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11 Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence

Individual Bases of Adolescent Development

II. Domains of Individual Development in Adolescence

  1. Kathleen Boykin McElhaney1,
  2. Joseph P. Allen2,
  3. J. Claire Stephenson3,
  4. Amanda L. Hare4

Published Online: 30 OCT 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470479193.adlpsy001012

Handbook of Adolescent Psychology

Handbook of Adolescent Psychology

How to Cite

McElhaney, K. B., Allen, J. P., Stephenson, J. C. and Hare, A. L. 2009. Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence. Handbook of Adolescent Psychology. 1:II:11.

Author Information

  1. 1

    University of Virginia, Department of Psychology, Charlottesville, Virginia

  2. 2

    University of Virginia, Department of Psychology, Charlottesville, Virginia

  3. 3

    University of Virginia, Department of Psychology, Charlottesville, Virginia

  4. 4

    University of Virginia, Department of Psychology, Charlottesville, Virgina

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 OCT 2009

Adolescence is often highlighted as being a phase of development during which there is particular tension between the struggle for autonomy and the strong attachment that teens have to their parents. Whereas, historically, these forces have been cast as diametrically opposed (such that achieving one meant sacrificing the other), more recent work has begun to examine the ways in which the drive to maintain close connections with parents, as well as the need to establish oneself as an autonomous individual, work together in complex—and not necessarily contradictory—ways. This chapter aims to examine both the theory and empirical findings from research on attachment and autonomy during adolescence, particularly with regard to the context of parent-adolescent relationships. Our goal is to more clearly elucidate how these processes may play out in the course of normative adolescent development; further, we will examine how variations in both attachment and autonomy may help to explain individual differences in adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment.

We begin by outlining some of the major components of the theories of attachment relationships and autonomy development, including the historical roots of these constructs and the ways that they fit together to influence the course of development during adolescence. Included here is a review of the ways that attachment and autonomy processes have been defined and studied during adolescence, again particularly with regard to functioning within parent-adolescent relationships. We then consider the normative developmental changes in attachment relationships and autonomy processes during adolescence, and we subsequently move on to consider the nature of individual differences in attachment and autonomy processes. Here, we first examine how variations in attachment relationships and autonomy processes themselves are linked, and then turn to how variations in both of these two constructs are linked to a range of other outcomes for teens. Included in this final section is a consideration of how attachment and autonomy processes may be moderated by demographic factors such as gender and socioeconomic context.

This chapter was completed with the assistance of grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. Requests for reprints should be sent to the second author at: Department of Psychology, Box 400400, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400 (

1 Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy

  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References

1.1 Attachment Theory and Adolescence

Attachment theory has its roots in a diverse range of fields including psychoanalytic theory, developmental psychology, evolutionary biology and ethology (Cassidy, 1999). Bowlby ((1969/1982)) initially developed attachment theory to explain why infants develop close relationships with their caregivers, as well as why and to what extent disruptions in such relationships affect later development. His theory provides a developmental framework that helps to explain both normative development and individual differences in social, emotional and behavioral outcomes over the course of infancy and early childhood. Within the past two decades, researchers have turned to questions related to the nature and function of the attachment system over the course of the life span, with a particular focus on adolescence (Allen & Land, 1999; Greenberg, Siegel, & Leitch, 1983; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Rice, 1990).

The primary function of the attachment system during infancy is to maximize the safety and protection of the developing infant. Infants are predisposed to emit behaviors that promote proximity to caregivers, particularly during times of distress, and proximity to caregivers, in turn, provides the infant with protection from harm (Bowlby, (1969/1982)). As children mature, they develop a larger repertoire of behaviors for achieving proximity to caregivers, and the focus on protection shifts somewhat to something more akin to emotional support. By adolescence, the outcome of activation of the attachment system is more towards “felt security” on the part of the teenager, rather than actual physical safety (Allen & Land, 1999; Allen, in press; Cummings & Davies, 1996). This felt security can be achieved in numerous ways, often without the literal physical presence of the attachment figure.

Thus, the emphasis on physical protection and proximity to caregivers decreases with increased maturity. This decrease occurs in part because older children and adolescents can achieve felt security without the physical presence of their attachment figures, and in part because their level of maturity allows them to more capably interact with their environment on their own. Said differently, Bowlby (1980) noted that the attachment system is activated in response to two classes of factors that increase the need for presence of a caregiver: conditions of the child (e.g. illness, hunger, fatigue, pain) and conditions of environment (e.g., presence of threatening stimuli). During adolescence, increased cognitive, emotional and behavioral maturity dictates that teens are less likely to experience conditions that activate their need for their caregiver. Similarly, the environment is much less likely to be perceived as threatening to the degree to which teens require parents to help them manage those threats. For example, while sick teens may still want their parent(s) to care for them, if necessary they can also stay home from school by themselves without experiencing undue distress.

Before moving on to discuss theories of adolescent autonomy, it is worth noting that the concept of autonomy development is integrally embedded within the theory regarding the nature and function of attachment relationships. Bowlby (1980) and others proposed that there is a continual balance between stress-reducing behaviors that incorporate dependence on the caregiver and exploratory behaviors that function to increase knowledge of and mastery over the environment (Baltes & Silverberg, 1994; Bretherton, 1992). Similarly, Ainsworth's observations of infants suggested that the attachment system and exploratory system cannot be activated at the same time (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). With regard to adolescent development, it becomes increasingly important for the exploratory system to be highly activated and fully developed; this activation corresponds to a decrease in the day-to-day reliance on attachment figures for comfort and support (Allen & Land, 1999; Allen, in press). Interestingly, it was Bowlby who first suggested that in adolescence it was the combination of autonomy–relatedness that was most linked to optimal outcomes in the parent–child relationship (Murphey, Silber, Coelho, Hamburg, & Greenberg, 1963). Increased autonomous exploration (while utilizing parents as a secure base) allows adolescents to focus on the remaining tasks of social and emotional development: forming relationships with peers and romantic partners and regulating their own behavior and affective states.

Attachment theory further contains specific predictions regarding individual differences in the development of autonomy: independent, self-reliant functioning is facilitated by secure attachment relationships. When caregivers are both emotionally supportive and encouraging of autonomy, children develop the capacity to not only confidently approach and master novel situations and tasks, but also to ask for help when needed (Sroufe, 2005). Thus, in this formulation, autonomous functioning is not synonymous with complete independence from caregivers—children who are both secure and autonomous are expected to operate independently within the realms of their competence, but also to feel quite comfortable relying on others when necessary and appropriate. Further, this view of autonomy emphasizes the nature of the interpersonal context in which autonomy develops (namely, the parent–child relationship), but also postulates intraindividual traits that characterize an autonomous individual.

1.2 Autonomy During Adolescence

Most empirical work on autonomy processes during adolescence has its roots in a somewhat disparate, yet overlapping, set of theoretical frameworks. Much of the early interest in adolescent autonomy development stemmed from psychoanalytic theories that emphasized the need for adolescents to detach from parents and to relinquish childish ties to and conceptions of them (e.g., Freud, 1958). In this view, parent–adolescent conflict was viewed as normative and desirable, whereas, to a certain extent, close emotional ties between adolescents and their parents were considered an aberration. Neoanalytic theorists deemphasized the role of detachment and conflict per se, and instead postulated that healthy adolescence involves a process of individuation, in which teens gradually come to see themselves as separate from parents (Blos, 1967). While Blos did not see individuation as involving detachment from parents, he did propose that teens must relinquish childish dependencies on parents in order to become fully autonomous. Along with individuating from parents, adolescents are also expected to undergo a process of deidealization, during which they begin to view their parents as imperfect versus all-knowing and all-powerful. In contrast to attachment theory, these propositions treat autonomy more clearly as an intraindividual construct, placing emphasis on intrapsychic development within the adolescent versus on the relational processes that surround this development.

However, this intrapsychic process is still being carried out within the interpersonal context of the parent–adolescent relationship, and some recent conceptualizations of autonomy development have highlighted the interpersonal nature of the autonomy process (Collins & Steinberg, 2006; Collins, 1990; Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). From this perspective, patterns of parent–child interaction are thought to shift as children enter adolescence, and as the underlying beliefs and expectations that surround those interactions change (Collins; Collins & Steinberg; Smetana 1988a, 1988b). These shifts may be seen in the increased conflict that occurs during adolescence, which signals to all the changes that are occurring within the parent–adolescent dyad. Although the process of individuation is still deemed important, this conceptualization places more emphasis on the quality of the relationship between parents and adolescents, and postulates that adolescent autonomy development is facilitated by parenting that is responsive and supportive. In healthy families, parent–adolescent relationships become transformed but not detached.

It should be noted that this perspective is actually quite close to the attachment theory model, in which healthy autonomy is achieved in the context of close and supportive relationships with parents. The normative changes in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that occur during adolescence may serve to “activate” the attachment system in ways that parallel the activation seen from physical separation from caregiver(s) in infancy. Ideally, this activation can act as a signal to parents and adolescents that adjustments need to be made within their relationship to accommodate the changes in teens’ needs. Both the parental sensitivity that typically accompanies secure attachment and the level of openness and flexibility specifically with regard to evaluating (and reevaluating) the attachment relationship increase the chances that securely attached teens and their parents can successfully recognize and adapt to these developmental changes. Thus, a secure parent–teen relationship should allow both parent and teen to acknowledge the teen's autonomy strivings and to support them while also maintaining the relationship. Secure adolescents should also be better able to use their parents as a base from which to confidently and autonomously explore the world around them, returning to parents for comfort, support, and advice when the limits of their competence are reached (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994).

2 Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence

  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References

Before we begin our review of normative development in attachment and autonomy processes during adolescence, it is important to outline the efforts to empirically define and measure these constructs. With regard to measurement of attachment, it is essential to understand the basis for the ways that attachment is assessed during adolescence, which differ from the ways that attachment is measured during infancy and early childhood. Specifically, research methods during infancy and early childhood are largely observational, focusing on dyadic processes that play out between parents and their children. In contrast, attachment during adolescence is typically assessed via methods that are intended to capture underlying cognitive models of relationships, and thus by definition treat attachment as an intrapsychic construct and a characteristic of the individual. While secure versus insecure attachment models are thought to develop on the basis of dyadic interaction, the assumption is that these models are relatively fixed by adolescence.

It is also noteworthy that quite disparate methods have been utilized to purportedly capture adolescent attachment processes, and that while all methods may have merit, they are not equivalent or interchangeable. An additional source of confusion stems from the fact that the term attachment is often used more broadly, almost as a synonym for relationship, or to indicate the opposite of detached (e.g., adolescents remain attached to their parents). This usage differs from what is meant by an attachment relationship per se, which is defined as a relationship (usually with a caregiver) that fulfills specific functions, including providing comfort in times of distress and a secure base from which exploration can occur (Ainsworth, 1989).

A very similar set of issues is present in the literature examining adolescent autonomy development. At a basic level, researchers have differed as to whether they treat autonomy as an intraindividual characteristic of the adolescent, or focus on interpersonal context and dyadic processes surrounding autonomy (Collins & Steinberg, 2006; Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). Further, the term autonomy has often been used to capture a range of interrelated, but not necessarily equivalent, aspects of functioning, such as independence, competence, and self-reliance. As we will discuss further later in the chapter, the concept of autonomy in and of itself is also multifaceted, and numerous authors have proposed conceptual heuristics for defining and examining the various forms of autonomy that may exist (Douvan & Adelson, 1966; Collins & Steinberg; Goossens, 2006; Hill & Holmbeck).

2.1 Measurement of Attachment During Adolescence

2.1.1 The Beginning: Roots of Adolescent Attachment

Studies of attachment in young children primarily utilize Ainsworth's classic Strange Situation (Ainsworth et al., 1978), which focuses on the nature of individual differences in attachment behavior within the parent–child dyad. In this paradigm, the behaviors of infants and their caregiver(s) are observed during a series of separations and reunions that occur in a laboratory setting. The separations are intended to activate the attachment system, and variations in infants’ use of the attachment figure(s) as a secure base are used to classify such behavior as secure or insecure. A securely attached child explores freely in the presence of his/her attachment figure, but shows distress and a cessation of exploration when the attachment figure departs; the secure infant also seeks contact with the attachment figure upon his/her return, and is comforted by his/her presence (Ainsworth, 1982, 1989). Insecurely attached infants are classified into one of two categories: insecure avoidant and insecure ambivalent. Insecure avoidant infants explore freely, but show minimal distress at the departure of their attachment figure(s), and generally not seek them out upon their return. Insecure ambivalent infants demonstrate inhibited exploration; they cling to their attachment figure(s) and strongly protest their departure. However, these infants show continued distress once their attachment figure(s) return, and demonstrate ambivalence toward them, for example, reaching up to be held but then arching away.

2.1.2 The Shift to Measuring Internal Working Models

Given that behavior during separations and reunions does not carry the same developmental implications later in life, attachment research with adolescents and adults has focused more on the concept of attachment representations or internal working models. It has been proposed that by adolescence, the attachment system can be assessed in terms of a single overarching attachment organization that is thought to be reflected in a “state of mind” regarding attachment (Allen & Land, 1999; Allen, in press; Hesse, 1999; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985). These attachment representations are thought to be based on the sum of interactions with caregivers over time, and to consist of a person's beliefs and expectations about the ways that attachment relationships operate (Bowlby, 1980). Further, these representations are thought to provide guidelines for behavior as well as affective appraisal of experience. Thus, studies of attachment during adolescence have primarily focused on assessing internal working models of attachment, typically utilizing an adolescent version of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) (George, Kaplan, & Main, 1996; Main & Goldwyn, 1998; Ward & Carlson, 1995).

2.1.3 The Adult Attachment Interview

The AAI is a semistructured interview that probes individuals’ descriptions of their childhood relationships with parents both in abstract terms and with requests for specific supporting memories. The adolescent version is almost identical to the adult version, though slight adaptations make the questions more natural and easily understood by an adolescent population (Ward & Carlson, 1995). These attachment interviews can be used to generate categorical attachment classifications that parallel those found in infancy (Main and Goldwyn, 1998), or can be evaluated using a Q-sort methodology that yields continuous scores (Kobak, Cole, Ferenz-Gillies, Fleming, & Gamble, 1993). In either case, transcripts of the interviews are rated according to a variety of factors, including coherence, valuing of attachment relationships and acknowledgment of the effects of attachment relationships.

Security in the AAI is manifested in coherent and believable accounts of past relationship experiences, regardless of whether those experiences were positive or negative. Not only are secure individuals able to provide a balanced perspective on their relationships, but also they express a high degree of valuing of attachment relationships, as well as insight into the ways in which these relationships have affected them. As with the Strange Situation coding system, insecure individuals fall into two major categories: The insecure–dismissing category parallels the infant insecure–avoidant classification, and the insecure–preoccupied classification is analogous to the infant insecure–ambivalent category. The descriptions of early experiences with caregivers provided by insecure dismissing individuals tend to be incoherent for a number of reasons, including a basic lack of information provided, a mismatch between semantic and episodic memories, and a denial of the impact of difficult experiences. Insecure–dismissing individuals tend to provide idealized descriptions of attachment figures and/or to devalue relationships with their attachment figures. Insecure–preoccupied individuals, however, provide descriptions of their attachment figures that tend to lack a sense of balance or perspective. For example, they may go on at great length in describing a seemingly trivial slight at the hands of a caregiver. Their discourse tends to be marked with either involved anger or passivity, and they are unable to cogently reflect on the ways that relationships may have affected their development (Main & Goldwyn, 1998).

2.1.4 Self-Report Measures of Attachment

Administering the AAI, transcribing the interviews, and then coding them is a time-intensive process that requires a great deal of training and experience. In part because of this issue, several alternate self-report methods have been developed to assess attachment in adolescents and adults. While these measures are often compared to the AAI in terms of validity, their focus and purpose is somewhat divergent from the AAI. Although their intention is often to tap into aspects of internal working models, these measures were not necessarily designed to capture the same patterns of attachment as seen in the Strange Situation, nor were they intended to predict the Strange Situation behavior of one's offspring, which was one of the defining features of the AAI when it was developed. One set of self-report measures of attachment that has recently been adapted for use with adolescents consists of measures of romantic attachment style that were originally developed for use with adults. These measures are based on the proposition that romantic love can be conceptualized and studied according to the tenets of attachment theory.

The primary example of such measures was developed by Hazan and Shaver (1987), and adopted and revised by Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) as the Relationship Questionnaire (RQ). These measures provide raters with short descriptions of each of the primary attachment organizations, and ask them to classify (or rate) themselves according to which best describes their approach to romantic relationships. Whereas the AAI is thought to assess states of mind with regard to attachment, these self-report measures are generally referred to as assessing attachment styles. States of mind are assumed to be intrapsychic and generalized, and assessment via the AAI is thought to capture less conscious aspects of internal working models. In contrast, measures of self-reported attachment styles may assess more conscious aspects of internal working models, including attitudes, feelings, and behaviors with regard to specific close relationships. Most studies to date (primarily focusing on adults) have yielded only low (if any) association between the two measures (e.g., Crowell, Treboux, & Waters, 1999; de Hass, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 1994; Mayseless & Sagi, 1994; Mayseless & Scharf, 2007; Shaver, Belsky, & Brennan, 2000). However, the few studies that have examined both attachment states of mind (as assessed by the AAI) and attachment styles (as assessed by questionnaire) have indicated that both measures contribute significantly to important outcomes (e.g., Mayseless & Scharf).1

2.1.5 Measurement of Attachment Hierarchies

As indicated above, efforts to define and measure attachment during adolescence have focused on capturing aspects of internal working models and on categorizing individual differences along secure and insecure dimensions. More recently, researchers have taken an alternative approach to the measurement of attachment processes by assessing attachment hierarchies. This model of assessment is focused on the normative development ofattachment processes, and is based on the premise that individuals have organized preferences for multiple attachment figures that are likely to shift with development (Hazan, Hutt, Sturgeon, & Bricket, 1991). It has been proposed that adolescents can and will utilize other figures besides their primary attachment figures to fulfill attachment needs, and that there is a normative increase in this tendency to branch out from the primary attachment figure(s) during the teenage years.

More specifically, measures of attachment hierarchies aim to determine the people that adolescents and young adults may utilize to fulfill the primary functions of attachment relationships, including proximity seeking, safehaven, and secure base (Ainsworth, 1989; Hazan et al., 1991). Hazan and colleagues initially developed the WHOTO measure, which consists of three questions for each of these three attachment functions. For example, one of the questions related to proximity seeking is: Who is the person you don't like to be away from? Similarly, respondents are asked: Who is the person you most want to be with when you are feeling upset or down? (safe haven); and who is the person you feel you can always count on? (secure base). For each question, participants are either asked to choose one person from a set list (e.g., mother, father, best friend, girlfriend/boyfriend, self, other), or rate any number of persons for each one. There have been several revisions of the original WHOTO measure, including versions by Fraley and Davis (1997), Trinke and Bartholomew (1997) (Attachment Network Questionnaire), and Rosenthal and Kobak (2007) (Important People Interview).

2.2 Measurement of Autonomy During Adolescence

2.2.1 Operational Definitions of Autonomy

As indicated previously, the study of adolescent autonomy functioning has been complicated by the varying ways in which autonomy has been operationally defined and measured, including whether autonomy is treated as an intraindividual or interpersonal construct and, relatedly, whether measurement focuses on autonomy as an end point or a process (Collins & Steinberg, 2006). Even when considering autonomy strictly as an interpersonal construct (primarily within the parent–adolescent relationship), there are still several facets of autonomy development, including cognitive autonomy, emotional autonomy and behavioral autonomy, that must be considered (Goossens, 2006; Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Silverberg & Gondoli, 1996; Zimmer-Gembeck & Collins, 2003). Cognitive autonomy (sometimes termed value autonomy) can be construed as the ability to develop one's own thoughts, values, opinions, which may or may not correspond to those of parents (or peers). Verbal autonomy is the behavioral index of cognitive autonomy: the ability to clearly express and/or assert one's own thoughts and feelings within an interpersonal context. Emotional autonomy has been defined as involving decreased reliance on parents for emotion regulation as well as emotional support. However, this term has also been used to capture the process of reflecting on and evaluating parent-adolescent relationships, including the degree to which teens deidealize their parents. More recently, it has been proposed that emotional autonomy be more broadly construed to include adolescents’ intraindividual and subjective sense of feeling separate, independent and/or “grown up” (Collins & Steinberg). A final component is behavioral autonomy, which is defined in terms of increased self-reliance and self-regulation, with most operational definitions referring specifically to functioning within the parent–adolescent relationship.2

2.2.2 Measures of Cognitive and Verbal Autonomy

While the measurement of other aspects of autonomy development has usually been accomplished via adolescents’ self-reports, cognitive and verbal autonomy processes are often assessed using one of several observational coding systems aimed at rating parent–adolescent interactions. These systems view autonomy as an interfamilial construct, and as such they include ratings of both adolescents and their parents. They are usually applied to family interactions that occur in a laboratory setting around an assigned task, such as planning a trip or talking about an area of disagreement (either real or hypothetical). Given that during revealed differences tasks, stress is being applied by invoking normative developmental processes of facing disagreements, some authors have suggested that this paradigm presents a stage-salient task akin to the Strange Situation (Allen & Land, 1999; Kobak et al., 1993). The use of parents as secure base during adolescence may involve freedom to explore different ideas/points of view while still staying connected.

The Constraining and Enabling Coding System (CECS) (Hauser et al., 1984) builds upon Stierlin's (1974) theories about familial responses to adolescents’ attempts at separation, and assesses the ways that parent–adolescent interactions may shape adolescent ego development. Family speeches during a discussion are categorized in terms of the extent to which they constrain (or interfere with) versus enable (or support) adolescents’ autonomy during family discussions. The constructs of constraining and enabling are further divided into the cognitive and affective realms. Cognitive constraining includes behaviors that distract, withhold, or express indifference; affective constraining includes behaviors that are excessively gratifying, judging, or devaluing. Cognitive enabling includes focusing, problem solving, curiosity, and explaining; affective enabling includes acceptance and empathy. In addition, an overall code for the balance that exists between constraining and enabling behaviors can be constructed by subtracting subjects’ overall score for constraining statements from their overall enabling statements within a dyad (Hauser et al.).

The Family Interaction Coding System (FICS) was developed to capture processes of individuality and connectedness during family interactions (Grotevant & Cooper, 1985; Cooper, Grotevant, & Condon, 1983). This system defines individuality in terms of separateness, or the ability to differentiate oneself from others, and also in terms of self-assertion, or the clear expression of one's own point of view. Examples of separateness include statements that request an action from the other person or challenge his/her ideas. Examples of self-assertion include statements that directly and clearly express a point of view (e.g., I'd like to go to Italy). Connectedness is defined as mutuality, or being sensitive to and respecting others’ points of view, and permeability, or being open and responsive to others’ views. Examples of mutuality include statements that initiate compromise or state others’ feelings; examples of permeability include statements that request information and those that acknowledge or incorporate the others’ ideas.

Allen and colleagues (1994a; 2004) developed the Autonomy Relatedness Coding System (ARCS), in part based on the constructs outlined by the FICS described above. This coding system codes individual speeches into 10 possible subscales, which are in turn grouped on an a priori basis into four primary scales including Promoting Autonomy (akin to self-assertion and separateness from the FICS) and Promoting Relatedness (akin to permeability and mutuality from the FICS). Thus, individuals that are rated as high on autonomy and relatedness are able to confidently provide reasons for their points of view, while also remaining engaged in the discussion and expressing validation for what the other person has to say. However, this system added codes for negative behaviors in addition to positive ones, namely Undermining Autonomy and Undermining Relatedness. Behaviors that are undermining of autonomy make it more difficult for individuals to freely express themselves during the discussion; these behaviors include overpersonalizing a disagreement (inappropriately focusing on personal characteristics), recanting a position without being persuaded, and/or pressuring the other person to agree. Undermining relatedness includes making hostile and disrespectful statements, rudely interrupting the other person, and or blatantly ignoring him or her.

2.2.3 Measures of Emotional Autonomy

Measures of emotional autonomy are almost exclusively intraindividual, treating autonomy as a characteristic of the adolescent. These measures focus on the adolescent's intrapsychic autonomy development by asking adolescents questions about their perceptions of themselves, though typically still in the context of the quality of their relationships with parents. A primary example is Steinberg and Silverberg's (1986) Emotional Autonomy Scale (EAS). This measure was based on Blos's (1979) neoanalytic theory of adolescent development, discussed previously, which suggests that emotional autonomy involves a process of individuation and deidealization, such that adolescents come to perceive parents as separate and fallible individuals. Steinberg and Silverberg's (1986) original EAS consisted of 20 items divided into four subscales: Perceiving Parents as People, Parental Deidealization, Nondependency on Parents, and Individuation.

Steinberg and Silverberg's (1986) measure has generated a substantial amount of controversy. Some authors have criticized its construct validity. For example, it has been suggested that some of the items may measure detachment rather than emotional autonomy, and that some items appear to have a pejorative and somewhat paranoid tone, suggesting alienation and distrust (Frank, Pirsch, & Wright, 1990; Ryan & Lynch, 1989; Schmitz & Baer, 2001). Others have asserted that this measure does capture emotional autonomy, but that having emotional autonomy as defined here is only adaptive under certain family contexts (Delaney, 1996; Fuhrman & Holmbeck, 1995; Lamborn & Steinberg, 1993; McClanahan & Holmbeck, 1992). However, there is further disagreement as to whether emotional autonomy is more adaptive in the context of negative vs. positive parent–adolescents relationships. Still others have noted that different versions of this measure, different samples, and divergent methods of analyses have been utilized across these various studies, which complicates interpretation of the findings (Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Beyers, Goossens, Vansant, & Moors, 2003; Beyers, Goossens, Van Calster, & Duriez, 2005). Despite the ongoing controversies surrounding this measure, many—if not most—of the self-report studies of adolescent autonomy have utilized the EAS.

There are at least two other commonly used self-report measures that attempt to capture intrapsychic processes of autonomy development, including emotional autonomy. These two measures have been developed to capture aspects of Mahler's childhood separation–individuation phases as applied to adolescence (Hoffman, 1984; Levine, Green, & Millon, 1986; Mahler & Furer, 1968). In developing the 138-item Psychological Separation Inventory (PSI), Hoffman extrapolated from infants’ developmental tasks of psychological separation. The PSI assesses Functional Independence (managing and directing personal affairs), Attitudinal Independence (having own set of beliefs and values), Emotional Independence (freedom from excessive need for approval) and Conflictual Independence (freedom from excessive guilt and anxiety); thus, it is clear that the PSI captures aspects of both behavioral and cognitive autonomy, as well as emotional autonomy. In developing the Separation–Individuation Test of Adolescence (SITA), Levine, Green, and Millon were particularly interested in assessing both fixation points and milestones of healthy development. The SITA consists of scales assessing Nurturance–Succorance, Interpersonal Enmeshment, Engulfment Anxiety, Separation Anxiety, Need Denial, Self-Centeredness, and Healthy Separation. Unfortunately, the SITA has been the focus of numerous criticisms regarding its psychometric properties as well as content and construct validity (Anderson, LaVoie, & Dunkel, 2007; Holmbeck & McClanahan, 1994; McClanahan & Holmbeck, 1992), and it has generally been less widely used than the PSI. Further, there is stronger support for the construct validity of the PSI over the SITA (Hoffman, 1984; Kenny & Donaldson, 1992; Lapsley & Edgerton, 2002; Lapsley, Rice, & Shadid, 1989; Meeus, Iedema, Maassen, & Engels, 2005), with conflictual independence in particular being most consistently linked with adaptive outcomes.

One additional self-report measure, Epstein's (1983) Mother–Father–Peer scale, also contains a subscale that assesses deidealization of parents. As indicated previously, deidealization is considered to be an important component of the intrapsychic autonomy development throughout the analytic and neoanalytic literature, and involves shedding childhood conceptualizations of parents as all-knowing and all-powerful (Blos, 1979). This measure was originally developed for use with adults, and was constructed to assess the family origins of adult personality development (Ricks, 1985). The deidealization subscale of the Mother–Father–Peer scale contains seven items assessing presence or absence of unrealistically positive views of childhood relationships with parents (e.g., [my parent] “was close to the perfect parent” and “had not a single fault that I can think of”). Although this measure has not received very much empirical attention, it has been utilized recently with adolescents (Allen et al., 2003).3

2.2.4 Measures of Behavioral Autonomy

The term behavioral autonomy is widely used to capture a range of aspects of adolescent functioning, both within and outside of the parent–adolescent relationship. Measures of behavioral autonomy within parent–adolescent relationships include self-reports of aspects of those relationships, as well as of parents’ behaviors either supporting or undermining autonomy. Thus, these measures are interfamilial, focusing on qualities of the parent–teen relationship that may support or undermine adolescent autonomy. The most commonly used measures of behavioral autonomy within the family context include assessment of patterns of family decision making and the degree and forms of parental monitoring and control.

With regard to decision making, measures typically ask respondents to estimate rates of conflict and then to report on who usually makes the final decisions for each conflict (parent, adolescent, both or neither). Parent-only decision making is usually taken to be indicative of autocratic or authoritarian parenting, which restricts autonomy; adolescent-only decision making is a sign of overly permissive parenting. Joint decision making, in which both parties contribute to the discussion and/or have a say in the final outcome, is thought to indicate more democratic parenting and thus to be most ideally supportive of adolescent autonomy. This latter style of autonomy promotion is also consistent with an authoritative parenting style, which balances responsiveness and demandingness and thus is characterized by firm control that still allows for negotiation and an open exchange of viewpoints regarding rules and consequences (Baumrind, 1991; Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989).

Similarly, measures of parental monitoring and control over adolescents’ behaviors can be construed as an assessment of behavioral autonomy. In these measures, adolescents and/or parents are asked to report on how much parents know about teens’ day-to-day lives, as well as how much control parents exercise over adolescents’ behaviors. It should be noted that measures that previously have been termed parental monitoring have more recently been recast as measures of parental knowledge. Researchers have suggested that such measures actually capture the degree to which adolescents are willing to share information with parents, as opposed to behaviors that parents may actively engage in to monitor and track adolescents’ activities (Kerr & Stattin, 2000). With regard to behavioral control, the assessment can include the degree to which parents control teens’ behavior in a number of areas (e.g., choice of friends), and/or the manner in which such control is exercised (e.g., rule setting, consequences). Whereas low levels of parental control are often considered indicative of overly permissive parenting, extremely high levels of parental control across multiple areas can be interpreted as authoritarian and overcontrolling, thus antithetical to autonomy development.

Parental use of psychological control overlaps (in an inverse sense) with the concept of emotional autonomy, given that methods of psychological control tend to include manipulation of emotions (e.g., guilt inducing), and are thought to impede emotional development (Barber, 1996). However, given that psychologically controlling parental behaviors are aimed at managing adolescents’ behaviors, there is also overlap with behavioral autonomy. Psychologically controlling behaviors represent “control attempts that intrude into the psychological and emotional development of the child (e.g. thinking processes, self-expression, emotions and attachment to parents)” (Barber, p. 3296). These parental behaviors include manipulation of the love relationship between the parent and the child, and may involve gaining compliance through the use of guilt, love withdrawal, and criticism through shame (Barber; Schaefer, 1965). High levels of psychological control are thought to inhibit the child's ability to develop as an individual apart from the parent, both emotionally and behaviorally. To the extent that children are made to feel guilty and anxious in relation to attempts at separation from parents, they are likely to remain emotionally dependent on them and to have difficulty engaging in self-reliant behavior.

3 Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy

  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References

With a clearer understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of attachment and autonomy, as well as some sense of how such constructs have been operationalized, we now turn to a review of the normative development of these two processes during adolescence. As outlined earlier, the literature on these topics is somewhat uneven, varying in the level of emphasis placed on intraindividual versus interfamilial processes. Further, there is an imbalance regarding the extent of empirical attention that has been paid to possible changes in attachment relationships (or models) over the course of adolescence, versus the changes that occur with regard to autonomy processes– both in the intraindividual and interfamilial senses. The latter question has been relatively extensively examined, whereas data on the former question is scant. We will begin by reviewing the work that has been done regarding normative development of attachment during adolescence, then turn to the literature examining autonomy development.

3.1 Normative Development of Attachment

The focus of the majority of the research on adolescent attachment centers around the individual differences between teens who evidence secure versus insecure states of mind with regard to attachment. Relatively little empirical attention has been paid to questions of normative development, including whether and how attachment states of mind and/or attachment behaviors may change during this stage of life. Recently, there has been some work examining the extent to which attachment models appear to be stable versus unstable over the course of adolescence. There has also been recent interest in whether and to what extent adolescents begin to direct attachment behaviors toward peers and/or romantic partners, either instead of or in addition to their parents. This work overlaps conceptually with research documenting shifts in the emotional tone of parent–adolescent relationships.

With regard to stability, Bowlby (1980) proposed that there is a tendency toward continuity in attachment organization over time, and that internal working models may be relatively immune to revision after infancy. However, Bowlby further noted that there may be circumstances that arise that lead to a need to adjust existing models, specifically when the discrepancy between an individual's experiences and his/her internal working models becomes so great that the old models are no longer useful. In fact, research suggests that attachment classifications are relatively stable within infancy, and from infancy to early childhood (e.g., Main & Weston, 1981; Vaughn, Egeland, Sroufe, & Waters, 1979; Waters, 1978). However, the evidence for stability from childhood to adolescence is mixed (e.g., Becker-Stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997; Hamilton, 2000; Lewis, Feiring, & Rosenthal, 2000).

It has been proposed that adolescence is a developmental period that is particularly ripe for revision of internal working models, especially given that teens are much better able than younger children to reflect on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that comprise their internal working models (Ainsworth, 1989; Allen & Land, 1999; Kobak & Cole, 1994; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985). Teens’ increased perspective-taking and reasoning skills allow them to compare relationships with different attachment figures both to one another and to hypothetical ideals (Allen & Land; Allen, in press). The three existing studies to date have documented moderate stability in attachment security across both early and late adolescence (Allen et al., 2004; Ammaniti, van Ijzendoorn, Speranza, & Tambelli, 2000; Zimmermann & Becker-Stoll, 2002). Thus, while there is support for the contention that attachment models may become relatively resistant to revision by adolescence, the degree of stability documented to date indicates that models may still shift during this life stage.

Further research is clearly needed to understand how and to what extent shifts in internal working models may occur, as well as what contributes to possible changes in those models. While it is typically assumed that new experiences and increased perspective taking would result in a push toward attachment security, it is also possible that negative experiences during adolescence—particularly stressors around critical developmental tasks and/or intrapsychic stressors—could contribute to declines in attachment security over time (Allen et al., 2004). At least one study to date has examined whether and to what extent individual differences in adolescents’ life experiences and/or internal processes might contribute to changes in their internal working models. This study found that negative shifts in attachment security were predicted by external stressors (poverty), conflicts around autonomy development within the mother–adolescent relationship, as well as adolescents’ level of depressive symptoms (Allen et al.). Interestingly, another recent life-span study of attachment found a similar pattern in predicting attachment stability from infancy to late adolescence: The group that remained secure had lower levels of life stress, higher levels of observed support and collaboration during family discussions and problem solving tasks as assessed at age 13, and more positive infant temperament (Weinfield, Whaley, & Egeland, 2004). A key implication from both of these studies is that the quality of the parent–teen relationship, particularly with regard to the management of autonomy issues, is strongly linked to (and may continue to shape) the nature of internal working models during adolescence.

A growing body of work has begun to explore possible changes in attachment behaviors during adolescence. During infancy and childhood, proximity seeking is considered one of the hallmarks of the attachment relationship—under even modest stress, infants and young children seek physical closeness with their caregivers and protest involuntary separations from them. Consistent with the balance being tipped toward exploration, it is well documented that teens begin to physically spend less time with their parents as they enter adolescence (Dubas & Gerris, 2002; Larson & Richards, 1989, 1991; Larson, Richards, & Moneta, 1996; Montemayor & Brownlee, 1987; Repinski & Zook, 2005). At the same time, beginning in early adolescence, teens begin to express a preference for spending time with peers over parents. While approximately one-half of 4th graders list one of their parents as the person they would most like to spend time with, by 6th grade only 32% nominate a parent, and by 8th grade only 11% express a preference for spending time with parents over peers (Nickerson & Nagle, 2005). This trend continues into late adolescence and early adulthood, with the majority of respondents in older samples expressing a preference for being with peers and/or romantic partners over parents (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Rosenthal & Kobak, 2007; Markiewicz, Lawford, & Doyle, 2006).

At the same time that adolescents demonstrate a relative decrease in their desire to physically spend time with parents, there also tends to be an increase in emotional negativity and disengagement in the parent–teen relationship (Baer, 2002; Collins, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Gutman & Eccles, 2007; Kim, Conger, Lorenz, & Elder, 2001; Larson & Richards, 1991; Larson, Richards, & Moneta, 1996; Larson, 1998; Pinquart & Silbereisen, 2002). Similarly, teens evidence a decreased need for emotional support from parents and are less likely to express a dependence on parents to help them solve their problems (Levpušcek, 2006; Lieberman, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 1999; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). This push away from parents corresponds to an increased tendency for adolescents to rely on friends and/or romantic partners for emotional support instead of (or at least in addition to) their parents. By mid-adolescence, interactions with peers have begun to take on many of the functions that they will serve for the remainder of the lifespan—providing important sources of intimacy, feedback about social behavior, social influence and information, and ultimately attachment relationships and lifelong partnerships (Ainsworth, 1989; Collins & Laursen, 2000; Gavin & Furman, 1989; Gavin & Furman, 1996; Hartup, 1992). Thus, adolescents are not simply becoming more autonomous from their attachment figures; they are beginning the important process of transferring dependencies from parental to peer relationships (Allen, in press).

Although there is some debate regarding the extent to which peers ultimately serve as attachment figures, research suggests that attachment functions are increasingly directed at peers over the course of adolescence. For example, teens begin to utilize their peers more as “safe havens,” seeking comfort and support from them in times of distress (Hazan & Ziefman, 1994; Markiewicz et al., 2006; Nickerson & Nagle, 1997). Whereas parents are primary sources of emotional support during childhood, beginning sometime between ages 12 and 15, teens report being equally likely to turn to their mother or a best friend for support and reassurance (Markiewicz et al., 2006; Nickerson & Nagle, 2005). By middle to late adolescence, teens report relying on either best friends or romantic partners for emotional support more often than parents (Markiewicz et al.; Nickerson & Nagle). Further, older teens are more likely than younger teens to identify a romantic partner as a “primary attachment figure”—someone who would be missed during a trip and who would be contacted following an accident (Rosenthal & Kobak, 2007).

Thus, as teens become more autonomous from parents, they disengage at least somewhat from parents and increasingly turn to peers and romantic partners for company and support. However, it appears that relationships with parents, particularly mothers, retain important attachment functions despite adolescents’ increased push for autonomy. For example, even though proximity seeking is reduced during adolescence, it is still evident in some forms and in extreme circumstances. Teens may still “protest” separations (e.g., writing sad and homesick letters home from a sleepaway camp) and still seek their parents’ company after an absence. Rosenthal & Kobak (2007) found that both adolescents and college students were likely to identify one of their parents (usually mothers) as the person they'd want contact with in an extreme emergency, and as the person they'd miss the most during a long trip. Further, while some data suggests that the secure base function (using the attachment figure as a base for exploration, to provide confidence in the face of challenge) is ultimately transferred to peers (Hazan & Ziefman, 1994), other studies suggest that parents retain this attachment function even into adulthood (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Markiewicz et al., 2006; Trinke & Bartholomew, 1997).

Research supports the notion that parents are maintained as attachment figures. For example, Markiewicz and colleagues (2006) found that across both adolescents and adults, mothers were identified most as “the person who will always be there for you.” Similarly, Rosenthal & Kobak (2007) found that 68% of adolescents and 58% of first-year college students identified one of their parents as their primary attachment figure. Research on adolescents’ responses to the loss of a parent also demonstrates that the very basic nature of the attachment relationship during this life stage is relatively unchanged. Similar to younger children, adolescents who lose a parent experience significant dysphoria over the parents’ absence and increased anxiety about separation from remaining attachment figures (Dowdney, 2000). Further, teens who have lost parents often evidence attachment behaviors in the form of attempts to maintain a connection with the lost parent in some way, such as by talking to them, visiting their graves, and cherishing a possession of theirs (Silverman & Worden, 1992; Silverman, Nickman, & Worden, 1992; Stoppelbein & Greening, 2000; VanEerdewegh, Bieri, Parrilla, & Clayton, 1982; VanEerdewegh, Clayton, & VanEerdewegh, 1985).

In sum, what we know thus far regarding normative development of attachment relationships is that despite the degree of developmental change that occurs during adolescence, there is much that remains the same. Even though attachment relationships may be somewhat transformed by adolescents’ increased autonomous functioning, attachment models appear to be relatively stable. Interestingly, the limited research to date on development of attachment models during adolescence suggests that the instability that does exist appears to be closely linked to negotiation of autonomy. In fact, most of what we know about how attachment relationships are transformed during adolescence must be implicitly drawn from more general research regarding how parent–adolescent relationships are transformed—a subtle but important distinction. We review the literature on how those relationships are transformed below, with a particular focus on autonomy processes.

3.2 Normative Development of Autonomy

In this section, we review normative development of autonomy during adolescence, first examining what is known about intraindividual development (largely with regard to emotional autonomy and value autonomy), and then research on interfamilial development (largely with regard to behavioral autonomy). We know very little about how verbal autonomy processes unfold within families over time. The research in this area is largely focused on individual differences—linking adolescent outcomes to familial support versus undermining of cognitive autonomy—which will be reviewed in the next section.

3.2.1 Intraindividual Changes: Emotional and Value Autonomy

Much of the research on autonomy development during adolescence focuses on intrapsychic changes within adolescents: changes in teens’ perceptions, particularly of their parents and of themselves in relation to their parents. Both increased perspective taking and the advent of formal operational thinking have important implications for changes in the ways that adolescents think about their relationships. Adolescents can potentially reflect on and modify their perceptions of their parents, the relationships that they have with them, and their own role in those relationships. A close examination of the changes in the ways that adolescents think about their parents provides insight into the intersection between the intraindividual and interfamilial changes that occur during this stage of development.

With increased cognitive maturity, adolescents gain the capacity to revaluate and potentially “deidealize” their parents—to see them in both positive and negative ways (Blos, 1979; Steinberg, 2005). As discussed previously, this process of deidealization is a cornerstone of psychoanalytically oriented theories of adolescent autonomy development (Blos, 1979). There has been considerable debate in the literature over what this deidealization process should look like, and whether deidealization is healthy or even necessary for development to proceed normally (Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986; Ryan & Lynch, 1989). Despite these controversies, several studies have found normative changes in the degree to which adolescents idealize versus deidealize their parents. For example, middle to older adolescents (ages 15–17) are much less likely then younger adolescents or preteens to endorse items suggesting that their parents are perfect (Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Levpušcek, 2006). Similarly, increased deidealization with age is also seen in measures of “positive identification”; older teens are less likely than younger teens to report feelings of respect for parents and desire to be exactly like parents (Gutman & Eccles, 2007).

In addition to changes in levels of idealization of parents, teens’ attitudes with regard to parental control versus autonomy granting show corresponding shifts over the course of adolescence. For example, as children enter early adolescence, they begin to rate discipline techniques such as physical punishment and power assertion more negatively (Paikoff, Collins, & Laursen, 1988; Seigel & Cowen, 1984). Older teens tend to be less accepting of parental directives than younger teens, particularly if those directives involve issues that are considered personal in nature (versus moral quandaries or practical matters) (Perkins & Turiel, 2007). Similarly, over the course of adolescence, teens become increasingly dissatisfied by the degree to which their parents grant them autonomy—discrepancies between ratings of actual parents and ideal parents are greater for adolescents versus preadolescents (Collins, 1990).

Adolescents not only gain the capacity to evaluate (and/or reevaluate) their relationships, but they also are better able to “think for themselves” and to establish a more consistent view of themselves as existing apart from interactions with caregivers (Selman, 1980). Thus, teens may develop opinions that diverge from those of their parents and/or other important adults, and this divergence is yet another index of the process of autonomous growth and separation that is seen during adolescence. For example, adolescents are more likely than children or preteens to endorse such statements as: “It's very important to me to be free to do what I want” and “I often find I have to question adults’ decisions” (Frank, Schettini, & Lower, 2002). Similarly, adolescents become less likely than younger children to state that they always agree with or have the same opinions as their parents (Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Levpušcek, 2006; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). Further, adolescents increasingly conceptualize aspects of their day-to-day lives (e.g., cleaning their room and how they dress) as contingent on personal choice, and therefore not subject to parental control (Bosma et al., 1996; Smetana, 1988a, 1988b, 1989). Thus, adolescents increasingly define themselves as separate individuals, with their own agendas and corresponding thoughts, feelings, and actions.

In summary, changes in the ways that teens think about their parents, and about themselves in relation to their parents, are well documented. These normative developmental changes, sparked by the push for autonomy as well as adolescents’ growing cognitive capacities, involve teens’ realization that their parents are not perfect, their increased awareness of themselves as individuals, and their heightened desire for more say in how they live their lives. These transformations in adolescents’ ways of thinking set the stage for autonomous adult functioning, in which close ties can be maintained with parents without the day-to-day dependence that characterizes earlier stages of development. However, it should be noted that despite the changes in conceptions of parents that occur during adolescence, such transformation rarely involves a complete rejection of parents or of parent-teen relationships. In contrast, research continues to suggest that overall, teens maintain positive views of their parents, respect their opinions, and agree with their general values (Douvan & Adelson, 1966; Offer, 1981).

3.2.2 Interfamilial Change: Behavioral Autonomy

Not surprisingly, changes in the ways that adolescents think about their parents tend to co-occur with changes in how adolescents (and parents) behave within their relationship. Adolescents begin to increasingly regulate their own activities, and at the same time the level of parental knowledge regarding their teens’ daily lives tends to decrease. This increased self-regulation also frequently takes adolescents literally farther from home—as teens begin to function more autonomously, they engage in a wider range of activities and interact with a broadening social circle, all of which adds up to physically spending less time with parents. Finally, as adolescents begin to form their own thoughts, values, and opinions, they also begin to behaviorally “strike out on their own” more. The increased focus that adolescents have on their own agendas may take the form of increased challenges of parents’ ideas, parent–teen conflicts, and at times an increased tendency to lie to and/or disobey parents.

It has long been documented that adolescents regulate their own daily activities more so than younger children (Douvan & Adelson, 1966), in part because they are granted the right to do so by their parents. More recent work continues to confirm that over the course of adolescence, teens are given increasing leeway to make their own decisions about their activities, and the range of activities that they are permitted to control similarly increases (Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Bosma et al., 1996; Gutman & Eccles, 2007). As teens make more of their own decisions, parents correspondingly know less about their daily lives; for example, older adolescents report disclosing less information to parents than younger teens (Finkenauer, Engels, & Meeus, 2002). Parents appear to view this increased privacy, corresponding to increased self-regulation, as developmentally appropriate. For example, parents rate older versus younger adolescents as significantly less obligated to disclose their activities related to a range of hypothetical issues to their parents, and as significantly more entitled to keep things private from their parents (Ruck, Peterson-Badali, & Day, 2002; Smetana, Metzger, Gettman, & Campione-Barr, 2006). Parents also report knowing much less about their older teens’ experiences, whereabouts, and activities versus those of their younger siblings (Bumpus, Crouter, & McHale, 1998). Thus, a normative dyadic process unfolds in which adolescents begin to regulate themselves more and parents correspondingly reduce their vigilance regarding teens’ moment-to-moment activities.

This process of gradually increasing self-regulation does not always occur smoothly, in part because teens do not always operate within the bounds of parental approval. Adolescents test the boundaries of their newly developed self-regulatory skills in numerous ways, including a tendency to express themselves more directly to parents: studies suggest that older teens are more likely than younger ones to defend and elaborate on their positions while discussing disagreements with their parents (Kreppner & Ulrich, 1998; Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 1999; Pinquart & Silbereisen, 2002). Adolescents’ increased willingness to express disagreement and challenge their parents is implicit in the increased rate and intensity of parent–child conflict that occurs during early and middle adolescence (Bosma et al., 1996; Larson et al., 1998; Montemayor, 1983;1986). This increased conflict has often been attributed to adolescents’ more autonomous thinking; in addition to increases in their willingness to express their opinions, they also become more likely to define areas of conflict as subject to their own personal choice versus parental control (Smetana, Braeges, & Yau, 1991). Adolescents may also challenge parents more indirectly—in addition to arguing more about rules, teens are also more willing to simply break them, by lying to and/or disobeying their parents (Darling, Cumsille, & Martinez, 2007; Perkins & Turiel, 2007). These “nonconformist” behaviors may serve as a way to establish a greater scope of thoughts and activities to which their parents do not have access (Jensen, Arnett, Feldman, & Cauffman, 2004). With regard to disobedience, it is well documented that adolescence marks a period of developmentally normative increase in deviant behavior. Several authors have proposed that this developmental trend in norm violations has its roots in the push for autonomy, and represents attempts to explore adult behavior and to gain skills and experiences that facilitate the transition away from the family unit (Moffitt, 1993; Spear, 2000).

To summarize, the behavioral changes that occur within the parent–adolescent relationship primarily involve the development of a new balance between attachment behaviors and the adolescents’ needs for autonomous exploration. Adolescents are increasingly able to make their own choices and to regulate their own behaviors, and they do so more and more frequently without their parents’ watchful eyes. Indeed, this increased self-regulation is often sanctioned by parents—generally speaking, increasing maturity implies increased safety, which reduces the need for constant vigilance on the part of parents (Allen, in press). However, this process does not always proceed completely smoothly, as evidenced by heightened conflicts and increases in rates of lying and disobedience. The good news (perhaps not for parents) is that these perturbations in the ways that teens behave with parents are normative and equilibrium tends to be regained by early adulthood. For example, as adolescents get older, teens become once again less likely to lie to their parents and more likely to disclose information about things that are important to them—and parent–teen conflict also decreases (Jensen et al., 2004; Smetana et al., 2006). Said differently, this return to more a harmonious state corresponds with the achievement of autonomy that is seen by early adulthood.

4 Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes

  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References

With some notion of the normative transformations that occur in attachment and autonomy processes during adolescence, we will now consider what we know about individual differences in the functioning of these systems. We will first review specific research findings with regard to predicting autonomous functioning from both secure and insecure adolescent attachment. Here, the literature has primarily examined links between attachment security and indices of cognitive or verbal autonomy, with a few studies examining how attachment security relates to more general measures of parental behaviors or parent–teen relationship quality. We will then examine predictions of other social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes from both attachment security versus insecurity and the expression of the various aspects of adolescent autonomy.

4.1 Attachment Security and the Push for Autonomy

The potential tension noted previously between the adolescents’ developmental push to gain autonomy and the operation of the attachment system can give rise to important individual differences in the ways that this tension is managed. Just as the balance of exploration from a secure base has been highly informative about the nature of individual differences in infant attachments, the balance of attachment and autonomy in adolescence also has important implications for adolescents’ long-term adjustment. Broadly speaking, the most adaptive outcomes are thought to follow from parent–adolescent relationship processes that provide sensitive, responsive, and supportive parenting while also appropriately promoting adolescents’ increased autonomous exploration. Thus, securely attached teens (and their parents) are hypothesized to be especially able to successfully negotiate this balance between maintaining relatedness and supporting autonomy development.

Security of attachment during adolescence has generally been found to co-occur with a parenting style and parent–adolescent relationship qualities that support and promote autonomy. For example, secure teens and young adults (as assessed both with the AAI and attachment style questionnaires) perceive their families as more involved and supportive, and as granting them more psychological autonomy than insecure teens (Allen et al., 2003; Karavasilis, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 2003; Harvey & Byrd, 2000; Kobak & Sceery, 1988). Adolescents with secure attachment styles also report turning to their mothers (more than friends or romantic partners) to fulfill attachment functions, particularly the secure base function (Markiewicz, Lawford, & Doyle, 2006). One recent study also found security of attachment to be linked to high levels of maternal sensitivity, as measured by how well mothers were able to predict the ways that their teens would respond to a questionnaire about their own competence (Allen et al., 2003). Secure states of mind are also associated with warmer, more accepting, open, and engaged interactions with parents as observed from interactions and as reported by adolescents (Becker-Stoll, Delius, & Scheitenberger, 2001; Ducharme, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 2002; Roisman, Madsen, Hennighausen, Sroufe, & Collins, 2001).

Thus, it is not surprising that one of the more consistent findings in the adolescent attachment literature is that when adolescents hold secure attachment states of mind, their interactions with their parents are characterized by healthy autonomy support, particularly as indexed by measures of cognitive and verbal autonomy. One long-term longitudinal study has demonstrated that infant security with mothers was more predictive of observed qualities of autonomy and relatedness in adolescent–mother interactions than it was of adolescent states of mind regarding attachment (Becker-Stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997). These findings suggest that success in negotiating autonomy issues in adolescence may potentially be a stage-specific manifestation of a long-term secure attachment relationship with parents. Secure teens handle conflicts with parents by engaging in productive, problem-solving discussions that both allow for divergent opinions to be expressed, and also contain efforts to stay connected and engaged in the discussions (Allen & Hauser, 1996; Allen et al., 2003, 2004, in press; Becker-Stoll, Delius, & Scheitenberger, 2001; Becker-Stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997; Ducharme, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 2002; Kobak et al., 1993). Secure teens (as rated by AAI as well as attachment style) also show less dysfunctional anger, less withdrawal and avoidance of problem solving, and fewer pressuring and/or overpersonalizing attacks while discussing an area of conflict with their mothers (Allen, Porter, McFarland, McElhaney, & Marsh, 2007; Becker-Stoll, Delius, & Scheitenberger, 2001; Kobak et al., 1993). Further, their discussions involve negotiation and compromise, such that both parties have the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings (versus one member of the dyad's dominating the discussion) (Allen et al., 2003; Ducharme, Doyle, & Markiewicz, 2002).

There are further indications that a secure state of mind with regard to attachment is linked to healthy autonomy development. For example, security of attachment is linked to greater adolescent deidealization of their mothers; in other words, secure teens exhibit healthy autonomy development by being less likely to express overly positive and idealized beliefs about their mothers (Allen et al., 2003). Further, securely attached teens demonstrate more constructive coping strategies when presented with hypothetical separations from parents, both mild (e.g., joining a new class at school) and severe (e.g., a parent's going to the hospital) (Scharf, 2001). Beyond the hypothetical, it appears that security of attachment promotes healthier actual separations from parents: Securely attached teens are found to more successfully adjust to the developmental task of leaving home to attend college (Aspelmeier & Kerns, 2003; Bernier, Larose, & Whipple, 2005). In a sample primarily composed of college freshmen, a self-reported secure attachment style was associated with less self-reported anxiety about academic performance, more willingness to ask others for help, and higher levels of curiosity and willingness to seek out challenge (Aspelmeier & Kerns).

4.2 Attachment Insecurity and the Push for Autonomy

While the negotiation of attachment and autonomy issues may be at least somewhat challenging for all families at some point, this developmental task is likely to be particularly stressful for families with insecure adolescents. Before turning to the empirical findings, we will explicate some of the hypotheses underlying the links between attachment insecurity and autonomy struggles during adolescence. Insecure teens and their parents may not be able to adaptively manage the normative changes in their relationship that are brought on by the push for autonomy, and their struggles may be manifested in one or more aspects of these developmental transitions. For example, insecure teens may not be able to “step outside” of the attachment relationship in order to appropriately reevaluate their attachment figures. These teens (and/or their parents) may also be overwhelmed by the increased affective instability that tends to accompany autonomy strivings. Given that insecure adolescents may have a history of less-than-positive experiences with attachment figures in times of need, the increased uncertainties and insecurities that tend to accompany adolescence may propel them into a state of emotional and/or behavioral disturbance that is not easily assuaged by their caregivers (Allen & Land, 1999). Further, the push for autonomy may be experienced as a dangerous threat to either the parent–teen relationship overall or to parental authority in the relationship, or both.

The specific negative outcomes that follow from attachment insecurity and low autonomy support may vary according to whether the insecure adolescent holds a more dismissing versus preoccupied attachment organization. Dismissing adolescents may utilize their characteristic tendency to withdraw and disengage from caregivers when faced with the challenge of adapting to the new demands of autonomy. Rather than being able to reevaluate their attachment figures and maintain positive connections with them, they may reject and cut themselves off from parents (Allen & Land, 1999). Given that many (if not most) teens still need guidance to manage the social and developmental challenges they face, teens who withdraw from parents put themselves at risk for a range of negative outcomes, particularly with regard to risky behaviors. Preoccupied teens, whose attachment strategies include an angry, overinvolved stance toward attachment figures, may also be unable to appropriately separate during adolescence (Allen & Land). However, rather than withdrawing from and/or rejecting caregivers, these adolescents may remain overly engaged with them. This strategy may help to maintain connections with attachment figures, but at the cost of appropriate autonomy development.

Research evidence to date suggests that both insecure dismissing and insecure preoccupied adolescents and their parents struggle to manage autonomy issues, again largely with regard to cognitive and verbal autonomy. Studies have demonstrated that dismissing teens often fail to assert their points of view during discussions with their parents, and such discussions tend to be marked by a high level of disengagement and a lack of responsiveness (Becker-Stoll, Delius, & Scheitenberger, 2001; Becker-Stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997; Kobak et al., 1993; Reimer et al., 1996). Dismissing adolescents tend to show the lowest levels of both autonomy and relatedness in interactions with parents of all attachment groups, and while discussing disagreements they tend to exhibit behaviors that discourage open communication, such as anger and turning away (Becker-Stoll & Fremmer-Bombik, 1997; Becker-Stoll, Delius, & Scheitenberger, 2001). Similarly, teens who demonstrated high levels of deactivation of thinking about attachment on the AAI (associated with dismissal of attachment) tended to have interactions with their mothers characterized by low levels of teen assertion coupled with high levels of maternal assertion (termed maternal dominance) (Kobak et al., 1993).

Insecure preoccupation, in contrast, appears to be associated with heightened and unproductive overengagement with parents, which restricts the autonomy process. For example, Allen and Hauser (1996) report that one indicator of preoccupation with attachment in young adulthood—use of passive thought processes, reflecting mental entanglement between self and caregivers—was predicted by adolescents’ overpersonalized behaviors toward fathers in arguments 10 years earlier. This overengagement and difficulty with establishing autonomy appears to extend into late adolescence, as research also suggests that adolescents with insecure–preoccupied status have more difficulty leaving home successfully for college. They experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and loneliness when transitioning to college, as well as less willingness to seek out and trust potential supporters (Aspelmeier & Kerns, 2003; Larose & Bernier, 2001). In contrast with secure teens, preoccupied teens who were leaving home for college reported having poorer quality of parent–adolescent relationships, including: lower trust, communication, and acceptance; higher rejection and alienation; and more negative expectations with regard to parental support. Despite being highly dissatisfied with their parents, however, preoccupied adolescents who had left home also had increased rates of contact with their parents (Bernier, Larose, & Whipple, 2005). Interestingly, these secure versus preoccupied differences were not found among the group of adolescents who were not leaving home for college, suggesting that the separation imposed by leaving home placed inordinate stress on the parent–adolescent relationship for those teens with a preoccupied state of mind (Bernier et al., 2005).

In summary, these studies demonstrate the important theoretically predicted links between security versus insecurity of attachment and the ways that autonomy is managed during adolescence. With a few exceptions, much of this literature has focused on linking adolescent security with interfamilial indexes of autonomy—more specifically, the ways that parents of secure versus insecure teens promote versus undermine their autonomy. We will now turn to the consideration of additional sequelae of individual variations in attachment and autonomy processes during adolescence. However, it is worth noting that, given that secure attachment and support for autonomy often go hand in hand, it is difficult to sort out the relative contributions of attachment security and interfamilial autonomy support with regard to adolescent outcomes. The relative contributions of attachment versus autonomy have rarely been addressed empirically, as very few studies have examined these constructs together within the same sample. Thus, we will first address correlates of secure versus insecure attachment, and then turn to outcomes associated with both intraindividual and interfamilial components of autonomy.

4.3 Correlates of Attachment Security Versus Insecurity During Adolescence

Attachment security is generally expected to be linked to more positive outcomes during adolescence, whereas attachment insecurity is expected to predict a range of social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Several specific sets of outcomes are particularly closely linked with the theoretical underpinnings of attachment security. Given the proposed association between a secure working model of attachment and views of others as more versus less trustworthy and accepting, attachment state of mind is especially expected to predict functioning within social relationships. Attachment security is also expected to be linked to style of emotion regulation via processes such as ability to identify, appropriately express, and manage a wide range of emotional states. Finally, attachment security versus insecurity is also predicted to be linked to views of the self as more versus less competent and worthy of love, suggesting predictions to outcomes such as self-concept and self-esteem. We will address each of these sets of outcomes in turn later. Further, we will demonstrate that the specific pattern of negative outcomes associated with insecurity tends to vary according to the specific type of insecurity (insecure dismissing versus insecure preoccupied). We should note a large body of literature has documented the associations between the nature and quality of parent–teen relationships and adolescent outcomes (see chapter 1, vol. 2 of this Handbook). Here, we focus exclusively on studies that utilize the AAI or attachment style measures to assess attachment states of mind, as opposed to examining parenting styles or behaviors that may promote versus undermine security of attachment.

4.3.1 Attachment and Adolescent Social Functioning

It is expected that security of attachment will facilitate adaptive psychosocial functioning during adolescence, particularly in terms of competence in social relationships. Secure working models are expected to provide positive expectations of relations with others, and also are predicted to guide affect and behavior within those relationships (Bowlby, 1969/1982; Furman, 2001; Furman, Simon, Shaffer, & Bouchey, 2002). This may be particularly true during adolescence, when intimacy demands in relationships with peers increase; security of attachment is expected to be associated with abilities necessary to manage such intimacy successfully, such as the ability to seek and give care, to feel comfortable with an autonomous self and peer, and to negotiate disagreements (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994; Cassidy et al., 1996; Cassidy, 2001; Scharf, 2001). Further, the ability to maintain connections with parents but also appropriately separate from them should allow secure teens to move freely beyond parent–teen relationships in order to establish successful new relationships with peers as well as romantic partners (Gavin & Furman, 1996).

A rapidly increasing body of research confirms links between a secure adolescent attachment organization and a range of indexes of adaptive functioning with peers. Adolescent attachment security has been linked to measures of broader social competence such as overall friendship quality, popularity, and social acceptance (Allen, Moore, Kuperminc, & Bell, 1998; Allen et al., in press; Zimmermann, 2004), as well as to functioning within close friendships with peers (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Lieberman et al., 1999; Zimmermann). Both self-report, interview-based, and observational studies suggest that secure teens engage in high levels of prosocial and relationship maintaining behaviors with their friends, as well as low levels of negativity (e.g., Markiewicz, Doyle, & Brendgen, 2001; Wiemer, Kerns, & Oldenberg, 1995; Zimmermann, Maier, Winter, & Grossmann, 2001; Zimmermann, 2004). For example, secure teens exhibit high levels of support, respect, and acceptance when talking with their friends, and secure dyads are marked both by a “smooth conversational style” (e.g., low need for clarification of viewpoints) and by fewer statements challenging the other person (Weimer et al.). Similarly, when asked to work on a frustrating joint problem-solving task; secure teens engage in fewer disruptive behaviors such as ignoring their friends or rejecting their suggestions without discussion (Zimmerman et al.). Security of attachment with regard to parental relationships is also associated with having secure working models of friendships, as well as a greater capacity for both closeness and separateness in relationships with friends (Furman et al., 2002; Markiewicz et al., 2001; Mayseless & Scharf, 2007; Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004). Secure teens are also better able to rely on peers to fulfill attachment functions, including wanting to be near their friends (proximity seeking) and being able to turn to them for comfort and support (safe haven) (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Mayseless, 2004).

Attachment security also appears to be closely linked to behavior in romantic and sexual relationships in adolescence, though studies of this topic have focused almost exclusively on young adults, with only a few studies examining late adolescents. Secure states of mind with regard to attachment as well as secure attachment styles have been associated with a high capacity for romantic intimacy (e.g., high levels of trust), a greater capacity for both closeness and separateness in romantic relationships, and closer and more satisfying romantic relationships (Marston, Hare, Miga, & Allen, 2008, March; Mayseless & Scharf, 2007; Mikulincer & Erev, 1991; Scharf et al., 2004). Interestingly, research also suggests that younger teens with self-reported secure attachment styles report turning to romantic partners less often than mothers to fulfill attachment functions, which the authors consider to be a developmentally appropriate pattern for this age group (Markiewicz et al., 2006). In late adolescence, secure states of mind have also been linked to the subsequent quality of interactions with a romantic partner; such interactions are characterized by willingness to express ideas, ability to resolve conflict, and mutual caring and pleasure in the other person (Roisman et al., 2001; 2005). Further, research with young adults indicates that security of attachment is linked to healthier sexual behavior: Securely attached young women are more likely to require some emotional commitment from partners before engaging in sex and are also likely to have somewhat less permissive attitudes toward sexuality (Januszewski, Turner, Guerin, & Flack, 1996).

Turning to insecure attachment organizations, an interesting pattern of results has begun to emerge with regard to preoccupation with attachment and social functioning. On the one hand, given their orientation toward valuing intimacy and seeking support from others, preoccupied individuals may fare better socially than those with dismissing orientations. On the other hand, preoccupied states of mind with regard to attachment are also likely to predispose individuals to feel anxious about their worth in close relationships as well as the degree to which others will be consistently available and supportive. The balance of the evidence indicates that while adolescents who are preoccupied are, in fact, generally more oriented toward relationships than their dismissing counterparts, they also generally function poorly in such relationships. For example, preoccupied adolescents report high levels of loneliness and distrust, as well as dissatisfaction and stress related to their close relationships (Larose & Bernier, 2001; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006). In addition, some studies indicate that preoccupation is also associated with higher levels of both interpersonal anxiety and hostility (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Zimmermann, 2004). These difficulties also carry over to romantic relationships: insecure preoccupation in late adolescents and young adults has been associated with high levels of anxiety, dependence, and jealousy within romantic and sexual relationships, as well as low levels of satisfaction with such relationships (Collins & Read, 1990; Davila, Steinberg, Kachadourian, Cobb, & Fincham, 2004; Mayseless, Sharabany, & Sagi, 1997; Tracy, Shaver, Albino, & Cooper, 2003).

In the case of dismissal of attachment, defensive exclusion of information as well as discomfort with attachment-related affect and experiences may correspond to distorted communications, negative expectations about others, and rejection of and/or distancing from peers (Larose & Bernier, 2001; Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999). Adolescents with dismissing states of mind are consistently found to be less socially skilled and more socially isolated (Allen et al., 2002b). These teens engage in fewer active, support-seeking coping strategies, including turning to a friend to meet attachment needs (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Seiffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005). Similarly, in samples of young adults, dismissal of attachment (as rated by the both AAI and self-report measures) is linked to low levels of sociability and high levels of peer-rated withdrawal, as well as to high levels of peer-rated hostility and “coldness” (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Larose & Bernier, 2001). While individuals who are dismissing of attachment tend not to describe themselves as hostile, they do tend to feel isolated and unsupported by others, self-reporting more loneliness and less support from families, peers, and teachers as compared to secure individuals (Kobak & Sceery; Larose & Bernier). A similar pattern emerges with regard to approaches to romantic relationships in late adolescents and young adults. As compared to those who are securely attached, dismissing individuals demonstrate more mistrust, lower levels of intimacy, and lower levels of closeness in romantic relationships, as reported and observed both concurrently (Guerrero, 1996) and longitudinally (Collins, Cooper, Albino, & Allard, 2002; Mayseless & Scharf, 2007).

In summary, attachment security versus insecurity—whether assessed with regard to overall state of mind or attachment style within specific relationships—has been consistently linked to social functioning. Secure teens evidence high levels of social competence and social skills, particularly in terms of the demands of negotiating the intimacy that becomes a more prominent feature of friendships during adolescence. Preoccupied teens appear to desire social relationships, but they also tend to be uncertain and anxious about whether those relationships will be satisfying, and perhaps highly demanding of relationship partners as a result—a pattern that also carries over into their romantic relationships. Dismissing teens appear to be relatively untrusting of others, and tend to be seen as withdrawn or “cold” by their peers. Overall, this pattern of empirical findings provides support for the theoretical role of internal working models in shaping adolescents’ social and emotional ties with others. Individual differences with regard to emotion regulation and coping will be considered next.

4.3.2 Attachment, Emotion Regulation, and Coping with Stressors

Some researchers have suggested that the links between attachment security versus insecurity and functioning in close relationships with peers and romantic partners may be a result of generalized comfort in handling one's own emotional reactions in challenging situations (Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Zimmermann et al., 2001). Security of attachment is thought to be associated with the ability to be able to freely perceive and experience—as well as to openly express and communicate—both positive and negative feelings. This ability can thus help secure individuals in using their own appraisals of their emotional reactions to guide their behaviors, and also aids in clear and consistent communication of their emotional reactions to significant others (Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999). The degree to which attachment security maps onto emotion regulation outside of the attachment relationship has been studied in young children (e.g., Kirsh & Cassidy, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 1998; Seuss, Grossmann, & Sroufe, 1992), and has recently been examined in adult samples (e.g. Roisman, 2006, 2007), but has rarely been studied in adolescents.

The evidence that does exist on attachment, emotion regulation, and coping suggests that secure teens differ from insecure teens with regard to their emotional perceptions, expressions, and styles of regulation. Both secure state of mind with regard to attachment and self-reported security of attachment have been linked to increased willingness to express emotions; clearer, more accurate, and more appropriate emotional expressions; as well as greater flexibility in emotional appraisals and behaviors (Ducharme et al., 2002; Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999; Zimmermann, 1999; Zimmermann et al., 2001). Secure teens display emotional reactions that are more consistently in tune with the emotional valence of film clips to which they are exposed (e.g., positive reactions in response to positive emotional events and negative responses to negative ones) (Spangler & Zimmermann). They also show higher concordance between emotional self-ratings and facial emotional expressions (e.g., frowning while also reporting a negative emotional experience) as assessed by both raters and facial electromyography (Spangler & Zimmermann; Zimmermann et al.). It should be noted that these results are based on relatively small sample sizes, and in most cases secure participants could only be differentiated from dismissing participants.

Recent research also suggests that secure individuals evidence more adaptive strategies when coping with relationship stressors. A recent longitudinal study that followed a sample of adolescents from age 14 to age 21 found that a secure state of mind with regard to attachment is associated with use of more self-reported active coping strategies (e.g., talking about problems and seeking emotional assistance), use of more internal coping strategies (e.g., searching for solutions, recognizing own limitations, willingness to accept compromises), and less use of withdrawal or avoidance when faced with stressors (Seiffge-Krenke, 2006; Seiffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005). In fact, secure teens show large developmental gains in both active and internal coping strategies over time, whereas the insecure groups do not demonstrate increases in these types of coping (Seiffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005). Secure states of mind with regard to attachment are also associated with greater flexibility in assessing and generating responses to stressful social situations (in the form of hypothetical vignettes) (Zimmermann, 1999). More data is needed to further understand the interplay between attachment organization, emotion regulation, and coping strategies in teenagers, but the data that have been gathered to date support conclusions from studies of adults: security of attachment corresponds to more adaptive perception, labeling, and expression of emotions across a variety of situations, as well as more adaptive strategies for managing difficult situations.

Preoccupation with attachment is expected to be linked with high levels of negative emotionality, given that preoccupied individuals are easily overwhelmed by their negative emotions and have poor access to their own mood states (Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999). While they may try to turn to others for assistance when coping with negative emotions, they are not expected to be easily assuaged and are likely to be dissatisfied with their level of emotional support. Unfortunately, much of the research to date on emotion regulation in adolescence has been unable to examine effects of preoccupation due to small sample sizes. For example, in the study described above that exposed participants to positive versus negative film clips, the mean values for both positive and negative arousal were the highest for the preoccupied group, but this effect could not be demonstrated to be statistically reliable, likely as a result of the small number of preoccupied individuals (Spangler & Zimmermann). However, there is some evidence that a preoccupied state of mind is related to difficulties controlling one's emotions as well as rigid emotion-related behavior patterns (Zimmermann, 1999). Further, preoccupied teens report particularly high levels of stress across multiple contexts—especially as related to functioning in close relationships and during times of separation from caregivers—as well as maladaptive strategies for managing such stress (Larose & Bernier, 2001; Sieffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006). There is also some evidence that the combination of high levels of emotionality and poor resources for managing emotional stress at least partially account for the high levels of symptomatology often exhibited by individuals with a preoccupied state of mind, as will be discussed further later in the chapter (Sieffge-Krenke).

Dismissal of attachment is expected to be linked to restricted capacity regarding perception and communication of emotions, particularly when these emotions are negative (Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999). In addition, dismissing individuals are expected to cope with negative feelings by suppressing or ignoring them, and are not expected to seek out emotional support when distressed. For example, dismissing adolescents demonstrate biases toward idealization, a marker for distorted perception of emotional content: Dismissing teens are more likely than either secure or preoccupied teens to positively evaluate both positive and negative emotional content in film clips (Spangler & Zimmermann). In this study and others, dismissing individuals also show a mismatch between their self-reported mood states and their observed emotional expression, implying difficulties in their abilities to identify and/or communicate their affective experiences (Spangler & Zimmermann; Zimmermann et al., 2001). Cole-Detke and Kobak (1996) also report that eating-disordered individuals in a college population are more likely to use dismissing strategies, with the attention given to eating behaviors believed to distract from feelings of internal emotional distress. Similarly, as compared to secure teens, adolescents with dismissing states of mind report being less likely to seek out support from others when distressed (Seiffge-Krenke, 2006; Seiffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005). Dismissing adolescents also adapt less well to specific stressors, such as the transition to the military in an Israeli sample of late adolescent males, though only as assessed by peer reports, not by self-report (Scharf et al., 2004).

In summary, as with the links between security of attachment and social functioning, the growing body of research examining links between attachment and emotion regulation indicates that adolescents who are securely attached demonstrate more adaptive outcomes. Securely attached teens are better able to perceive, label and express their own emotions and are also more adept at managing difficult emotional experiences. They tend to engage in active coping strategies that often involve seeking support from others. In contrast, preoccupied teens appear to be both highly emotionally reactive and to have ineffective strategies for managing their emotions. However, it should be noted that small sample sizes often have precluded a thorough investigation of the links between preoccupation and emotion regulation. Finally, dismissing teens do not appear to recognize their own emotional reactions, nor can they effectively communicate their feelings to others. They engage in maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., distraction), fail to seek out support from others, and consequently do not adapt well to stressful situations. Next, we will turn to the links that have been found between attachment security versus insecurity and views of the self.

4.3.3 Attachment Security Versus Insecurity and Views of the Self

Security of attachment is in theory linked with a model of the self in relation to others that not only emphasizes trust in others to be responsive and helpful in times of need, but also confidence in one's own ability to face and manage challenges. In contrast, individuals with preoccupied attachments are expected to hold relatively negative views of themselves, although their views of others may be positive (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). Finally, the idealization processes that are associated with dismissing states of mind make it likely that dismissing individuals may not self-report high levels of negative self-concept, and some authors have pointed out that the defensive style of dismissing models are likely to involve relatively negative models of others but relatively positively models of the self (Bartholomew & Horowitz). Thus, it is expected that attachment security would predict various intrapsychic outcomes such as self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as identity and ego development.

While there is some research with both child and adult samples to suggest links between attachment security and views of the self (Cassidy, 1988; Mikulincer & Florian, 1995, 1998), these topics have rarely been explored in adolescent samples. Further, results of existing studies are a bit mixed, and in part appear to depend on whether outcomes are assessed via self-reports versus peer reports or interview-based measures. Some studies have found no differences between secure versus dismissing adolescents on self-reported levels of self-esteem and/or descriptions of themselves (Mikulincer, 1995; Scharf et al., 2004). However, Cooper and colleagues (1998) found that teens with secure attachment styles had more positive self-concepts than either of the two insecure groups. Studies utilizing peer reports or coded interviews to assess outcomes (to circumvent the potential defensive bias in self-reports) suggest that secure teens have more positive and well-integrated views of self, though again with clearer contrasts between secure and preoccupied vs. secure and dismissing strategies. For example, a secure state of mind with regard to attachment in mid- to late adolescence has been linked to greater identity status achievement and higher levels of peer-rated ego resiliency (Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Manning, Stephenson, & Allen, 2008, March; Zimmermann & Becker-Stoll, 2002). Given the relative paucity of empirical work on this topic, there is clearly a need for additional research into the potential links between attachment security and models of the self during adolescence.

4.3.4 Insecure Attachment and Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes

A number of recent studies suggest the existence of substantial links between attachment security versus insecurity and both emotional and behavioral disturbances. Whereas secure adolescents demonstrate lower levels of both internalizing and externalizing symptoms (Allen et al., 1998; Allen et al., 2007), insecurity of attachment is consistently predictive of a range of emotional and behavioral difficulties. In fact, among the most highly disturbed adolescents—those requiring residential treatment—three studies have found links to either concurrent or future attachment insecurity, and to a heightened prevalence of insecure–unresolved attachment status (Allen & Hauser, 1996; Allen, Hauser, & Borman-Spurrell, 1996; Wallis & Steele, 2001). Interestingly, some authors have further suggested that it is the disruption of autonomy development per se that accounts for the development of psychopathology in these individuals (Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, & La Guardia, 2006). Regardless, both the preoccupied and dismissing strategies have been implicated in problems of psychosocial functioning, although the two are associated with somewhat different patterns of problems, as we will discuss in further detail below.

While adolescents’ use of preoccupied strategies has been most closely linked to internalizing problems, research suggests that numerous psychosocial and environmental factors may interact with level of preoccupation in predicting mental health outcomes. Thus, while preoccupation of attachment often is directly linked to adolescents’ self-reports of depression, anxiety, and distress (Allen et al., 1998; Bernier et al., 2005; Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Cole-Detke & Kobak, 1996; Kobak et al., 1991; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Larose & Bernier, 2001; Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006), this link appears particularly strong when preoccupied teens are exposed to intrapsychic states or environments that are confusing or enmeshed. For example, preoccupied adolescents display higher levels of depression when their mothers cannot display their own autonomy in discussions (i.e., appear passive and enmeshed) (Marsh, McFarland, Allen, McElhaney, & Land, 2003). Similarly, preoccupied teens whose friends exhibit high levels of enmeshed and overpersonalizing behaviors report increasing levels of depression over time, whereas those that experience high levels of conflict avoidance in their friends (which in this case may simply serve as nonenmeshed or distancing behavior) demonstrate decreasing levels of depression over time (Chango, McElhaney, & Allen, 2008). Researchers have speculated that the hyperactivation of the attachment system in preoccupied adolescents may correspond to extreme sensitivity to their social environments, thus accounting for this pattern of moderating effects.

In some circumstances, preoccupied teens have been found to be more likely to display externalizing symptoms as opposed to internalizing problems. For example, preoccupied adolescents display higher levels of drug use, precocious sexual activity, and increases in levels of delinquent behavior when their mothers exhibit extremely high levels of their own (maternal) autonomy in discussions (perhaps asserting themselves to the point of ignoring their adolescents) (Allen et al., 1998). Similarly, Marsh and colleagues (2003) found that adolescent preoccupation and mothers’ focus on their own (as opposed to their adolescents') autonomy predicted adolescents’ early sexual activity, whereas preoccupied adolescents whose mothers were relatively unfocused on their own autonomy had strikingly low rates of early sexual activity. Finally, when preoccupied adolescents are exposed to poverty (perhaps another situation in which their needs are likely to be ignored), there is also an increased likelihood of delinquent behavior (Allen et al., 2007).

Finally, in adaptive contexts, the increased orientation that preoccupied individuals have toward relationships may actually act as a protective factor for these teens. Though preoccupied teens tend to struggle socially, not all studies find significant differences in overall quality of social relationships between preoccupied versus secure adolescents (Weimer et al., 2004; Zimmermann, 2004). When preoccupied (and secure) teens are exposed to positive friendships, they exhibit lower concurrent risk for delinquent behavior (McElhaney, Immele, Smith, & Allen, 2006). In addition, when exposed to effective maternal behavioral control strategies, both preoccupied and secure teens exhibit lower levels of delinquent behavior than dismissing teens exposed to the same maternal behaviors (Allen et al., 1998). Taken together, these results suggest that when preoccupied adolescents are exposed to passivity or enmeshment, an internalizing, anxious/depressed pattern emerges; whereas when they are in situations where their attachment entreaties are more likely to be ignored or rebuffed, they react with externalizing behavior. In cases when preoccupied teens’ hyperactivated attachment system brings them into contact with positive social interactions, it appears to leave the teen responsive to these as well.

In contrast to preoccupied adolescents, adolescents who are dismissing of attachment may take on symptoms that distract themselves and others from attachment-related cues (Cole-Detke & Kobak, 1996; Kobak & Cole, 1994). When examining psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents, almost all of whom were insecure, Rosenstein and Horowitz (1996) reported that dismissing strategies were associated with externalizing symptoms, including substance abuse and conduct disordered behavior. Similarly, Allen and colleagues report that dismissing attachment strategies were predictive of increasing delinquency and externalizing behavior over both short- and longer term spans of adolescence (Allen et al., 2002b; Allen et al., in press). Unlike preoccupied adolescents, dismissing adolescents also do not appear particularly sensitive to parental behaviors. For example, a factor such as parental control of adolescent behavior—which is well established as a buffer against delinquency—did not appear to serve this role for dismissing teens (Allen et al., 1998).

In summary, given that insecurity of attachment is associated with maladaptive social functioning, difficulties with emotion regulation, and negative views of the self, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that insecurity is also associated with more significant negative emotional and behavioral outcomes. Preoccupied adolescents appear to be particularly at risk for developing internalizing problems, including both depression and anxiety. However, the range of outcomes associated with preoccupied status is varied, and appears to at least partly depend on the nature of the social and emotional environment that the preoccupied teen experiences. Dismissal of attachment, in contrast, has been more consistently linked with a pattern of acting-out behavior that includes conduct problems and substance abuse. We will now turn to an examination of individual differences in autonomy functioning and outcomes during adolescence.

4.4 Adolescent Autonomy and Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes

Before beginning this section of our chapter, we return to the point that research on the consequences of secure versus insecure attachment and the consequences autonomy processes tends to be quite disparate in a number of ways. First, attachment research is more rooted in developmental psychology; autonomy research has tended to stem more from the work on personality and ego development, which in part has led to an examination of different sets of correlates of these two constructs. As a rough parallel to our earlier review of the attachment literature, we will specifically examine the outcomes of social functioning, views of self, and mental health outcomes. Unlike attachment research, links between autonomy processes and emotion regulation have rarely—if ever—been examined. However, there is a small body of literature that examines the ways that autonomy development within parent–adolescent relationships is linked to coping with one specific developmental stressor: the adjustment to college. Second, attachment research focuses almost exclusively on the secure versus insecure adolescent as the starting point, whereas the literature on outcomes associated with autonomy development is largely focused on interfamilial processes that support versus undermine autonomy. One exception is the study of emotional autonomy, which treats autonomy as an intraindividual characteristic of the adolescent.

4.5 Autonomy Promotion and Social Functioning

Whereas there is definitive support for the links between attachment security and social competence during adolescence, the role of autonomy development with regard to adolescent peer relationships is less well studied. There is, however, a large body of research that has yielded definitive support for the role of interfamilial autonomy promotion in the social functioning of younger children (e.g., Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Given that autonomy development is such a central task of adolescence, issues of autonomy versus control may become even more central in shaping social competence as children move into adolescence (Amato, 1989). In fact, one study in particular compared parental promotion of autonomy in a sample of younger children (ages 8–9) and in an adolescent/young adult sample (ages 15 to early 20s) and found that there was a shift in the parent–child relationship variables that were associated with social competence in the two groups. For the younger sample, social competence was linked with both high parental support and high parental control, whereas in the adolescent sample, social competence was associated with high parental support and low parental control (Amato).

Adolescents from families that promote their autonomy while also maintaining limits on behaviors as well as close relational ties demonstrate better social adjustment. Observational studies of adolescents’ expressions of autonomy during discussions with their parents (cognitive/verbal autonomy) suggest that these teens are both more interpersonally competent and more socially accepted, and they develop closer and more supportive relationships with their friends (Allen, Bell, & Boykin, 2000; Hall, 2002; McElhaney, 2000; McElhaney & Allen, 2001). In contrast, both self-report and observational studies demonstrate that undermining of autonomy within the parent–adolescent relationship is linked to a range of problems in social functioning, such as greater amounts of hostility in relationships with peers (Allen & Hauser, 1993; Allen, Hauser, O'Connor, & Bell, 2002b), more peer rejection (Marsh & McFarland, 2002), decreased interpersonal competence (Allen et al., 2000; McElhaney), and increasingly distant peer relationships (Tencer, Meyer, & Hall, 2003). These findings have been documented both concurrently and longitudinally. For example, fathers’ behaviors undermining adolescents’ cognitive/verbal autonomy (e.g., pressuring to agree) during family discussions at age 16 was found to predict peer ratings of adolescents’ hostility approximately 10 years later, over and above initial levels of hostility (Allen et al., 2002a).

There are parallel findings in the self-report literature examining the concurrent and longitudinal correlates of parenting that promotes moderate behavioral autonomy and is also low in psychological control. For example, when teens view parents as highly authoritative and/or low in psychological control, they appear to be both more socially skilled and more closely connected to their peers, but also to be less “peer oriented” and more autonomous with their peers (Barber & Olson, 1997; Bednar & Fisher, 2003; Engels, Dekovic, & Meeus, 2002; Laible & Carlo, 2004; Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989). In contrast, self-reports of high levels of parental psychological control and low support for behavioral autonomy have been inversely linked to measures of competence, closeness and autonomy within peer relationships (Laible & Carlo, 2004; Lee & Bell, 2003; Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2005). One particularly consistent finding is that teens who view their parents as controlling and restrictive of autonomy are more highly oriented toward their peers and also more likely to associate with deviant peers (Fuligni & Eccles, 1993; Goldstein, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2005).

In summary, the growing body of literature examining interfamilial promotion versus undermining of autonomy during adolescence demonstrates clear links between these processes and adolescents’ social functioning. Results are most clear for cognitive/verbal autonomy, behavioral autonomy, and psychological control versus autonomy support. A family environment that supports adolescents’ expressions of autonomy clearly promotes interpersonal competence, in terms of broad peer acceptance as well as the quality of close friendships. In contrast, parenting that is overly psychologically controlling and/or undermines cognitive or behavioral autonomy is linked to maladaptive social functioning. Undermining of cognitive autonomy appears to be linked to a relatively broad range of problems within peer relationships, whereas high levels of both behavioral and psychological control are most clearly linked to increased orientation toward peers as well as involvement with deviant peers.

4.5.1 Autonomy Processes, Views of the Self, and Internalizing Problems

To the extent that promotion of autonomy is linked with a sense of agency and confidence in one's own competence, parenting that supports autonomy during adolescence is also likely to promote more positive self-concepts. Consistent with these premises, research on autonomy processes within parent–teen relationships has yielded relatively consistent predictions from autonomy support to various indicators of intrapsychic competence and health. For example, observational research on family interactions indicates that adolescents’ identity and ego development are positively linked with parental expressions of mutuality and enabling behavior (thought to promote cognitive/verbal autonomy), and negatively related to expressions of separateness and constraining behavior (thought to undermine cognitive/verbal autonomy) (Grotevant & Cooper, 1985; Hauser et al., 1984). Similarly, Allen and colleagues found that parental promotion of cognitive/verbal autonomy (defined as stating reasons for holding a differing position while also remaining open to others’ views) is linked with higher levels of self-esteem and ego development (Allen et al., 1994b). Conversely, behaviors undermining autonomy and relatedness during interactions with mothers are linked to increases in depression during early adolescence (Allen et al., 2006). The self-report literature examining effects of parenting reveal a similar pattern: Adolescents’ reports of psychological control versus autonomy support are cross-sectionally linked (in expected directions) to reports of self-concept, self-worth, and well-being (Aquilino & Supple, 2001; Frank et al., 2002; Laible & Carlo, 2004; Silk, Morris, & Kanaya, 2003; Soenens et al., 2007).

Given the links between parental autonomy support versus undermining and views of the self, it is perhaps not surprising that these constructs are also linked to psychological functioning, particularly with regard to internalizing symptoms. There is a relatively large body of research with younger children suggesting that those who experience psychological control are vulnerable to a range of developmental difficulties, particularly internalizing problems, and this same pattern of results is present in adolescent samples (Barber & Harmon, 2002). Parental psychological control during adolescence is linked to decreased self-confidence and self-worth, as well as increased maladaptive perfectionism, distress, and depressive symptoms both concurrently and over time (Barber, Olsen, & Shagle, 1994; Conger, Conger, & Scaramella, 1997; Garber, Robinson, & Valentiner, 1997; Gray & Steinberg, 1999; Petit, Laird, Dodge, Bates, & Criss, 2001; Soenens, Vansteenkiste, & Luyten, 2005; Soenens et al., 2007). Notably, research has further demonstrated that psychological control is uniquely predictive of internalizing problems over and above other dimensions of parenting, such as behavioral control and responsiveness (e.g. Soenens et al., 2005; Petit et al.). Conversely, self-report studies have indicated that parents’ granting of psychological autonomy is linked with a range of positive emotional and behavioral outcomes, including less depressed affect and fewer externalizing problems both concurrently and longitudinally (Barber & Olson, 1997; Eccles, Early, Frasier, Belansky, & McCarthy, 1997; Herman, Dornbusch, Herron, & Herting, 1997; Silk et al., 2003). Similarly, observations of behavior promoting of cognitive/verbal autonomy while also maintaining relatedness during a family discussion have been linked to lower levels of adolescent depression over time, as rated by observers during a clinical interview (Allen et al., 1994a).

4.5.2 Autonomy Processes and Externalizing Behaviors

While undermining of cognitive/verbal autonomy and psychological control have been most closely linked with internalizing problems during adolescence, some studies have also found predictions to externalizing difficulties. At least one study has documented longitudinal prediction from observed behaviors undermining cognitive/verbal autonomy to self-reports of adolescents’ externalizing behaviors (Allen et al., 1994b). Psychological control has been linked to increased rates of antisocial and externalizing behavior in late childhood and during adolescence in both cross-sectional and short-term longitudinal studies (Barber & Olson, 1997; Petit et al., 2001; Rogers, Buchanan & Winchel, 2003). Further, several studies have revealed links between dimensions of parental psychological control versus autonomy support and rates of substance use, as well as problems related to substance use during adolescence and young adulthood (Aquilino & Supple, 2001; Lee & Bell, 2003). Interestingly, at least one study has suggested that the links between perceptions of parental psychological control early in adolescence and engagement in problem behavior in late adolescence are mediated by engagement with risky peers during middle adolescence (Goldstein et al., 2005).

Research on parental monitoring, behavioral control and behavioral autonomy has indicated consistent links between high levels of monitoring and firm/consistent behavioral control and low levels of problems behaviors during adolescence (Barber et al., 1994; Galambos, Barker, & Almeida, 2003; Eccles et al., 1997; Gray & Steinberg, 1999; Hayes et al., 2004; Herman et al., 1997; Pettit, Laird, & Dodge, 2001). With regard to behavioral autonomy, adolescents appear to benefit from parenting that supports their participation in family decision making, but overly high levels of adolescent behavioral autonomy (as often occur with permissive and/or neglectful parenting) tend to be maladaptive for teens (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbusch, 1994). Notably, some authors have recently called the concept of parental monitoring into question, highlighting the fact that operational definitions of parental monitoring have tended to focus more on adolescents’ willingness to share information, versus parents’ active tracking and checking of adolescents’ behaviors (Kerr & Stattin, 2000). However, studies that have specifically examined aspects of actual parental monitoring, such as firmness of parental rules and closeness of parental supervision, confirm that adequate rules and close supervision have an inverse relationship to the level of adolescent problem behavior (Hayes et al., 2004).

In sum, undermining of cognitive/verbal autonomy and high levels of psychological control during adolescence are clearly linked to maladaptive outcomes for teens. This pattern is particularly found with regard to indices of self-concept and internalizing symptoms, although there is also some indication of links to externalizing behaviors. Notably, the association between psychological control and maldaptive outcomes does not appear to be attributable to other, more global aspects of the parent–teen relationship (e.g., warmth). Parenting that is manipulative, intrusive, and undermining of autonomy clearly has unique predictive power, suggesting that interference with this particular developmental task has serious and unique negative consequences for teens. However, a balance between moderate levels of behavioral control and opportunities for exercising behavioral autonomy appears to be beneficial for teens; firm control appears to play a particular protective role against engagement in risky and problematic behavior during adolescence. We will now turn to our final section examining individual differences with regard to autonomy processes and adjustment to college—one index of the ways that adolescents cope with a difficult developmental transition. This is one area of research that examines correlates of autonomy defined as an intrapsychic construct, as opposed to the preceding studies that focus on interfamilial indices of autonomy development.

4.5.3 Adolescent Autonomy and Adjustment to College

Unlike the attachment literature reviewed previously, autonomy development has not been directly examined in conjunction with emotion regulation and/or stress and coping. However, there is a relatively large body of evidence to suggest that autonomous teens adapt relatively well to one particular stressor: adjustment to college. Several studies of late adolescents and young adults have found links between various self-report measures of autonomy (particularly cognitive and emotional autonomy) and both concurrent and longitudinal adjustment to college, including both academic and personal–emotional outcomes (Beyers & Goossens, 2003; Frank et al., 1990; Haemmerlie, Steen, & Benedicto, 1994; Hoffman, 1984; Hoffman & Weiss, 1987; Holmbeck & Leake, 1999; Lapsley et al., 1989; Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1988; Palladino & Blustein, 1994; Rice, 1992; Rice, Cole, & Lapsley, 1990). For example, one recent study that utilized the PSI and the EAS found positive predictions between self-reported autonomy from parents and a range of measures of adjustment to college (Beyers & Goossens). These authors conceptualized the autonomy process as involving both positive feelings about the separation from parents (emotional autonomy, in terms of freedom from guilt or anger) as well as various forms of independence from parents (e.g., functional or behavioral autonomy). The index of positive feelings about separation (emotional autonomy) was particularly strongly linked to measures of adjustment (Beyers & Goossens).

4.5.4 Emotional Autonomy and Adolescent Outcomes

It is clear from the previous review that interfamilial autonomy defined in terms of parental support for cognitive/verbal autonomy and lack of parental psychological control co-occurs with a range of positive outcomes for teens. The correlates of emotional autonomy, when conceptualized as increased deidealization and decreased reliance on parents, are complex, and thus we review them separately here. The bulk of studies using Steinberg & Silverberg's (1986) EAS have indicated that higher scores are linked with poorer quality parent–teen relationships (e.g., Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Delaney, 1996; Garber & Little, 2001; Ryan & Lynch, 1989; Power, Francis, & Hughes, 1992). In addition, particularly during early and middle adolescence, high scores on the EAS tend to be inversely linked with aspects of adolescents’ functioning that should co-occur with healthy autonomy development, such as self-reliance and susceptibility to peer pressure (Steinberg & Silverberg). Other research has further documented that high scores on emotional autonomy as measured by the EAS are predictive of problems with both internalizing symptoms (anxiety, depression, self-worth) and externalizing behaviors (substance use, minor delinquency, aggressive behavior) (Delaney; Power et al., 1992; Turner, Irwin, Tschann, & Millstein, 1993).

However, there may be some conditions under which higher levels of emotional autonomy are linked to more positive outcomes for teens. As outlined earlier, there are documented normative increases in emotional autonomy. This is especially true with regard to deidealization, as well as in other possible indicators of autonomous development within the parent–teen relationship (e.g., disengagement, secrecy, and conflict). While the majority of the empirical evidence suggests that adolescents who score highly on these measures relative to their peers are less well adjusted (e.g. Finkenauer et al., 2002; Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986; Montemayor, 1986), the one possible exception to this pattern is found in the studies of adjustment to college in late adolescence as outlined above. Further, at least one study has indicated positive correlates of emotional autonomy when parent–teen relationship quality is poor, although this sample was primarily composed of ethnic minority teens (e.g. Fuhrman & Holmbeck, 1995). One study that compared adolescents according to where they fell on a combination of closeness and emotional autonomy found the most adaptive outcomes for those classified as connected (high in closeness and low in emotional autonomy), and the worst outcomes for those classified as detached (low in closeness and high in emotional autonomy). Those that were both close and autonomous were classified as individuated, and this group tended to have average levels of adjustment, falling in between the other two groups in terms of their levels of self-worth and anxiety (Delaney, 1996).

Thus, while emotional autonomy and deidealization are normative processes, it may be that precocious autonomy development in this domain is neither normative nor adaptive. Further, optimal autonomy development appears to necessitate both individuation and a sense of closeness and connection with parents, perhaps particularly during early and middle adolescence. While measures of emotional autonomy tap into some important aspects of the autonomy process, they tend to focus primarily on the processes of separation and individuation. Finally, it should be noted that comparing results across studies utilizing the EAS is somewhat difficult, given that different versions of the measure are often used, and there are wide variations in the sample age range and demographic composition that might confound results and limit generalizability (Beyers et al., 2005). It may be, for example, that some components of the autonomy processes that are captured with the EAS scale are, in fact, normative and others are not (e.g., Chen & Dornbusch, 1998), and/or that some aspects may be adaptive for adolescents of certain ages (e.g., Frank et al., 1990) or sociocultural backgrounds (e.g., Fuhrman & Holmbeck, 1995).

4.6 Individual Differences: Gender and Socioeconomic Factors

Overall, neither the literature on attachment relationships nor studies of autonomy processes has tended to address the issues of gender and socioeconomic context. In many cases, particularly with regard to studies of attachment during adolescence, small sample sizes have precluded the examining of demographic effects. As we will review in more detail below, some studies have demonstrated differences in the distribution of patterns of security versus insecurity of attachment, according to both gender and socioeconomic context. However, neither gender nor socioeconomic context has been found to moderate the links between attachment security versus insecurity and outcomes for teens. The patterns of findings with regard to gender and socioeconomic context are somewhat more complex within the literature examining autonomy processes. As discussed below, there do appear to be some gender differences in the autonomy driven shifts that occur in parent-teen relationships during adolescence, although the exact nature of those differences has been difficult to elucidate. Finally, the literature on socioeconomic context and autonomy development suggests both main effects and moderating effects of socioeconomic and contextual factors, as we will discuss below.

4.6.1 Attachment, Autonomy, and Gender

There are two main sets of questions to consider when examining the role of gender in parent–adolescent relationships. The first set concerns the possible differences between mother–adolescent and father–adolescent relationships, regardless of the gender of the teen. This area of research also includes whether there is differential prediction from qualities of mother–adolescent versus father–adolescent relationships. The second set of questions concerns possible differences in parent–teen relationships according to adolescents’ gender, as well as possible moderating effects of adolescents’ gender on the links between parent–teen relationship quality and adolescent outcomes. The examination of questions of gender effects is further complicated by methodological issues. With regard to attachment relationships, methods of assessment tend to focus on adolescents’ overarching attachment models, and such methods supersede an examination of relationships with each parent separately. Similarly, one drawback to much of the self-report literature on autonomy development is that studies often assess adolescents’ ratings of their relationships with both parents at once, rather than assessing the mother–adolescent and father–adolescent relationships separately (Eccles et al., 1997).

Results to date regarding effects of adolescent gender on attachment processes have been somewhat mixed. The majority of studies to date have not found gender differences with regard to distributions of secure, dismissing and preoccupied attachment representations, either as assessed via the AAI (Allen, Hauser, & Borman-Spurrell, 1996; Allen et al., 2004; Bernier et al., 2005; Dykas, Woodhouse, Cassidy, & Waters, 2006; Scharf, 2001; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006; Spangler & Zimmermann, 1999; Zimmermann, 2004), or via self-report measures of attachment style (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Schindler et al., 2005; Weimer et al., 2004). Studies that have found gender effects indicate that males may display higher levels of dismissing and deactivating tendencies, whereas females may demonstrate higher levels of preoccupation (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Kobak et al., 1993; Larose & Bernier, 2001). With regard to attachment hierarchies, studies have demonstrated that female adolescents tend to place mothers higher in their hierarchies than male adolescents, who tend to place fathers higher on their hierarchies than female adolescents (Markiewicz et al., 2006; Rosenthal & Kobak, 2007; Trinke & Bartholomew, 1997). However, gender does not appear to moderate links between attachment representations (or attachment hierarchies) and outcomes for teens: for both genders, secure attachment and reliance on parental figures (versus peers) for attachment needs is linked to more adaptive outcomes.

With regard to autonomy development, there is some support for the contention that mother–adolescent and father–adolescent relationships differ on a few dimensions, although not all students have found different patterns of interaction in mother–adolescent versus father–adolescent dyads. One relatively consistent finding is that the perturbations that occur in parent–adolescent relationships are somewhat more characteristic of mother-adolescent than father–adolescent dyads (Steinberg, 1987). Mothers are more likely than fathers to report problems in their relationships with their children as they enter adolescence, and mother–adolescent interactions become more conflictual and less supportive than father–adolescent interactions (Buchanan et al., 1990; Papini, Datan, & McClusky-Fawcett, 1988). However, adolescents tend to spend more time with their mothers, and are generally more likely to turn to mothers versus fathers for emotional support (Markiewicz et al., 2006; Rosenthal & Kobak, 2007; Trinke & Bartholomew, 1997).

With regard to autonomy and adjustment outcomes, some self-report research suggests that while both mothers’ and fathers’ approaches to autonomy support vs. inhibition have important implications for adolescents’ adjustment, their relative contributions may depend both on both the outcomes being the examined and the gender of the adolescent (Conger, Conger, & Scaramella, 1997; Laible & Carlo, 2004). For example, one prospective study found gender differences in adolescent outcomes of variations in parental support versus inhibition of autonomy: autocratic parenting behaviors during preschool were associated with overcontrolled behavior in female late adolescents, but with undercontrolled behavior in male late adolescents (Kremen & Block, 1998). The observational research on autonomy and relatedness within parent–teen relationships has occasionally yielded results primarily for father–adolescent versus mother–adolescent dyads, but regardless of the adolescents’ gender (Allen et al., 1994a; Grotevant & Cooper, 1985). Allen and colleagues (1994a) have hypothesized that fathers may take on a growing role in adolescence, and other authors have suggested that fathers play a particularly important role in shaping their children's relationships outside of the home (e.g., Crockenberg, Jackson, & Langrock, 1996; Youngblade & Belsky, 1995).

Results are even less clear regarding the moderating effects of adolescents’ gender on the links between autonomy processes and adolescent outcomes. Studies often have revealed opposite conclusions, as well as complicated interactions between parents’ and adolescents’ gender, as suggested above. Studies have indicated, for example, that mother–daughter relationships become particularly disrupted and conflictual during adolescence (Buchanan et al., 1990; Holmbeck & Hill, 1991; Montemayor, 1982, 1986; Smetana, 1988a, 1989; Smetana, Daddis, & Chuang, 2003), although other research has not supported this pattern (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Smetana, Yau, & Hanson, 1991; Papini et al., 1988). There is additional evidence that adolescent girls perceive higher levels of autonomy support from parents, and are granted more input into family decision making (Beyers & Goossens, 1999; Brown & Mann, 1990; Flanagan, 1990; Fuligni & Eccles, 1993; Holmbeck & O'Donnell, 1991; Jacobs, Bennett, & Flanagan, 1993; Soenens et al., 2007). However, these differences may at least partially depend on the gender of the parent (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2005) and on other family characteristics, such as cultural context and parental attitudes toward gender roles (Bumpus, Crouter, & McHale, 1998; Daddis & Smetana, 2005). Further, as indicated above, most of the observational literature on autonomy development has not found any moderating effects of adolescent gender with regard to the concurrent and short-term links between parent–adolescent autonomy negotiation and adolescent outcomes (Allen et al., 1994a; 1994b; Allen et al., 1996; McElhaney & Allen, 2001).

In summary, there is some evidence that dyadic variations in parent–teen relationships do exist, though the exact nature of such variations is not entirely clear, and there are likely complex interactions between the gender of the adolescent and the gender of the parent. Mother–adolescent relationships may be most prone to the increased conflict and emotional distancing that has been described in the literature, though this may be purely a function of the nature and intensity of the different roles that mothers vs. fathers tend to play in their adolescents’ daily lives. There is also some suggestion that fathers’ approaches to autonomy support may be particularly important with regard to adolescents’ social and emotional adjustment, though again there are inconsistencies in the data on this topic (e.g., Laible & Carlo, 2004). What does seem to be clear from the research to date is that attachment security versus insecurity does not generally vary according to gender, and that a secure state of mind with regard to attachment is linked to a range of positive outcomes for both genders. Further, promotion of autonomy (particularly cognitive/verbal autonomy) also appears to be equally positive for both male and female teens (Allen et al., 1994a; Allen et al., 1996; McElhaney & Allen, 2001).

4.7 Attachment, Autonomy, and Socioeconomic Context

Studies of attachment processes during infancy and childhood show clear links between economic risk factors, including poverty, socioeconomic status and race/ethnic minority status and security vs. insecurity of attachment. Researchers have suggested that such factors impinge on attachment relationships via other classes of associated variables, including parental sensitivity and child maltreatment (e.g., Bakermans-Kranenburg, van Ijzendoorn, & Kroonenberg, 2004; Egelund & Sroufe, 1981). Similarly, during adolescence, both race/ethnic minority status and socioecomic status (SES) have been associated with security versus insecurity of attachment (Allen et al., 1996; Allen et al., 2003, 2004, 2007;). While some studies have not found SES differences in attachment security, these studies often have been comprised of mostly middle- to upper-income, two-parent households, thus with a relatively homogenous range of socioeconomic risk factors (e.g., Bernier et al., 2005; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006). However, despite the clear associations between these contextual risk factors and security of attachment, most studies to date have not found any moderating effects of these factors: Across all socioeconomic and racial groups, security of attachment is associated with positive outcomes.

A somewhat different picture emerges when examining the links between socioeconomic factors, autonomy processes, and outcomes. As suggested previously, parental responses to adolescent autonomy strivings require balancing the need to set limits on behavior and the need to provide adolescents with sufficient freedom to try out new behaviors and learn from mistakes (Allen, Kuperminc, & Moore, 1997; Holmbeck, Paikoff, & Brooks-Gunn, 1995). However, the appropriate balance between limit setting and encouragement of exploration may depend on contextual factors such as the level of complexity, challenge, and danger in the adolescent's environment (Bradley, 1995). Extensive anthropological theory and research suggests that parents’ behaviors in socializing their children are strongly influenced by awareness of the traits that are considered necessary for survival and success (Barry, Child, & Bacon, (1959/67); Harkness & Super, 1995; Harrison, Wilson, Pine, Chan, & Buriel, 1990; Kohn, 1963, 1979; LeVine, 1980, 1988; Ogbu, 1981, 1988; Okagaki & Divecha, 1993). For example, parental appeals to prudential justifications—including concerns about health and safety—to resolve conflicts with their teens, have been found to be characteristic of certain subgroups of parents, particularly African-American parents of male adolescents (Smetana et al., 2003).

Along those lines, it has been suggested that parental inhibition of autonomy—whether it is defined in behavioral terms (e.g., strict rules and consequences), and/or in cognitive terms (e.g., discouragement of individual expression)—is potentially more appropriate when greater independence may pose increased threats to the adolescent's well-being (Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989; Furstenberg, 1993; Smetana & Gaines, 1999). In less risky contexts, however, these same autonomy-inhibiting behaviors might be more likely to reflect a maladaptive parental reluctance to allow normative autonomy development to proceed (Baldwin, Baldwin, & Cole, 1990). Research focusing on parenting across social contexts does indicate that parents in high-risk contexts (e.g., lower SES) are more likely to use strategies emphasizing conformity and obedience, rather than those that promote independence and autonomy (Bartz & Levine, 1978; Dornbusch, Ritter, Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987; Dubrow & Garbarino, 1989; Harkness & Super, 1995; Kelley, Sanchez-Hucles, & Walker, 1993). Even among a sample of middle-income African-American families, for example, parental power assertion (and adolescents’ acceptance of it) is more common among the lower income ranges, whereas joint parent–adolescent decision making and adolescent rejection of parental authority are more common among the higher income families (Smetana, 2000; Smetana & Gaines, 1999). Parental approaches to autonomy granting have also been found to vary along ethnic and cultural lines, and the picture is further complicated when families from cultures that tend to place less emphasis on autonomy immigrate to places where autonomy is highly valued (Feldman & Quatman, 1988; Feldman & Wood, 1994; Fuligni, 1998; Rosenthal & Feldman, 1990).

Parental approaches to autonomy also appear to have different consequences for adolescent development in low versus high-risk contexts. Although results of this research have been somewhat mixed (Steinberg et al., 1991), several studies have found that adolescent reports of parents’ authoritative parenting are not necessarily linked with positive outcomes in non-White, non-middle-class samples, whereas parenting styles involving a greater restriction of autonomy (i.e., authoritarian styles) are related to more positive child adjustment in these groups (Baumrind, 1972; Dornbusch et al., 1987; Dornbusch, Ritter, Mont-Reynaud, & Chen, 1990; Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Steinberg, 1996; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1992). Further, several recent surveys of parenting practices in primarily African -American samples have demonstrated that the level of environmental risk moderates the links between parental restriction of autonomy and adolescent adjustment. In high-risk contexts within these samples, parental restriction of autonomy during early and middle adolescence is linked with positive indices of adjustment, including higher levels of academic competence, decreased externalizing behaviors, and more positive self-worth (Baldwin et al., 1990; Gonzales, Cauce, Friedman, & Mason, 1996; Mason, Cauce, Gonzales, & Hiraga, 1996; Smetana, Campione-Barr, & Daddis, 2004). Finally, one recent observational study found that adolescents from high-risk settings viewed mothers who were high on undermining of cognitive/verbal autonomy as more trustworthy and accepting; teens from low-risk settings, however, viewed highly undermining mothers as more psychologically controlling, and they reported feeling more alienated from them (McElhaney & Allen, 2001). In this same study, higher levels of adolescents’ expressions of autonomy were linked to positive outcomes for low-risk teens (higher levels of competence with peers), but to negative outcomes for high-risk teens (higher levels of engagement in delinquent behaviors).

Social context clearly has important implications for both attachment and autonomy processes. The findings with regard to attachment relationships have been generally limited to main effects of socioeconomic factors on security versus insecurity of attachment states of mind. Research to date suggests that for all groups, secure attachment predicts more adaptive social and emotional functioning. In contrast, both main effects and moderating effects of socioeconomic context have been found with regard to the autonomy process. Parents who are raising teenagers in settings that pose increased risks to their health and well being tend to emphasize those issues more in their parenting, and exercise stricter controls over adolescents’ autonomy. Further, in such high-risk contexts, this increased level of inhibition of autonomy generally does not appear to have the same negative correlates as are found in low-risk settings. It should be noted, however, that much of the work in this area is cross-sectional in nature, and has been conducted with samples of early to middle adolescents. It may be that restriction of autonomy does serve a protective function in the short term, which may or may not translate into adaptive outcomes later in life.

5 Directions for Future Research

  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References

Overall, there is empirical support for the integral nature of attachment security and autonomy development, and their importance both in terms of normative development and individual differences during adolescence. However, this field of research would benefit from further inquiry along a number of lines. With regard to normative development, very little research has examined stability versus instability in adolescent attachment security. More research is needed that examines the possible changes in attachment models that may occur during adolescence, including a closer examination of factors that may contribute to such changes.

Further, while research examining parent–adolescent relationships has yielded findings consistent with the notion that the balance in these relationships shifts toward increased autonomy and exploration, the variations in how autonomy has been conceptualized and operationally defined has complicated the research in this area. Studies rarely consider more than one aspect of autonomy development, and there is little exploration to date of how different types of autonomy are interrelated (e.g., intrapsychic and interfamilial), and/or whether they develop similarly within different interrpersonal contexts (e.g., within families versus within peer groups). Finally, the majority of the studies reported here focus on changes in aspects of parent–adolescent relationships that are more tangentially related to autonomy development, such as the nature and frequency of parent–teen conflict.

Further, while security of attachment and parental support for autonomy (across most facets) is clearly beneficial for most adolescents, there remain additional questions about the correlates of these important constructs. For example, small sample sizes have often precluded definitive conclusions about outcomes for preoccupied teens, and the pattern of moderating effects that has been found to date indicates that some of these teens may demonstrate adaptive outcomes in certain contexts. Along those lines, few studies have examined the joint effects of attachment security versus insecurity and autonomy processes in predicting adjustment outcomes for teens. Thus, the critical nature of establishing autonomy while maintaining relatedness largely remains untested. Finally, there is growing evidence the established links between parental support for autonomy and positive adaptation may be moderated by key aspects of adolescents’ social, cultural and/or economic environments, though additional research in this area will help to specify which of those aspects may be most important. Whether and to what extent adolescents’ gender plays a role in the nature and outcome of the autonomy process also has yet to be fully determined.

  1. 1

    An additional self-report measure that has been utilized with adolescents is Armsden & Greenberg's Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA; 1987). The authors propose that adolescents’ internal working models of attachment can be assessed by asking teens to report on how available and sensitive their caregivers are, as well as the degree to which teens experience anger or hopelessness as a result of unresponsiveness or inconsistency on the part of their caregivers. Although the IPPA has good psychometric properties and has been widely validated as a measure of parent-adolescent relationship quality, many attachment researchers do not consider it a measure of internal working models of attachment to parents. Most accurately, this measure appears to provide a general assessment of the current quality of the parent-adolescent relationship, without particular reference to attachment-relevant constructs (e.g., security, secure-base provision, caregiving under stress, etc.). Given these limitations, and the fact that the empirical overlap of this measure with other more widely validated measures of attachment organization (e.g., the AAI) is very low (Crowell, Treboux, & Waters, 1993, April; Zimmermann, 2004), studies primarily relying on the IPPA will not be reviewed here.

  2. 2

    Some of the literature on behavioral autonomy also examines adolescents’ functioning in peer relationships, encompassing such topics as peer pressure and peer influence. These topics are covered in chapter 16 of this volume, which provides an overview of adolescents’ relationships with their peers.

  3. 3

    At least one other questionnaire, the Adolescent Autonomy Questionnaire (Noom, Dekovic, & Meeus, 2001), has been developed for use with adolescents. This measure assesses attitudinal, emotional, and functional autonomy with no reference to the parent–adolescent relationship. Given our relational focus, this measure will not be reviewed here.


  1. Top of page
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Attachment and Autonomy
  3. Approaches to Measuring Attachment and Autonomy During Adolescence
  4. Normative Development of Attachment and Autonomy
  5. Individual Differences in Attachment and Autonomy Processes
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. References
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