Middle-aged women are on best behavior with their aging moms

November 15, 2001

University Park, Pa. --- Results of a Penn State study show that middle-aged daughters tend to dominate in interactions with their aging mothers but they do it while being just as nice as they can be.

Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz, assistant professor of human development and family studies, led the study. She says, "Our results show that middle-aged women take charge in conversations with their mothers, just as they do with their teenage children. However, the women structure, rather than control, the conversations with their mothers and offer supportive, encouraging, engaged, enthusiastic and humorous exchanges."

Lefkowitz and her co-author Dr. Karen Fingerman, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, detailed their results in a poster, "Negative Expression and Positive Involvement During Conversations Between Women and Their Mothers," presented Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Gerontological Society of America meeting in Chicago, Ill.

Fingerman notes, "Mothers and daughters in late life have strong relationships, in part, because they are so good at expressing positive feelings and not expressing their negative ones. We know that the daughters in our study all had some problems with their mothers based on their responses in individual interviews but, in their mothers's presence, they acted with good humor, grace and acceptance."

In their study, 46 mothers, ages 69 to 93, were audio-taped while completing a problem-solving task with their daughters. Each of the women had been shown a picture of a mother and daughter and asked to write a story about it. When their stories were complete, the mothers and daughters were brought together and asked to prepare a joint story.

In some mother/daughter pairs, the daughters resolved the problem of preparing a new story by suggesting that they simply submit the story that the mother had written independently. Other mother/ daughter pairs negotiated solutions by developing a new story together. The conversations that took place during the negotiations were recorded and coded for overall talking time and rated on negative expression and positive involvement.

Lefkowitz says,"Some negative expression goes on everyday with whomever you're around. Negative expression doesn't necessarily mean fighting. However, there was an especially low level of negativity between the mothers and daughters in this study. On the scale of one to five that we used, the mean was just 1.2 for mothers and 1.3 for daughters."

While both the mothers and daughters were very careful of the other's feelings, the daughters also displayed more positive involvement with their mothers.

Fingerman says, "As people enter late life, in general, we see decreases in negative emotions. The older mothers are not negative, in part, simply because they are old. Middle-age is generally a generative period when people have a lot of responsibilities and care for a lot of people. In this case, the middle-aged daughters were being generative towards their mothers."

Lefkowitz notes that the mothers also said that they experienced less negativity in the conversations than did the daughters. Even though the level of negativity was very low, the daughters perceived the interactions as slightly more negative than the mothers. "Even though the daughters were feeling more negativity, they didn't express it. Not expressing the negativity that they feel may be another part of the daughter's structure giving role in the conversations," she adds.
The study was supported in part by grants to Fingerman, including a University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School Dissertation Award, an American Psychological Association Dissertation Grant, Society for the Study of Social Issues Grants-In-Aid, and a grant from Sigma Xi.

Penn State

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