Guilt in Adult Mother-Child Relationships: Connections to Intergenerational Ambivalence and Support

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2020 Mar 9;75(4):879-888. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gby077.


Objectives: The concept of guilt is often mentioned in studies on intergenerational ambivalence but its theoretical status in that literature is not clear and the concept is rarely measured. The current study examines how feelings of guilt that adult children have toward their aging mothers are related to intergenerational ambivalence and support.

Method: Using representative survey data from the Netherlands (N = 2,450), adult children (average age 43) were asked to evaluate the relationship with their mother (average age 71). Principal component analysis was used to examine which underlying dimensions exist and regression models were estimated to examine the effects of ambivalence and support exchange on guilt.

Results: About one-fifth of adult children report feelings of guilt. Guilt constitutes a unique concept in the 2-dimensional structure of children's emotions about the mother-child relationship. There is a significant effect of the co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions on guilt, confirming the hypothesis that ambivalence leads to guilt in intergenerational relationships. Received support, infrequent contact, and filial obligations are also associated with feelings of guilt.

Discussion: Intergenerational ambivalence can be problematic for children because it may increase feelings of guilt. Feelings of guilt are also determined by a lack of reciprocity and by norms about intergenerational support.

Keywords: Filial obligations; Guilt; Intergenerational ambivalence; Intergenerational solidarity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Children / psychology*
  • Aged
  • Attitude
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Intergenerational Relations*
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations / psychology*
  • Netherlands
  • Parents / psychology
  • Social Class