Adult Parent-Child Relationships in Complex Families: A Latent Class Analysis of Relationships to Stepparents and Biological Parents

Ruben van Gaalen, University of Amsterdam
Matthijs Kalmijn, University of Amsterdam
Kirsten van Houdt, University of Amsterdam

In the light of lengthening lifespans, understanding parent-child relations in adulthood has become increasingly important. At the same time, upward trends in divorce and remarriage have resulted in an increased diversity of parent-child relations. Previous studies compared relationships to stepparents and biological parents and tried to reveal how parent-child relationships are shaped by past family transitions, but focused solely on positive dimensions and studied these dimensions in isolation thereby disregarding the interdependent structure of the parent-child relationship. We argue that, this way, the interdependent structure of the parent-child relationship has been overlooked, which has only provided a scattered view on the differences between relationships with different parent types. The present study takes an integrated approach and considers four dimensions of parent-child relationships: affection, contact, exchange of support, and conflict. We use latent class analysis to reveal (1) whether the same class structure can be distinguished among biological parents and stepparents and, if so, (2) whether there are differences in the distribution over the classes of relationships. Furthermore, we consider how (timing of) childhood experiences, such as parental divorce and co-residence with a parent relates to different classes of relationships. In deriving our expectations, we start from the premise of remarriage as an ‘incomplete institution’ and argue that the absence of clear social guidelines for step relationships could translate in less obligatory and more reciprocal parent-child relationships. We analyze newly collected data (2017) from a large-scale survey on adult children and their (step)parents in the Netherlands (OKiN), which assesses childhood histories as well as current relationships to parents. Respondents (aged 25-45) who grew up with divorced or widowed parent, as well as stepparents were systematically oversampled using population registers, which allows us to capture the diversity in both biological parent-child and stepparent-stepchild relations.

In the light of lengthening lifespans, understandingparent-child relations in adulthood has become increasingly important. At thesame time, upward trends in divorce and remarriage have resulted in anincreased diversity of parent-child relations (Thomson, 2014). Of todayÕsadults, many spent their childhood living with one biological parent and theother at a distance, ranging from frequent visits to no contact at all. On topof that, many experienced the presence of stepparents Ð being it co-residentialor at a distance. Driven by these developments, scholars have comparedrelations to stepparents and biological parents and have touched upon thequestion how adult childrenÕs relationships to these parents are shaped by pastfamily transitions. Generally, the results show an advantage of biological tiesover step ties: Children have more distant relationships (Arr‡nz Becker, Salzburger, Lois, & Nauck, 2013;Kalmijn, 2013; Steinbach & Hank, 2016),less contact (Van der Pas & VanTilburg, 2010), and exchange lesssupport (Pezzin, Pollak, & Schone,2008) with stepparents. However, thesestudies have mainly focused on one single dimension of parent-childrelationships and if more dimensions were considered, they have been analyzedas separate outcomes. We argue that studying these dimensions in isolationprovides merely a scattered view on the differences between stepparents andbiological parents for at least two reasons.

First, as comes clearfrom the Parent-Child Solidarity Model (Bengtson& Roberts, 1991), the differentdimensions of parent-child relations form one, interdependent structure. Bystudying these dimensions separately, we might overlook structural differencesin relationships with stepparents and biological parents.

Second, as has beenargued in the literature on ambivalence (Connidis& McMullin, 2002), a focus on merelythe positive dimensions of parent-child relations (i.e., solidarity) neglectstheir inherent complexity. The absence of positive feelings or behavior doesnot necessarily imply negative affect, nor does positive affect excludenegative emotions. In terms of relationships with stepparents, the literature hasonly shown one side of the coin thus far.

In this study, we aim to meet theseconcerns by adopting an integrated approach in which we consider fourdimensions of parent-child relationships: affection, contact, exchange ofsupport, and conflict. We use latent class analysis to reveal (1) whether thesame class structure can be distinguished among biological parents andstepparents and, if so, (2) whether there are differences in the distribution overthe classes of relationships. Furthermore, we consider how (timing of)childhood experiences, such as parental divorce and co-residence with a parentrelates to different classes of relationships. By studying multiple dimensionssimultaneously and by examining the different structures in which they combine,we can add fruitful insights to the debate what distinguishes stepparents frombiological parents (e.g., Schmeeckle,Giarrusso, Feng, & Bengtson, 2006).In addition, by being the first to consider both negative and positivedimensions in stepparent-child relationships, we add to the literature onambivalence in family relationships more generally as well (e.g., Connidis & McMullin, 2002).

We build upon previous studies thatdeveloped typologies of relationships between adult children and their parents (e.g., Schenk & Dykstra, 2012; Van Gaalen &Dykstra, 2006) and, to deriveexpectations on how relationships to stepparents might differ fromrelationships to biological parents, we start from the premise of remarriage asan Ôincomplete institutionÕ (Cherlin,1978) in contrast to the traditionalfamily as a well-established institution. We argue that the absence of clear guidelinesor social norms on what is appropriate in step relationships might result in alower prevalence or even the absence of obligatory relationships tostepparents, that behaviors such as contact and support more often coincidewith affection, and that relationships are more often reciprocal in terms ofsupport and earlier parental investments (e.g., being raised by the parent).

An important reason for the, thus far,fragmented research on adult childrenÕs relationships with stepparents is thescarcity of suitable data. In many cases, the subsample of stepparent-stepchilddyads is too small to provide sufficient statistical power and/or there areonly few measures available. In the present study, we overcome these problemsby analyzing newly collected data from a large-scale multi-actor survey onadult children and their (step)parents in the Netherlands (Ouders en Kinderen in Nederland [Kalmijn et al.,2017]). Respondents (aged 25-45) whogrew up with divorced or widowed parent, as well as stepparents weresystematically oversampled using population registers. This feature, along withthe various measures of relationships to all parents, including currentstepparents, makes these data perfectly suited to capture the diversity in parent-childrelations. Children (ÔanchorsÕ) and (step)parents (ÔaltersÕ) were approachedindependently. In this study, we will analyze the anchor data (N = 6,584),which allows us to compare parents within children. Table 1 shows descriptivestatistics of the key variables. In the coming months, after the final releaseof the data, the latent class analyses will be performed.

 



 

Presented in Session 1126: Ageing and Intergenerational Relations