
In a recent review of the presence of children in communication research, Miller-Day, Pezalla, andVoigt (2008) discovered a marked absence of children in communication research. Among the 16 leading communication journals, from 2000 to 2007 only 5% of the published studies addressed communication with youth under the age of 18, and only 11% of those occurred in the Journal of Family Communication. Due to a variety of factors, including constraints imposed by university review boards, the inclusion of youth under the age of 18 is severely restricted; thus the representations and voices of youth are inhibited. This also impedes efforts to examine communication across multiple generations. This review revealed that when parent-child communication was represented in the research literature, the focus was most often on college students as children, thus privileging knowledge of parent-emerging adult child relationships and almost completely denying families with young children.
Since 2000, there has been an impressive increase in the research attention to communication between grandparents and grandchildren, with most studies undertaken by Drs. Jake Harwood, Jordan Soliz, and colleagues. This work has addressed the effects of grandparent-grandchild communication on ageist attitudes and the age identity of older adults and has examined the role of communication satisfaction in grandparent-grandchild relational closeness. The results of these studies indicate that relational closeness between grandparents and grandchildren is influenced by having a parent to support the grandparent-grandchild relationship as well as to provide opportunities for the grandchild to interact with the grandparent in ways in which they can reciprocate self-disclosure and support. In turn, grandparents—particularly grandmothers—may provide a buffer for grandchildren during times of parent-child stress and conflict (Miller-Day, 2004).
Yet, as Williams and Nussbaum (2001) pointed out, “to understand intergenerational communication, a much greater effort on the part of scholars needs to be directed towards the communication behavior found within the grandparent-grandchild relationship” (p. 183). As can be seen in this research paper review, there is an incomplete picture of grandparent-grandchild communication in the field of family communication. To address this gap, additional research is necessary. While certainly not exhaustive, the following discussion offers some promising areas of research for family communication scholars who wish to address these research gaps and learn more about intergenerational communication. These promising directions for research efforts include examining multigenerational households, intergenerational transmission of communication behaviors, conversations between grandparents and grandchildren, children as language brokers, young children as caregivers, adult children and adult grandchildren as caregivers, genetic communication, and communication and technology.
Custodial Grandparents. In the United States, the number of grandparents who become primary caregivers or substitute parents of a grandchild continues to increase. When parents cannot care for their child, grandparents often adopt the role of caregiver by raising their grandchild. The term custodial grandparents identifies those grandparents who are the head of the household and the primary caregiver of a grandchild. Being a surrogate parent adds great responsibilities. Many custodial grandparents report increased stress, financial struggles, family conflict, and health problems (see, e.g., Hayslip & Kaminski, 2005). Familial conflict and managing grandchildren’s behavioral problems appear particularly prominent. To address these problems, communication researchers should investigate how custodial grandparents and the involved parties can manage these conflicts and behavioral problems. Determining more effective and appropriate forms of communication may help custodial grandparents and their grandchildren resolve conflicts and problem behaviors, which is likely to alleviate some of the psychological burden that custodial grandparents experience.
Three-Generation Households. Although three-generation households are increasing in the United States for various reasons (see, e.g., Jayson, 2005), few social scientific studies address multigenerational households. Moreover, even fewer studies exist on three-generation households in the communication field, thereby ignoring the communication processes that transpire between grandparents, parents, and children who co-reside. Although some three-generation households may provide support for a child, co-resident grandparents and parents may experience role conflicts. Moreover, for those three-generation households consisting of a parent(s), who cares for his or her own children along with an aging parent, the experience can also be stressful in a number of ways, affecting communication processes, family satisfaction, and mental health (see, e.g., Halpern, 1994). Communication researchers have the opportunity to investigate the communication processes and adjustments that occur when grandparents co-reside with parents and children in the same household.
Intergenerational Transmission of Communication Behaviors
Even when grandparents do not reside in the same household as adult children and grandchildren, it is clear from early work in psychology that patterns of interaction in one generation may recur across generations. In disciplines other than communication, ample support exists for the intergenerational transmission hypothesis, which posits that parents’ family-of-origin interactions with their own parents will influence how they interact with their own children and that families carry their problems with them from one generation to the next (Bowen, 1978). The communication researcher Miller-Day (2004) discovered unique family communication patterns and a “tradition” of suicide attempts across four generations of women in several families, and Diane Doumas and Steve Wilson both do research on the intergenerational effects of interpersonal violence and verbal aggressiveness on offspring (see, e.g., Doumas, Margolin, & John, 1994; Wilson, Hayes, & Bylund, 2006). All these scholars argue that communication patterns and processes are pivotal to understanding the dynamics of intergenerational transmission. The argument of many contemporary scholars is that our past experiences interacting and communicating with others (family members) shape how we interpret, understand, and guide our present communicative interactions.
Children as Language Brokers
For some families who immigrate to the United States, adjusting to a new environment with a different language and cultural practices may lead parents and other family members to rely on their children to help them adjust. Because children experience adaptation and language acquisition at a faster rate than do adults, children in immigrant families often act as language brokers. In particular, language brokers refer to people who act as cultural and linguistic mediators between two or more parties (Tse, 1995). These language-brokering children often interpret for their parents and grandparents at medical visits, stores, banks, and school. As language-brokering children take on adult responsibilities, some researchers suggest that parentification occurs. Parentification is defined as a person, typically of authoritative status, relying on a child for functional or emotional assistance, often at the risk of hindering the child’s natural and appropriate developmental process (Castro, Jones, & Mirsalimi, 2004). Several studies indicate that language-brokering children experience parentification and, in turn, experience stress and resentment. Other studies suggest that these children develop confidence, self-esteem, and pride. Thus, research on language brokering is mixed, which makes investigating this process essential for communication researchers to establish more concrete results. Conducting further research to determine how language brokering affects children is essential, given that it may have substantial consequences for their well-being.
Young Children as Caregivers
In the United States, at least 1.4 million children who are between the ages of 8 and 18 are caregivers, where 72% are primary caregivers to a parent or a grandparent (Hunt, Levine, & Naiditch, 2005). Children may take on the role of caregiver for a number of reasons, some of which have been a parent’s or a grandparent’s medical condition. When children are responsible for preparing meals, bathing, dressing, transporting, or shopping for a parent or grandparent, such tasks may interfere with the children’s social life, education, and well-being. Thus, it is not surprising that research on young caregivers shows a positive relationship between caregiving and stress, anxiety, depression, and school dropout (Amend, 2006). Because caregiving can have a negative effect on children’s well-being, communication researchers must determine what makes certain young caregivers more resilient than others and how certain coping strategies may be more effective than others. Some young caregivers are able to successfully handle the responsibilities and pressures. Some report positive experiences from caregiving. Yet other children have difficulty carrying out activities that are usually expected of adults, thereby warranting greater attention to this unique and significant phenomenon.
Adult Children and Adult Grandchildren as Caregivers
One context of caregiving that appears to gain the most attention is that which occurs among adult children or adult grandchildren who assist a parent or a grandparent. These familial caregivers constitute the largest percentage of informal caregivers. Similar to young children who are caregivers, becoming a caregiver for a parent or grandparent later in life may also be difficult. Although most of these caregivers want the best for their parent or grandparent, studies reveal that caregivers may actually become too controlling over their parents’ or grandparents’ life. Too much control, however, can negatively affect the relationship and the care recipient’s well-being. In response, the parent or grandparent who is receiving care may withhold information regarding a health problem, for example, to regain some control. Such findings have implications for privacy management, as was discussed earlier in the paper with Petronio’s communication privacy management theory. Consequently, communication researchers must consider more effective ways for families to communicate in the caregiving context, allowing parents and grandparents to maintain some sense of control over their lives while encouraging them to discuss their health problems and other needs with their family members.
While some research suggests that media exposure to information about human genetics is related to increased family discussions of genetics research (Weiner, Silk, & Parrott, 2005), there is little evidence that individuals are talking with friends or family members about genetic health. Weiner and colleagues reported that 84.7% of their sample reported that they had never talked about genetic health with family members, and among those who had exchanged some information, prenatal testing was the most discussed topic. This situation offers unique challenges to the medical community because existing research suggests that more patients with genetic disorders learn about their disorder from family members than from genetic counselors (Mellon, 2002). Indeed, family members are perceived to have a moral imperative to communicate genetic information to other family members. But do they? Genetic communication may be an area in which communication researchers can learn more about intergenerational sharing of health and medical information. While research literature in the area of family communication about genetics and health suggests that parents are responsible for disseminating information to their children, there is little evidence to suggest that they actually perform such a function and even less that uncovers the process of the information dissemination (see, e.g., Gaff et al., 2007).
As technological advancements provide new and faster ways of communicating, which transcend physical distance, communication researchers should take advantage of these new forms of media to determine how they change grandparents, parents, and children’s communication and relationships. Life events, such as attending college and obtaining a job, may spread families further apart geographically, leading them to rely on e-mail, text messaging, telephones, and video phones to maintain their communication and relationship. Soliz, Lin, Anderson, and Harwood (2006) suspect that with the baby boomer generation—a computer-literate cohort—reaching older adulthood (65+ years), that cohort will be increasingly dependent on the Internet to maintain relationships with their children and grandchildren. Consequently, several issues to consider are how different forms of media influence the communication between grandparents, parents, and children and whether certain types of media encourage greater disclosure and intimacy.
As researchers commence the 21st century in the study of communication among grandparents, parents, and children, it is important to remember the relative youth of this area of study within the discipline of communication. It really wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that family communication became its own area of communication study. Subsequently, the study of communication within family systems has been hampered by a lack of indigenous theories, an overemphasis on dyadic relationships, statistical methods unable to capture the complexity of family interaction, and a neglect of both young children and older adults. Yet as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, there is considerable promise for the future. The field is witnessing a growth in homegrown theories, an increased understanding of how multimethod approaches can enhance understanding, and an increase in research focused on grandparenting.
In this time of rapid family change—when more younger children and adults have living grandparents today than at any time in history and more adult children are living at home with a parent—it has become increasingly important to understand the processes of intergenerational communication and how that communication affects family members across the life span. Undeniably, communication is both the whole cloth from which our family relationships are carved and the velvet thread that binds us together.
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