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01-05-2011 | Empirical Research | Uitgave 5/2011 Open Access

# Parents’ Promotion of Psychological Autonomy, Psychological Control, and Mexican–American Adolescents’ Adjustment

Tijdschrift:
Journal of Youth and Adolescence > Uitgave 5/2011
Auteurs:
Efrat Sher-Censor, Ross D. Parke, Scott Coltrane

## Introduction

Mexican–American youth face disproportionate risks for mental health problems (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion 2009). As this ethnic group represents one of the largest minority groups in the US (US Census Bureau 2007), identifying factors that relate to their adjustment is important to inform the planning of prevention and intervention programs. The current study aimed to address this issue by exploring two parenting practices, namely parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy and parents’ psychological control, and by examining the associations between these parenting practices and the well-being of Mexican–American early adolescents.
An important task for parents of adolescents in Western cultures is to enhance adolescents’ development of autonomy, i.e., to promote their self-governance and awareness of being separate, with independent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors ( Allen et al. 1994; Grotevant and Cooper 1986; McLeod et al. 2007). The promotion of autonomy can take many forms, including adolescents’ privileges and responsibilities (Zimmer-Gembeck and Collins 2003). Among its distinct components, the promotion of psychological autonomy, namely the encouragement of adolescents’ self- exploration and self-assertion (Grotevant and Cooper 1998) has been examined widely (Boykin McElhaney and Allen 2001; Grotevant and Cooper 1998). In studies of European-American families, this aspect of parenting consistently predicts better social-emotional adaptation, as indexed by higher self-esteem, fewer internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and higher educational attainment of adolescents and young adults (Allen et al. 1994a, b; Best et al. 1997).

## Promotion of Psychological Autonomy in Mexican–American Families

Parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy could be particularly important for the well-being of Mexican–American adolescents. Mexican–American adolescents tend to endorse collectivist oriented values (Delgado-Gaitan 1993; Phinney et al. 2000, 2005), such as “Familismo”, which is defined as “feelings of loyalty, reciprocity, and solidarity towards members of the family, as well as to the notion of the family as an extension of self” (Sabogal et al. 1987, p. 398) and “Respeto”, which refers to the importance of maintaining respectful hierarchical relationships determined by age, gender, and social status (Harwood et al. 2002). During adolescence, Mexican–American youth may face the challenge of integrating these traditional familial values with a developmental need for autonomy, which is encouraged by European American cultural values (Zayas et al. 2005). In support of this expectation, previous studies indicated that although the self-assertion behaviors of Mexican–American adolescents and their direct disagreements with parents were as frequent as their European American peers, Mexican–American adolescents were less likely than European Americans to believe that they should directly disagree with their parents (Fuligni 1998; Phinney et al. 2005). This suggests that Mexican–American adolescents may experience a gap between their perceptions of their actual behavior and their ideal behavior. Such a gap could lead to psychological distress and to lower self-worth (Harter 1985; Zayas et al. 2005). Perceptions of parents’ encouragement and acceptance of their psychological autonomy could be critical in reducing the gap and in enhancing the adolescents’ well-being (Zayas et al. 2005).

## Psychological Control in Mexican–American Families

Parents’ psychological control is considered inappropriate and maladaptive for European American adolescents’ development (Barber and Harmon 2002). However, this may not be the case for Mexican–Americans. As suggested by Halgunseth et al. ( 2006), the developmental meaning of psychological control for Hispanic families may vary according to the motivations that underlie this parental behavior. Psychological control could reflect childrearing values of respect for parents as well as “Educación” (Education), namely parental responsibility to educate the child to internalize Mexican cultural values. In this context, psychological control could be perceived as legitimate, as an indicator of parental love and caring. Thus, while the perceptions of European American adolescents regarding psychological control and regarding promotion of psychological autonomy were found in previous studies to be weakly negatively associated (Silk et al. 2003), the perceptions of Mexican–American adolescents regarding the two parenting practices could be positively related. Also, the perceptions of psychological control may have only weak negative effects on the adjustment of Mexican–American adolescents.

## The Current Study

In light of the paucity of previous work on parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control in Hispanic families, the inconsistent pattern of results, and the lack of examination of the effects of acculturation, our study had two objectives. Our first goal was to re-examine the associations between perceptions of parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy, perceptions of parents’ psychological control, and the adaptation of Mexican–American early adolescents. In an effort to replicate extant research, we assessed similar aspects of adolescents’ adjustment to the ones used in previous studies (e.g., Plunkett et al. 2007; Silk et al. 2003; Walker-Barnes and Mason 2001), namely global self-worth, depressive symptoms, and number of delinquent friends. The last measure is considered a proximal risk factor for adolescents’ antisocial behavior and delinquency involvement (Henry et al. 2001; Scaramella et al. 2002). Our second aim was to explore the moderating role of adolescents’ acculturation in the association between the perceptions of the two parenting practices and in their links with adolescents’ adjustment.
There were three other unique aspects to our study. First, we focused on one subgroup of Hispanic adolescents, namely Mexican–Americans, in view of the recognition that the Hispanic ethnic category is heterogeneous and that specific subgroups within this ethnic group need to be evaluated separately (Halgunseth et al. 2006; Harwood et al. 2002). Second, we focused on early adolescence because it is considered to be the period of onset of an individuation process, in which the parent-adolescent relationship changes toward adolescents’ increased psychological autonomy (Holmbeck 1996; Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991). Finally, we employed a longitudinal design, which enabled us to examine the predictive links between parenting practices and the adjustment of the adolescents 2 years later, while controlling for baseline levels of adolescents’ adjustment.

## Method

### Participants

One hundred and sixty-seven Mexican–American fifth graders (91 females, 54.5%) took part in the first phase of the study, as part of a larger longitudinal study of economic stress in Southern California (Parke et al. 2004). All participants were from dual-parent households, which included two biological parents of Mexican descent. The adolescents had attended school in the US for 5 years. Adolescents were followed annually for 3 years. At 7th grade, 33 (19.76%) adolescents were not located or refused to participate in the additional phase of the study, leaving a sample of 134 adolescents (54.5% females). There were no significant differences in the study’s measures between those who participated in the 7th grade phase and those who did not (all ps ≥ .41 except for depressive symptoms, for which p = .07).

### Measures

All measures were available for participants to respond in English or Spanish. The Spanish questionnaires were translated into English and then back-translated. Only 8 adolescents (6%) chose to respond in Spanish.

#### Perceptions of Parenting Practices

To assess adolescents’ perceptions of their parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control, the Block Child Rearing Practices Report (CRPR; Rickel and Biasatti 1982) was used. The CRPR includes 58 items, tapping various parenting practices. Adolescents responded to the CRPR twice, once reporting on their perceptions of their mothers’ practices, and once referring to their fathers’ practices. Studies of Hispanic families have usually reported good internal reliability and construct validity of the CRPR scales (Ceballo and Hurd 2008; Dixon et al. 2008; Ferrari 2002).
##### Promotion of Psychological Autonomy
We extracted a new scale from the CRPR, which included 5 items, and which reflected parental encouragement of adolescents’ self-expression (e.g., “My mother respects my opinions and encourages me to express them”) and of adolescent’s self-exploration (e.g., “My father encourages me to be curious, to explore, and to question things”). The items were chosen based on their resemblance to items used in extant measures of promotion of psychological autonomy (e.g. Bean and Northup 2009). The adolescents were asked to rate their perceptions of each parent’s promotion of psychological autonomy using a Likert scale ranging from 1 (“Strongly disagree”) to 5 (“Strongly agree”). Items were averaged, and a higher score reflected perception of more promotion of psychological autonomy. Since we did not have specific hypotheses regarding the perceived practice of each parent, and since we found high correlations between perceived maternal and paternal scores ( r = .55, p = .000), we aggregated them by calculating their mean (Cronbach alpha of the scale was .78).
##### Psychological Control
We extracted a new scale from the CRPR, which included 11 items, reflecting anxiety and guilt induction (e.g. “My mother controls me by warning me about the bad things that can happen to me”); love withdrawal (e.g. “When my father is frustrated with me, he sometimes ignores me for a while”); and pressuring the adolescent to feel and behave according to the parents desires (e.g. “My mother does not allow me to get angry with her”). The items were chosen based on their face validity, i.e., their resemblance to items used in extant measures of psychological control (e.g., Plunkett et al. 2007; Silk et al. 2003). Also, a previous study of Hispanic mothers of 4th to 5th graders, mostly from Mexican–American backgrounds (Ceballo and Hurd 2008), used a similar psychological control scale, which was also extracted from the CRPR. The study documented good internal reliability of the scale (alpha = .76), and provided support for its validity for Hispanic samples, by showing that more acculturated mothers tended to report less use of psychological control.
The adolescents rated their perceptions of psychological control of each parent using a Likert scale ranging from 1 (“Strongly disagree”) to 5 (“Strongly agree”). Items were averaged, and higher scores reflected perception of more psychological control. Since we did not have specific hypotheses regarding perceived psychological control of each parent, and since we found high correlations between maternal and paternal scores ( r = .50, p = .000), we aggregated them by calculating their mean (Cronbach alpha of the scale was .77).
##### Validation of the Scales of Promotion of Psychological Autonomy and of Psychological Control
As we were using new scales for assessing promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control, we took several steps to examine their validity. First, to establish content validity, five researchers, experts in child and adolescent development and three graduate students in a developmental psychology doctoral program who were blind to the study aims and hypotheses, were provided with the definitions of parents’ promotion of psychological autonomy and of parents’ psychological control. They were asked to sort the selected 16 items into measures of promotion of psychological autonomy or psychological control. A uniform agreement (100%) among raters was found.
Second, to provide convergent and discriminant validity of the scales, we examined them in a sub-sample of the larger study (Parke et al. 2004), which consisted of 83 middle class European American 7th graders. The scales showed good internal reliability (α = .86 and α = .79 for promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control respectively). Consistent with previous studies on European-American families, the scores of promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control were not significantly interrelated ( r = .04, p = .37). As expected, perception of more promotion of psychological autonomy was correlated with higher self-worth, fewer symptoms of depression and with having fewer delinquent friends. Perception of more psychological control was associated with having more delinquent friends and with parental reports of higher adolescent delinquency. The complete data is available from the first author.

##### Self-Worth
The Global Self Worth Scale (GSW) from The Self-Perception Profile for Children (SPPC; Harter 1985) was used. The SPPC is a well-standardized measure for assessing self-worth in adolescence (Muris et al. 2003). The GSW provides a measure of a child’s global judgment of her/his own worth as a person. It includes 6 items, each consisting of two opposite descriptions (e.g., “Some kids are often unhappy with themselves” but “Other kids are pretty pleased with themselves”). Respondents chose the description that best fit them and indicated whether the description was “really true” or “sort of true”. Accordingly, each item was scored on a 4-point scale with a higher score reflecting a more positive self view. Items were averaged to create a global self-worth score. The GSW was used in studies of Mexican–American adolescents, demonstrating good internal reliability and construct validity (Hess and Petersen 1996; Michaels et al. 2007; Schmitz 2006). For our sample, the scale showed good internal reliabilities (α = .72 and α = .83 in 5th and 7th grade respectively).
##### Depressive Symptoms
Adolescents completed the Child Depression Index (CDI; Kovacs 1985). The CDI is a 27-item scale that assesses affective, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms of depression. For each item, adolescents chose one of three statements that best described their symptoms during the past 2 weeks (e.g. “I am sad”; “I feel like crying”) on scales ranging from 1 to 3, with higher score indicating more depressive symptoms. An item on suicidal ideation was excluded from the study because of ethical concerns. Therefore, adolescents responded to 26 items which were averaged to create a depressive symptoms score. The CDI has been used in studies of Mexican–American adolescents, demonstrating good internal reliability and construct validity (Love and Buriel 2007; Molina et al. 2009). For our sample, the CDI showed good internal consistency (α = .80 at both 5th and 7th grade).
##### Number of Delinquent Friends
Adolescents completed the short version of the Delinquent Peer Association Scale (Stoolmiller 1994), which includes 7 items tapping delinquent behaviors on the part of the adolescents’ friends. Adolescents rated how many of their friends have conducted delinquent behaviors during the last year using a scale ranging from 0 (“none of them”) to 5 (“all of them”). Items included, for example, “stolen something worth more than \$50”, and “suggested you do something that was against the law”. Items were averaged to create a scale of the mean number of delinquent friends. The scale was validated in a longitudinal study of 4th to 8th grade boys, mostly from a European American background (Stoolmiller 1994). For the current samples, Cronbach alphas were .74 and .79 in fifth and seventh grade respectively.

The Short Acculturation Scale for Hispanic Youth (SASH-Y; Barona and Miller 1994) was used. The scale includes 12 items regarding use of English and Spanish (e.g. “What language do you usually think in?”) and preferences for social relations (e.g. “My close friends are _______”). Adolescents responded to the social relations items on a scale ranging from “All Latinos” (1) to “Only non-Latinos” (5), and responded to the language-related items on a scale ranging from “Only Spanish” (1) to “Only English” (5). A global acculturation score, based on averaging 12 items was constructed. Higher scores reflected greater acculturation to English speaking society in the US. The SASH-Y has shown good internal consistency, split-half and test–retest reliabilities among Hispanic adolescents (Barona and Miller 1994; Serrano and Anderson 2003) and has been cross-validated across samples (Serrano and Anderson 2003). In our sample it showed good internal reliability (α = .83).

### Data Preparation

Data were examined for nonnormality (i.e., skewness > 1, kurtosis > 2; see Garson 2010) and a log transformation was used to correct positive skewness and kurtosis of Family income (skew = 1.57 and kurtosis = 2.86 before transformation, skew = .89 and kurtosis = .25 after transformation), and the Delinquent peer association scores at 5th grade (skew = 2.03 and kurtosis = 5.19 before transformation, skew = 1.07 and kurtosis = .89 after transformation) and at 7th grades (skew = 1.63 and kurtosis = 2.95 before transformation, skew = .89 and kurtosis = .25 after transformation).

## Results

### Preliminary Analyses

Means and standard deviations for variables used in primary analyses are presented in Table  1. Adolescents from lower income families reported lower levels of acculturation ( r = .26, p = .004). Adolescents from lower income families also reported lower self-worth ( r = .18, p = .04) and more depressive symptoms ( r = −.24, p = .01) at the 5th grade assessment. Significant gender differences in three of the study variables were found. In 7th grade, girls reported lower self-worth ( M = 3.17, SD = .67) compared to boys ( M = 3.38, SD = .52), t (130.01) = 2.05, p = .04. In 5th grade, girls reported having fewer delinquent friends ( M = .11, SD = .10) than boys ( M = .16, SD = .15), t (97.20) = 2.22, p = .03. Finally, in 7th grade, girls also reported having fewer delinquent friends ( M = .12, SD = .12) than boys ( M = .17, SD = .13), t (132) = 2.34, p = .02.
Table 1
Descriptive statistics
Variable
n
M
SD
Acculturation
127
3.17
.68
Promotion of psychological autonomy
134
4.00
.66
Psychological control
134
3.38
.54
Self-worth
134
3.28
.63
Depressive symptoms
127
1.27
.20
Number of delinquent friends
126
.13
.13
Self-worth
133
3.27
.61
Depressive symptoms
132
1.23
.19
Number of delinquent friends
134
.14
.13

### Promotion of Psychological Autonomy, Psychological Control, and Acculturation

As shown in Table  2, parents who were perceived as higher in their promotion of autonomy were also perceived by their adolescents as more psychologically controlling. To examine whether acculturation moderated this link, and specifically whether more acculturated adolescents showed the same positive association between the two parenting practices, we conducted a regression analyses, in which promotion of psychological autonomy, acculturation and the interaction between them were regressed on psychological control. The independent variables were centered to reduce problems of collinearity, and the interaction term was constructed based on the centered scores (Holmbeck 2002). The Tolerance level ranged from .97 to .99, suggesting that there was no multicollinearity problem. The interaction term of promotion of psychological autonomy and acculturation was not significantly associated with psychological control (β = .07, p = .40), suggesting that the positive relation between promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control did not vary across levels of acculturation. 1
Table 2
Intercorrelations among the study variables ( N = 126 to N = 134)
Variable
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
1. Acculturation
−.08
−.03
.16
−.19*
.03
.14
−.27**
.07
2. Promotion of psychological autonomy

.41***
.24**
−.17
.02
.08
−.07
−.19*
3. Psychological control

−.09
.20*
.12
−.11
.20*
−.02
4. Self-worth

−.49***
−.13
.34***
−.25**
−.03
5. Depressive symptoms

.11
−.33***
.37***
.06
6. Number of delinquent friends

−.10
.08
.35***
7. Self-worth

−.61***
−.08
8. Depressive symptoms

.20*
9. Number of delinquent friends

p < .10, *  p < .05, **  p < .01, ***  p < .001

### Promotion of Psychological Autonomy, Psychological Control, Acculturation, and Adjustment

Simple correlations of predictor and outcome variables are presented in Table  2. More acculturated adolescents reported fewer depressive symptoms at the two time points. Perception of more promotion of psychological autonomy was associated with higher self-worth at 5th grade and with fewer delinquent friends at 7th grade. Perception of more psychological control was associated with more depressive symptoms at the two time points.
In light of the positive correlation found between the two parenting practices, in order to examine the unique roles which perceptions of promotion of psychological autonomy and perceptions of psychological control played in adolescents’ adjustment, we included both in the same regression equations rather than analyze separately the links between each parenting practice and adjustment. Thus, Block 2 included perceptions of promotion of psychological autonomy and perceptions of psychological control in 5th grade. To examine if acculturation moderated the links between parenting practices and adolescents’ adjustment, Block 3 included the interactions between each parenting practice and acculturation in 5th grade. 2 In all analyses, parenting practices and acculturation were centered to reduce problems of collinearity. Interaction terms were constructed based on centered scores (Holmbeck 2002). When an interaction term significantly predicted adjustment, it was analyzed further by examining the relevant simple slopes (Schubert and Jacoby 2004). Because there were moderate to high correlations between some of the variables, the regression models were checked for multicollinearity. The examination of the Tolerance values for each independent variable did not reveal signs of multicollinearity, as the smallest value found was .71.

#### Self-Worth

Table 3
Predictors
Self-worth ( n = 124)
Depressive symptoms ( n = 123)
Delinquent peers ( n = 124)
β
∆R 2
β
∆R 2
β
∆R 2
Step 1

.15***

.22***

.17***
Gender a
−.17*

.09

−.17*

Family income
.04

.02

−.14

Acculturation
.07

−.26**

.05

.30***

.33***

.31***

Step 2

.01

.04*

.04*
.04

−.21*

−.23**

−.09

.20*

.05

Step 3

.05*

.01

.01
Autonomy × acculturation
−.25 *

.13

.10

Control × acculturation
.06

−.07

−.10

Total R 2
.20
.27
.22
Final model
F (8,115) = 3.61***
F (8,114) = 5.33***
F (8,115) = 4.02***
p < .05, **  p < .01, ***  p < .001
aFor adolescents’ gender 1 = female 0 = male

#### Depressive Symptoms

As can be seen in Table  3, perception of more promotion of psychological autonomy promoting in 5th grade predicted fewer depressive symptoms 2 years later. Perception of less psychological control in 5th grade predicted more depressive symptoms 2 years later. Acculturation did not moderate these links (see footnote 1).
In light of the positive correlations found between the perceptions of promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control (see Table  2), we used a t-test, to examine if the coefficients of promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control in the regression analysis predicting depressive symptom were significantly different from each other. The analysis revealed a significant difference between the two coefficients, t (116) = −3.07, p < .01, which provides additional support for the discriminant validity of the scales.

#### Number of Delinquent Friends

As shown in Table  3, perceptions of more promotion of psychological autonomy in 5th grade predicted having fewer delinquent friends 2 years later. Psychological control did not predict the number of delinquent friends 2 years later. Acculturation did not moderate the links between parenting practices and number of delinquent friends (see footnote 1).

## Discussion

We expected that acculturation would alter adolescents’ perceptions of the two parenting practices. We hypothesized that a weak negative association between the perceived practices would be found for more acculturated adolescents, while the perceptions of the two parenting practices would be positively related for less acculturated adolescents. We found only partial support for this hypothesis. Regardless of their acculturation level, adolescents who perceived their parents as more promoting of psychological autonomy also tended to perceive them as more psychologically controlling. This is consistent with the studies of Crockett et al. ( 2007) and Mason et al. ( 2004), indicating that parental control may be perceived positively by Hispanic adolescents, as an indirect expression of parental caring. It suggests that even for relatively acculturated early adolescents, familial values may continue to be central and shape their perceptions of their parents’ childrearing practices.
The positive correlation between the parenting practices is contrary to Silk et al. ( 2003) who found a weak negative association between the promotion of psychological autonomy and psychological control among Hispanic American youth. The discrepancy could stem from the differences in the ages of participating adolescents in the two studies. Our study examined early adolescents, while Silk et al. studied adolescents in 9th through 12th grades. Perhaps by late adolescence, parents’ psychological control is perceived by Mexican–American adolescents as less appropriate. Indirect support for this interpretation comes from earlier studies by Fuligni ( 1998) and Phinney et al. ( 2005) indicating that older Mexican–American adolescents believe it is more appropriate to disagree with their parents than younger Mexican–American adolescents. Future research could benefit from examining adolescents’ perceptions of these parenting practices at different ages throughout adolescence.

## Limitations and Conclusions

Finally, as Mexican–American adolescents are at relatively high risk for mental health problems, our findings may contribute to the development of prevention and intervention programs on behalf of this ethnic group. Programs aimed at enhancing Mexican–American early adolescents’ well-being may benefit from including parents. Such programs could be strengthened by emphasizing the value of promoting adolescents’ psychological autonomy through encouraging their self-exploration and self-expression in the family. In addition, such programs might also benefit from addressing the potential negative effects of psychological control practices, such as guilt and anxiety induction and conditional acceptance, and from highlighting their ineffectiveness in reducing adolescents’ affiliation with deviant peers. These programs could potentially improve family functioning and increase the long term well-being of Mexican–American youth.

## Open Access

Open AccessThis is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License ( https://​creativecommons.​org/​licenses/​by-nc/​2.​0), which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.
Footnotes
1
The results held when cases with missing data were removed from the analyses (leaving a sample of N = 121), with one exception. The interactions between parenting practices and acculturation no longer significantly contributed to the explained variance of self-worth. Rather, their contribution was of marginal significance (∆ R 2 = .04, p = .055).

2

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