Applied Psychology OPUS

The Impact of Parental Divorce on Emerging Adults’ Self-Esteem

Kelsey Block & Sophie Spiegel

The institution of marriage in the United States traditionally provides economic, social, and emotional stability. Major instability within a marriage can influence the surrounding microsystems which can have many negative impacts. Divorce impacts approximately 40-50% of current marriages throughout the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2009). More than one million young children under the age of 18 experience parental divorce every year and many studies show that regardless of age, divorce affects individuals throughout their life (Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; Bing, Nelson III, & Wesolowski, 2009; Bulduc, Caron, & Logue, 2007; Kot & Shoemaker, 1999; Mullett & Stolberg, 2002; Ross & Miller, 2009). The consequences of divorce can negatively impact young children’s psychological adjustment, behavior, social ability, self-esteem, and academic achievement, which can persist throughout adulthood (Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011; Bing et al., 2009; Clarke-Stewart, Vandell, McCartney, Owen, & Booth, 2000; Holdnack, 1992; Kalter, 1987; Kot & Shoemaker, 1999; Short, 2002; Wallerstein, 1991). However, there is limited research that focuses on the consequences of parental divorce in an emerging adult population.

College Students and Parental Divorce

Upon entering the first year of college, 26% of college students reported their parents were either divorced or separated (Knox, Zusman, & DeCuzzi, 2004). Moreover, extending to the 16 million college students in the United States, more than four million college students have parents who are either divorced or separated (Knox et al., 2004). College students who came from divorced households often demonstrate increased levels of anxiety compared to those individuals who came from intact households (Ross & Miller, 2009; Short, 2002). Additional difficulties emerged for college students whose parents divorced while the emerging adult was in college: trouble academically, struggling with occupational achievement, antisocial behavior, problems with intimate relationships, relationship with parent, physical health, anxiety, and aggression (Bulduc et al., 2007; Evans & Bloom, 1996; Hannum & Dvorak, 2004; Knox et al., 2004; Mullett & Stolberg, 2002; Ross & Miller, 2009). Although there are some studies encompassing emerging adults and divorce, it should be noted that the term emerging adult does not always refer to an individual in college.

Impact of Parental Divorce on Emerging Adults’ Self-Esteem

A new stage of development that is on the forefront of psychological research is emerging adulthood. Emerging adulthood is a period where individuals ages 18-25 transition from adolescence, but are not quite in the stage of young adulthood (Cohen, Kasen, Chen, Hartmark, & Gordon, 2003). Emerging adulthood encompasses an array of changes, including new responsibilities, and living independently of parental guardians (Cohen et al., 2003). However, emerging adulthood is a stage where many individuals are seeking higher education, before men and women are financially independent, have careers, and start families (Cohen et al., 2003). Experiencing divorce may have negative impacts on this stage of development for emerging adults.

Parents often involve their children in the divorce process which may have negative impacts throughout emerging adulthood. Separated or divorced parents use alienation strategies, such as degrading one another or turning the child against the other parent (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011). Children who experience alienation strategies are likely to internalize the insults toward their parent and believe they are not loved and the divorce is their fault (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011). In a study by Baker and Ben-Ami (2011), an adult sample whose parents divorced before the age of 15 were assessed on parent alienation strategies, and individuals who experienced parental alienation exhibited lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression, insecure attachment in relationships, and decreased self-sufficiency in adulthood (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011).

Adults who experience low self-esteem in adolescence are more likely to develop mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, engage in criminal acts, and exhibit higher unemployment rates than adults who had stable high self-esteem (Trzesniewski et al., 2006). Adolescents with low self-esteem are also less likely to earn a higher education in adulthood (Trzesniewski et al., 2006). Although emerging adults with low self-esteem are less likely to go to college than their high self-esteemed counterparts, there is little research that explores the transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood and the impacts of parental divorce.

Although adolescents with low self-esteem are less likely to go to college than their high self-esteemed counterparts, there is little research that explores emerging adults with divorced parents that do attend college. Furthermore, there is little research on whether emerging adults from divorced families that attend college have differences in self-esteem as compared to emerging adults from intact families that attend college. Transitioning from elementary school to high school is likely to decrease self-esteem, but there is little research on the extent to which self-esteem is influenced when changing the environment from high school to college (Wigfield & Eccles, 1994).

Research Questions

The present study seeks to understand the following research questions: 1) Are there differences in emerging adults who come from intact versus divorced families on levels of self-esteem? 2) Is there a relation between social support and self-esteem in an emerging adult population? 3) Does parental marital status moderate the relation between social support and self-esteem in emerging adulthood? The hypotheses of this study are as follows: 1) There are likely differences between emerging adults who come from divorced versus intact families on levels of self-esteem. 2) Social support is likely to be correlated with self-esteem. 3) Parental marital status is likely to moderate the relation between social support and self-esteem in an emerging adult population.

Method

Participants

The current study utilized the survey results from 116 undergraduate students at New York University (74% female) age 18-22 years-old. Participants came from a range of ethnicities: White (58.6%), Asian (18.1%), Latino/a (7.8%), African American (4.3%), mixed (8.6%), and other (2.6%). In terms of parental marital status, 71.6% of the participants’ parents were married as compared to 22.4% divorced.

Procedures

Participants were recruited through convenience sampling. Members of an undergraduate research methods class filled out a survey and distributed the survey form to five additional students that were not in the class. The survey consisted of demographic items and construct questionnaires, such as perceptions of beauty, stress, self-esteem, social support, and anxiety among an emerging adult population in a university setting. The constructs relevant to this study are parental marital status, social support, and self-esteem.

Measures

Parental divorce. Parental marital status was measured in the demographic information that the participants reported in the survey. Participants selected from married, divorced, or other, where they could fill it in themselves. Parental marital status was then collapsed into married or divorced, excluding the other category.

Social support. Social support was measured using The Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (Zimet, Dahlem, Zimet, & Farley, 1988). The 12-item scale asked participants to respond with 7 response options (i.e., 1 = very strongly disagree; 7 = very strongly agree). An example of one of the items in the questionnaire is, “There is a special person who is around when I am in need.” The Cronbach’s alpha in this sample has a reliability of α=.85 after removing an item.

Self-esteem. Self-esteem was measured using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1986). This 10-item scale asked participants to respond to statements with four response options (i.e., 1 = strongly disagree; 4 = strongly agree). An example of one of the items in the questionnaire is, “I feel I have a number of good qualities.” The Cronbach’s alpha in this sample has a reliability of α=.85.

Data Analysis Plan

In order to test the moderation effect of parental marital status on the relation between social support and self-esteem, we will use Baron and Kenny’s moderation method (1985). In order to test Hypothesis 1 to determine if parental marital status is likely to impact self-esteem we will conduct an independent samples t-test. To test Hypothesis 2to determine if social support and self-esteem are correlated we will conduct a Pearson correlation. To test Hypothesis 3 we will conduct a hierarchical multiple regression, in Step 1 determining the relation between parental marital status and self esteem, Step 2 determining the relation between social support and self-esteem, and Step 3 an interaction term will be created by multiplying parental marital status by the centered social support variable to determine the relation between the interaction term and self-esteem (i.e., Parental Marital Status X Social Support). A significant alpha level in Step 3 indicates moderation.

Results

To answer the first research question, an independent samples t-test was run with parental marital status as the independent variable and self-esteem as the dependent variable. The t-test was not significant showing no difference between students on mean levels of self-esteem between married  (M=3.20, SD=.50) and divorced families (M=3.21, SD=.47); t(104)= -.095, p = .92. Figure 2 displays that there are no differences of self-esteem between emerging adults who come from divorced versus intact families when levels of social support are moderately high.

Table 1 displays the answer to the second research question where a Pearson correlation was used to evaluate the relation between social support and self-esteem. Results revealed a significant, slightly moderate, positive correlation between social support and self-esteem (r = .23, p < .05) after recoding self-esteem.

Finally, in order to test the moderation effect of parental marital status on social support and self-esteem, a hierarchical multiple regression was run and results are presented in Table 2. Parental marital status was entered into Step 1 and did not significantly predict variance in self-esteem (R2 = .000, F change (1, 104) = .009 p = .92). Social support was entered into Step 2 of the model and predicted 5.5% of the variance in self-esteem (R2 change= .055, F change (1, 103) = 6.01, p <.05). As hypothesized, increases in social support predicted increases in self-esteem (b = .22). To test for moderation an interaction term was entered into Step 3 of the model. Following guidelines outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986), the predictor variable was centered before calculating the interaction term (i.e., Parental Marital Status X Social Support). Results showed that the R2 change statistic was not significant, (R2 change =.001, F change (1, 102) = .07, p = .80), indicating that parental marital status did not significantly moderate the relationship between social support and self-esteem in the present study.

Discussion

The results of the present study confirmed the second hypothesis. Social support moderately predicted self-esteem beyond what would be expected due to chance. Moreover, as social support increased, so did self-esteem. There was no relation between parental marital status and self-esteem in emerging adults, and thus parental marital status did not affect the relation between social support and self-esteem. Therefore, the first and third hypotheses were not confirmed in this study. 

Although there are some studies encompassing emerging adults and divorce, it should be noted that the term emerging adult does not always refer to an individual in college. Adults who experienced parental divorce in childhood or adolescence are likely to have decreased self-esteem, which can have negative life outcomes in adulthood (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011; Trzesniewski et al., 2006). The findings of the current study are promising, showing little to no difference between emerging adults who come from intact or divorced families on levels of self-esteem. Perhaps the negative impacts of divorce can be overcome by the time a person reaches college. Furthermore, this study may confirm the results of Trzesniewski et al. (2006), that emerging adults who attend college have higher self-esteem on average than their non collegiate peers.

The findings of the current study are limited for various reasons. First, participants did not report when the divorce occurred or the quality of the divorce, and this is critical because parental divorce that encourages the child to choose sides or degrade one parent during adolescence can have more negative outcomes in emerging adulthood (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011). The construct of parental marital status was dichotomous, and therefore did not account for all of the variance that could be considered. Furthermore, we did not control for other influencing factors of self-esteem such as anxiety or stress. Future research should use a more diverse sample size not exclusive to NYU, or college students. Future studies should also examine the time that divorce occurs and self-esteem in emerging adulthood, and what other influencing factors may predict those individuals who come from divorced families with either high versus low self-esteem. 

 

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