Effects of Paternal Absence on Male Adolescents' Peer Relations and Self-Image

Article excerpt


Due to the almost overwhelming complexity of modern society and the consequent socio-cultural factors which impact on the structure of the contemporary American family, it is hardly surprising that the variety of alternative family structures has continued to increase during the past generation. One of the most common characteristics of these alternative family structures is paternal absence. Although maternal absence from the family does exist (and can presumably exert a profound influence on children's development), paternal absence is a much more frequent occurrence.

The most frequently mentioned causes of paternal absence are divorce and/or separation, death, and career demands (e.g., military service). Of these, divorce and separation occur most often. Steinberg (1989) noted the differences that paternal absence due to divorce or death can have on a child's emotional development. Hetherington's (1972) research found differential effects of paternal absence due to death and divorce on female adolescents. Probably the least traumatic effects due to paternal deprivation result from prolonged but temporary father absence, since these effects are reversible.

There is also a differential effect of age on the severity of impact of father absence on children versus adolescents. This may well be due to the inferior coping mechanisms of children as compared to those of adolescents, who have achieved increased emotional maturity and have access to supportive social networks in the form of peer groups (Steinberg, 1989). The research literature (e.g., Hetherington, 1966; Biller & Bahm, 1971) strongly suggests that children who become father-absent before the age of five suffer more debilitating intrapsychological and interpersonal difficulties than do children who become father-absent after the age of five. In fact, the potentially debilitating effects of father absence which occur in middle childhood and subsequent to middle childhood seem to become equalized when these children are compared with father-present children.

For children who become father-absent prior to the age of five, the overall effects of paternal loss seem to be profound and long-term. This is especially true for male children. Adelson (1980) reviewed research which clearly showed that father absence can seriously affect the sex role development of boys. Consequently, their adjustment to peer groups can be impaired. While Johnson (1979), who investigated the effects of father absence due to divorce on preadolescent peer relations, found significance between the father-child relationship and social interaction for both boys and girls, Armsden (1986), who investigated attachment to parents and peers in late adolescence, obtained different results. She found that the well-being of males was most highly related to father attachment. In their meta-analysis of paternal absence studies, Stevenson and Black (1988) reported that males who became father-absent prior to preschool showed less preference for stereotypical sex-typed toys than did father-present boys. Thus, the conceptions of societally proscribed masculine and feminine roles may have been affected for these boys.

In a discussion of sex role and socialization, Block (1973) stated that individuals who are high in sex-appropriate behaviors and highly socialized seemed to have derived these traits from family contexts ". . . where both parents were available to the child, both physically and psychologically through adolescence. . . ." (p. 523). If we accept this assertion, then the inverse should be true (i.e., males who are father-deprived should be lower in sex-appropriate behaviors and less well socialized). In other words, their gender role development in general and their peer relationships as well should be affected.

Because of the clear importance of peer relationships in the lives of adolescents, it would seem appropriate to give serious consideration to the impact of father absence on male adolescents. …


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