Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender, Family Structure, and Adolescents' Primary Confidants

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender, Family Structure, and Adolescents' Primary Confidants

Article excerpt

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (N = 4,190), this study examined adolescents' reports of primary confidants. Results showed that nearly 30% of adolescents aged 16 - 18 nominated mothers as primary confidants, 25% nominated romantic partners, and 20% nominated friends. Nominating romantic partners or friends was related to increased risk-taking behaviors, supporting the attachment notion that shifting primary confidants to peers in adolescence may reflect premature autonomy from parents. Tendencies to prefer romantic partners over parents varied by gender and family structure, which were greater for those from single-father families and girls from mother-stepfather families, but less for those from single-mother families and boys from mother-stepfather families, compared with their counterparts from two-biological-parent families.

Key Words: adolescence, attachment, development/outcomes, family structure, gender, NLSY, parent-adolescent relations.

In daily life, people occasionally encounter situa- tions that make them feel upset, frustrated, or con- cerned. One strategy to cope with such stressful times is to talk about them to someone (Turner & Turner, 1999), whatever the purpose of talking may be - it may be to ask for advice, to seek reas- surance that it is all right to feel upset, or just to express how they feel. To whom do people tend to turn to discuss such situations? Research suggests that children typically talk about their concerns to their mother (Reid, Landesman, Treder, & Jaccard, 1989). Adults tend to talk to their spouse, partner, or friend (McPherson, SmithLovin, & Brashears, 2006). It is less clear who tend to serve as primary confidants for adolescents. During adolescence, young people increasingly seek autonomy from parents (Youniss & Smollar, 1985) and prefer friends or romantic partners as sources of companionship and intimacy (Buhrmester & Furman, 1987). Do teens tend to choose peers over parents as primary confidants? How do adolescents' choices of primary confidants vary by background characteristics?

The purpose of the present study is threefold. First, guided by the attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1989), this study examines the extent to which young people shift primary confidants from parents to peers-close friends or romantic partners-during adolescent years. Second, this study tests the attachment notion that relinquishing parents as primary confidants in adolescence may represent premature autonomy from parents (Kobak, Rosenthal, Zajac, & Madsen, 2007). Third, this study examines variations in the extent to which adolescents relinquish parents as primary confidants, focusing on gender and family structure. Data are drawn from two waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 97 (NLSY97).

BACKGROUND

Primary Confidants of Adolescents

Attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1989) provides a useful perspective to examine patterns and implications of choice of primary confidant in adolescence. From the attachment perspective, confidant seeking is an attachment behavior in which people seek emotional security-safe haven or secure base-in times of distress. Attachment behavior is the behavior by which individuals keep proximity to one or a few significant others with whom they maintain enduring affectional bonds. It represents a principle of survival strategy in reproductive and caregiving systems to secure a provider of protection, from which people benefit whenever adjusting to changing environments is stressful. Infants and children seek primary caregivers-typically mothers-to provide emotional security in the face of challenge. Adults seek to form attachment bonds with a peer partner with whom they share responsibility for caring for offspring. Although the shift from mothers to peer partners as primary attachment figures, who serve as primary sources of emotional security, may take place sometime between childhood and adulthood, to what extent this shift occurs during adolescent years has been debated. …

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