Effects of Family Structure on the Adolescent Separation-Individuation Process

By McCurdy, Susan J.; Scherman, Avraham | Adolescence, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Effects of Family Structure on the Adolescent Separation-Individuation Process


McCurdy, Susan J., Scherman, Avraham, Adolescence


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. …

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