Effects of Family Structure on the Adolescent Separation-Individuation Process

Article excerpt

Studies of the effects of parental divorce on children have focused primarily on younger children, resulting in a paucity of research data on the effects of divorce on adolescents and young adults (Jennings, Salts, & Smith, 1991). It is possible that divorce during an earlier developmental period may increase the risk of problems in late adolescence and early adulthood. Amato and Keith (1991) noted that long-term consequences of parental divorce on attainment of quality of life in adulthood may be more serious than the short-term emotional and social problems in children that are more frequently studied.

Both parental marital status and the parent-adolescent relationship have been found to be related to adolescent well-being (Forehand, Middleton, & Long, 1987; Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dombusch 1991). Parental acceptance, interest, warmth, respect, and closeness have been noted to be positively associated with children's and adolescents' self-esteem (Bachman, 1970; Rosenberg, 1965; Greenberg, Siegel, & Leithch, 1983; Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dombusch, 1991).

Some investigators have suggested that negative divorce effects on children may be offset if the child maintains a positive relationship with at least one parent. In a literature review, Emery (1982) found consistent evidence that a particularly warm relationship with at least one parent can mitigate the effects of marital conflict and divorce on children. Forehand, Middleton, and Long (1987 found further evidence to substantiate this view. Mechanic and Hansell (1989), on the other hand, suggested that the perceived quality of the parent-adolescent relationship did not mediate any of the longitudinal effects of divorce or conflict.

White, Brinkerhoff, and Booth (1985) cautioned that divorce may result in reduced attachment to the noncustodial parent. In investigations of the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent, both quality and quantity of contact have been associated with post-divorce well-being. Brody and Forehand (1990) suggested that a perceived close relationship with the noncustodial father is associated with fewer internalizing problems. In a literature review, Brown, Portes, and Christensen (1989) concluded that regular contact with the noncustodial parent is related to higher levels of adjustment. Pett (1982), however, suggested that the most significant contributor to a child's post-divorce adjustment is the custodial parent-child relationship. McCombs and Forehand (1989) concluded that a positive relationship with the custodial mother serves as a protective factor against adverse divorce effects on early adolescents.

Adolescents who have experienced parental divorce may view their parents as responsible for the problems associated with divorce and this perspective may serve to drive a wedge between parents and adolescents (Parish, 1981). College students who experienced divorce as children or adolescents may be more likely than their counterparts from intact or deceased-parent homes to have experienced support system failures which are associated with lower self-concept and/or social skills (Parish & Parish, 1991). In a study of college students from divorced families, Booth, Brinkerhoff, and White (1984) found that 18% of these students reported feeling more alienated from their fathers. Lopez, Campbell, and Watkins (1988) found that college students from divorced families are more conflictually dependent on their fathers than are their intact family counterparts.

The father-daughter relationship seems to be particularly important for young adult women. The perceived inconsistency of a father's love has been found to be associated with depression in college women (Schwarz & Zuroff, 1979). For daughters of divorced parents, conflictual dependence on the father has been noted to be associated with lower levels of personal adjustment (Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1988). Drill (1987) determined that following divorce, young adults report that their perception of the noncustodial father deteriorates while their perception of the mother, whether custodial or noncustodial, remains relatively stable. Drill (1987) also found that depression is a long-term effect of divorce that seems to be related to the child's perception of the parents rather than to the divorce. When the noncustodial parent is persistently perceived as lost, there is an increased risk of depression in the child. Amato and Booth (1991) found that children of divorce report less contact with their fathers, but for females the difference was greater than for males.

Hoffman (1984) construed psychological separation as having a multidimensional character. He defined four separate aspects of the process of psychological separation during adolescence: functional independence, attitudinal independence, emotional independence, and conflictual independence. Conflictual independence is defined as freedom from excessive guilt, anxiety, mistrust, responsibility, inhibition, resentment, and anger in relation to the parents. In order to attain successful personal adjustment, according to Hoffman (1984), the adolescent must separate psychologically from both parents while maintaining positive family ties. Daniels (1990) viewed adolescent separation-individuation as a continuum. At one extreme end of the continuum is successful therapeutic separation-individuation. This is defined as the attainment of a sense of self while remaining attached to the family as a functional member. At the other end of the continuum is nontherapeutic dysfunctional individuation. This is associated with feelings of alienation, disruptive behaviors, rejection of societal and family norms, and potential suicide. Daniels (1990) suggested that alienated adolescents have separated not only from society and their families, but from themselves. They have not successfully completed individuation. She further suggested that adolescents from nontraditional families may have more barriers to overcome in successfully completing separation-individuation.

The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of family structure on the adolescent separation-individuation process. The separation-individuation process is addressed in terms of attachment to parents, parent-adolescent conflictual independence, internal self-awareness, ego identity, and self-esteem. Of particular interest is whether adolescents experiencing crisis in the form of divorce and remarriage, are impacted differentially during the separation-individuation process.



Subjects were 90 undergraduates selected from a pool of 342 students enrolled at three southern universities. The Demographic Data Sheet (DDS) served as the means for determining which students were eligible. The criteria for inclusion in the study were: (1) undergraduate student, (2) between the ages of 18 and 24, and (3) single. The rationale for these criteria was the assumption that these are adolescent/young adults who are likely to be actively involved in the separation-individuation process. All participants were asked to indicate whether they grew up in a family whose structure was: (1) Intact family (I), (2) Divorced parents where the mother had child custody and had not remarried (D), or (3) Divorced parents where the custodial mother had remarried and the subject indicated having a stepfather or adoptive father (R). Thirty subjects were randomly selected from each family structure group.

The mean age of participants was 20 years. Ethnic groups represented in the final sample included African American (16%), Asian American (3%), Caucasian (67%), Hispanic (10%), Native American (1%), and others (2%).


Demographic Data Sheet (DDS). This form was developed for the study in order to provide information on such variables as age, university classification, race, gender, marital status, number of siblings, and marital status of parents. When applicable, the form also solicited information on age of participant at time of divorce, gender of custodial parent, age at time of remarriage, quantity of contact with the noncustodial parent, and whether the custodial parent had multiple remarriages. This form contains twelve items. The information obtained determined each participant's eligibility for inclusion in comparison groups for this study.

Parental Attachment Questionnaire (PAQ) (Kenny, 1985). This questionnaire consists of three scales which measure individuals' perceptions of the affective quality of their relationships with parents, parents as facilitators of independence, and parents as sources of support. These scales are theoretically consistent with the Ainsworth, Blehar, Walters, and Wally (1978) conceptualization of attachment as an enduring affective bond, which serves as a secure base in providing emotional support and in fostering autonomy (Kenny, 1990). Internal consistency coefficients (Cronbach's alpha) for the three PAQ scales range from .88 to .92 (Kenny, 1990; Kenny & Donaldson, 1991). Test-retest reliability over a 2-week interval was .92 for the entire measure. Kenny and Donaldson (1991) provided evidence of construct validity by the finding of a predictable relationship between the PAQ scales and the Moos Family Environment Scales (FES) (Moos & Moos, 1986). There are 55 items on the questionnaire which are answered in two ways: once with regard to the relationship with the mother, and once with regard to the relationship with the father; thus each scale has mother and father subscales.

Conflictual Independence (CI) (Hoffman, 1984). This 50-item measure, developed as a subscale of the Psychological Separation Inventory (PSI) (Hoffman, 1984) assesses the degree to which the adolescent reports freedom from excessive guilt, resentment, and anger in the relationship with each parent. A high level of conflictual independence is indicated by a low score. Hoffman (1984) reported Cronbach alpha reliability coefficients of .92 and .88 for conflictual independence from the mother (CI-M), and conflictual independence from the father (CI-F), respectively. Excellent test-retest reliability for this subscale has been demonstrated: .94 to .96 significantly correlated with personal adjustment among college women (.41 for CI-M and .37 for CI-F) and with less problematic love relationships for both men and women (-.25 to -.38) (Hoffman, 1984) and with a measure of symtomatic distress (.42 to .43) (Hoffman & Weiss, 1987).

Private Self-Consciousness (PSC) (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975). This 10-item scale wa developed as a subscale of the Self-Consciousness Scale (SCS) (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975) and measures an individual's tendency to be self-evaluative. Discriminant validity for this subscale and SCS as a whole has been established. The PSC subscale proved to be free from any significant associations (.00 to .16) with other variables measured, including activity level, sociability, impulsivity, emotionality, intelligence, test anxiety, and need for achievement (Carver & Glass, 1976). Private self-consciousness has been found to be significantly correlated with thoughtfulness (.48) and imagery (.30) (Turner, Scheier, Carver, & Ickes, 1978). Turner et al. (1978) suggested that according to their results, persons who are high in private self-consciousness report themselves to be reflective and philosophically inclined and to create and commonly employ mental images in thinking about both personal and impersonal problems. These findings support the construct validity of the PSC scale (Turner et al., 1978).

Ego Identity Scale (EIS) (Tan, Kendis, Fine, & Porac, 1977). The EIS is composed of twelve items based on Erickson's (1950, 1959) concept of ego edentity. Each scale item consists of two statements paired together in a forced-choice format that effectively minimizes social desirability effects (Tan et al., 1977). One statement indicates ego identity and the other indicates identity diffusion. The 12 items have an average inter-item correlation of .11 and an odd-even split-half reliability of .68 (Tan et al., 1977). A factor analysis extracted one factor that accounted for 40% of the variance. Homogeneity of the scale items is evidenced in that the loading of the 12 items on this general factor ranged from .14 to .64, with nine of them loading .35 or higher (Tan et al., 1977). The scale correlates negatively with dogmatism and positively with internal locus of control, intimacy, personally derived values, and political, moral, and occupational commitment (Tan et al., 1977).

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) (Rosenberg, 1965). The RSES is a 10-item scale designed to measure global positive or negative attitudes toward the self. Low self-esteem is indicated by a high total score. The reproducibility coefficient of the scale is .92 and the scalability coefficient is .72 (Rosenberg, 1965). The RSES was normed on 5,024 adolescents from 10 randomly selected public high schools in New York state and been widely used as a global measure of self-esteem.


After signing the Informed Consent Form, a packet of questionnaires was administered to each participant. The Demographic Data Sheet and the Instruction Page were the first two forms in each packet, followed by a counterbalanced presentation of the dependent measures. The last form was a Debriefing Sheet. Participants completed the survey in thirty to forty minutes.


No significant effects were found for adolescent gender in any of the analyses. Significant differences, however, were found for family structure. The participants in the remarried group (R) did not differ significantly on attachment to their parents than did the divorced (D) group, but they did appear to report less attachment to fathers on the Affective Quality of Relationship scale of the PAQ than did the intact (I) group. Repeated measures univariate ANOVA results revealed significant differences for family structure in ratings on the Affective Quality of Relationships scale of the PAQ, F(2, 84), = 5.25, p [less than] .007. Participant ratings of the mother subscale and father subscale on the Affective Quality of Attachment scale were also significantly different, F(1, 84) = 33.79, p [less than] .0001. Multiple comparison procedures were used to examine these family structure and subscale differences. Tukey's Studentized Range (HSD) test was used to separately examine the mother subscale and father subscale of the Affective Quality of Relationships Scale for differences in family structure ratings. The intact group reported higher ratings on the father subscale of the Affective Quality of Relationships Scale of the PAQ than did the divorced and remarried groups, F(2, 84) = 10.85, p [less than] .0001, while the latter two groups did not differ from each other. Differences in ratings between the mother and father subscales within each structure group were examined through a series of t-tests on the Affective Quality of Relationships Scale. Results revealed that the divorced and remarried groups rated the mother subscale higher than the father subscale, t = 4.435, p [less than] .0001 and t = 3.896, p [less than] .0005, respectively. There were no significant mother-father subscale differences in the intact group ratings.

Other variables examined were conflictual independence from fathers, ego identity, and internal self-awareness. The CI-F results revealed that the intact group reported significantly greater conflictual independence from their fathers than did the divorced and remarried groups, F(2,84)=4.79, p [less than] .05, Neither the PSC nor EIS scales indicated significant differences among the structure groups, suggesting that adolescents from each of these groups are similar in ego identity and internal self-awareness.

Pearson correlation coefficients revealed that scores on the father subscales of two of the three PAQ scales (Affective Quality of Relationships and Parents as Sources of Support) are significantly positively correlated with scores on RSES (r = .28, p [less than] .01 and r = .33, p [less than] .01), respectively, indicating that, as predicted, adolescent self-esteem is highly associated with attachment to the father. Correlations of scores on RSES and scores on the father subscale of the Parents as Facilitators of Independence Scale of the PAQ approached significance (r = .19, p [less than] .08). Contrary to expectations, results indicated that scores on RSES were not significantly correlated with scores on the mother subscales of the three PAQ scales, suggesting that self-esteem is not significantly correlated with attachment to the mother.

Scores on RSES were significantly negatively correlated with scores on both CI-M (r = -.23, p [less than] .05) and CI-F (r = -.35, p [less than] .001), indicating, as predicted, that self-esteem is associated with conflictual independence from both the mother and the father. In addition, consistent with expectations, scores on RSES were significantly positively correlated with scores on EIS (r = .53, p [less than] .001), suggesting that adolescents with high self-esteem are likely to have more highly developed ego identities. Scores on PSC were not significantly correlated with RSES scores. Thus, contrary to expectations, internal self-awareness does not appear to be related to self-esteem.


This study addressed the impact of family structure on the process of late adolescent psychological separation from parents. Attachment to parents was examined by comparing mother-attachment and father-attachment with regard to three domains: affective quality of relationships, parents as facilitators of independence, and parents as sources of support. No apparent differences between groups were found for parents as facilitators of independence or parents as sources of support. However, it appears that adolescents from intact families view themselves as more positively emotionally attached to their fathers than do those from divorced and remarried families. Also, the divorced and remarried groups appear to have poorer emotional attachments to their fathers as compared to their emotional attachments to mothers, while the intact group appears to view their emotional attachments to their fathers as similar to that of their mothers. Thus divorce may impact on the emotional bonds adolescents have with their fathers, and remarriage does not seem to mediate this impact. It should be noted that the lower ratings for fathers in the divorced and remarried groups in the present study may be attributed to the fact that this study examined only adolescents experiencing mother-custody arrangements. The findings are in line with research by White, Brinkerhoff, and Booth (1985) which suggested that divorce may result in reduced attachment to the noncustodial parent. Other investigators reported similar findings. Drill (1987) suggested that, following divorce, young adults' perceptions of noncustodial fathers deteriorate while their perceptions of their mothers, whether custodial or not, remain relatively stable. Booth et al. (1984) found that nearly twice as many college students from divorced families reported feeling less close to their fathers after the divorce than they did with their mothers.

The results of the present study suggest that adolescents who have experienced parental divorce and/or remarriage may be at risk for conflictual dependencies on their noncustodial fathers. Lopez et al. (1988) reported similar results when examining the relationship of parental divorce to college students' psychological separation from parents.

The assumptions that crisis in the form of divorce or remarriage would lead to a greater capacity for self-reflection and would promote higher levels of ego identity development were not supported. However, the findings of no differences in ego identity development between family structure groups, even though the intact group appears to have superior emotional relationships with their fathers, indicate that the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship may not mediate ego development as profoundly as Quintana and Lapsley (1990) suggest. It appears that adolescents from mother-custody divorced and/or remarried families may be developing ego identities in a fashion similar to that of adolescents from intact families, although without the benefit of positive emotional attachments to their fathers. Daniels (1990) would perhaps view a high level of ego identity development as simultaneous with a low level of emotional attachment to a parent as moving toward the nontherapeutic, dysfunctional end of the individuation continuum.

Self-esteem was found to be highly related to ego identity development. This finding is consistent with Blos's (1979) theory that as adolescents develop their own personal standards, they form an ego identity that is independent of external sources which results in positive self-esteem. No support was found for the hypothesis that self-esteem would be correlated with internal self-awareness. Thus, although self-reflection may be related to the process of ego identity formation (Shain & Farber, 1989), the capacity to engage in the process of self-reflection does not appear to have a direct relationship with self-esteem.

Self-esteem appears to be associated with attachment to fathers, especially in the domains of the affective quality of the relationship and fathers as sources of support. Findings also indicated that self-esteem is associated with conflictual independence from fathers. Interestingly, self-esteem appears to be related to conflictual independence from mothers, but unrelated to attachment to mothers. Overall, the results of this study seem to indicate that attachment to fathers has a stronger relationship to adolescent/young adult self-esteem than does attachment to mothers, while conflictual independence from both mothers and fathers is related to self-esteem. The current study's findings raise two important questions: Is an adolescent's attachment to the father more crucial to the development of self-esteem than is the mother-adolescent attachment bond? Or, given that two thirds of the data in this study represented adolescents in mother-custody arrangements, could it be that the attachment to the noncustodial parent bears a stronger relationship to the development of self-esteem than does the attachment to the custodial parent? Future research should try to clarify the impact on adolescent self-esteem of attachment to fathers versus mothers, and noncustodial versus custodial parents.

Clinical Implications

Adolescents who have experienced parental divorce do not appear to be any more self-aware or more highly developed in ego identity than do adolescents from intact families. Thus, the present study did not reveal any apparent advantages in terms of separation-individuation for adolescents from divorced families. The Allen, Stoltenberg, and Rosko (1990) study of college freshmen revealed that the divorced group demonstrated higher self-esteem as indicated by the ability to take more responsibility for good events in their lives. In the current study, the findings suggest that adolescents who have experienced parental divorce and mother-custody arrangements are at risk of lower self-esteem than are their intact counterparts due to the apparent quality of emotional relationships with their fathers. Taken together, the findings of these two studies have clinical relevance. The results suggest that counselors working with adolescents from divorced families with mother-custody arrangements may want to select intervention strategies that help these adolescents examine and understand their conflictual emotional relationships with their fathers, perhaps aiding them in relinquishing a sense of responsibility for the conflict while helping them to focus on their ability to take responsibility for the positive happenings in their lives.


With regard to the components of the separation-individuation process examined in this study, adolescents from divorced families whose mothers have custody and have remarried do not appear to experience separation-individuation any differently than do adolescents from divorced families whose mothers have custody and have not remarried. Adolescents from intact families, however, do seem to experience the separation-individuation process differently from adolescents who have experienced parental divorce and have been in mother-custody arrangements, whether the custodial mother has remarried or not. The differences suggested by this study appear to be in the areas of attachment to, and conflictual independence from fathers. Adolescents from intact families appear to have better emotional relationships with their fathers and greater conflictual independence from their fathers than do adolescents who have experienced divorce and subsequent mother-custody arrangements. Evidence from this study further suggests that these father-adolescent relationships are highly associated with adolescent self-esteem. It appears that adolescents who have experienced parental divorce and subsequent mother-custody arrangements are at risk for high conflict and poor quality of emotional attachment with their fathers which could limit their overall sense of well-being. These adolescents may experience more positive attachments to their mothers, but this study found that attachment to mother was not highly related to self-esteem. It is possible, then, that positive attachments to mothers may not serve to mediate the negative impact on self-esteem resulting from poor quality in emotional attachment to their fathers. Thus the assertion by McCombs and Forehand (1989) that a positive relationship with the mother is a protective factor against the adverse effects of divorce was not reflected in the findings of this study. Rather, the current findings are more consistent with those of Lapsley, Rice, and Shadid (1989), that a conflictual relationship with even one parent is associated with lower personal adjustment.


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Dr. Susan McCurdy is a psychologist in private practice at the Christian Counseling Center in Oklahoma City.

Reprint requests to Avraham Scherman, Professor, Department of Educational Psychology, College of Education, University of Oklahoma, 820 Van Fleet Oval, Room 306, Norman, Oklahoma 73019-0260.


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