September 17, 2000

Researchers Find That Parent's Marital Status Can Influence the Self-Esteem of African American Adolescent Boys

A more controlled and structured environment may buffer the negative effects of having nonmarried parents

WASHINGTON — In a study examining how family characteristics affect African American youth, researchers found that African American adolescent boys with nonmarried parents are more at risk for developing low self-esteem compared with other African American adolescents. The study, published in the September issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Family Psychology, illustrates the apparently valuable role of the African American father in raising his children, particularly his boys.

Psychologists Jelani Mandara and Carolyn B. Murray, PhD, of the University of California, Riverside, studied perceptions of self-esteem and family functioning from a sample of 116 15-year-old African American girls and boys and their parents from various high schools in southern California. Fifty percent of the parents were married, 38 percent were divorced and 13 percent were never-married single mothers.

Results show that boys with married parents had higher overall self-esteem compared with boys with nonmarried parents, even when family income and family functioning were taken into consideration. Parental marital status had no effect on girls' self-esteem.

The researchers say the gender differences in their findings may be explained by mothers' and fathers' different socializing patterns. "In a two-parent home, the balance between the mother's and father's different socializing patterns may be what keeps the self-esteem of both sexes relatively equal," explained the authors. "Apparently, the absent father upsets this balance, which leaves the African American male adolescent in a family environment in which less is expected from him, and, consequently, he may not develop the positive feelings of self-esteem."

The authors say they are not suggesting that all male children living in single-parent homes are suffering from low self-esteem, just as not all children living with married parents are doing well. However, they say the study shows that the role fathers play in socializing their children is very important and that public policy should be more focused on reversing the current trends of low marriage rates and high divorce rates. Free or subsidized family counseling before and during marriage and expanding visitation rights for noncustodial parents are among the public policy changes the authors suggest.

Besides parental marital status, the researchers also studied the effects family income and family functioning might have on self-esteem of African American adolescents. Results indicated that adolescents from families with higher incomes perceived themselves as more likable and lovable and as having higher self-control. Also, results suggest that the better the family functions, the higher the self-esteem of the adolescent.

There were also differences in how the male and female adolescents responded to their family environments. Income was related to perceptions of the quality of family functioning for boys, but not girls, which the authors say may again speak to the effects of different gender socialization. "Fifteen-year-old boys, in both types of homes, may feel that providing needed income to the family is partly their responsibility," said the authors. "Therefore, when the family income is not adequate, African American boys at this age may be hypersensitive to it and perceive more problems associated with income than girls do."

With respect to family functioning, the researchers found that girls' self-esteem was similar to boys when family functioning was low, but their self-esteem was higher when family functioning was high. "Just as boys may be more sensitive to family income, girls may feel more responsible for relationships between family members," they said.

The researchers say focusing directly on adolescent's self-esteem with productive extracurricular activities and increasing the quality of family functioning may buffer the effects of having single parents. They also say parents need to become more aware of the family factors that affect male and female children differently.

Article: "Effects of Parental Marital Status, Income, and Family Functioning on African American Adolescent Self-Esteem," Jelani Mandara and Carolyn B. Murray, PhD, University of California, Riverside; Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 3.

Jelani Mandara and Carolyn B. Murray, PhD can be reached by telephone at (909) 787-5293.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.