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A qualitative analysis of grandparents' expressions of affection for their young adult grandchildren.

During a personal introduction speech in a basic communication course, one student revealed a tattoo on his right shoulder and stated: "I got this tattoo in honor of my grandparents who mean a lot to me." The student proceeded to explain that his grandparents played an important role in his upbringing and that they enabled him to attend college. This student's experiences with his grandparents are not unique. In fact, grandchildren often develop emotionally close relationships with their grandparents (Ruiz & Silverstein, 2007). Moreover, the grandparent-grandchild (GP-GC) relationship is important to grandchildren because grandparents may influence their grandchildren's morals, values, and attitudes toward school (Brussoni & Boon, 1998), love, and marriage (O'Neil & Klein, 2008). Nevertheless, grandchildren's emotional closeness, communication satisfaction, relational satisfaction, and perceived relational quality with their grandparents depend largely on grandparents' communicative attributes.

Grandchildren feel emotionally close to their grandparents when grandparents partake in shared activities with their grandchildren (Kam & Nussbaum, 2008), accommodate their communication styles (Harwood, 2000) in a manner that is appropriate for the grandchildren's age (Folwell & Grant, 2006), and when they engage in honest self-disclosure (Downs, 1988). Similarly, when grandparents provide communication-based emotional support (Mansson, Myers, & Turner, 2010), accommodate their communication styles (Harwood), and discuss a broad spectrum of conversation topics (Kam & Hecht, 2009), grandchildren tend to be communicatively and relationally satisfied with their grandparents. Not surprisingly then, grandchildren often perceive their grandparents as available, caring, comforting, and helpful (Kam & Nussbaum; Kennedy, 1990), all of which are attributes that may be conveyed through affectionate communication (Floyd, 2006).

Affectionate communication, which is defined as intentionally enacted expressions of "fondness and intense positive regard toward others" (Floyd, 2006, p. 4), is conveyed verbally (e.g., I love you), nonverbally (e.g., hugs), and through social support (e.g., providing help) in friendships (Floyd, 1995), romantic relationships (Floyd, 1997), sibling relationships (Floyd & Parks, 1995), and parent-child relationships (Floyd & Morman, 2003). Relatedly, grandchildren expect their grandparents to be loving and supportive (Kennedy, 1990), and grandchildren are often motivated to communicate with their grandparents to fulfill their affection needs (Dunleavy & Martin, 2007). Nevertheless, little is known about how grandparents express affection for their grandchildren.

A review of the intergenerational literature indicates that grandparents and grandchildren often develop a close and affectionate relationship (Kam & Nussbaum, 2008; Kennedy, 1990; Kornhaber, 1985). Thus, the lack of GP-GC affectionate communication research is initially somewhat perplexing considering that scholars (e.g., Atkinson, Kivett, & Campbell, 1986; Bengtson, 2001; Lin & Harwood, 2003; Roberts, Richards, & Bengtson, 1991) often ground their studies in the theoretical construct of intergenerational solidarity, which includes affectual, consensual, structural, associational, functional, and normative solidarity. However, affectual solidarity is conceptualized broadly as GPGC relational closeness and is often operationalized in terms of feelings of being understood as well as relational and interactional quality (Bengtson, 2001; Giarrusso, Feng, Silverstein, & Bengtson, 2001) rather than specific behaviors that convey affection, which may explain the lack of GP-GC affectionate communication research.

To fill this void, Mansson and Booth-Butterfield (2011) examined affectionate communication in the GP-GC relationship using Floyd and Morman's (1998) Affectionate Communication Index (ACI) to assess grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren. This study indicates that grandchildren who receive affectionate communication from their grandparents tend to be socially active and they report low levels of discomfort with closeness and social isolation. Moreover, in accordance with Affection Exchange Theory (AET; Floyd, 2006), it was also found that grandchildren receive more affectionate communication from their biological grandparents than their non-biological grandparents. Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that assessing grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren using the ACI proved to be somewhat problematic. Several items (e.g., winking, giving massages) had means well below the median (i.e., 4 on a 1-7 scale), which suggests that expressions of affection may be enacted differently in the GP-GC relationship than in previously examined interpersonal relationships. To explore this idea, the purpose of this study is to inductively identify the types of affection grandchildren receive from their grandparents using a grounded theory approach (Creswell, 1998).

The identification of grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren will also enable scholars to conduct future investigations that advance extant intergenerational research by examining how GP-GC affectionate communication affects both grandparents and their grandchildren. To date, scholars have identified a multitude of physiological (e.g., blood pressure, glycosylated hemoglobin; Floyd, Hesse, & Haynes 2007), psychological (e.g., stress, depression; Floyd, 2002), and social (e.g., social activity, fear of intimacy; Floyd) benefits associated with received and expressed affection across a variety of relational contexts while neglecting to examine the GP-GC relationship. The lack of GP-GC research may, in part, be due to a bias against old age in Western cultures (Soliz, Lin, Anderson, & Harwood, 2006). Nevertheless, the GP-GC relationship is becoming increasingly important due to several sociological and familial changes in recent decades.

Because of increased teen pregnancies as well as higher divorce rates and consequently the prevalence of single parent households, grandparents often play an important role in raising the children (Szinovacz, 1998). Similarly, due to the increased life expectancy (Moody, n.d.) and the fact that women are becoming more active in the workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000), grandchildren often develop long-lasting and close relationships with their grandparents (Soliz et al.) that, in many cases, last more than 30 years (Uhlenberg & Kirby, 1998). The quality of the GP-GC relationship may have a profound impact on grandchildren's overall mental health, social development (Ruiz & Silverstein, 2007), and orientation toward other people (Lin & Harwood, 2003). Thus, a vital precursor to explore the associations between grandparents' expressions of affection and both their own and their grandchildren's physiological, psychological, and social well-being is to determine what grandchildren perceive as affectionate grandparent communicative behaviors. To that end, the following research question is posed: How do grandparents communicate affection for their young adult grandchildren?



Undergraduate students (N = 184; 93 males, 91 females) enrolled in a large lecture communication course at a Mid-Atlantic university participated in this study. The participants were 36 sophomores, 84 juniors, 61 seniors, and two students who failed to report their academic status. Their ages ranged from 19 to 35 years (M = 21.01, SD = 1.75 yrs.) with 6.5% being Generation X students (i.e., born 1960-1980) and 93.5% being Generation Y students (i.e., born 1981-2000). The grandchildren lived between one and 2,300 miles from their grandparents (M = 322.93, SD = 348.88) and they self-identified as Caucasians (89%), African Americans (3.6%), Hispanic (2.5%), Asian Americans (1.8%), and other (3.1%). The grandchildren interacted with their grandparents on average 10 times per academic semester. These interactions were primarily (49.7%) face-to-face, followed by telephone (43.1%), snail mail (3.0%), e-mail (2.4%), and instant messaging (1.8%), respectively.


Upon approval from the Instructional Review Board (IRB), the researcher administered a survey in a course taught by a different faculty member. The survey consisted of two parts. In the first part, the participants were asked to respond to several demographic items as detailed above. In the second part, the participants were asked to respond to the question "How do your grandparents communicate affection toward you?" To facilitate their responses, the participants were provided with Floyd's (2006) definition of affectionate communication as intentionally enacted expressions of "fondness and intense positive regard toward others" (p. 4). Participants who did not have at least one living grandparent were asked to participate in a different and unrelated study.

The participants provided a total of 644 responses, which were compiled on a master list. Similar to Soliz's (2008) GP-GC study and in accordance with Braun and Clarke's (2006) suggestions for identifying behavioral patterns in qualitative data sets, a thematic analysis was conducted, which consisted of six phases. In phase one, the researcher read through the responses several times to familiarize himself with the data. In phase two, the researcher reread the data set and identified a series of eighteen initial codes that appeared to reflect different types of affectionate grandparent communicative behaviors. In phase three, the eighteen codes were examined for conceptual similarities and grouped into eight broader candidate themes (i.e., concern, encouragement, gifts, interactions, interest, nonverbal, support, and verbal) of grandparent affectionate communicative behaviors (Braun & Clarke).

In phase four, the researcher proceeded in two steps. In step one, the data set was coded based on the eight candidate themes. Because concern, interest, support, and encouragement were less prominent than the remaining candidate themes and due to the conceptual overlap between concern and interest and between support and encouragement, these four candidate themes were merged into two candidate themes (i.e., concern/interest and support/encouragement). Thus, the researcher was left with six candidate themes (i.e., concern/interest, gifts, interactions, nonverbal, support/encouragement, and verbal) of grandparent affectionate communicative behaviors. In step two, the researcher reread the 644 responses provided by the participants to (a) confirm that the six candidate themes worked for the data set and (b) to examine the validity of the six candidate themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006) by ensuring that they accurately reflected expressions of affection as defined by Floyd (2006). Consequently, the researcher was left with six themes that became the unit of analysis.

In phase five, the researcher first conceptualized the six themes by reviewing the data set for behaviors that reflected each theme. Second, a codebook was developed that included the six themes along with a conceptualization of each theme (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Third, the researcher explained the codebook and defined each theme to a graduate student who was blind to the study. In phase six, the researcher and the graduate student independently coded 20% of the responses to assess intercoder reliability (Cohen's Kappa = .96). Due to the high intercoder reliability, the researcher proceeded to code the remaining responses singly.


The research question inquired about how grandparents communicate affection for their young adult grandchildren. The analyses resulted in six themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006) of affectionate grandparent communicative behaviors received by grandchildren: concern/interest, gifts, interactions, nonverbal, support/encouragement, and verbal. A frequency count (Frey, Botan, & Kreps, 2000) indicated that grandparents most often express nonverbal affection for their grandchildren (148; 22.98%), closely followed by interactions (146; 22.67%), verbal (126; 18.63%), gifts (94; 14.60%), concern/interest (70; 10.87%), and support/encouragement (60; 9.31%), respectively.

To examine further the frequency with which grandchildren receive the six types of affection from their grandparents, a series of post-hoc paired, one-sample t-tests were conducted. To conduct the t-tests, each participant's responses were tallied and entered into SPSS in order to compute the mean scores for the six themes. For example, a participant could have a score of "3" in the nonverbal category if s/he mentioned three separate behaviors reflecting that category and a "0" in the gifts category if s/he mentioned no gifts. The grandchildren reported that their grandparents rely more on nonverbal than verbal t(183) = 4.24, p < .001, gifts, t(183) = 10.04, p < .001, concern/interest, t(183) = 14.47, p < .001, and support/encouragement, t(183) = 16.16, p < .001, communicative behaviors to express affection for their grandchildren. Grandparents rely more on interactions than verbal, t(183) = 3.79, p < .001, gifts, t(183) = 9.47, p < .001, concern/interest, t(183) = 13.82, p < .001, and support/encouragement, t(183) = 15.49, p < .001, communicative behaviors to express affection or their grandchildren. Grandparents rely more on verbal than gifts, t(183) = 5.09, p < .001, concern/interest, t(183) = 8.87, p < .001, and support/encouragement, t(183) = 10.33, p < .001, communicative behaviors to express affection or their grandchildren. Grandparents rely more on gifts than concern/interest, t(183) = 3.54, p < .01, and support/encouragement, t(183) = 4.90, p < .001, communicative behaviors to express affection or their grandchildren. No other differences that met the .01 level of significance (selected because of multiple comparisons) in use were found.


The purpose of this study was to inductively explore how grandparents communicate affection for their young adult grandchildren. As such, this study had a limited focus, which may be considered a limitation. Nevertheless, the findings obtained in this study fill a considerable void in the intergenerational literature, which will enable researchers to examine further the role of affectionate communication in the GP-GC relationship. The analyses revealed six themes (i.e., concern/interest, gifts, interactions, nonverbal, support/encouragement, and verbal) of affectionate grandparent communicative behaviors. For the sake of clarity, each of these themes will be described separately here, and, when appropriate, related to extant GP-GC and affectionate communication research.

The concern/interest theme included both active and passive behaviors. Grandparents express concern/interest actively by asking their grandchildren directly about their academic performance, social and romantic relationships, work, future plans, needs, and physical and mental well-being. One grandchild stated that "they [my grandparents] want to know what's going on in my life, how school is, my friends, activities, love interests, and how my life in general is going" whereas others said that "My grandparents are interested in what's going on in my life" and "They always worry when I'm sad." Grandparents express concern/interest indirectly by asking others, primarily the grandchildren's parents, how their grandchildren are doing. Two of the grandchildren stated that "My grandmother calls my mom to see how I'm doing" and "They ask my parents for updates about me." Grandparents also express concern/interest passively by being good listeners who are attentive when their grandchildren talk. As one grandchild stated, "she [my grandmother] is always there to listen to my problems when I need to vent." Similarly, two different grandchildren mentioned that "My grandparents are good listeners" who "always listen to what I have to say." This category corresponds with Kennedy's (1990) findings, which indicate that grandchildren believe that ideal grandparents should express concern and show interest in their grandchildren.

The gifts category included grandparents giving their grandchildren birthday, Christmas, and Valentine's Day presents. While some grandchildren simply stated that their grandparents give them gifts, many specified the type of gifts they received, which were primarily money, cards, favorite cookies, food, and taking the grandchildren to dinner. In fewer instances, the grandchildren reported that their grandparents gave them tickets for special events, such as games or music concerts. Thus, several grandchildren described their grandparents as "very generous" who "pay for vacations" and "give me things that I value." Not surprisingly, then, Kennedy (1990) concluded that grandchildren perceive those grandparents who give their grandchildren gifts and money as ideal. Extant research (Karofsky, 2005) also suggests that grandparents attempt to be fair when providing resources and gifts to their grandchildren to prevent conflicts among family members and because they believe it is a moral and ethical obligation to treat their grandchildren equally.

The interaction category included grandparents' attempts to spend time face-to-face with their grandchildren by visiting them in college, attending family events, family reunions, and going on vacations with the grandchildren. The face-to-face interactions also involved shared activities such as playing cards, board games, fishing, golfing, and cooking together. In the words of one grandchild, "they [my grandparents] want to hang out with me a lot and do a lot of activities." A couple of other grandchildren said that they "share a glass of wine together at times" and that they "go out to lunch and dinner together." Moreover, many grandchildren indicated that their grandparents called them frequently, and to a lesser extent, sent e-mails, instant messages, text messages, snail-mail letters, and used Facebook to interact with their grandchildren while the grandchildren are attending college. During these conversations, grandparents often talked about their family history, common interest, told funny stories, and, in some instances, gossiped with their grandchildren. According to Kam & Nussbaum (2008), when grandparents and grandchildren share activities, the grandchildren tend to feel emotionally close to their grandparents. Grandchildren also perceive grandparents who visit them, share the family heritage with them, and engage in activities with them as ideal grandparents (Kennedy, 1990). Not surprisingly, then, one grandchild noted that "we have a good relationship because of [our] conversations." Moreover, the prevalence of this theme reflects both Bengtson's (1985) model of grandparents as "being there" for their grandchildren as well as Cherlin and Furstengerg's (1986) "involved" grandparent style.

The nonverbal category, which reflects the "compassionate" grandparent as discussed by Cherlin and Furstenberg (1986), primarily included grandparents hugging and kissing their grandchildren on their cheeks. Most of grandparents' hugs and kisses were given as a part of greetings or farewells. One grandchild stated that "my grandmother gives me hugs and kisses every time I see her or when we part." Grandparents also used other touching behaviors to express affection, such as holding hands and walking arm-in-arm; they also sit close to their grandchildren and place their hands on their grandchildren's shoulders. These behaviors were described well by two different grandchildren who indicated that their grandparents "give me hugs and kisses when they see me" and that their grandparents "put their arms around me and sit close to me when we are talking." To a lesser extent, the grandchildren perceived their grandparents' eye contact, smiles, and laughter as expressions of affection. Thus, grandparents' nonverbal expressions of affection resemble Floyd and Morman's (1998) nonverbal dimension of affectionate communication, which includes kissing, hugging, and holding hands.

The support/encouragement category included grandparents providing financial support for their grandchildren by paying for their education, their housing, and their bills. Grandparents also provide advice and emotional support, attend events (e.g., graduations, sporting events) that are important to their grandchildren, and they help their grandchildren whenever possible. One grandchild stated that "my grandparents would do anything for me" and another grandchild stated that "my grandparents are always there for me when I need them." Grandparents also encourage their grandchildren by telling them that they are proud of them, by praising their accomplishments, and saying that they are happy that their grandchildren are doing well academically. Thus, the support/encouragement category is congruent with Floyd and Morman's (1998) social support dimension, which includes praising accomplishments and being helpful when others have problems. These findings also corroborate Kennedy's (1990) results, which indicate that grandparents help their grandchildren when they can and provide advice, guidance, and emotional support to their grandchildren.

The verbal category, which portrays grandparents as "compassionate" (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1986), included grandparents stating that they are happy to see their grandchildren, that they miss and love their grandchildren, and that the grandchildren and the relationships are important and special to the grandparents. For example, two grandchildren stated that their grandparents say "you're a special girl" and "I'm so glad you came to see us." This category also included grandparents complimenting their grandchildren on their physical attractiveness, such as being cute, handsome, and pretty. One grandchild said that "my grandmother compliments me every time she sees me" and another grandchild said that "they often compliment my accomplishments and say how good I look." As such, the verbal category reflects Floyd and Merman's (1998) verbal affection dimension, which includes expressed relationship importance, "I love you" statements, and compliments. Moreover, this category supports grandchildren's expectations of their grandparents as being loving (Kennedy, 1990).

Grandparents' nonverbal, support/encouragement, and verbal expressions of affection coincide with Floyd and Morman's (1998) nonverbal, verbal, and social support dimensions of affectionate behaviors. However, the fact that grandparents also express affection by showing concern/interest, giving gifts, and interacting with their grandchildren suggests that affectionate behaviors differ, or are perceived differently, across relational contexts. Thus, affectionate communication scholars may consider developing additional instruments to assess expressions of affection in different types of interpersonal relationships. For instance, the Affectionate Communication Index (ACI; Floyd & Morman, 1998) includes items such as kissing on the lips, giving massages, and winking, which may not be appropriate behaviors in certain interpersonal relationships (e.g., friendships, sibling relationships, grandparent-grandchild relationships).

A measure to assess grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren would enable scholars to conduct additional theoretical tests of Affection Exchange Theory (AET; Floyd, 2006). AET is grounded in the "Darwinian principle that survival and procreation are superordinate human motivations" (Floyd, Sargent, & Di Corcia, 2004, p. 193) that can be fulfilled, in part, by affectionate communication (Floyd). Thus, AET views affectionate communication as a resource that benefits both the senders and the receivers. Senders of affectionate messages are viewed as viable mates and receivers of affectionate messages are more likely to reach an age appropriate for procreation. As such, affectionate communication may benefit both the senders' and the receivers' physiological, mental, and social well-being (Floyd). Moreover, AET suggests that people also have an optimal tolerance for the amount of affectionate communication they send and receive and that people have a trait-like ability to send and receive affectionate messages.

In addition to developing a measure to test AET in the context of GP-GC relationships, the findings obtained in this study also warrant additional research examining affectionate communication as relational maintenance behaviors. Floyd (2006) argued that affectionate communication serves to maintain interpersonal relationships. Several of the behaviors used by grandparents to express affection for their grandchildren are commonly used relational maintenance behaviors, albeit in different relational contexts. For instance, in friendships (Johnson, 2001), sibling relationships (Myers & Weber, 2004), and in romantic relationships (Stafford, Dainton & Haas, 2000), relational partners send cards/letters, give advice, use humor, provide instrumental and emotional social support, and engage in joint activities to maintain their relationships (Johnson, Myers & Weber; Stafford et al.). Thus, grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren may also serve to maintain the GP-GC relationship. Moreover, the use of relational maintenance behaviors has been associated positively with a series of relational characteristics (i.e., communication satisfaction, relational satisfaction, liking, trust, and commitment) that motivate individuals to maintain their relationships. As such, it seems likely that grandparents' expressions of affection for their grandchildren are associated positively with their grandchildren's relational characteristics. Collectively, these ideas warrant continued GP-GC research endeavors.

In sum, many grandparents are caring, generous, loving, and supportive of their young adult grandchildren. It is not surprising, then, that grandchildren develop and maintain close relationships with their grandparents (Lin & Harwood, 2003; Mansson et al., 2010) that enhance the family solidarity (Waites, 2007). The emotional bond established between grandparents and grandchildren is of utmost importance (Kornhaber, 1985) to grandchildren's development (Brussoni & Boon, 1998), psychological (Ruiz & Silverstein, 2007), and social well-being (Lin & Harwood, 2003), all of which may be enhanced by received affection from their grandparents.


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Daniel H. Mansson

Penn State Hazleton

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Daniel H. Mansson, Communication Arts & Sciences, Penn State Hazleton, 76 University Drive, Hazleton, PA 18202
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Author:Mansson, Daniel H.
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Date:Jun 1, 2012
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