The Influence of Big Brothers on the Separation-Individuation of Adolescents from Single-Parent Families

Article excerpt


The separation-individuation process involving children and their mothers is facilitated by fathers. Divorce complicates this process. This study investigated whether substitute father figures can aid male adolescents from single-parent families with separation-individuation. Twenty-nine adolescents matched to Big Brothers were compared with two control groups (adolescents from single-parent families without Big Brothers and those from intact families) on relevant variables. Findings indicated that the adolescents with Big Brothers were less affected by parental rejection than were adolescents in the two control groups. They also appeared to have healthier narcissism than did adolescents from single-parent families without Big Brothers, but were more anxious when relating to male teachers than were adolescents from intact families.

Many studies have shown the importance of the father in the psychological development of children and adolescents, as well as for the development of mature object relations (e.g., Biller, 1993; Cath, Gurwitt, & Gunsberg, 1989; Phares & Compas, 1992). Essentially, he can facilitate the separation-individuation process; that is, help end the symbiosis with the mother, enabling them to consolidate their own narcissism, sexual identity, and sense of individuality (Blos, 1967, 1985; Mahler, 1968; Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). Divorce is thought to complicate this process (Kalter, 1987, 1990). Various researchers (e.g., Amato, 1993; Amato & Keith, 1991a, 1991b; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989) have uncovered a number of short- and long-term effects of parental separation and divorce on boys, such as poor self-esteem, depression, learning problems, delinquency and, later, a poorer quality of life in terms of both their own relationships and their socioeconomic status. Others (e.g., Amato, 1994; Bank, Forgatch, & Pa tterson, 1993; Lindblad-Goldberg, 1989) have described the problems experienced by mothers who assume the parenting functions alone (e.g., poverty, increased stress, difficulties exercising authority). One organization that seeks to ease the problems encountered in mother-headed single-parent families is Big Brothers.

Big Brother volunteers offer therapeutic friendship to fatherless male youths (Beiswinger, 1985; Goodman, 1972; Gurwitz, 1982; Wollin & Royphe, 1960). Studies on the effectiveness of Big Brothers have revealed many benefits: reduction in the number of juvenile court appearances (Bruce, 1973; Stocks, 1980), improvement in academic achievement (Bruce, 1973; Powell Associates, 1972; Seifert, 1972), improved self-esteem, and greater social adaptation (Edmondson, Holman, & Morrel, 1984; Frecknall & Luks, 1992; Hirschfeld, Schell, Nagel, & Czaga, 1977; Nelson & Vaillant, 1993; Seifert, 1972). However, because of multiple methodological weaknesses, the results of these studies may not be conclusive. In addition to the absence of control groups, many important independent variables (such as the age of the child when the parents separated, the reason for the father's absence, and the socioeconomic status of the family) were not assessed. In addition, weak psychometric tools were often employed. Nevertheless, a rigoro us study by Thorelli (1983) revealed factors associated with the effectiveness of the Big Brother/Little Brother pairing: a dynamic and warm volunteer, desire on the part of the youth for such a relationship, age difference, and duration of the pairing.

In a qualitative study (based on interviews with ten Big Brothers) investigating the modification of object relations after three years of therapeutic friendship, Gareau (1987) reported a developmental progression: mistrust, trust, use of the Big Brother as a sometimes idealized self-object (Kohut, 1971), and emotional security permitting autonomy. In a case study, Saintonge (1987) found that the Big Brother relationship promoted integration of the aggressive drive, the maturation of the male identity, a healthy distancing from the mother, as well as better peer relationships. …