Family Transitions during the Adolescent Transition: Implications for Parenting

By Freeman, Harry S.; Newland, Lisa A. | Adolescence, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Family Transitions during the Adolescent Transition: Implications for Parenting


Freeman, Harry S., Newland, Lisa A., Adolescence


Studies investigating family transitions in childhood have consistently found that youngsters in single-parent households experience a decrease in behavioral control and parental warmth immediately following the marital disruption (Hetherington, 1991; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1995; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1974). Studies that have followed children of divorce a few years beyond the transition have noticed definite improvements in parental responsiveness, albeit little change in behavioral control (Wallerstein & Lewis, 1998). The impact of family transitions on parenting may be less apparent during adolescence due to the compelling developmental need for autonomy that encourages all parents to diminish behavioral control over their teenage offspring (Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986; Baumrind, 1991).

In an effort to disentangle developmental from contextual effects, this study examined whether adolescents in newly formed single-parent families experienced a larger drop in parental control and responsiveness than did adolescents in stable nondivorced and stable mother-custody families. This study included pre- and posttransition data, thus allowing us to examine whether family-type differences in parental control and responsiveness were present before family transitions. In childhood studies, lower parental control and warmth among single-parent families are often interpreted as a consequence of the marital transition, yet studies have often lacked the pretransition data necessary to confirm this interpretation (Belsky, Ravine, & Volling, 1991; Buchanan, 2000). Additionally, the large sample size in the current study affords comparisons between four ethnic categories: African American, Asian American, European American, and Hispanic youth.

Following divorce or separation, the move into a single-parent household often results in greater autonomy among its family members (Amato, 1987; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1995; Slater & Power, 1987; Weiss, 1979). Especially in the short term, single-parent families frequently operate with less parental supervision and less parental support than do their two-parent counterparts. Most notably, mother-custody families often lack effective control, especially with sons (Hetherington, 1993; Dornbusch et al., 1985; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1976). In this transitional period, the single mother's attempts at communicating directives or house rules are frequently met with the son's strong resistance (Hetherington, 1991; Kurdek, 1987). Although mother-son conflict often dissipates one to two years following the transition, increased autonomy and less family cohesion usually remain (Weiss, 1979; Wallerstein & Lewis, 1998). Curiously, a somewhat different course is often seen with the mother-daughter relationship, one t hat is sometimes marked by increased closeness but one that is accomplished with less monitoring and control (Hetherington, 1991). Overall, teenagers in single-parent homes tend to rate their family as less cohesive, less controlling, and more independent (Astone & McLanahan, 1991). As Weiss (1979) maintains, children in single-parent homes must "grow up a little faster" by adopting greater maturity demands. The question this study asked is, "How much faster?" That is, do adolescent children of divorce operate with more parental freedom than do their two-parent counterparts, or does the normative individuation that occurs during the adolescent years overpower the distancing effects that usually accompany divorce or separation in childhood?

The qualifying features that identify filial relations immediately after a family transition are remarkably similar to those observed during the adolescent's developmental transition (Buchanan, 2000; Steinberg, 1990). Adolescents grow less proximal to family activities as they spend increasingly more time alone or in the company of peers than with parents (Larson & Richards, 1991; Brown, 1990).

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