This study provides the first longitudinal person-centered investigation of the extent to which parent-adolescent relationship quality development is consistent with the separation-individuation, evolutionary, maturational, and realignment perspectives. Although prior person-centered research revealed meaningful individual difference in patterns of relationship development, these studies (Choe et al. 2014
; Seiffge-Krenke et al. 2010
) lack information using all the key components support, negative interaction, and power, and the extent to which adolescents remain or change from a particular relationship quality profile into another across years. Our study addresses these limitations by applying a LTA procedure using a two-cohort large-scale longitudinal dataset (N = 1311) with five annual waves to examine how adolescents’ perceived relationship quality with their parents changed across years. Findings suggest that from ages 12 to 16 years only a subgroup of adolescents moved away from perceiving an authoritative relationship with their parents or changed into an uninvolved-discordant or turbulent relationship. Interestingly, some continued to perceive an authoritative relationship and many changed into perceiving a harmonious relationship with their parents. From ages 16 to 20 years, a majority of adolescents changed the relationship with their parents into a harmonious one. However, some continued to perceive the relationship with their parents as uninvolved-discordant or turbulent.
Together, our results seem to partly provide support for the maturational and realignment perspectives in terms of adolescents’ perceived relationship development with their parents. Specifically, partly in line with these perspectives, we found evidence that only some adolescents temporarily perceive distress in the relationship with their parents as their relationship evolves from hierarchical into egalitarian. Moreover, we found substantial individual differences indicating that some adolescents do not experience relationship quality development in a way that would be proposed by theoretical notions. Our promising findings shed light on the importance of studying individual differences in relationship development across adolescence. We discuss these findings below.
Development of Parent–Adolescent Relationships Across Adolescence
From ages 12 to 16 years, two important global
changes emerged. First, there was a steep decline in adolescents’ perceiving authoritative relationships. Specifically, a subgroup of adolescents who perceive an authoritative relationship with their parents were very likely to change to one of the other relationship profiles. This indicates that substantial numbers of the early adolescents moved away from relationships in which perceived support from parents was coupled with perceived parental authority. These findings are also consistent with literature demonstrating that the sharpest decrease in the endorsement of parental authority occurs during early adolescence (e.g., Darling et al. 2008
). Second, the prevalence of adolescents’ perceiving turbulent relationships increased. Adolescents in turbulent relationships with their parents typically remained to perceive this relationship, whereas those in one of the other relationship qualities were likely to change to this relationship type. This suggests that a subgroup of the early adolescents moved toward perceiving a poorer relationship, as they seemed to question the authority enforced by their parents.
Overall, these findings are partly consistent with studies showing that parent–adolescent relationship quality worsened in early adolescence (e.g., De Goede et al. 2009
; Keijsers et al. 2011
; Tsai et al. 2013
). The fact that some adolescents move away from perceiving authoritative relationships and that some change into turbulent relationships thus lends partial support to the separation-individuation, evolutionary, maturational, and realignment perspectives, as these theories all propose that early adolescence is a period in which adolescents generally strive for more independence and distress increases in the relationship with their parents.
Additionally, we detected individual differences in relationship quality development that deviate from the aforementioned global patterns of development and theoretical notions. First, more than one-third
of those perceiving an authoritative relationship continued to perceive the relationship like this. This suggests that a substantial proportion of adolescents does remain to perceive a relationship in which they experience parental support and endorse parental authority. Thus, although most adolescents perceived themselves striving for more independence and grew less likely to legitimate parental authority, some adolescents perceive themselves as accepting their parents authority to set rules in certain areas of their lives (Darling et al. 2008
). Individual differences in the belief of endorsing parental authority
may explain why some adolescents remained in an authoritative relationship, whereas others moved away from it. This, however, is not necessarily alarming as those who endorse parental authority in a supportive relationship seem to be more likely to voluntarily disclose information to their parents (e.g., Darling et al. 2006
). Parental disclosure, in turn, seems to be linked to positive outcomes during adolescence (e.g., Keijsers et al. 2009
Second, our findings show that many adolescents
experience improvements instead of difficulties in the relationship with their parents. Specifically, about half (52%) of the adolescents who perceived a harmonious relationship at the beginning of the study remained to perceive a harmonious relationship with their parents. Many others who were initially not classified in a harmonious relationship profile even changed into a harmonious relationship profile (rates between 10–31%). These findings seem to be in line with a previous meta-analysis which indicated that parent-adolescent conflicts generally decreases across years (Laursen et al. 1998
). Furthermore, our findings relate to the modified storm-and-stress
perspective (Arnett 1999
), which specifies that only a subgroup perceive difficulties during adolescence. They are also in line with studies demonstrating that only some perceive distress in the relationship with their parents (e.g., Choe et al. 2014
; Seiffge-Krenke et al. 2010
; Skinner and McHale 2016
; Timmons and Margolin 2015
), perceive mood disruptions (Dekker et al. 2007
), and engage in risk behavior (e.g., Marti et al. 2010
). Overall, it seems that only some adolescents perceive trouble in the relationship with their parents while many others do not.
From ages 16 to 20 years, we identified three important global
findings. First, there was an increasing prevalence of adolescents perceiving a harmonious relationship with their parents. Specifically, adolescents in a harmonious relationship typically remained in this relationship and if those in other relationship profiles changed, they most often changed into this relationship. Second, those who perceived turbulent relationships became less common. Adolescents in a turbulent relationship mostly changed into another relationship type, whereas changes into the turbulent profile were uncommon. Third, adolescents perceiving authoritative relationships remained uncommon in late adolescence. Overall, these findings show that an increasing number of adolescents changed into a relationship in which they perceived support and equality with their parents, whereas a decreasing number of adolescents moved into a relationship in which they perceived conflicts and/or endorsed parental authority. This implies that many adolescents’ perceive restorations or improvements in the relationship quality with their parents by the end of adolescence. Our results seem to be consistent with previous work showing that late adolescents were less likely to legitimate parental authority (e.g., Darling et al. 2008
) and that parent-adolescent relationship quality improves by late adolescence (e.g., De Goede et al. 2009
; van Wel 1994
). The change of many, but not all, adolescents into a harmonious relationship thus seem to relate partly to the maturational and the realignment perspectives, which propose that hierarchical and/or perturbed parent-adolescent relationships generally become egalitarian and supportive.
Furthermore, we also identified individual differences in development in late adolescence that deviate from the theoretical perspectives. A striking example of this is that not all adolescents
changed to perceive a harmonious relationship with their parents. In fact, more than one-third of the adolescents continued to perceive an uninvolved-discordant or in a turbulent relationship. A substantial subgroup of adolescents thus seems to fail in establishing a satisfactory relationship quality with their parents. This is worrisome, also because of the so-called cross-relationship continuity
phenomenon (Seiffge-Krenke et al. 2010
). This phenomenon entails a long-lasting effect in which adolescents in hostile family environments are susceptible for developing poor quality romantic relationships (e.g., Ehrensaft et al. 2003
). Practitioners should bear this in mind when working with late adolescents who perceive a hostile relationship with their parents. Additionally, future studies could examine the extent to which this hostility transfers to other relationships. Note, however, that most adolescents did perceive a satisfactory relationship with their parents by the end of adolescence. This suggests that many may come to experience the cross-relationship continuity phenomenon in a positive way.
Importantly, we also identified considerable relationship stability next to the aforementioned changes. Specifically, 35–63% of early adolescents and 32–78% of late adolescents across all relationship profiles remained to perceive their current profile. This implies that a substantial number
of adolescents experienced no changes in the relationship quality with their parents across the years. These findings seem to be in contrast to the four perspectives that all assume change in parent–adolescent relationship quality in terms of increasing distress and independence. However, they add to previous literature by indicating not only that some abusive or neglective parent-adolescent relationships (i.e., turbulent, uninvolved-discordant) remain unchanged (e.g., Laursen and Collins 2009
), but also that some emotionally close relationships could remain stable as well (i.e., harmonious, authoritative).
In sum, with two cohorts that together covered ages 12–20 years, we identified a reverse U-shape pattern of parent-adolescent relationship development in which some adolescents perceived distress in the relationship with their parents to increase and then to decrease as the relationship with their parents changed from hierarchical to egalitarian. These findings are partly in line with the findings of De Goede et al. (2009
). However, we also extend their findings by demonstrating individual differences in relationship development while taking the several relationship quality dimensions into account simultaneously. Furthermore, because some of our findings indicate temporary deteriorations in parent–adolescent relationships, they can be linked to the reverse U-shape pattern found in adolescence in terms of delinquency tendencies (e.g., Moffitt 1993
) and aggression (e.g., Meeus et al. 2016
). In addition, they relate to the U-shape pattern found in adolescence with respect to moral judgment (e.g., Eisenberg et al. 2005
) and empathic perspective taking (e.g., Van der Graaff et al. 2014
). However, due to the identification of substantial individual differences, it should be kept in mind that only some adolescents experience their social developments to first deteriorate and then restore later again as they become independent.
Associations with Multifinality and Equality Concepts
Individual transition patterns shed light on the multifinality
concepts of developmental pathways (e.g., Cicchetti and Rogosch 2002
). Specifically, multifinality entails that any starting point evolves in diverse final states, whereas equifinality suggests that different starting points develop into one final state.
During early to middle adolescence, we mainly found evidence for multifinality. Although the overall prevalence rates indicate that adolescents systematically perceived a turbulent relationship or moved away from perceiving an authoritative relationship in this period, only a subgroup (13–23% of early adolescents) changed to perceive a turbulent relationship or moved away from perceiving an authoritative relationship (65%). In addition, early adolescents were also likely to change into an authoritative or turbulent relationship, next to changing into perceiving a turbulent or harmonious relationship, than late adolescents were. This suggests that early adolescents showed no evident trend toward changing into one specific profile and that they generally changed into one of the four profiles. Early adolescence thus seems to reflect a period in which increased variations in transitions of perceived relationship quality occur.
During middle to late adolescence, we found evidence for both multifinality and equifinality. Multifinality emerged especially for those in a turbulent relationship. These adolescents either succeeded in changing into a harmonious relationship or failed and changed into an uninvolved-discordant relationship. The latter is important as it suggests that those in turbulent relationships may fail in establishing an egalitarian relationship with their parents that is satisfactory. This finding seems to be highly in line with the autonomy-relatedness
model (Grotevant and Cooper 1986
), which states that adolescents’ independence is best achieved in the context of close relationships. Particularly adolescents perceiving a turbulent relationship may therefore perceive difficulties in establishing an independent and satisfactory relationship with their parents because of the disruptions in their relationship. Moreover, equifinality emerged in those perceiving a harmonious, authoritative, or uninvolved-discordant relationship. Adolescents perceiving one of these three relationship qualities were all likely to perceive a harmonious relationship by late adolescence. A harmonious relationship therefore appears to serve as an endpoint
of relationship formation, indicating that adolescents typically move to perceive an egalitarian and satisfactory relationship by late adolescence (Collins and Luebker 1994
; Youniss and Smollar 1985
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Studies
One major shortcoming of the present study is the use of a single, self-report measure to examine parent–adolescent relationship quality development. We only provided perceptions
of adolescents’ relationship developments and lack of information about parental experiences. On the other hand, because relationship quality is mostly in the “eye of the beholder” (e.g., Branje et al. 2002
), it is adolescents’ relationship experiences that are crucial in predicting their developmental outcomes (e.g., well-being, self-esteem, academic achievements). Nevertheless, future research should examine whether parents perceive similar patterns of relationship quality development, or investigate how perception similarities and discrepancies in relationship quality evolve throughout adolescence, and affect adolescent and parental adjustment.
Another drawback is that the present study is that reasons for the observed changes
remained unexamined. For example, it remains unclear why some adolescents perceive a poor relationship during early adolescence, whereas others do not. For example, those who experience more depressive symptoms may be more likely to perceive a poor relationship and would be less likely to change into a satisfactory relationship across years when compared to those experiencing less depressive symptoms (e.g., Branje et al. 2010
). Future studies should examine variables that may affect differences in relationship quality development.
Moreover, the present research covered the period of adolescence using a two-cohort five-wave longitudinal study design
(i.e., 12–16 years and 16–20 years) rather than following the same adolescents from ages 12 to 20. Although early-to-middle adolescents at T5(i.e., average age of 16 years) showed a small difference in their levels of support, negative interaction, and power from middle-to-late adolescents at T1 (i.e., average age of 16 years) both cohorts are quite comparable for two reasons. Firstly, we found the same relationship profiles in both cohorts. Secondly, developmental patterns of mean level change of relationship dimensions were very consistent across both cohorts. Specifically, the decrease in relationship quality reaches its peak in middle-adolescence. That is, the lowest level of relationship quality was found in waves 4 and 5 of the early cohort and in waves 1 and 2 of the late cohort. Similarly, parental power decreased regularly across cohorts, with the smallest differences in power between the fifth wave of the early cohort and the first wave of the late cohort. This consistency across cohorts in mean level change of relationship dimensions is also nicely visible in the prevalence patterns of the relationship types shown in Fig. 2
. Thus, we observe systematic developmental trends across both cohorts for each of the four relationship types. Data of mean-level change of the three relationship dimensions can be obtained from the first author.
Finally, examining early-to-middle and middle-to-late adolescence only offers a limited understanding of the timing on relationship quality change and stability patterns that can reach far back into childhood or reach further into adulthood. For instance, those who remained in a harmonious relationship across years may already have had a turbulent phase with their parents in the childhood period. Additionally, those who were in an uninvolved-discordant or in a turbulent relationship by the end of adolescence may just postpone the reestablishment of a satisfactory relationship with their parents into the adulthood (e.g., adolescents who left their parental home) (e.g., Seiffge-Krenke 2013
). Future studies should examine relationship quality development covering both childhood and adulthood using one cohort.