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How do parents and peers influence adolescent development?At the beginning of the twenty-first century, what is unknown about this topic far outweighs what is known; in this research paper, we argue that this is partly because of the question itself. As it is phrased, the question assumes that parents and peers influence adolescent development separately in a unidirectional fashion. These assumptions might actually block the way to a true understanding of the roles of parents and peers in adolescent development; such assumptions ignore the interrelatedness between parent and peer relationships and the roles that adolescents play as active agents in these relationships.
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In this research paper, we start with certain assumptions about adolescents’ relationships with parents and peers—assumptions that have not necessarily been incorporated into the research in these areas. First, we assume that these relationships are bidirectional, meaning that adolescents are not just passively influenced by the important people in their lives; they are active agents in choosing with whom they spend time, and they evoke certain reactions from people. Second, we assume that relationships are not simply related to adjustment but are themselves forms of adjustment. Parenting behaviors and peer relations do not just produce adjustment; they are also indicators and results of adjustment. Finally, we assume that parent and peer relationships are linked to each other. The form and quality of relationships with parents will determine which peer contexts the adolescent chooses, and that choice will evoke reactions from parents that will affect the parent-child relationship. In short, we argue that adolescents play active roles in choosing and shaping their relationships with parents and peers.
Current Models and Research
There are large bodies of research on both parenting and peer relationships. Several well-defined causal models are currently used in research on parenting, but this is less true in peer research. The peer literature is defined less by clear causal models and more by characteristics of the particular peers that are considered, such as peer groups and best friends. Because these literatures are largely separate, we deal with them separately in the following sections.
In this section, we discuss several of the most influential theoretical models dealing with parenting of adolescents. We do not endeavor to review all of the research that has been done on parenting of adolescents. Rather, we focus on models that have had the widest influence on the broad conclusions that have been drawn about parenting of adolescents—which parenting strategies are effective and why—and which lie behind the practical advice that parents often receive. In turn, for each model we take the most influential research as representative of the model.
The Parenting Styles Model
The parenting styles model has spawned a vast literature related to both child and adolescent development. Different parenting styles instruments have been created, and scores of empirical studies have been done. For the present purposes, we focus on the work that has been the most influential for adolescent research. This, of course, means the theoretical and empirical work of Baumrind and the theoretical work of Maccoby and Martin. We consider, in addition, the empirical work on adolescence that has appeared in flagship developmental journals such as Child Development and Developmental Psychology, and much of that has come from the Steinberg and Dornbusch research groups.
Background. The parenting styles model is based on the theoretical ideas originally presented by Baumrind (1967) and later revised by Maccoby and Martin (1983). Baumrind grouped nursery-school children according to their social adjustment and then determined how the parents of those groups differed. Her initial results were that (a) “children who were most self-reliant, self-controlled, explorative, and content” had parents who were “controlling and demanding; but they were also warm, rational, and receptive to the child’s communication;” (b) “children who . . . were discontent, withdrawn, and distrustful” had parents who were “detached and controlling, and somewhat less warm than other parents;” and (c) “the least self-reliant, explorative, and selfcontrolled children” had parents who were “noncontrolling, nondemanding, and relatively warm” (Baumrind, 1971, pp. 1–2). Baumrind termed these three groups of parents authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive, respectively. Believing that parental control was particularly important, she further articulated the qualititative differences between authoritative and authoritarian parents’ control strategies (Baumrind, 1968). Authoritative parents, according to Baumrind, communicated with the child about the demands that they placed on the child, whereas authoritarian parents tended to shut down communication about their demands.
Later, Maccoby and Martin (1983) argued that Baumrind’s three styles and a wealth of other findings in the parenting literature could be roughly subsumed into a four-field table, with one axis contrasting parents who are controlling and demanding with those who are not and the other contrasting parents who are warm, responsive, and child-centered with those who are not. To their credit, Maccoby and Martin related these constructs more broadly to the psychological literature, and they suggested mechanisms through which such constructs might work. For instance, responsiveness, according to them, meant a willingness to respond to the child’s signals. It was closer to the ideas of contingent responsiveness in attachment theory, to Pulkkinen’s (1982) child centeredness, or to the concept of reinforcement in learning theory than it was to warmth in the sense of unconditional, noncontingent expressions of love and support. Based on Seligman’s (1975) learned-helplessness studies, they suggested that parents’ responsiveness should give the child a sense of control that—in authoritative families—would be balanced by the control that parents exerted over the child. Bidirectional communication between parents and child was an essential part of this process.
Yet although the four-field table has been widely used in the parenting styles research that has followed, in conceptual discussions of authoritativeness, communication has faded as an important feature and the concepts of warmth and responsiveness have been blurred. In this body of work, the major conceptual difference between authoritative and authoritarian parents is the presence or absence of warmth along with the high levels of control that both types of parents are thought to exert over their children.
Extensions of the Parenting Styles Model. More recently, parenting styles have been distinguished from parenting practices in an attempt to conceptually refine the model and improve the possibilities for discovering mechanisms (Darling & Steinberg, 1993). The argument was that parenting style should be thought of as the general emotional climate that parents create, whereas practices should be recognized as the goal-directed behaviors in which parents engage in order to change or shape the child’s behavior. Practices can be more or less effective depending upon the emotional climate that parents have set up, because the emotional climate will make the child more or less receptive to being shaped by the practices.
In the empirical research that has followed this original, theoretical work, however, the differentiation between styles and practices is unclear. Sometimes, exactly the same full scales as had previously been used to measure styles are used again and labeled practices (e.g., Avenevoli, Sessa, & Steinberg, 1999). Other times, the majority of items in the measures of practices are identical or nearly identical to items previously used to measure parenting styles (e.g., B. B. Brown, Mounts, Lamborn, & Steinberg, 1993). Furthermore, it is difficult to look at these measures and determine whether they are conceptually tapping styles or practices.
Limitations of the Parenting Styles Model. We introduce the limitations of the parenting styles model with a history of parenting styles research that might have been. The story is fiction, but we tell it in order to point out how far the actual history of parenting styles research is from ideal. Our story anticipates the critique that follows, but it also points out that the division of that critique into subtopics is somewhat artificial because the different limitations are all interrelated.
A Tale of Parenting Styles Research That We Wish We Could Tell. Once upon a time, more than 30 years ago, a researcher named Baumrind published her first works on parenting style. During the years that have followed, the original ideas have been refined so much that they are barely recognizable, but they are universally seen as the beginning of what is now a rich understanding of the parent-child interaction processes that are involved in development. These processes used to be called parenting, but that term is now recognized as simplistic and misleading because it denotes only part of the process. The search for knowledge in this area proceeded much like one would expect of a scientific endeavor. Baumrind’s first studies were somewhat descriptive. She reported that in a small sample of mostly wealthy, white families, there was a covariation between broad patterns of parents’behaviors and broad patterns of children’s behaviors. Her explanations of these findings assumed that parents with certain features had shaped certain behaviors in their children, mainly through behavioral mechanisms. Naturally, the untested assumptions and missing links in her logic were immediately pointed out, and researchers began working swiftly to (a) break down the global, conceptually heterogeneous parenting styles into their simplest, most basic elements; (b) develop construct-valid measures of those basic elements and clear, testable explanations of the mechanisms involved; (c) determine whether any of the children’s characteristics—or any unrecognized third variables—might be driving Baumrind’s correlational findings; and (d) determine whether any causal relations existed between parents’ and children’s characteristics, what the directions of effects were, whether they should be seen as main effects or interactions, and what mechanisms were involved, including moderating and mediating effects. These efforts helped to build an understanding of the complex links between parents’behaviors and children’s adjustment—and everyone lived happily ever after. In the following section we present a detailed discussion of the more serious shortcomings in the parenting styles research. We limit our critique to the major theoretical works and the empirical studies that have been published in major journals. In the vast literature that exists outside of these major works, the same problems exist, often in more extreme forms.
What’s Causing What? Correlation does not prove causality. This is what students learn in their first psychology course. Yet one of the most striking features of the parenting styles literature, from Baumrind’s early works to the present, is the assumption that causality is known—parents, through their attitudes and behaviors, shape, mold, or otherwise produce children with certain characteristics. Examples can be found in the introduction and discussion sections of nearly every article on parenting styles—sometimes even in the titles. (Italics ours in these quotations.)
“Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior.” (Baumrind, 1966, title)
“The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use.” (Baumrind, 1991, title)
“The success of authoritative parents in protecting their adolescents from problem drug use and in generating competence should be emphasized . . . Unlike any other pattern, authoritative upbringing . . . consistently generated competence and deterred problem behavior.” (Baumrind, 1991, p. 91)
Multiple examples can easily be found in a single article (e.g., Glasgow, Dornbusch, Troyer, Steinberg, & Ritter, 1997):
“the beneficial influence of authoritative parenting does not diminish during adolescence” (p. 508)
“authoritative parenting promotes academic success through a positive effect on adolescents’ psychological orientation toward work” (p. 509)
“Different constellations of parental behaviors and affective expressions produce variations in adolescents’ perceptions of their own performance capacities . . . Among the four distinct parenting styles, authoritative parenting is the most successful in fostering personal and social responsibility in adolescents, without limiting their emerging autonomy and individuality” (p. 521)
“characteristics of authoritative parenting contribute to the development of instrumental competence” (p. 511)
“Indulgent parenting fosters instrumental competence . . . but to a lesser degree than authoritative parenting” (p. 511)
“[this] characteristic of authoritarian parents thwarts the development of instrumental competence in adolescents” (p. 511)
“use of extrinsic reinforcements . . . undermines adolescents’ perceptions of competence” (p. 511)
The causality assumption began with Baumrind’s original identification of parenting styles, because she identified parenting behaviors and child characteristics that covaried and then gave explanations for that covariation that implicitly and explicitly made parents the causal agents (e.g., Baumrind, 1966; Baumrind & Black, 1967). Perhaps this was a reflection of the behaviorist leanings of Baumrind and other parenting styles researchers, or perhaps it was a reflection of the assumptions of the broader culture, as has been suggested earlier (Bell, 1968). At any rate, the assumption that causality is known has continued, and the language seems to have gotten progressively stronger with time, as though the accumulation of correlational results could somehow prove causality.
Although longitudinal studies of parenting styles have been conducted, rarely have the data been used to determine whether causality might be bidirectional. They have instead focused on arguing for parent-to-child effects. For example, a cross-lagged design with parenting and child-behavior measures at two points in time could potentially be used to provide information about whether the correlations between adolescent adjustment and parenting represent unidirectional or bidirectional effects. When only half of this pattern is tested with only parenting as the earlier predictor (e.g., Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbusch, 1994), it is impossible to find a bidirectional effect. The use of this design reveals a disinterest in potential bidirectional effects.
Parenting styles researchers have held to a unidirectional, causal interpretation of their correlational findings in spite of growing literatures that present convincing alternative views. For instance, a number of scholars have offered alternative interpretations of the correlations between parents’ and children’s behaviors that exist in the literature, including—but not limited to—the parenting styles literature (e.g., Bell, 1968; C. Lewis, 1981; Harris, 1995, 1998). At about the same time that Baumrind published her first parenting styles study, Bell (1968) published a review paper questioning the unidirectional interpretations that had been made in socialization studies in general. He cited many examples of experimental findings in which parents’ and other adults’ behaviors had changed in response to certain children’s behaviors; he argued that because of these findings, parent-child correlations should not be interpreted as only parent-to-child effects.
Later, C. Lewis (1981) questioned the directionality assumption in Baumrind’s published studies—particularly Baumrind’s claim that parental control produced welladjusted children. She pointed out that in Baumrind’s studies it was impossible to tell whether the parental control measures tapped control or simply harmonious relationships, for which the child’s temperament could be as important as the parents’ ways of dealing with the child (see Baumrind, 1983, for a reply). Furthermore, Lewis pointed out that in Baumrind’s published studies the items that really distinguished the parents of competent children from all other groups of parents had nothing to do with the use of control. The strongest predictors were “respect the child’s decision,” “use reason to obtain compliance,” “encourage verbal give and take,” and “satisfy child,” (C. Lewis, 1981, p. 562), which leaves open the possibility that competence had developed through some process other than parental control. This is especially evident because items such as respect and use reason may depend on child characteristics.
More recently, Harris (1995, 1998) offered a controversial critique of the assumption that parents influence children in unidirectional fashion. Her critique ‘like Bell’s and Lewis’s, covered the parenting literature more broadly, and was not limited to parenting styles. Concerning the parenting styles findings, however, she offered a reverse-causality explanation for the correlations between authoritative parenting and good child adjustment. She argued that most parents in Western cultures try to be authoritative because they know that is what parents “should” be. If the child behaves well (i.e., is well-adjusted), then parents have no reason to change their strategy. If the child is difficult to manage (i.e., not welladjusted), however, then they have to become more controlling and less democratic (i.e., more authoritarian). Hence, according to this reinterpretation, parents adjust to the child’s behavior rather than producing it, and this adjustment explains the correlation between parenting styles and children’s behavior.
In addition, in the parenting literature more broadly there are now numerous experimental and longitudinal studies— from which causality can actually be inferred—that show very clearly that parents and other adults do sometimes react to children’s characteristics and adjust their behavior accordingly (e.g., Anderson, Lytton, & Romney, 1986; Bell & Chapman, 1986 for a review; Buss, 1981; Dix, Ruble, Grusec, & Nixon, 1986; Lerner & Spanier, 1978; M. Lewis & Rosenblum, 1974; Mulhern & Passman, 1981; Passman & Blackwelder, 1981) or that show good evidence for bidirectional effects (e.g., Hastings & Rubin, 1999; Kochanska, 1998; Lytton, 1990, 2000; Mink & Nihira, 1986; Stice & Barrera, 1995).
Finally, behavioral genetic studies also cast reasonable doubt on the unidirectional assumption (e.g., Ge et al., 1996; Reiss, Neiderhiser, Hetherington, & Plomin, 2000). They offer evidence that the links between parenting behaviors and children’s adjustment are affected by the child’s genetic makeup from both directions. First, the child’s genetic makeup—expressed in temperament and dispositions— evokes certain parenting behaviors, which then influence the child’s adjustment. Second, the child’s genetic makeup— again expressed in temperament and dispositions—affects adjustment directly, and that influences how parents react to the child (parenting behaviors). Twin, adoption, and sibling studies also suggest that parents react to their child’s unique genetic makeup in that children’s unique experiences are more predictive of adjustment than are the experiences they share with their siblings (i.e., parenting factors; Plomin & Daniels, 1987; Plomin, Reiss, Hetherington, & Howe, 1994).
Let us be clear. We are not arguing that solely child-toparent effects are driving the correlations between parenting styles and child adjustment. We do argue, however, that there is enough evidence that child-to-parent effects exist and that they cannot be discounted. In our view, a bidirectional model of parent-adolescent relationships is needed. Any model that takes a unidirectional view—parent-to-child or child-toparent—is of limited usefulness.
What’s Driving the Results? This is another question that has not been pursued rigorously. Actually, it is a whole complex series of questions about the basic constructs, the measures, and the mechanisms through which the basic constructs are thought to work. Concerning the basic constructs, even if one limits oneself to the major publications in this area, one can end up wondering what is authoritative parenting? Is it as complex as Maccoby and Martin (1983) theorized, involving firm control, demands for mature behavior, emotional warmth, responsiveness to the child’s expressed needs and desires, being encouraging of bidirectional communication and devoted to democratic decision-making, and being child- rather than parent-centered? Or is it as simple as warmth-involvement and strictness-supervision (e.g., Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Steinberg et al., 1994)? Concerning the measures, if authoritative parenting is as simple as warmth-involvement and strictnesssupervision, then why do items that specifically tap communication appear on both types of scales? And why, for example, is knowing a lot about who the child’s friends are a warmth-involvement item, whereas knowing a lot about what the child does after school and in his or her free time is a strictness-supervision item (e.g., Lamborn et al., 1991; Steinberg et al., 1994)? Indeed, how is knowing (an end product) a measure of either warmth or strictness? Moreover (although a more detailed discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this research paper), one gets an even more confusing picture if one looks at the parenting styles literature as a whole—and not just at the major theoretical works and the empirical studies in flagship journals.
Then, concerning mechanisms, without having these construct and measurement issues sorted out, it is difficult to begin to sort out the influences of the various elements, how many of the features of the different styles are really important, the direction of effects, and whether they work additively or interactively. Indeed, parenting styles researchers have seemed fairly unconcerned about demonstrating empirically why or how authoritative parenting might work. The literature abounds with post hoc explanations and untested assumptions. Baumrind clearly favored learning explanations. In her view, authoritative parents modeled desirable behavior through their willingness to communicate; created classically conditioned good feelings through their warmth and acceptance that would improve their ability to reinforce their children’s desirable behavior; and provided appropriate reinforcements and limits through their firm behavioral control (Baumrind, 1971). Still, these explanations remained untested.
The rare studies that have tried to look at mechanisms have been weak in terms of design. For instance, one study tried to test the idea that the connection between authoritative parenting and school performance was due to the fact that authoritative parents foster the right attributional styles in children, which in turn are linked to school performance (Glasgow et al., 1997). But the hypothesized mechanism, fostering, was never examined. Only the concurrent correlation between styles and attributions was examined; again, this correlation between a parenting measure and a child behavior was assumed to represent a causal connection in which parents had fostered the attributional style. Hence, this study was not really a test of a mechanism.
Summary. The parenting styles model is a static, unidirectional view of socialization in the family context. It is static in that it assumes that parents are a certain way throughout the child’s life, and that their way of being produces—at some undefined point in time—a child with certain characteristics. Furthermore, parents are assumed to have the same style with each child. There is no recognition that parenting might be a developmental process in which parents learn what works and does not work with each child, or in which they develop certain undesirable parenting behaviors through repeated frustrations with a difficult child—as stated by one of the most prominent parenting styles research groups: “Parenting style is a characteristic of the parent (i.e., it is a feature of the child’s social environment), independent of characteristics of the developing person” (Darling & Steinberg, 1993, p. 487). Under assumptions such as these, the parenting styles paradigm can bring us no further toward understanding the bidirectional processes operating over time between parents and children that are inextricably linked to the child’s adjustment.
The Attachment Model
Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969/1982) does offer a way of looking at relationships that could be truly dyadic. It views the emotional bond between parents and children as a feedback system, controlling a balance between children’s desires for closeness with parents and those for exploring the world. This has been likened to the physiological control systems that maintain physiological measures—such as blood pressure and body temperature—within set limits (Bowlby, 1988). According to this theory, optimally, during times of stress, infants and adolescents will seek comfort from their caregivers, and parents will give their children a sense of security—a feeling that all is well (Ainsworth, 1990). The need to be close to parents in times of distress— and for parents to respond to their children’s distress—are theorized to be biologically based to promote survival of the species. The attachment system draws parents and children together, therefore, to protect children from harm. The positive emotions that can be derived from closeness, such as a sense of security, make attachment behaviors rewarding to both parents and children.
A balance between emerging independence and closeness with parents is a central feature of attachment theory and particularly relevant as children grow into adolescence. Children and parents are increasingly able to take each other’s perspectives into consideration and to negotiate in their relationship. Adolescents continue to use parents as a secure base for exploration, using temporary returns to the safe haven of parents to help them, particularly in times of distress, illness, fear, or stress (Marvin & Britner, 1999). The emotional availability of the attachment figure rather than physical proximity becomes the more frequent goal of the attachment system. Attachment experiences not only provide a secure base for adolescents to explore their talents and experiences in a variety of contexts, but such experiences also prepare adolescents to become socially connected with others and to learn how to be caregivers for others (Crittenden, 1992).
Not all attachment relationships, however, provide a truly secure base. The security of attachment relationships can be distinguished by the ways that members of the dyad—such as a parent and child—respond to each other during times of distress. Attachment theory predicts that parents of securely attached children respond consistently and sensitively (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Secure attachments are characterized by open, flexible communication between parents and children around emotion signals, promoting a balance and range of positive and negative emotions (Bowlby, 1988; Cassidy, 1994). Insecure attachments, in contrast, reveal problematic ways of communicating emotions— partners may exhibit a restricted range of emotions or heighten their displays of emotion (Bowlby, 1988; Cassidy, 1994). Parents of insecurely attached children, for example, may respond inconsistently to expressions of distress, ignore them, or act punitively.
Attachment theory suggests that the quality of individuals’ interactions with caregivers over time creates a model of how relationships work and of their own value in relationships (Bowlby, 1969/1982; Bretherton, 1985). These cognitive models are thought to guide feelings, behaviors, and how information about the world is processed. Bowlby described these representations of attachment relationships as working models because he viewed them as being open to new input and modification as circumstances and relationships change. Individuals are believed to learn both sides of the attachment relationship, and children are motivated to reenact both sides of their attachment relationship in their other relationships with peers, teachers, and others (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986). Children learn, for instance, whether important people in their lives will come to their aid when they need help and ways of responding to the distress of others.
This aspect of attachment theory offers a perspective to understanding relations among relationships with parents, peers, and other significant people in children’s lives. As adolescents begin to spend more time with peers of their own choosing, working models are hypothesized to influence their selection of friends and the quality of their peer interactions. Adolescents are likely to choose friends as attachment figures who fit with their existing working models. The central importance of peers in the lives of adolescents has received a great deal of attention (Allen, Moore, Kuperminc, & Bell, 1998; Csikszenthmihalyi & Larson, 1984), with intimacy in friendships being described as one of the defining characteristics of this age group (Buhrmester, 1990; Sullivan, 1953). The exceptional intensity of adolescent peer relationships has in fact been likened to that of attachment relationships (Ainsworth, 1989; Ainsworth & Marvin, 1995; Allen et al., 1998; Bowlby, 1988).
Furthermore, ways of communicating in attachment relationships appear relevant to understanding adolescents’ adjustment (Allen, Aber, & Leadbeater, 1990; Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; Engels, Finkenauer, Meeus, & Dekovic, 2001) and emotion regulation (Biesecker, 2001; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Zimmermann, Maier, Winter, & Grossmann, 2001). Adolescents using insecure attachment strategies may have difficulties understanding their own and others’ emotions, leaving them more vulnerable to misinterpreting ambiguous situations as hostile and less able to repair disruptions in relationships (Kobak & Cole, 1994). These misinterpretations may lead to hostile or aggressive actions, withdrawal from peers, or other behaviors that undermine the formation of healthy relationships and foster negative feelings about the self. Therefore, understanding the role of these insecure attachment strategies—or ways of communicating and responding to feelings of distress—may shed some light on certain adolescents’ “problem behaviors” (Allen et al., 1990) such as substance abuse and conduct disorder.
The attachment model has come further than the other models reviewed here have in portraying the adolescent as an active agent in his or her own adjustment and in trying to explain the links between parent and peer relationships. This model, however, suffers from some of the same limitations as the other parenting models. First, until recently there has been a tendency to view parent relations separately from other relationship experiences. We need more information about how attachment relationships with mothers and fathers, siblings, extended family, peers, and romantic partners relate, interact, and possibly modify each other over time.
Asecond issue is that the different measures used to assess attachment at different ages—particularly after early childhood—have not always demonstrated conceptual equivalence or construct validity. A variety of techniques have been developed to tap attachment in adolescence and adulthood, most of which are based on interviews and self-reports (e.g., Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998; Collins & Read, 1990; C. George, Kaplan, & Main, 1985; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Kenny, 1987), but there is a lack of convergence about a common, reliable method. Although adult measures share theoretical links with measures used in infancy and childhood, the underlying approaches can differ radically between them; little research has been conducted or published to address relations between these different measures. These sorts of psychometric issues make it difficult for attachment researchers to ensure that they are communicating about the same constructs (Brennan et al., 1998). Apiece of this problem is an overly broad use of the term attachment to encompass more general qualities of the parent-child relationship. Although attachment may be associated with other aspects of parenting, researchers need to make sure that they mean the same thing when they measure it.
Last, attachment researchers are as likely as other parenting researchers are to look almost exclusively at parent effects unless the focus of research is to study certain child influences on the attachment relationship, such as infant temperament (Calkins & Fox, 1992; Crockenberg, 1981; Goldsmith & Alansky, 1987; Susman-Stillman, Kalkose, Egeland, & Waldman, 1996) or Down Syndrome (Ganiban, Barnett, & Cicchetti, 2000; Thompson, Cicchetti, Lamb, & Malkin, 1985). Otherwise, the direction of causality between the quality of attachment relationships and other constructs is almost always examined in one way, suggesting attachment as a predictor of child psychopathology (Greenberg, 1999), for example. The possibility of reverse effects on working models remains largely unknown; for instance, do insecure attachments to parents cause a youth to become delinquent, or do parents who know that their child is delinquent disengage emotionally, perpetuating a pattern of insecurity?
Although the attachment system is said to reside within the individual—the child—considering it as a feedback system makes it reasonable to consider the effects of the child’s ways of responding to situations of distress on the parent. How do adolescents, for example, give parents a sense that all is well, and how do they activate their parents’ attachment systems? How do parents respond when the stressor activating their attachment system is their own adolescent’s behavior? How do parents’attachment histories with their own parents and partners color their reactions to adolescents’behaviors? Who sets the thermostat of the attachment system when?
The Direct Parental Control Model
The main assumption behind this model is that parents need to control their adolescents’ behavior and that they will have their influence through direct supervision and control of the adolescents’ activities and associations (e.g., Laub & Sampson, 1988; Leibner & Wacker, 1997; Wells & Rankin, 1988). The criterion variables are usually delinquency, drug use, and other problem behaviors. Studies of delinquency in the criminality literature often lean heavily on this model.
There is a problem inherent in the direct control idea, however, which is that parents are seldom physically present when their adolescents are away from home (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Hirschi, 1969; Nye,1958). Therefore, direct control of their behavior is not usually possible. Another problem with this literature lies in the assumptions that are made about intervening processes that are not studied directly. The literature on parental monitoring, which rests on the direct parental control model, provides an illustration. The main idea is that parents’ tracking and control efforts are necessary to keep youths from engaging in problem behavior and away from deviant peers who would draw them into problem behavior. A large literature links high parental monitoring to lower levels of (a) delinquency, (b) associations with deviant peers, (c) drug and alcohol use, (d) cigarette smoking, and (e) risky sexual activity (for a review of early work, see Patterson & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1984; for some of the many empirical examples, see Biglan, Duncan, Ary, & Smolkowski, 1995; Cernkovich & Giordano, 1987; Chassin, Pillow, Curran, Molina, & Barrera, 1993; Crouter, MacDermid, McHale, & Perry-Jenkins, 1990; Dishion, Capaldi, Spracklen, & Li, 1995; Flannery, Vazsonyi, Torquati, & Fridrich, 1994; Fletcher, Darling, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1995; Fridrich & Flannery, 1995; McCord, 1986; Metzler, Noell, Biglan, Ary, & Smolkowski, 1994; Romer et al., 1994; Sampson & Laub, 1994; Weintraub & Gold, 1991; White & Kaufman, 1997).
This literature involves at least two untested assumptions. The first is that if parents have knowledge, it is because they have done tracking and surveillance to get it. This assumption is inherent in the operationalization of monitoring in this whole literature. Even though monitoring has been conceptualized as tracking and surveillance, which are actions, it has almost universally been operationalized as knowledge, which is not an action but an end result. This literature involves a second untested assumption regarding why parents’ knowledge might be important or why it is linked to fewer adolescent problem behaviors and better overall adjustment. The assumption is that if parents have knowledge about their youths’ activities and associations, they will be aware if small infractions of rules occur or if dangerous associations with deviant peers start to develop, and they can step in with direct control to stop these small problems before they become large problems. Hence, direct control is an intervening process that is assumed to explain the connection between parents’ knowledge and adolescent behavior.
In our research, we have questioned both of these assumptions. We have pointed out this mismatch between the conceptualization of monitoring as tracking and surveillance and its operationalization as parents’ knowledge, and we have presented empirical evidence to suggest that parents get most of their information about adolescents’ day-to-day activities through the youth’s free, spontaneous disclosure of information (Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Parents’ active efforts to get information, in contrast, are only weakly related to their knowledge. We have shown, further, that children who tell their parents a lot about their daily activities, rather than those who are strongly controlled by their parents, are better adjusted in a number of different ways (Kerr & Stattin, 2000). In our work, high disclosure of daily activities was linked to less involvement in antisocial behavior, less school maladjustment, less depressed mood, higher self-confidence, better relationships with both parents, and fewer friends with undesirable characteristics. Parents’ active efforts showed few links to adjustment. In fact, they were sometimes related to poorer rather than better adjustment. We went on to show that parents’ direct control strategies (controlling adolescents’ freedom to come and go as they please without informing parents and getting their permission ahead of time or explaining themselves afterward) were correlated with youths’ feelings of being overly controlled—which in turn were linked to poor adjustment on all the measures mentioned previously.
These results suggest that the link between parents’ knowledge and adolescent adjustment does not exist because surveillance prevents undesirable behavior, as has so often been claimed. Rather, it is because child disclosure is heavily represented in parents’ knowledge, and children who talk openly with their parents tend to be better adjusted. Hence, this raises the larger theoretical question of whether parents’ knowledge in and of itself is actually important. Does it play any causal role in adolescent adjustment? If it does, and if that role is not what has been assumed—allowing parents to know when to intervene with direct control—then what is it? Or alternatively, is this just a classic example of an apparent cause-and-effect relation that only appears because there is a third variable that is producing both the apparent cause and the apparent effect? In our research, we have suggested that parents’ knowledge is important, but not for the reasons that researchers have assumed (so that parents will know when to intervene with direct control). We have theorized instead that knowledge underlies trust, and trust is an important part of a complex, ongoing, bidirectional process within the family in which parents and children react to each other. This process in turn influences the child’s adjustment both directly and indirectly through mechanisms that we describe later in this research paper.
The major views of parenting that have dominated research on adolescence during the past 20 years have concentrated on two broad classes of parenting behaviors. One concerns the relational side of parenting—emotional warmth and responsiveness to the youth’s needs. The other concerns the regulatory-supervisory side of parenting—active regulation of the youth’s activities and associations. Both these classes of parenting behaviors are considered important, particularly the regulatory-supervisory behaviors. All of these models are limited by an assumption that causality resides in parents’ behavior, and some models are further limited by measures that have questionable construct validity.
In current thinking, the adolescent peer context is regarded as a prime instigator of new behaviors and lifestyles. Friendships are considered more egalitarian than are adult-child relations and are thought to provide young people with approval and support in daily life; experiences of sharing and cooperating; standards for social comparison; opportunities to try out adult roles; leisure time recreation; and forums for personal and intimate disclosure of experiences, thoughts, and ideas (Bagwell, Newcomb, & Bukowski, 1998; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Hartup, 1983; Parker, Rubin, Price, & DeRosier, 1995).
Friendships are voluntary and self-initiated, but they are also constrained by the broader physical context. Hence, peer networks, cliques, and friendships all describe social associations between individuals of roughly the same age who share about the same ecological conditions, interests, and activities (Kirchler, Palmonari, & Pombeni, 1996; Ladd, 1989; Reisman, 1985). They live in the same neighborhood, are members of the same clubs and associations, and attend the same school or class. They also tend to be of the same sex and ethnicity (Hartup, 1983; Kandel, 1978). These features, however, say more about the physical environment in which adolescents live than about the actual content of the friendships.
Adolescents also tend to choose peers who are attitudinally and behaviorally similar to themselves (Dishion, Patterson, & Griesler, 1994; Hartup, 1983, 1996; Kandel, 1978, 1986). Yet to focus only on similarities is to ignore one of the possible developmental functions of peer association—that it forces youths to understand differences between themselves and others. We should expect that young people choose peers who are different from themselves in certain ways and who satisfy different needs—peers whom they admire for some reason, who have talents they do not have or interests that are different from theirs, and whom they can talk with, learn from, and gain insights from (Eder, 1985; Smith & Inder, 1990).
The theoretical models of peer influences that have been used in research have mainly been the social-cognitive development model and the social learning model. The first rests on the ideas of theorists such as Piaget, Cooley, Mead, Sullivan, and—to some extent—Erikson and Vygotsky. The main idea is that peer relationships help adolescents gain a more sophisticated social understanding and develop cognitively because negotiating relationships and disagreements with peers forces them to take another person’s point of view and develop empathy and understanding. Sullivan’s clinically derived theory of interpersonal relations was one of the first approaches to directly address the developmental function of peer groups and friendships. From Sullivan’s perspective, “chums” or best friends were essential for the evolution of the self-system, cognitive-emotional development, and good adjustment. From a contemporary life span developmental perspective, Youniss (1980) proposed a theory of relationships and self-development that was drawn from the writings of Sullivan and Piaget. The social learning model rests on the ideas of theorists such as Bandura, Cairns, Patterson, Dishion, and colleagues, Coleman, and Bronfenbrenner. The main idea is that peers socialize each other by modeling, imitating, encouraging, and rewarding certain behaviors. This general idea can be seen in much of the research on peer influences.
Research on Peer Relationships
Research on peer relationships addresses questions that derive directly from the particular peers under consideration. Research on dyadic peer relationships examines how friendships develop. Research on groups of peers in predefined settings such as school classrooms looks at how adolescents acquire peer-group status and how that status and the characteristics of the peers influence the individual’s behavior. Research on peers in self-chosen settings looks at how peer groups are formed in the natural ecology and how these groups influence individual behavior.
Dyadic Peer Relationships. Many scholars agree that close friends have the potential to serve unique functions in development. Friendships help adolescents build social skills and learn that others think and feel differently from the way they do. Most adolescents have a good friend—often several (Hartup, 1992). A huge literature suggests that intimacy and empathy, self-disclosure, and mutual responsiveness emerge within these friendships. Friendships are self-initiated and are based on openness, affection, empathy, loyalty, and reciprocity, and they make adolescents sensitive to others’ perspectives, roles, and feelings (Berndt, 1982; Marcus, 1996; Sullivan, 1953). The behavioral interactions that differentiate friends from nonfriends typically involve positive engagement, conflict management, and ability to engage in tasks together (Hartup, 1996). Similarity and dissimilarity; friendship selection, maintenance, and dissolution; and gender differences in friendships also have all been addressed in the literature on best friends.
Relationships With Groups of Peers: The Peers in Predefined Social Settings. Most studies of peer relations and interactions have been done in the classroom or school, a setting that is predefined for adolescents. During the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of studies were conducted that examined the relationship between peer status (popular vs. unpopular, neglected, controversial, and rejected) and coping and problem solving, social skills and competence, school adjustment and achievement, personality, emotions, loneliness, prosocial and agonistic behavior, and more (Parker, et al., 1995). These studies showed a strong link between peer status and individual behavior at school and indicated that status and behavior are correlated with later school dropout, delinquency, and mental health problems. These studies present a unidirectional view of causality, however, because they assume that peer status plays a causal role in these correlations.
Relationships With Natural Groups of Peers: The Peers in Self-Chosen Settings. Demographic and ecological investigations have provided insights into how peer groups naturally evolve over time, how broader networks are formed, and how and when cliques and crowds emerge (B. B. Brown et al., 1993; Dunphy, 1963). They have shed light on the role of social networks for adolescents with behavioral problems—and on how deviant peer groups and gangs are formed and maintained (Goldstein, 1994). They have dealt with group processes and behavior stability (Sarnecki, in press). Studies in this domain have shown the close connection between leisure settings and transition behaviors (Silbereisen & Noack, 1988) and between choosing to enter a particular activity such as sports and encountering new friendship experiences (B. B. Brown, 1990; Fine, 1980). These studies have provided some information about properties of peer groups; bases of peer group selection, maintenance, and dissolution; and gender- and age-related differences in peer group configurations.
Peer Associations: Unidirectional Effects?
Historically, adolescents have been portrayed as being receptive to the influence of peers. In view of (a) the number of empirical studies that have claimed to demonstrate that peers influence adolescents’ behaviors, (b) existing theoretical models that depict peers as a major socialization influence (cf. differential association, Sutherland & Cressey, 1978; and social control theories, Hirschi, 1969), (c) the many textbooks that support the argument that peers have a pervasive socializing influence on behavior of adolescents, and (d) layman’s views, undoubtedly peers should be viewed as having an important steering influence on adolescents’ behavior and development. Indeed, one finding that consistently turns up in empirical studies is that peer characteristics are outstanding correlates of individuals’ transition behaviors. For smoking, sexuality, delinquency, and drinking or drug use, there is a strong link between individual behavior and peer behavior. In the majority of studies that have looked at the relative roles of parent and peer characteristics in social behavior, peer relationships turn out to be the most predictive.
Factors That Interfere With the Ability to Infer Causality
Researchers refer to peer association with causal terms such as influence, impact, or pressure. But many studies do not take adequate account of selection factors, do not control appropriately for relevant individual differences, are not based on independent reports of peers, are ecologically questionable, fail to consider alternative explanations, or suffer from any combination of these problems.
Cross-Sectional Designs. It goes without saying that a correlation between characteristics in subjects and their friends in any cross-sectional study cannot be interpreted causally. The direction of influence may go both ways. For more firm conclusions about causality, longitudinal designs are needed. But causal language—implying a unidirectional peer impact on individual behavior and development—is frequently used in studies that look at concurrent correlates.
Shared Activities. If we focus on behaviors that usually occur in groups, high subject-peer group correlations are not in and of themselves evidence of peer influence. Consider one example: Because delinquent acts are most often performed in groups, one would be very surprised not to find an association between delinquency in the adolescent and delinquency in his or her peer group. However, this association does not indicate whether the adolescent was pressured to offend, tended to be the active instigator, or was an active part of planning these offenses (Farrington, 1998).
Perceptual Biases. Many studies deduce peer influences from adolescents’self-reports of peer behavior. For example, many investigations have reported that self-reports of friends’ deviance are strongly linked to the subject’s own delinquency. Indeed, based on findings from peer perception measures, delinquent peers have been referred to as the best predictor of delinquency (Dishion et al., 1994; Oetting & Donnermeyer, 1998). This raises the old problem of shared method-variance. High correlations between one’s own and one’s peers’ behavior might be partly explained by the fact that adolescents project their own behavior onto friends or justify or rationalize their own behaviors, thereby misreporting their friends’ deviance (Conger & Rueter, 1996; Kandel, 1996; Urberg, Degirmencioglu, & Pilgrim, 1997). Studies suggest that self-reports of peers’behaviors are more strongly associated with individuals’ own behavior than are independent measures of peers’ behaviors (cf. Iannotti, Bush, & Weinfurt, 1996). Hence, data from self-reports of peer behavior are likely to systematically overestimate the role of peer association in individual development (Kandel, 1985).
School as the Analytic Unit. Adolescent peer studies have typically dealt with peer groups in one setting—the school—and the ecological validity of this practice is questionable (Adler & Adler, 1998; Campbell, 1980; T. P. George & Hartmann, 1996; Giordano, Cernkovich, & Pugh, 1986; Hartup, 1983). A school is an administrative system. Although circumstances can vary with the type of school, students usually have little choice about their classmates and they cannot influence the social environment much. Undoubtedly, the school context should be considered the major breeding ground for peer associations from childhood into late adolescence (Parker & Asher, 1993). But many leisure-time friends are not classmates (T. P. George & Hartmann, 1996; Smith & Inder, 1990). Out-of-school peers are more heterogeneous than in-school peers in both age and gender (cf. Allen, 1989; T. P. George & Hartmann, 1996; Smith & Inder, 1990), and they might have more important implications for individual behavior—concurrently or predictively (Krappmann et al, 1993). It is likely that peers outside of school will be particularly important for adolescents who do not consider school as a valued context or who for reasons such as being rejected by their classmates are not part of the activities of the majority in their class (Ladd, 1983). T. P. George and Hartmann (1996) reported that unpopular 11- to 12-year-olds had more friends outside of school than did average and popular subjects, and the unpopular youths in the class had almost twice as many friends of a different age as the popular youths had. In their investigations of the implications of pubertal maturation on transition behaviors, Stattin and Magnusson (1990) showed that the peers who were most strongly associated with the social behaviors of early-developing females were not conventional types of peers. Most influential were the peers who were chronologically older and those who were in other classes or had quit school—particularly older males. Classroom-based studies would exclude these important peer contacts.
Little is known about leisure-time peer groups or the differences between in-school and out-of-school friends. For example, one of the common questions about deviant peers is the proportion of close friends that the individual has (from none, to half, to all) who engage in delinquent acts (Elliot, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989). This question is standard in research on juvenile delinquency, but it is not informative about who these peers are, where and when they interact with the youth, or what their support or influence is. More research on relationships with peers outside of school is needed for a more accurate picture of how the individual influences and is influenced by his or her peers across contexts.
Peer Selection and Peer Socialization. Kandel (1978, 1985) first questioned the common practice of interpreting peer association causally and unidirectionally when in studies of homophily, she differentiated peer selection from peer socialization processes. According to a peer socialization interpretation, youths become similar to their peers as they gradually conform to the behaviors, fashions, values, and attitudes that are normative in the peer group. In contrast, according to a peer selection interpretation, similarity exists because youths choose to engage with peers who are similar to themselves. If selection is a major operating factor, then correlations between peer association and individual behavior are spurious (Hartup, 1983, 1992).
Cross-sectional studies cannot possibly differentiate peer selection from peer socialization; this requires longitudinal data. Kandel’s studies on juvenile drinking (1978; 1985) were based on best friend nominations at two time points, and they showed that both these processes operated to produce similarities between adolescents and their friends. Other studies have confirmed Kandel’s findings. In the domains of drinking and smoking, peer selection is as important as peer socialization (Engels, Knibbe, de Vries, Drop, & van Breukelen, 1999; Engels, Knibbe, Drop, & de Haan, 1997; Ennet & Bauman, 1994; Farrell & Danish, 1993; Fisher & Bauman, 1998; Mounts & Steinberg, 1995; Urberg et al., 1997). These studies clearly show that peer socialization is not the whole story behind the often-found associations between measures of individual and peer behavior.
Other longitudinal studies support this view. For example, they reveal that peer associations change greatly in adolescence, but aggressiveness and antisocial behavior are quite stable (Loeber, 1991; Olweus, 1979; Stattin & Magnusson, 1989), and this pattern of findings argues for selection. Also, several strong longitudinal studies that have looked into complex networks of peer relations over time suggest a reciprocal relationship between peer selection and peer socialization (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). Peer association, it appears, is best viewed as a process that includes selection, deselection, and socialization in the peer group (Kandel, 1985, 1986).
In the delinquency literature, studies have looked more closely at the conditions under which selection versus socialization operates. They suggest that the common view that teenagers are drawn into delinquency because of “bad peers” is too simple. Rather, active selection of deviant peers by problem-prone adolescents seems to be particularly pronounced during the early stages of engaging in delinquency and other risk behaviors (Conger & Rueter, 1996; Galambos & Silbereisen, 1987; Kandel, 1985; Maggs & Galambos, 1993; Patterson, DeBaryshe, & Ramsey, 1989). During the later stages, interactions with deviant friends and the mutual reinforcement of common activities accelerate and diversify the criminal activities of adolescents who have a previous history of problematic adjustment (Dishion, French, & Patterson, 1995). According to the deviancy training hypothesis, collective antisocial talk among peers in these circles reinforces antisocial talk and antisocial behavior, thereby escalating the level of delinquent behavior for the group members over time (Dishion et al., 1994).
Other studies in the literature show that peer influence is an issue of individual characteristics, youths’ prior experiences, and peer characteristics (Agnew, 1991; Fergusson, Lynskey, & Horwood, 1996; Moffitt, 1993; Mounts & Steinberg, 1995; Vitaro, Tremblay, Kerr, Pagani, & Bukowski, 1997). For example, association with deviant friends is considered more likely to predict future delinquency among late starters or transitory delinquents, but it is less likely to affect the behavior of early starters or life-course persistent delinquents. In support of this suggestion, Vitaro et al. (1997) found that having deviant friends was associated with an increase in delinquent behavior among moderately disruptive youths but not among highly disruptive youths.
Still, the general problem of using the school context in peer research prevails. The conclusions about peer selection and peer socialization processes discussed previously were based on data taken from friends at school (Kandel, 1978, 1985). There is little information about peer selection and socialization in out-of-school settings. To our knowledge, a study conducted by Kiesner (2000) is unique in that it included peers in the school context as well as neighborhood friends; this was accomplished by studying an entire community at once. Kiesner’s results suggested that in-school and out-of-school peer groups both contribute to the concurrent prediction of individual problem behavior and homework and curfew compliance, whereas only the out-of-school group explained individual involvement in sports (which in Italy take place outside the school) and social activities. Moreover, in-school and out-of-school peer status (defined as the number of nominations received as a member of the other participants’ in-school and out-of-school groups) interacted in explaining individual differences in depressed mood, even after controlling for a traditional measure of in-class peer status. Specifically, frequent nominations as an out-of-school group member appeared to buffer individuals from the negative emotional effects of low peer status within the school.
Peer Relations and Community Settings. When parents buy a new house or rent an apartment in a certain area, they mark out the limits of the future life courses of all family members (Barker, 1964; G. W. Brown, Harris, & Peto, 1973; Magnusson & Stattin, 1998). The availability of social situations in a local community determines the possibilities for particular social activities and for the functioning and development of individuals and peer groups. Within these limits, individuals determine their own peer associations by selecting certain types of leisure settings and recreational contexts over others (Brook, Nomura, & Cohen, 1989). On the group level, the local society to some extent shapes the social activities of peer groups by providing or failing to provide settings that promote prosocial activities.
Adolescent research has only recently started to gain insights into how broader sociocultural influences—as they are represented in the community, the neighborhood, and in particular leisure-time settings—affect peer relations. A few examples of this work in naturalistic settings are Fine and Glassner’s (1979) study of baseball little leagues, Mahoney and Stattin’s (2000) examination of youth recreation centers, Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi’s (1999) studies of the role of sports in adolescent life, and the Berlin Youth Longitudinal Study, which revealed the dual quality of many adolescent behaviors—both compromising momentary or future psychosocial health and being tools in the pursuit of satisfying important personal and social goals of the individual (Silbereisen & Noack, 1988).
A variety of mechanisms have been proposed by which leisure activities may enhance individual competence and protect against adjustment problems. A distinction can be made between structured and unstructured leisure-time activities. A common finding in the literature is that well-adjusted adolescents tend to be more actively involved in structured leisure-time activities and settings such as organized sports, hobbies, religious activities, music, theater, art, and politics. These activities occurduring scheduled hours, are often led by an adult, and aim explicitly at skill building. By contrast, adolescents with more problematic personal and social adjustment are more likely to hang out on the streets, attend public drinking places, and be less involved in organized activities (Cochran & Bo, 1987). These more spontaneous or unstructured activities are seldom under direct adult supervision. Although it is likely that different individuals benefit from leisure pursuits for different reasons, high levels of structure, skill-building aims, exposure to conventional values, and the presence of nondeviant peers appear to be particularly strongly linked to lower levels of antisocial behavior (Agnew & Peterson, 1989; Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997; Csikszentmihayli, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, Whalen, & Wong, 1993; Fletcher, Elder & Mekos, 2000; Hirschi, 1969; Jones & Offord, 1989; Kinney, 1993; Mahoney, 2000; McCord, 1978).
Studies of Swedish youth recreation centers show that the same principles of selection and socialization that are commonly found in peer research also apply to leisure settings (Mahoney & Stattin, 2000; Mahoney, Stattin, & Magnusson, 2001). These government-supported centers are available to adolescents age 13 and older. The overall philosophy for the youth centers has remained constant across the last three decades—that youths should be allowed to develop their own interests. An explicit aim of centers has been to reduce antisocial activities by keeping adolescents away from certain settings during the evening. The centers are usually accessible every evening of the week, opening around dinnertime and closing as late as 11:30 p.m. on weekends and during the summer. Attendance and activity participation are strictly voluntary. The activities are typically low in structure and do not aim at skill building; they include pool, ping-pong, video games, darts, TV, music, and coffee drinking. Adults are present at the center, but they do not direct or place demands on the youths’ activities.
Investigations in different regions have shown that as a group, youths who attended the centers regularly were more antisocial, had more antisocial peers, had more conflicted parent relations, and had parents who knew less about their activities than did those who did not attend the centers (Mahoney & Stattin, 2000). In fact, youths who attended the centers were overrepresented among those with problematic personal and social adjustment on almost all measures studied. Using a longitudinal design, and following 500 boys in a middle-sized Swedish town from ages 10 to 30, clear indications of selection effects for attending these centers were documented (Mahoney et al., 2001). Boys with a multiple problem profile of social and academic deficits at age 10 were most likely to attend the youth centers at age 13. But—even after controlling for relevant factors at age 10 (family and demographic factors and several aspects of child socialacademic competence prior to involvement in the centers)— the youths who attended these centers at age 13 had significantly higher rates of criminal offenses up to the age of 30 than did those who did not attend the centers. The findings are consistent with the proposition that the combination of unstructured leisure and socialization influences among problem-oriented peers may promote antisocial behavior, but detailed investigations have not yet addressed the issue of mechanisms: whether these differences are due to low structure of the activities at the centers and associated preference for unstructured leisure pursuits of the youths involved, little or no adult supervision, deviancy training, few opportunities for skill building, and so forth. Such analyses have to be conducted to determine why some leisure activities are associated with criminal behavior. In comparison, North American studies have shown that youth centers can operate in highly effective and potentially beneficial ways for disadvantaged youths (Heath & McLaughlin, 1993; McLaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994). However, the Swedish studies suggest that community-sponsored gathering places for youths should not by default be viewed as beneficial.
Conclusions. The available empirical evidence suggests that peer relations, activities, and contexts are related and considerably self-chosen by the individual within the confines of the existing social milieus in the local community. This view of the adolescent as active and self-determining and this contextualized view of peer relations are in line with recent theoretical discussions in developmental, social, and personality psychology (Bronfenbrenner, 1988; Lerner, 1996; Magnusson & Stattin, 1998). The literature suggests that an agency perspective is needed to understand peer relations in everyday life. Adolescents have much freedom to select their own lifestyles, activities, and interpersonal contexts; peer relations are voluntary and self-chosen.
Empirical data also suggest that to understand adolescent behavior, one must understand the contexts in which adolescents interact with others. A contextual perspective is needed to understand how peer relationships are formed, stabilized, and broken. The choice of peer activities is confounded with the available settings. Attending a particular leisure setting with particular types of activities implies meeting certain (rather than other) kinds of peers. In a Journal of Adolescent Research special issue on adolescent socialization in context, Eccles, Early, Frasier, Belansky, and McCarthy (1997) acknowledged the widespread recognition in models of adolescent development that adolescents live their everyday lives in multiple settings, that these contexts are linked to each other, and that each has its special implications for youths. At the same time they noted that almost no systematic research had been done to examine simultaneously the roles of these contexts for personal and social adjustment and for adolescents’ social relations. Despite decades of research on the role of peers for individual functioning and development, researchers have only started to clarify how peer relations, activities, and settings are interrelated, and few empirical studies actually test the causal links.
Parent and Peer Models: A Need for Integration
Adolescents have close relationships with parents and peers simultaneously, and certain aspects of both these relationships are linked to adjustment. Most relevant theories have been developed to explain one type of relationship—parents or peers—and they have largely viewed youths as being shaped by parent or peer influences. Thus, they suffer from two weaknesses: a failure to theorize about the possible importance of connections between parent relationships and peer relationships and a failure to consider the active role of youths themselves.
Explaining the Connections Between Parent Relationships, Peer Association, and Adolescent Adjustment
As revealed in the preceding discussion, adolescent adjustment such as involvement in delinquency has been linked to both parenting factors and peer factors, but the connection between the two has not been adequately explained. The explanation that parents who are effective monitors are able to keep their youths from associating with deviant peers falls apart when one uses construct-valid measures of monitoring rather than relying on parental knowledge measures (Kerr & Stattin, 2000; Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Similarly, authoritative parenting has been said to work by making youths open to their parents’ socialization efforts (Darling & Steinberg, 1993), but the effects often seem to be connected more to the neglectful style than to the authoritative style (e.g., Glasgow et al., 1997; Lamborn et al., 1991; Steinberg et al., 1994), and neither the direction of effects nor the mechanisms are clear. The construct validity of these measures can also be questioned. As a theoretical explanation for the findings that delinquent youths have poor emotional bonds to their parents (e.g., Elliot, Huizinga, &Ageton, 1985; Hawkins & Weiss, 1985; Hirschi, 1969), it has been proposed that interactions with parents can undermine youths’self-esteem, which causes them to choose deviant friends who are different from their parents (Kaplan, 1982; Kaplan, Johnson, & Bailey, 1986; Kaplan, Martin, & Johnson, 1986). But there are many missing links in this theoretical chain. For instance, why would youths with low selfesteem choose deviant friends? Why would they not instead choose very nurturing friends who would build up their selfesteem? What kinds of interactions with parents produce low self-esteem?And is self-esteem the really important factor, or could it be a marker for something else?
In what follows, we offer a theoretical explanation for these and other findings that family and parenting factors are linked to youths’choices of friends, such as deviant or delinquent friends. The mechanism that we propose leans on the ideas that (a) adolescents have little choice about their parents, their parent context, or interactions with their parents that evoke strong feelings, but they have much more choice about their peers and peer contexts; (b) peers and peer contexts are inseparably linked; and (c) when adolescents choose certain types of peers and peer activities, they might be choosing the context as much as they are choosing the peers.
Parent and Peer Relationships and Their Contexts
Over the past two decades, person-context models have received much theoretical attention (see Magnusson & Stattin, 1998, for a review). These models advance the ideas that individuals live and develop in multiple settings that change over time and are active agents in their own development. We draw upon these ideas as well.
Relationships Can Evoke Strong Feelings That Are Psychologically Important
Interactions with others can evoke a variety of emotions such as shame, anger, resentment, love, disappointment, and pride. In addition to bringing about these emotions, other people also can give us the sense that we have some degree of control over the environment or can make us feel that we are largely under their control. Whether this is emotional or cognitive is debatable, but the psychological literature—broadly speaking—suggests that individuals experience the loss of personal control negatively. In Rodin and Langer’s (1977) classic nursing home study, nursing home patients who were allowed to make their own choices about the details of small privileges such as seeing a weekly movie and having a plant in their rooms were happier and healthier on a whole host of measures than were patients who got the same benefits without being able to exert control over them. In social psychology, reactance theory and other research suggests that when people feel as though someone is trying to control their freedom of action, they react against the threatened loss of control by adopting attitudes or taking actions that are strongly against the would-be controller (Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Heilman, 1976; Nail & Van Leeuwen, 1993). In Seligman’s learned-helplessness study (Overmier & Seligman, 1967), dogs who could not control the end of an electrical shock by jumping out of the cage eventually exhibited behavior similar to that of depressed people. The same lack of control over one’s circumstances seems to underlie some forms of depression (Klein & Seligman, 1976; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Seligman, 1975). Interactions with others, then, can evoke emotions that have obvious implications for people’s psychological well-being and feelings such as being overly controlled that also have strong implications for well-being.
A Working Model of Parent-Child Interactions and the Feelings They Evoke
In our own recent work, we have developed a model, shown in Figure 16.1, of some of the family interaction processes that are related to parents’ knowledge of their youths’ daily activities. The model also shows the role of negative and positive feelings that interactions with parents can evoke in the child, including the feeling of being overly controlled by parents. We have empirically tested most of the links in this model with cross-sectional and short-term longitudinal data. Hence, this working model has considerable empirical support.
Child disclosure of information about daily activities has a central position in this model, because our studies suggest that parents get most of their information this way and little through their own monitoring efforts (Kerr & Stattin, 2000; Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Because parents’ knowledge is strongly linked to adolescent adjustment, explaining why youths do or do not disclose has become a crucial concern for us and for others (Darling, Cumsille, Hames, & Caldwell, 2000; Darling & Dowdy, 2000; Stattin, Kerr, & FerrerWreder, 2000).
As shown in the figure, there is much that we know about adolescents who disclose a lot to their parents about their daily lives. Their parents seldom react negatively (with sarcasm, judgment, or ridicule) to their spontaneous disclosure, and these adolescents do not feel overly controlled by their parents (Kerr & Stattin, 2000). In addition, highdisclosing adolescents expect success on difficult tasks and do not interact with people in deceptive, manipulative ways, whereas secretive adolescents tend to expect failure and to be deceptive and manipulative (Stattin et al., 2000). Highdisclosing youths are also low on depression, high on selfesteem, and high on self-reported warm feelings toward parents (Kerr & Stattin, 2000). Taken together, these findings suggest that high-disclosing adolescents have positive experiences in the parent context, and high disclosure could be seen as a marker for positive feelings about the parent context.
As seen in the model, child disclosure provides parents with knowledge, and knowledgeable parents tend to be trusting (Kerr, Stattin, & Trost, 1999). Trusting parents in turn do not react negatively to their adolescents’ disclosure (with sarcasm, ridicule, or negative judgments), but untrusting parents do tend to do so (Kerr et al., 1999). The model proposes that parents’ trust or mistrust will affect the way they relate to and communicate with the adolescent in the future, and that will affect the adolescent’s willingness to disclose his or her feelings and everyday life experiences. Thus, the ongoing process continues, as shown in the upper part of Figure 16.1. The process is bidirectional in that parents act, children react, and parents react back. For the present purposes, it is important to note that the child’s feelings—feelings of being overly controlled and positive or negative emotions toward parents—are important links in this chain of actions and reactions.
Structural Features of Parent and Peer Contexts
We argue that over time, children will connect the feelings that interactions with parents evoke with the context in which those interactions take place. Some features of those parent and peer contexts are what we call structural, meaning that they are not unique to the particular family or peer group, but they are part of parent or peer contexts themselves.
Structural Features of Parent Contexts Are Fixed
There are some features that are similar across families, regardless of the particular parenting practices or the interactions that take place in the family. We think of them as the structural features of a family context in the same way that walls and windows can be thought of as the structural features of a room. Nearly all rooms have walls and windows, even though they vary in details such as size and shape, and nearly all family contexts have features such as close interactions with adults, the presence of authority figures, the need to share scarce resources, a certain degree of supervision by higher-status others, some rules and structure, and the presence of behavioral values, for want of a better term, or assumptions about how people should behave—in general and in relation to each other. There will of course be individual variations in the expression of these structural features both in degree and in kind (e.g., some families have more rules and structure than others do; some parents believe that they should make all the decisions, whereas others give children a democratic voice in decisions). Nonetheless, these basic structural features still exist in families.
Structural Features of Peer Contexts Vary
There are many different peer contexts, and there are two important ways in which peer contexts differ from each other. First, some peer contexts are not just peer contexts because they exist within adult-controlled settings that include structural features that are determined by adults. For instance, the school classroom, extracurricular activities, and other organized activities such as adult-coached sports are usually thought of as peer contexts, but they all have features that are very similar to the family context: interaction with adults, rules and structure, the need to share resources, authority figures, supervision, and behavioral expectations. In contrast, peer settings such as street corners, arcades, cafes, and neighborhood playgrounds have few or none of the same structural features as the parent context.
Asecond important distinction among peer contexts is that the peers one encounters in different contexts will differ systematically from each other. For instance, the peers who play an organized sport at school will on average be better adjusted and will have internalized their parents’ behavioral values to a greater degree than will those playing the same sport in an unstructured setting such as a neighborhood playground (Mahoney & Stattin, in press; Mahoney et al., in press). Similarly, youths who are hanging out in arcades, cafes, and street corners will probably have internalized their parents’ behavioral values to a lesser degree and will be less well adjusted than will those in more structured, adultsupervised situations such as theater groups, bands, orchestras, or choirs. Hence, different peer settings bear different degrees of structural similarity to the parent context, and the different peers that one encounters in those settings will show different degrees of social adjustment, according to adult standards.
The crux of our argument about family contexts and the feelings associated with them is that adolescents use these associations as a basis for gravitating toward some peer contexts and away from others.
Adolescents Can Choose
With adolescence comes increasing freedom and independence. For the first time, adolescents are able to choose their contexts, and they make two types of choices. First, they choose how to divide their time between their parents and their peers—to spend more or less time at home with the family as opposed to being away from home with their peers. Second, they decide which particular peers with whom to associate. Although talents, interests, and long- and short-term goals affect the types of activities that adolescents choose, the same activities can be pursued in different peer contexts. Because a variety of behaviors can be socialized in those contexts, it is important to understand why youths choose particular peer contexts over others. We suggest that one important factor is that the feelings that are evoked in the parent context become associated in the child’s experience with the structural features of the family context. Then those feelings generalize to some peer contexts and not to others, making some peer contexts more appealing than others.
The Choice of a Peer Context Can Depend Upon Feelings About the Parent Context
Because emotions are easily classically conditioned to contexts, it is reasonable to believe that positive or negative emotions that arise in relationships will become linked, in the child’s experience, to parents, peers, and the broad and specific features of the contexts in which interactions with them take place. It is also reasonable to believe that these emotions generalize to similar situations. Most of us can verify this from our own experience, because we have known people with whom we have felt particularly valued and secure (a trusted best friend, perhaps, or a grandparent), and we have noticed that elements of situations in which we spent time with that person (e.g., the smell of a backyard where we used to play or of something that Grandmother used to bake) have the power to evoke those good emotions even years later.
We suggest that the structural features of the parent context that we previously described become linked to specific emotions, and those emotions then generalize to settings with similar features. Thus, a child who has bad experiences such as feeling overly controlled in the parent context connects those negative feelings with contexts that have similar structural features (e.g., close interaction with adults, rules and structure, authority figures, etc.). There are many reasons that negative emotions might arise. Parents might have an authoritarian or parent-centered philosophy that does not lead them to respond well to the child’s wishes or demands. The child might have a difficult temperament or be overly active or impulsive, thus leaving parents believing that they have no choice but to exert a lot of control. Or there might be some combination of or interaction between the parents’ characteristics and the child’s that results in bad feelings. Whatever the cause, the child will undoubtedly end up associating negative feelings with the parents’ particular behavioral values and styles of interacting, and we suggest that the child will also associate negative feelings with the broader structural features of the parent context—features such as close interaction with adults, supervision, the presence of authority figures, rules and structure, and the need to share resources.
In our formulation, this association of negative or positive feelings with the parent context becomes important when the child reaches adolescence and is able to choose among different peer contexts. At that time, those who have associated negative experiences with the structural features of the parent context find that those negative feelings generalize to peer contexts that have similar features. Naturally, they gravitate away from such contexts. Avoiding those situations might then become reinforcing in its own right because it could bring a pleasant relief from the negative feelings that are linked to the parent context. In our view, avoiding situations that make one feel bad could be an important reason that some youths choose to hang out on the streets with poorly adjusted peers while others choose to participate in organized activities with better-adjusted peers. It also helps to explain why those who choose to hang out on the streets with poorly adjusted peers have been found to have poor relationships with their parents.
Context Choice as an Ongoing Process
Through the direct and indirect processes outlined previously, parents can influence an adolescent’s initial engagement with certain types of peers. Adolescents will choose certain peer groups or leisure settings on the basis of their relationships—good or bad—with parents. After the adolescent is a regular part of a specific setting or peer group, the parents’ reactions can then maintain, escalate, or inhibit the adolescents’ activities. For example, interactions could develop between (even well-meaning) parents and children that leave the child with negative feelings about the parent context. That child might then seek to avoid those feelings in the peer context by gravitating away from school activities and other adult-led, structured activities. In doing so, the child might encounter other peers who are also gravitating away from adult influences.
Our data support this idea in that low child disclosure, negative feelings toward parents, and feelings of being overly controlled by parents are all concurrently linked to higher delinquency, to belonging to deviant peer groups, and to doing poorly in school both socially and academically (Kerr & Stattin, 2000; Stattin & Kerr, 2000). After the child has joined a group of peers who have bad feelings about authority, rules and structure, and adult contact, these peers might coax or reinforce each other into more and more deviant activities, as suggested by the work of Dishion and colleagues (Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999; Dishion, Spracklen, Andrews, & Patterson, 1996; Poulin, Dishion, & Haas, 1999). Parents’ disapproving responses to the child’s association with deviant peers and the slide into delinquent behavior might make the child feel even more negative about the parent context, thus exaggerating the contrast between the negative feelings that are associated with the parent context and the relief from negative feelings that is associated with the peer context; this could only serve to reinforce the child’s ties to those particular peers. This prediction is consistent with Fuligni and Eccles’s (1993) finding that what they called “extreme peer orientation” in early adolescence was associated with believing that parents were not loosening their control and not allowing the youth a voice in decisionmaking.
What is likely to happen next is consistent with past research on parental monitoring (operationalized as parents’ knowledge of the youth’s activities) and on adolescent life values. If youths become entrenched in a peer context that bears minimal resemblance to the parent context, they will probably avoid telling their parents whom they are with and what they are doing, thus limiting their parents’knowledge of their activities in the peer context—which can help explain why low know ledge is so robustly correlated with delinquency (see Dishion & McMahon, 1998, for a review). Furthermore, these adolescents will probably place greater value and importance on these peer activities and the things that get attention and respect from these peers (Cohen & Cohen, 1996; Stattin & Kerr, in press; see also Bear & Rys, 1994). One can easily imagine that parents’ efforts to track or control these adolescents’ activities will be ineffective (Kerr & Stattin, 2000; Stattin & Kerr, 2000). In the most extreme scenario, even wellmeaning parents might give up on such a child, withdrawing both their emotional support and their communication and control efforts; this provides an interpretation different from that usually offered for the common finding that delinquents tend to have disengaged or uninvolved parents.
Thus, we argue that peers and parents can both contribute to a certain type of behavior at different points in time in ways that do not show up in cross-sectional studies. For many behaviors, peers seem to have more influence than parents do; but parents might have played a critical role in the adolescent’s choice of a particular peer context, and parents’ reactions to that choice might stabilize a negative trajectory. Longitudinal data are needed to provide a more complete understanding of these processes.
In a recent presidential address, the president of the Society for Research on Adolescence declared optimistically that “we can stop asking what type of parenting most positively affects [italics added] adolescent development. We know the answer to this question.” (Steinberg, 2001, p. 13). In this research paper, we too have argued that researchers should stop asking about unidirectional effects concerning both parenting and peer relationships, but not because we already know the answers; they were the wrong questions.
What exists in the parent and peer literatures extant are basically snapshot views of parent, peer, and individual characteristics and their correlations with certain aspects of adjustment (or with each other). These views are beneficial in that they have illuminated the global aspects of family and peer relationships that are likely to be linked to behavior problems and psychopathology. They have not, however, provided much knowledge about the mechanisms involved, the processes operating over time, or possible bidirectional effects. Construct validity can be a problem, as can the assumptions that the intervening processes are known. Another problem is that these studies are sometimes based on simplifying assumptions that restrict the generalizability of the findings, such as when studies of friendships are based solely on peers in the classroom.
In this research paper, we have advanced the notion that adolescents are active agents in their own development. Within the constraints of the surrounding physical and social ecology— and based on their personalities, interests, and talents—they choose their different leisure contexts. We argue that this choice has been largely ignored in the literatures on both parenting and peer relationships, and we have offered a theoretical explanation of why youths’ choices of peer contexts are not independent of their home environments.
Overall, in order to advance knowledge in this area, researchers must be willing to do the difficult studies. By difficult studies, we mean studies that (a) begin with bidirectional or recursive models; (b) take the person-context idea seriously and include it in the design; (c) are longitudinal in order to capture development and experimental in order to test causality and hypothesized mechanisms; (d) specifically measure and study processes and mechanisms rather than rely on assumptions about them; and (e) go to extra lengths to capture the phenomena that actually exist, in ecologically valid contexts, even when that makes data collection difficult (e.g., adolescent peer groups outside of the classroom).
Adolescence is a time of choices. Adolescents are free for the first time to make individual choices that they have never had the freedom to make before, and they face many opportunities to go astray. The ultimate goal of research is to understand why some adolescents do go astray and how that could have been prevented. Undoubtedly, there will be many different answers to the question why—each with its own implications for prevention and intervention. But these answers will come from an understanding of adolescents in their complexity as both active and reactive agents who are choosing their contexts for complex reasons. Developing this understanding is the challenge that lies ahead.
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