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Research investigating positive institutions, such as families, and the optimal well-being of adolescents has been scant. This study reports on the relationship between family structure and optimal adolescent functioning, as indexed by a sense of satisfaction with life overall and with specific domains (e.g. family, friends, school). Previous research studies, employing varying measures of life satisfaction, have yielded conflicting findings. The sample included 457 US middle school students who were administered the Multidimensional Students’ Life Satisfaction Scale (Huebner, 1994) and one question about family structure that revealed whether students lived in intact, single-parent, or stepparent families. Results indicated that family structure was related significantly to family satisfaction and approached significance for living environment satisfaction, with adolescents in single-parent and stepparent families reporting lower satisfaction in these domains than adolescents in intact families. Family structure was not related to the remaining domains or general life satisfaction. These results shed some light on conflicting findings in the literature and highlight the importance of distinguishing between general and multidimensional measures of life satisfaction. General life satisfaction measures may mask distinctions made by adolescents among important domains in their lives. Implications for adolescent health promotion are discussed.
Peu de recherches portent sur les institutions positives comme la famille et sur le bien-être optimal des adolescents. Cette recherche étudie la relation entre la structure familiale et le fonctionnement optimal des adolescents établi par le sentiment de satisfaction envers la vie en général et dans des domaines spécifiques (famille, amis, école). Des études antérieures utilisant diverses mesures de satisfaction de vie ont donné des résultats contradictoires. L’échantillon se compose de 457 élèves américains ayant répondu à l’Echelle Multidimensionnelle de Satisfaction de Vie des Etudiants (MSLSS, Huebner, 1994) et à une question relative au type de structure familiale dans lequel ils vivent: famille “traditionnelle”, monoparentale ou recomposée. Les résultats indiquent que la structure familiale est liée de façon significative à la satisfaction familiale et approche la significativité en ce qui concerne la satisfaction pour le cadre de vie. Les adolescents de famille monoparentale et recomposée font preuve d’une satisfaction moins importante dans ces domaines que les adolescents des familles “traditionnelles”. La structure familiale n’est pas liée aux autres domaines ou à la satisfaction de vie en général. Ces résultats permettent d’expliquer ceux contradictoires obtenus dans la littérature et soulignent l’importance à distinguer les mesures de la satisfaction de vie en général de celles recueillies dans des domaines particuliers. Les mesures de satisfaction de vie en général masquent les distinctions faites par les adolescents entre leurs différents domaines de leur vie. Les implications pour la promotion de la santé des adolescents sont discutées.
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Adolescence is a distinct developmental stage, separable from both childhood and adulthood, which presents specific challenges and opportunities. Although adolescence can be a time of health and well-being, special vulnerabilities associated with self-discovery and emerging independence pose significant threats to adolescents’ health. Analyses of major US national data sources suggest that although some improvements have been noted, there are continued high rates of morbidity and mortality associated with high rates of mental health disorders and risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use, violent behavior, and risky sexual behavior (Irwin, Burg, & Cart, 2002). Because adolescent populations in some nations are expected to increase substantially, additional resources may be needed to address such problems.
Although a focus on youth problems is important, some scholars have expanded their focus to include positive indicators of well-being, attempting to shift research, public discussion, and policy-making efforts toward the promotion of optimal levels of adolescent health (Peterson, 2006). Their efforts recognise that health is not merely the absence of disease, as suggested by the World Health Organization as early as 1948. Life satisfaction, or perceived quality of life, is one broad construct, which encompasses the full range of functioning from “very low” to “OK” to “very high”, and has received increasing attention as an indicator of optimal functioning among youth (Suldo & Huebner, 2006). Life satisfaction has been defined as a subjective appraisal of the quality of one's life overall or with specific domains (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). In contrast with conceptualisations of health as the absence of illness, studies have identified youth who display few psychological symptoms but still have low life satisfaction (Greenspoon & Saklofske, 2001; Suldo & Shaffer, in press). These students demonstrate lower levels of social functioning, physical health, and school achievement than youth with low pathology and high life satisfaction, suggesting the need for comprehensive models of health that incorporate negative and positive indicators.
The importance of adolescent life satisfaction has been revealed in longitudinal studies showing that lower levels of life satisfaction predict future externalising and internalising behaviors and peer victimisation experiences (Haranin, Huebner, & Suldo, 2007; Martin, Huebner, & Valois, 2008). Furthermore, Suldo and Huebner (2004a) found that adolescents with high satisfaction were less likely to exhibit future externalising behaviors after experiencing significant life stressors. Accordingly, life satisfaction can be viewed as an important psychological strength that helps to facilitate adaptive development.
Researchers have sought to assess the presumed determinants of life satisfaction in adolescents. In addition to demonstrating the roles of individual factors (e.g. temperament, attributional style differences), a variety of contextual factors have been shown to relate to adolescent life satisfaction. Across the full range of adolescence, students’ ratings of the quality of their family relationships have been shown to be of greater significance to their overall life satisfaction than peer, school, or community-level ratings (Dew & Huebner, 1994; Huebner, 1991). Despite increasing amounts of time spent with peers, the quality of family relationships appears to be most important to adolescents’ lives. Thus, it seems critical to determine which specific features of families serve as determinants of optimal well-being, including their life satisfaction.
Research to date indicates that adolescents’ life satisfaction is associated with a range of different family characteristics, including parental involvement, positive parent–child relationships, and parental social support (Ash & Huebner, 2001; Demo & Acock, 1996; Dew & Huebner, 1994; Flouri & Buchanan, 2002; Gilman & Huebner, 2006; Gilman, Huebner, & Laughlin, 2000; Leung & Zhang, 2000; Storksen, Roysamb, Moum, & Tambs, 2005; Suldo & Huebner, 2004b; Suldo & Huebner, 2006; Young, Miller, Norton, & Hill, 1995; Zimmerman, Salem, & Maton, 1995). Suldo and Huebner (2006) found evidence for the importance of parental support for adolescent well-being by examining individuals with very low, average, and very high levels of life satisfaction. Their results indicate that the level of parental support was different for all three groups of adolescents, with greater support associated with higher satisfaction. Moreover, parent support was found to be a necessary factor for high levels of life satisfaction; over 92 per cent of adolescents in the high satisfaction group reported above-average levels of parental support. In general, a negative family environment is associated with decreased well-being. Life satisfaction is lower among youth who experience high conflict and disagreement with their parents and high family-related stress (Ash & Huebner, 2001; Bradley & Corwyn, 2004; Demo & Acock, 1996; Phinney & Ong, 2002).
Such research clearly indicates that family processes and relationships are linked to youth satisfaction. Family structure has also been investigated as a correlate of youth well-being. Defined by the parents with whom children primarily live, family structures can be considered either intact or non-intact. Intact families consist of children living with both their mother and their father, while non-intact families can consist of either single-parent families, reconstituted stepparent families, or other non-parent adults. Because of recent changes in the US and other nations, children are spending less and less time living in traditional, married families (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). As such, recent research has addressed the impact of family structure on children's and adolescents’ development, and it has been linked with a variety of youth outcomes. Compared with youth in non-intact families, adolescents in intact families demonstrate higher achievement, exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors and less delinquency, and maintain healthier lifestyles (Carlson, 2006; Demuth & Brown, 2004; Jeynes, 2005; Ram & Hou, 2005; Theodorakis, Papaioannou, & Karastogianidou, 2004). In addition to these behavioral outcomes, youth psychological well-being seems to be affected by family structure as well. Children from non-intact families tend to exhibit increased internalising behaviors and more negative emotions, and adolescents living in single-parent families report a lower overall self-concept than adolescents in either intact or reconstituted families (Carlson, 2006; Sweeney & Bracken, 2000). As might be expected, parent–child relations are related to family structure as well. Studies show that compared to individuals from intact families, children and adolescents who have experienced parental separation or divorce tend to have poorer relationships with their parents (Fine, McKenry, Donnelly, & Voydanoff, 1992; Grossman & Rowat, 1995). Thus, youth living in non-intact families seem to be at risk for a range of negative behavioral, psychological, and relational outcomes that could contribute to decreased well-being.
Several studies have investigated family status as it relates to life satisfaction in particular. Sastre and Ferriere (2000) explored the satisfaction of 50 adolescents who had been removed from their families and placed in children's homes and 50 matched adolescents living with their parents in intact families. Compared to individuals living in intact families, individuals placed in children's homes rated their satisfaction almost 1.2 points lower on a 5-point scale. Although it is difficult to separate the effect of family structure in particular from the effect of placement in a home, these findings do suggest that family status can have a powerful impact.
Studies have also demonstrated a significant relationship between family structure and life satisfaction (Bradley & Corwyn, 2004; Demo & Acock, 1996; Flouri & Buchanan, 2002; Storksen et al., 2005; Zullig, Valois, Huebner, & Drane, 2005). In these studies, adolescents living in intact families had higher global well-being and general life satisfaction than those who had experienced parental separation or divorce, while adolescents not living with either their mother or their father were at the greatest risk for dissatisfaction with life.
Other studies have found insignificant relationships between family structure and life satisfaction. Grossman and Rowat (1995) observed no differences in overall life satisfaction between adolescents in intact versus non-intact families. Similarly, in a study of US inner-city, African-American high school males, Zimmerman et al. (1995) found non-significant differences in global life satisfaction across five different types of families, including intact, single-mother, mother and extended family members, stepparent, and extended family only. Thus, the impact of family structure on adolescent life satisfaction is unclear.
One possible explanation for the contradictory findings involves the measures of life satisfaction utilised in the studies. As scholarly interest in life satisfaction has increased, researchers have developed various measures, based on differing underlying conceptual models. Currently, measures are typically based on one of three basic conceptual models, including two unidimensional models and one multidimensional model. The two unidimensional models include general and global life satisfacton. In unidimensional models, a single overall score is used to represent a person's satisfaction. Global satisfaction is assessed by items that are entirely free of context (e.g. “My life is going well”); thus, individuals judge their satisfaction based on their personal standards. In contrast, general satisfaction is determined by ratings of several specific life domains, such as family (e.g. “I enjoy being at home with my family”) and friends (e.g. “My friends are great”), and is conceptualised as the sum of satisfaction across these life domains. Although the global and general conceptualisations use a single score to represent satisfaction, research suggests that individuals’ judgments in various life domains may be differentially affected by personal and environmental influences (Gilman et al., 2000; Huebner, 1994). As such, multidimensional conceptualisations may yield more differentiated information. Like general models, multidimensional models include assessments of several life contexts. However, the various domain scores are considered independently, providing distinct measures of the domains of interest.
Studies of the relationship between family structure and life satisfaction have employed different types of satisfaction measures. Several studies, including those yielding insignificant findings, used multi-item global scales (Grossman & Rowat, 1995; Sastre & Ferriere, 2000; Storksen et al., 2005; Zimmerman et al., 1995), while two studies used a single-item global scale (Demo & Acock, 1996; Flouri & Buchanan, 2002). Thus, most of the studies evaluated only domain-free appraisals of life quality. In the other two studies, participants completed general satisfaction measures, including ratings of various domains, such as friends, family, and neighborhood (Bradley & Corwyn, 2004; Zullig et al., 2005). However, subsequent analyses used only the total score measuring general satisfaction, failing to consider each domain separately. None of the studies used multidimensional measures that considered the domains separately. Accordingly, prior research may have overlooked important context-specific information. Whatever the case, the conflicting findings may be related to problems of definition as well as measurement across studies.
Although research findings are contradictory, there is a strong theoretical basis for expecting differences in adolescent satisfaction as a function of family structure. Many psychological, anthropological, and sociological theories assert that two biological parents are most beneficial for promoting healthy child development and that deviations from this intact family structure can result in less optimal outcomes. Such factors as decreased parent–child interaction, loss of parental role models, and reduced parental supervision may characterise non-intact families and result in disadvantages for the children within those families (Amato & Keith, 1991; Demo & Acock, 1996). Similarly, Resource Theory states that an individual's well-being is related to his or her possession of material, social, and personal characteristics or resources that can be used to achieve desired outcomes (Diener & Fujita, 1995). Because family resources are among the strongest predictors of life satisfaction, satisfaction may be lower among adolescents in non-intact families if they have fewer resources available. Single-parent families in particular may find it difficult to maintain sufficient levels of social and economic resources in the family system, while reconstituted families face the challenge of adjusting to complex new relationships and restructured family roles (Carlson & Trapani, 2006).
This study extended prior research by investigating the relationship between family structure and adolescent life satisfaction, using a multidimensional measure of life satisfaction. By investigating general as well as domain-based satisfaction, it was possible to obtain more specific information and determine how family structure might differentially relate to various satisfaction domains. Consistent with the theories described above, it was hypothesised that adolescents in intact families would have higher satisfaction than adolescents in non-intact families. Specifically, family structure was expected to be significantly related to the contexts most proximal to family resources: family and living environment. In contrast, it was expected that general satisfaction as well as satisfaction in more distal contexts (friends, school, and self) would remain constant across family types.
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This study investigated the relationship between family structure and life satisfaction in adolescents to evaluate the impact of family characteristics on youth well-being. To clarify prior research, both domain-specific and general measures of satisfaction were considered. Overall, adolescents were very satisfied with their lives, reporting a mean score of 4.72 on a scale ranging from 1 to 6. Moreover, friend satisfaction and self satisfaction were especially high, with means greater than 5 for both domains. Like other studies (Gilman et al., 2000; Huebner et al., 1998), adolescents were least satisfied with their school lives. With an average school satisfaction rating of 4.09, however, the participants were still more satisfied than dissatisfied with school.
Regarding the relationship between life satisfaction and family structure, several findings were noteworthy. As expected, there was a significant difference in family satisfaction among adolescents from different family types. Consistent with the Resource Theory (Diener & Fujita, 1995), adolescents from single-parent families had the lowest family satisfaction. These adolescents are likely to be experiencing decreased attention and parental interaction in a single-parent household, which contribute to lower satisfaction with family life (Amato & Keith, 1991; Demo & Acock, 1996). Although the family satisfaction of adolescents in reconstituted or stepparent families was slightly higher, those in intact families had the highest levels of family satisfaction. Thus, it appears that living with both biological parents is associated with the most positive feelings about one's family life among early adolescents. Although the effect sizes are fairly small, these differences are especially meaningful in consideration of other contextual factors. For example, research on family structure indicates that both children and parents tend to adapt fairly well within the first few years after a family transition occurs (Hetherington, 1989). Similarly, Resource Theory asserts that individuals typically adapt to changes in their levels of resources and that only recent resource changes have major impact on perceived well-being (Diener & Fujita, 1995). The relationship between family structure and family satisfaction, therefore, seems to be fairly robust in that there were significant differences between adolescents in different family types, regardless of if and when a family transition occurred. Accordingly, the association is likely to be even greater for youth who have experienced a recent change in family status.
Regarding living environment satisfaction, there was a trend in the expected direction. Because living environment is closely related to family conditions, it was hypothesised that individuals in non-intact families would be less satisfied. As expected, adolescents in intact families had the highest living environment satisfaction, followed by adolescents in reconstituted families, while adolescents in single-parent families had the lowest living environment satisfaction. These differences, however, were not significant.
Significant differences were not observed for the other domains, including general life satisfaction. These findings have implications for understanding prior research, which has yielded inconsistent findings on the relationship between family structure and youth satisfaction. Previous studies have used only unidimensional assessments to investigate either general or global satisfaction, which may not have been sensitive enough to detect important differences. The current findings suggest that unidimensional measures may mask important effects. Specifically, if only general satisfaction had been investigated in this study, it would have been concluded that there were no differences in life satisfaction as a function of family structure. Such findings should not lead to the conclusion that one measurement approach should be preferred over another, but rather that researchers must carefully consider which instruments are most appropriate given their particular research purposes.
The results of the current study are limited in several ways. First, data were obtained from students in a single rural area in one southeastern US state. Additionally, the sample was not demographically representative of the United States population. Thus, the generalisability of the findings is restricted, and more research is needed to investigate whether these results apply to other populations of adolescents, including students in other nations.
Second, this cross-sectional study does not take into account when and if a change in family structure occurred. As described above, studies suggest that adolescents often adjust to a new family structure within a few years following the change (Hetherington, 1989). Research also suggests that adolescents living with continuously single mothers do not necessarily experience the same negative consequences as those living in divorced or stepparent families (Demo & Acock, 1996). Longitudinal analyses are needed to clarify the nature and directionality of life satisfaction–family structure linkages. If students have been living in reconstituted families for an extended period of time or with a single parent who has never been married, their satisfaction may be relatively unaffected compared to youth experiencing recent changes in family structure.
A third limitation results from the fact that the majority of single-parent and reconstituted families were mother-headed. Only 10 adolescents reported living with their father only, and just eight reported living with their father and stepmother. Because there were so few father-headed families, these adolescents were combined into groups with adolescents living with single mothers or mothers and stepfathers. There is some indication, however, that outcomes for adolescents may vary depending on whether they live in mother-headed or father-headed families (Demuth & Brown, 2004), but the present analyses fail to consider such differences.
In addition, current theories suggest that factors other than family structure also influence the well-being of adolescents in single-parent or reconstituted families. For example, the economic viewpoint focuses on the financial deprivation of non-intact families. Single mothers in particular often face economic hardship, which can in turn have many negative consequences for children. Alternatively, the family conflict approach suggests that psychosocial processes within the family, such as high levels of inter-parent and parent–child conflict, may be a disadvantage for children in non-intact families (Amato & Keith, 1991; Demo & Acock, 1996). Accordingly, future studies should investigate how economic conditions and family conflict mediate and/or interact with family structure to affect adolescents’ satisfaction. Researchers should also explore mechanisms that help adolescents in non-intact families maintain high satisfaction. Identifying the factors that characterise individuals who adjust positively will be useful in designing specific targeted interventions to promote positive well-being for adolescents from non-intact families.
In conclusion, positive psychologists have proposed a tripartite model, in which positive institutions (e.g. families, schools) are viewed as facilitators of positive personal traits and emotions (Peterson, 2006). This study converges with other literature that highlights the importance of the family as an institution that is central to the facilitation of optimal well-being, even among adolescents, whose major life task is to successfully navigate the individuation process on the road to adulthood. Although life satisfaction is not the only indicator of optimal well-being, it is a broad-based concept that relates to a wide-ranging nomological network of youth outcomes (Huebner, 2004). Continued research and practical efforts should be devoted to the intersection between optimal well-being, including life satisfaction, and family approaches to practice, training, and research with adolescents. Of course, the conclusion from this study should not be that children from non-intact families cannot experience healthy levels of life satisfaction, but rather that intact families with stable resources may more readily facilitate higher levels of life satisfaction. Nevertheless, although empirically based, family interventions to promote optimal adolescent life satisfaction in particular have not been reported on in the literature, the findings of this study support attention to policies and programs that provide economic, psychosocial, and health-related support to families in need.
Healthy youth represent one of any nation's most valuable resources. Troubled youth demand appropriate resources to assist them with their problems. Given the expected disproportionate increase in the population of older age groups in some countries, resources available for adolescents may become increasingly strained, making prevention and health promotion programs for adolescents more critical in the future (Irwin et al., 2002). The results of this study suggest that family characteristics must be taken into consideration for such prevention and health promotion efforts to be optimally effective.