The Relationship Between Attachment to Parents and Psychological Separation in College Students
By: Jonathan P. Schwartz
The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between attachment to parents and psychological separation in college students. Three hundred sixty-eight undergraduate students completed the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987) and the Psychological Separation Inventory (Huffman, 1984). Results suggest an association with the attachment variables of low trust and high positive communication and psychological separation from parents, with the exception of independence from conflict, for both men and women. For men to psychologically separate, it was also important to have low alienation from fathers. Implications of the results are discussed.
Recent research has focused on the role and importance of the separation process of young adults from their parents in late adolescence and its affect on career exploration and adjustment to college (Byers & Goossens, 2003; Lapsley & Edgerton, 2002; Lucas, 1997; O'Brien, Friedman, Tipton, & Linn, 2000; Rice, Fitzgerald, Whaley, & Gibbs, 1995; Vivona, 2000). A number of theorists and researchers have concluded that late adolescence is an important developmental period in which a young adult can create an autonomous identity separate from parents (Bowen, 1986; Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1980). Impaired psychological separation from parents has been related to psychological symptoms of distress and difficulty with personal adjustment in a college population (Cooper, Grotevant, & Condon, 1983; Huffman & Weiss, 1987; Lucas, 1997; Rice et al., 1995). The process of psychological separation has been conceptualized as finding a balance between enmeshment with parents and complete disengagement and isolation (Bowen, 1986). For young men and women in late adolescence, an adaptive level of attachment to parents may be beneficial for successful separation (Bowlby, 1982).
Attachment theory was conceptualized to explain observations of distress in infants and young children when separated from their parental caregivers (Bowlby, 1973). Bowlby (1979) theorized that early relationship experiences with parents affect people throughout their lives, and that difficulty with early attachment could have negative effects on psychological development and future relationships. Early attachment experiences become internal working models that determine how people view themselves and their expectations for future relationships with others in adolescence and beyond (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Bartholomew, 1990; Bowlby, 1973; Hazan & Shaver, 1994).
Bowlby (1982) and Ainsworth (1989) conceptualized parental attachment as providing a secure base that offers the child comfort and security to explore and master the external environment with confidence. secure attachment relationships to parents can serve as "safe havens" for comfort and reassurance in times of stress and serve as "secure bases" for such nonattachment behaviors as exploration (Kazan & Shaver, 1994). secure attachment to parents has been found to be positively associated with personal, social, and academic success in college students (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987a; Kenny, 1987; Lapsley, Rice, & FitzGerald, 1990; Rice et al, 1995). On the other hand, insecure attachment stemming from inconsistent or nonresponsive parenting can lead to anxiety or avoidance of exploring the environment and relating to others (Lopez & Brennan, 2000; Pietromonaco & Feldman Barrett, 2000).
Adjustment to college has been conceptualized as a separation from parents wherein individuals experience anxiety and act out their attachment styles (Larose & Boivan, 1998). A secure base allows individuals to explore new roles and try independence. If individuals experience "felt security" (Bremerton, 1985), they may begin the psychological separation process and develop their own identity. Several studies have examined the relationship between psychological separation and attachment. Attachments to parents and psychological separation both have been found to be related to healthy functioning and adjustment in college students (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Huffman, 1984; Rice et al., 1995; Vivona, 2000). Also, secure attachment has been found to facilitate independence and healthy separation from parents (Josselson, 1988; Lapsley & Edgerton, 2002Levy, Blat, & Shaver, 1998). In contrast, Rice et al. (1995) found an inverse relationship with independence and secure attachment, suggesting that psychological separation may be measuring detachment rather than healthy autonomy. Differing combinations of attachment to parents and psychological separation have been found to lead to successful career decision making and career commitment (Blustein, Walbridge, Friedlander, & Palladino, 1991; O'Brien et al., 2000).
Previous research often has examined the contribution of attachment and psychological separation to such constructs as adjustment, career exploration, and psychological functioning. Few studies have focused exclusively on exploring the relationship between attachment and psychological separation, and those that have revealed contradictory findings. In addition, research that has examined these constructs suggests a multidimensional relationship: aspects of secure attachment to parents may facilitate different forms of psychological separation from parents.
This study utilized canonical correlation analysis to explore the association of attachment and psychological separation. It is hypothesized that secure attachment to parents will be associated with psychological separation. Because theory and research has suggested that the process of attachment and separation may occur differently for women and men (Block, 1984; Gilligan, 1982; Lucas, 1997; Marcia, 1980; Schultheiss and Blustein, 1994), we also explored if attachment to mothers and fathers is associated with psychological separation differently for men and women.
Participants were 368 undergraduates at a medium-sized university located in the southern United States. Two hundred forty-one (65.5%) were female and 127 (34.5%) were male. Mean age of the female participants was 22.2 (SD = 6) and of the male participants was 20.8 (SD = 3.4). In terms of ethnic breakdown of the female participants, 83.8% were White, 10.8% Black, 9% Hispanic/Latino, 8% Native American, and 1.2% indicated "Other" on the demographic survey. The ethnic breakdown of the male participants was 87.4% White, 10.2% Black, and .8% Native American, In terms of class, female participants were 30.3% freshmen, 19.1% sophomores, 21.6% juniors, and 30.3% seniors; the remainder did not indicate year in school. The percentage of females in this study was slightly higher than the university's undergraduate proportion, but consistent with the college of education in which the data were collected. Additionally, the ethnic diversity was consistent with the ethnic breakdown of the undergraduates at the university. Male participants were 41.7% freshmen, 18.9% sophomores, 18.1% juniors, and 19.7% seniors; the remainder did not indicate year in school. Finally, the mean number of siblings was 2.81 (SD = 1.3) for females and 2.68 (1.3) for males with a range of O to 8.
The Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA). The Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987) is a 53-item scale based on Bowlby's attachment theory (1977, 1980) designed to assess affective and cognitive dimensions of relationships and the quality of attachment of adolescents to parents and peers. Items are rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (almost never or never) to 5 (almost always or always). The three scales, based on factors analysis, are Trust, Communication, and Alienation. The Trust scale assesses mutual understanding, respect, and trust. The Communication scale reflects quantity and quality of verbal communication. Finally, the Alienation scale indicates feelings of alienation and isolation. Internal consistency reliability estimates ranged from an alpha of .68 to .91, with test-retest reliability over a 3-week period being .93. Construct and convergent validity has been demonstrated by correlations with measures of family conflict, support, cohesion, wellbeing, life satisfaction, depression/anxiety, stressful life events, proximity seeking, and amount and intensity of symptomatic distress (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987)
The Psychological Separation Inventory (PSI). The Psychological Separation Inventory (Hoffman, 1984) is a 138-item instrument that assesses an individual's perceptions of psychological separation from his or her parents. Items are rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (almost never or never true), to 5 (almost always or always true). The instrument contains four scales (derived through factors analysis): Functional Independence, Emotional Independence, Conflictual Independence, and Attitudinal Independence. Functional Independence reflects the ability to direct personal affairs without the assistance of parents. Emotional Independence gauges the freedom from excessive need for approval, closeness, and emotional support. Conflictual Independence refers to freedom from guilt, anxiety, mistrust, and responsibility toward or resentment of parents. Finally, Attitudinal Independence reflects the degree to which an individual's attitudes, values, and beliefs are different from his or her parents. Internal consistency estimates range between .88 and .92 for the subscales with test-retest reliabilities ranging between .49 and .96 (Hoffman, 1984). Validity has been demonstrated by correlations between psychological separation from parents and adjustment problems involving interpersonal and academic adjustment (Hoffman & Weiss, 1987) and identity development (Lucas, 1997). It should be noted that for this study the mother and father attachment scales were used.
Data collection took place in undergraduate general psychology classes during regular class times, and individuals were invited to complete the survey packet that contained the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, the Psychological Separation Inventory, and a brief demographic questionnaire. Participation in the study was completely voluntary, and participants provided informed consent prior to completing the survey packet. No class credit was provided for participating in the study. No identifying information was collected, and the study was approved by the Institutional Review Board prior to actual data collection.
The hypotheses in the current study were tested using canonical correlation analyses examining two multivariate sets of variables (Thompson, 1984). The criterion set contained the four psychological separation scales: Functional Independence, Emotional Independence, Conflictual Independence, and Attitudinal Independence. The independent variables contained the three attachment scales: Trust, Communication, and Alienation. Each set of variables was measured separately for mothers and fathers, resulting in a total of eight criteria and six predictor variables. The rationale for including mothers and fathers separately, rather than combining them, is that it allows us to examine the separate contributions of the influence of attachment to mothers and fathers on psychological separation from parents. Previous research has suggested that males and females may differ in the importance of their attachments to their mothers and fathers (Blustein et al, 1991 ; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2002).
Based on previous research and the fact that gender differences were found in this sample, we determined to examine males and females separately, which resulted in two canonical correlations. To examine the association between the criterion variables (psychological separation) and the predictor variables (attachment), we examined the canonical structure coefficients. The relative size of the structure coefficients indicated the strength of the association for each variable. The squared structure coefficients indicated the percentage of variation that could be attributed to each variable.
Initial analyses were conducted to examine gender differences. Because there were significant differences on key variables (see Table 1), we conducted analyses separately for males and females.
Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations, and internal consistency of the subscales of the Psychological Separation Inventory (PSI) and the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA). The means and standard deviations obtained in this study are consistent with the means and standard deviations obtained in other studies that have used the PSI and the IPPA. The intercorrelations of the four subscales of the PSI and IPPA are presented in Table 2 for each gender. Review of the correlation matrix indicates that several of the variables correlate minimally to strongly with each other, with correlations ranging from O to .79.
Canonical Correlation Analysis
To examine the relationship between psychological separation and attachment, we conducted two separate canonical correlation analyses. One canonical correlation analysis was conducted for each gender. For each of the canonical correlations, the four factors of psychological separation for mother and father (8 total variables) formed one side of the model, and the three factors for mother and father of attachments (6 total variables) formed the other side of the model.
Tables 3 and 4 contain the standardized canonical coefficients and loadings for each significant canonical variate for males and females. A criterion of .30 was used as a cutoff score for the loadings (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001), and those loadings were examined to identify the associations with the variates.
Results of the canonical correlation analysis for males indicated that three canonical roots were significant. For the first canonical root Wilks's Î» = .17, F(48, 392) = 3.5 p
The first canonical root was characterized on the predictor variate by positive structural coefficients on father communication (13% of variance) and negative coefficients for father trust (56% of variance) and alienation (12% of variance) and for the criterion variate by positive coefficients on father emotional independence (23% of variance), father attitudinal independence (30% of variance), and a negative coefficient for father conflictual independence (17% of variance). This finding indicates that male undergraduates who were able to separate their attitudes, values, beliefs, and excessive need for emotional support and approval from their fathers, were associated with having low trust and low feelings of alienation, but having positive communication with their fathers. The construct of trust in attachment to parents represents respect, trust, and mutual understanding (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987). This finding suggests that a lack of trust with fathers may assist with psychological separation if it is combined with low alienation and positive communication.
The second canonical root was characterized on the predictor variate by positive structural coefficients on mother trust (64% of variance), father communication (22% of variance), and negative coefficients for mother communication (15% of variance) and father alienation (15% of variance); and for the criterion variate positive coefficients were father functional independence (32% of variance), mother conflictual independence (56% of variance), and negative coefficients for mother functional independence (19% of variance), mother attitudinal independence (9% of variance), and father conflictual independence (25% of variance). This finding indicates that male undergraduates who perceived independence from conflict, but a lack of separation in terms of attitudes, values, and beliefs, and direction of personal affairs in their relationship with their mothers, but a lack of independence from conflict and the ability to separate their attitudes, values, and beliefs from their fathers, were associated with high trust but low positive communication with their mothers and high positive communication but low alienation from their fathers. For males the combination of high trust and lack of positive communication with mothers may lead to less conflict, but difficulty with establishing independent attitudes separate from mothers. On the other hand, the combination of high communication and low alienation from fathers may lead to conflict but also attitudinal independence from fathers.
Results of the canonical correlation analysis for females indicated that two canonical roots were significant. For the first canonical root Wilks's Î» = .13, F(48, 776) = 8.1, p
The first canonical root was characterized on the predictor variate by positive coefficients on father communication (35% of variance) and a negative coefficient on father trust (29% of variance). For the criterion variate, positive coefficients were found for father functional independence (9% of variance) and father attitudinal independence (12% of variance) and a negative coefficient on father conflictual independence (37% of variance). This finding indicates that female undergraduates who perceived high independence from their fathers in terms of direction in their everyday lives and their attitudes, values, and beliefs, but low separation from excessive conflict with their fathers, were associated with low trust in their attachment to but high positive communication with their fathers. The findings suggest that low trust but positive communication with their fathers leads to a separation of attitudes and daily decisions but not to independence from conflict.
The second canonical root was characterized on the predictor variate by positive coefficients on mother trust (50% of variance) and negative coefficients on mother communication (21% of variance). For the criterion variate, positive coefficients were found on mother conflictual independence (59% of variance) and a negative coefficient on emotional independence (19% of variance). This finding indicates that undergraduate women who perceived low emotional independence but high conflictual independence from their mothers were associated with high trust but low communication with their mothers. Female participants' lack of conflict or positive communication with their mothers appears to be associated with enmeshment or fusion symbolized by the inability to psychologically separate.
Overall, the findings suggest a link between attachment and psychological separation from parents for both male and female undergraduates. Consistent with previous theory, there appears to be a balance between psychological separation and attachment (Bowlby, 1979; Bowen, 1986). Contrary to our hypothesis, secure attachment did not facilitate psychological separation; rather, there was a multidimensional relationship between the two constructs.
In both men and women, the association between attachment and psychological separation with fathers accounted for the most variance. This finding suggests the important role fathers play in balancing attachment and separation from the family. In addition, for both males and females there was an association with psychological separation, particularly from fathers, and the aspects of attachment of low trust and high communication with fathers. For men it was important that there also was low alienation from fathers. It may be that to separate and become less dependent on fathers, it is necessary to assert independence in a way that creates a breach in trust with fathers. In turn, high trust in parents may symbolize reliance or dependence; therefore, low trust may be necessary for separation. Maintaining positive communication with fathers may provide individuals a secure base to assert their independence and explore their own values and ideas. These findings appear similar to Bowen's (1978) theory of differentiation of self, where healthy individuals are able to balance intimacy and autonomy within their families of origin. It may be particularly important for men to successfully separate that they not become alienated from fathers. Masculine gender socialization may lead to difficulties with fathers and sons remaining connected while having conflict (DeFranc & Mahalik, 2002).
Furthermore, the results suggest that a successful balance between attachment and separation also may include conflict with both parents. This finding is contrary to previous research that suggests conflictual independence is the component of psychological separation with the strongest relation to adaptive outcomes (Lapsley, Rice, & Shadid, 1989; Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1988; Rice, Cole, & Lapsley, 1990). As individuals enter college they may begin to focus on and trust their peers to explore personal values. Previous research has suggested that in late adolescence peer attachment may be more important than parental attachment (Laible, Carlo, & Raffaelli, 2000). It may be that to separate successfully, individuals may have to establish trust with peers and decrease trust with parents. Thus, conflict may be necessary to create an independent identity successfully, as long as it is in the context of positive communication and a lack of alienation. An alternative explanation of the results is that psychological assessment really is measuring detachment rather than healthy psychological separation as suggested by Rice et al.(1995). Although conflictual independence has been related to positive developmental outcomes in other forms of psychological separation, there is less evidence for positive benefits of the other forms of psychological separation (Lapsley & Edgerton, 2002).
Implications for Counseling
The findings suggest the importance of assessing the balance of attachment and psychological separation in college students. Individual and family therapy could focus on communication, conflict, and trust issues between parents and adolescents to complete the differentiation process. Particularly, counselors could help facilitate positive communication of differences between adolescents and parents, in a safe environment that will not lead to alienation. Counselors also may need to facilitate appropriate boundaries so families are not so close that they avoid conflict or so distanced that they cannot have positive communication. College students are in a state of transition and may need to find a different balance of attachment and psychological separation than would someone who is middle aged. Students who are overly attached/enmeshed with their parents may need to focus on communication to complete the differentiation process and achieve their own independent identities. On the other hand, students with high conflict but no trust may have to focus on communication to maintain separateness but also connectedness with their families instead of emotionally "cutting off." As students transition to college, receiving help and support as they explore their own identities and values may be of great assistance to them. The findings also have implications for parenting styles. A parenting style that maintains positive communication while allowing children to challenge parental values and develop individual identities separate from the parents appears optimal.
Limitations and Future Research
There are several limitations to this study. First, a correlational design was utilized that prevents us from making conclusions related to causality. second, this study used self-report instruments, and the results reflect the participants' perception of constructs measured. Third, the majority of participants were White undergraduates attending a southern university, limiting the generalizability of the results. Fourth, the participants were from a convenient nonrandom sample that may not be representative of the population. Fifth, the assumption was made that participants came from a traditional nuclear family, and possible differences in family composition were not examined. Finally, the constructs measured may differ as a result of cultural values concerning family and individualism. Future research should replicate this study with different cultural groups. Also, future research could utilize a cross-sectional research design to examine the link between attachment and psychological separation for different age groups. It may be that generational differences may play a role in parent-child relationships. In addition, a longitudinal research design could examine if the association between attachment and psychological separation changes over time. A limitation of this study is that it does not assess the influence of development or the effect that attending college has on the variables. Assessing the combination of peer attachment and psychological separation would determine if a combination of low trust with parents and high trust with peers is associated with psychological separation. Finally, an outcome measure of adaptation or psychological functioning would assess if the strongest associations between the constructs lead to positive outcomes. This study assumed that psychological separation is a positive outcome. It may be that, similar to Schultheiss and Blustein's (1994) finding, a combination of psychological dependence and emotional attachment to parents is related to positive outcomes. Clearly future research should investigate the optimal balance between psychological separation and attachment to parents.
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Jonathan P. Schwartz is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University. Walter C. Buboltz, Jr. is Associate Professor, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jonathan P. Schwartz, P.O. Box 10048, Ruston, LA 71272; firstname.lastname@example.org
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