Adolescent Runaways and Family Strife: A Conflict-Induced Differentiation Framework

By Crespi, Tony D.; Sabatelli, Ronald M. | Adolescence, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Adolescent Runaways and Family Strife: A Conflict-Induced Differentiation Framework

Crespi, Tony D., Sabatelli, Ronald M., Adolescence

Each year hundreds of thousands of American youth run away from home, leaving their families for life on the streets. While running away may temporarily fulfill a desire by some for adventure, life on the streets often brings exploitation and risk (Hartmann, Burgess, & McCormack, 1987; Gordon, 1981). Inasmuch as some seven hundred thousand youth are on the road annually (Gordon, 1981), it is not surprising that there are many different reasons young people run away. Still, while there are numerous behavioral correlates associated with running away, one fact remains undeniable: children who run away are running away from home--and from their families. In keeping with such a unifying framework, Gordon (1981) and Stierlin (1974) suggest that runaways appear to come from families characterized by conflict, neglect and rejection, and dysfunctional parenting.

The purpose of the present paper is to provide a preliminary exploration into the developmental and family system factors associated with running away. Specifically, the concept of conflict-induced self-differentiation is introduced to account for the relationships between family system dynamics, adolescent developmental processes, and runaway behavior. Within a family systems and family development framework, the ability of youths to successfully individuate is tied to the overarching tolerances for autonomy and intimacy that exist within the family. As presented here, runaway behavior is conceptualized as one way of acquiring distance from parents and, therefore, serves as a tool for achieving autonomy and independence.

Researchers have investigated the various demographic characteristics of those who run away, have outlined the consequences of this behavior, and have discussed the services available for runaways (Beyer, 1981; Brennan, 1980; Edelbrock, 1980; Gordon, 1975, 1981; Jenkins, 1971; Libertoff, 1980; Nye, 1980; Olson, Liebow, Mannino, & Shore, 1980; Perlman, 1980; Stierlin, 1973). A family systems perspective, however, which includes a conceptualization of runaway behavior within an individual and family developmental framework, may provide a way to better understand this all too commonly destructive behavior. The specific model presented focuses principally on the concepts of individuation, self-differentiation, and family system differentiation.


Adolescents are faced with the need to individuate, or separate, from the family of origin in order to establish the mature identity and capacity for intimacy necessary to assume adult roles and responsibilities (Allison & Sabatelli, 1988). Individuation is conceptualized as an intrapsychic process by which one comes to see oneself as separate and distinct within one's relational (familial, social, cultural) context (Karpel, 1976). Mature individuation is reflected in the degree to which the person no longer experiences him- or herself as fusing with others. Defining characteristics of fusion include: the dissolving of ego boundaries between self and other, the inability to establish an 'I' within a "we," and a high degree of identification with, and dependence on, others (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Karpel, 1976; Sabatelli & Mazor, 1985).

Thus, individuation can be thought of as a developmental process through which an individual builds a background of knowledge about the self in relation to others. In order to progress developmentally, each individual must successfully balance, in an age-appropriate manner, autonomy (self as individual) and interdependence (self as related to other). Developmentally, the symbiotic, fused attachment that characterizes the parent-child relationship during early infancy (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975) evolves into a dependent, symmetrical parent-child relationship during childhood, and then into a progressively more independent and mutual relationship throughout adolescence and early adulthood (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Blos, 1967; Sabatelli & Mazor, 1985).

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Adolescent Runaways and Family Strife: A Conflict-Induced Differentiation Framework


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