The effects of father absence on adolescent self-concept.

The developmental stage of adolescence is marked by major cognitive, social and biological transitions from middle childhood.  The development of an adolescent’s self-concept is a salient process of this emerging time of change.

Piaget defined this period of cognitive development as “formal operational thought”.  The adolescent begins to engage in abstract self descriptions that are affected by the familial context, especially when a parent is absent.  This paper will review the salient theories of self-concept, four models pertaining to father absence, and pertinent studies reporting the effects of father absence on adolescent self-concept.
     Within the cognitive and social domains, the real self-concept and the possible selves exist as separate non-integrated entities during early and middle adolescence.  Furthermore, the adolescent makes a larger distinction between the private self and the public self.  During late adolescence, the real self-concept and the possible selves become related and integrated.

     Multiple theoretical models exist which attempt to define the process of development of self in adolescence.  Before the turn of the century, the early theorist James proposed the adolescent’s understanding of the self is known to the individual and the social environment.  James defined the concept of the “I” as the part of the self, which organizes and interprets information related to self-concept.  Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934) described the self as a social construct.  The adolescent incorporates the opinions and attitudes of others, hence this social process was defined by Cooley as “the looking glass self”.  Erikson (1968) provided a psycho-dynamic perspective to the development of self-concept.  Erikson proposed that the adolescent establishes a personal identity while avoiding role and personality diffusion.  During this period of identity development, the adolescent is preoccupied with what he or she appears to be in the eyes of others.

Contemporary theorists provide more dynamic and multidimensional interpretations of adolescent self-concept as compared to the earlier models of a fixed global construct of the self.  According to Damon & Hart (1988), a normative shift occurs during the early and late phases of adolescent self-concept; Self reflection shifts from an adolescent’s body awareness to the recognition of abstract psychological processes.  During early adolescence, self judgments are based predominantly on normative standards, social comparisons and behaviors.  During late adolescence, self attributions evolve into personal beliefs and standards.  Oosterwegel & Oppenheimer (1993) propose that self-concept is a complex, multidimensional system known as “the self-system”.  The theoretical model proposes that the self-system contains the individual’s real and perceived self-concepts and the social environment’s real and possible self-concepts of the individual.  The characteristics of the self-system develop in transactional interaction with the social environment and is influenced by the individual’s level of functioning.  The self-system is a dynamic process of differentiation and integration of the multiple forms of individual and social self-concepts.

     Harter (1990) proposes that the adolescent differentiates the self in multiple domains.  Harter developed the self perception profile for adolescents that identifies eight domains of competence: scholastic, employment, athletic, physical, social, friendships, romantic appeal, and conduct.  Further, the adolescent’s multiple self descriptions vary across contexts (e.g. parents, peers, romantic relationships).

     In line with the aforementioned theories, we reviewed the literature that investigated the correlation between the absence of the father and adolescent self-concept across domains of competence and social contexts.

     Four models related to father absence have emerged from the research:  a psycho-dynamic model, a Family Deficit Model, a multifactorial approach, and a socio-biological perspective.  For example, Kirshner (1992) uses a psycho-dynamic model to explain father absence.  Kirshner postulated that there can be a splitting of the ego by the father’s being disavowed as an entity in what he calls “triangulation.”  Intact families with fathers who have a strong presence evidence family dynamics affecting parent-child and parent dyads, and parent-child triads.  However, through case studies he found that some father-absent men have significant neuroses, being unable to  “use images or memories of the father as an organizing focus for identification and a corresponding perpetuation of an apparently dyadic pre-oedipal bond with a feared and powerful mother, whose interests seem incestuous.”

     Hamilton (1977) summarized the research on father absence covering several decades and espouses a multifactorial approach.  She observed influencing factors, such as, the child’s age,  duration of the absence, mother’s mental and emotional functioning, the family’s socioeconomic status, the closeness to any substitute father figures, and the  pre-absence father-child relationship.

     Draper and Belsky (1990) offer an evolutionary socio-biological perspective into father absence.  Father absence is one of many possible micro-ecological niches in reproductive strategy.  The authors cite Bowlby’s “internal working model” as affecting the development of self-concept in adolescence.  They assert that such a mental structure determines the focus and the definition of life experiences and the quality and extent of interpersonal relationships.

     With this background in mind, we look at some findings elucidating effects of absent fathers on the personality and self-concept.  To begin, Peretti and DiVittorrio (1992) examined the personal characteristics of 66 preschool children, half boys and half girls, where fathers had been lost through divorce. There were feelings of abandonment, loss of self-esteem, and a sense of alienation.

 In another study, adolescent boys from ages 13 to 18 took a battery of tests including the MMPI  (Nelson & Valliant, 1993).  The authors concluded that although the sample size was small, absence had a negative effect upon self-concept and that surrogate substitutes affected boys positively but did not entirely ameliorate the effects of father absence.

     Partridge and Kotler (1987) conducted a study examining self-concept and peer adjustment using 207 high school adolescents and their parents in a representative sample..  They compared the family-deficit approach (father absence types) and the family environmental approach (a multifactorial model), and found that the family environment model hypotheses received support, whereas, the family-deficit approach did not. The respondents were from both intact families and those having experienced father loss or absence due to death, divorce, and/or separation.  Interestingly, they suggested that father absence may actually be preferable with families in high conflict or with abusive fathers.

     Beaty (1995) studied 40 ethnically diverse, middle-school boys from father-absent and father-present homes, 20 each, on peer adjustment and masculine self-image.  The author hypothesized that boys with father deprivation prior to age five would show more dysfunction with respect to self-concept development in adolescence with resultant difficulties in peer relationship adjustment. Father-absent boys scored significantly lower on the sociometric measures for perceived masculinity and peer group adjustment. However, multifactorial influences stood as an alternative possibility for the differences in scores.

     While there is not much research on effects of father absence on females, Harris, Gold and Henderson (1991) surveyed black college women as to their affiliation needs and sex role orientation.  Of note, the women had all lost fathers either through death, divorce, or separation.  The authors opined that paternal absence adversely affects social self-concept.  The women whose fathers left very early in their lives showed themselves to have a higher masculine self-concept and androgyny.  However, they acknowledge that these qualities may be part of a multifactorial influence of black community values and are not generalized to other ethnicities or cultures.

     Nunn and Parish (1987) studied 632 fifth to tenth graders in Iowa (352 males and 280 females; 426 from intact families; 64 from families with divorce; 42 families where a parent had died).  Hence, the students were asked to describe themselves and a parental figure, selecting 15 out of 24 adjectives to best describe them.  The results showed support for the hypothesis that in divorced families self-concept deficits are more likely.   Stable home environments provided parental models with which to obtain characteristics to describe themselves.

     In conclusion, while this review is by no means a comprehensive examination of the literature, it does establish a foundation.  Notably, the transactional model of development supports the contention that early childhood experiences of father absence do effect childhood self-description, which, in turn contribute to the types of self-attributions developed in adolescence.  Across multiple domains and contexts, these self-attributions significantly effect the interpersonal relationships of the individual throughout the life span.  Yet, integration of multiple self-concepts into a unified self is attainable.


  1. Beaty, L. A.  (1995).  Effects of paternal absence on male adolescents’ peer relations and self-image.  Adolescence, 30 (120), 873-880.
  2. Cooley, C. H.  (1902).  Human nature and the social order.  New York: Charles Scribner’s.
  3. Damon, W., Hart, D.  (1988).  Self understanding in childhood and adolescence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Draper, P. & Belsky, J.  (1990).  Personality development in evolutionary perspective.  Journal of Personality, 58 (1), 141-157. 
  5. Erikson, E.  (1968).  Identity, youth and crisis.  New York: Norton. 
  6. Hamilton, M. L.  (1977).  Fathers’ influence on children.  Chicago: Nelson Hall. 
  7. Harris, M. S., Gold, S. R., Henderson, B. B.  (1991).  Relationships between achievement and affiliation needs and sex-role orientation of college women whose fathers were absent from home.  Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72, 1307-1315. 
  8. Harter, S.  (1990).  Self and identity development.  In S. S. Feldman & G. R. Elliot (Ed.), At the threshold: The developing adolescent.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 
  9. Kirshner, L.A.  (1992).  The absence of the father. Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 40, 1117-1137. 
  10. Mead, G. H.  (1934).  Mind, self, and society.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  11. Nelson, C., & Valliant, P.M.  (1993).  Personality dynamics of adolescent boys when the father was absent.  Perceptual  and Motor Skills, 76,  435-443. 
  12. Nunn, G. D. & Parish, T. S. (1987).  An investigation of the relationships between children’s self-concepts and evaluations of parent figures: Do they vary as a function of family structure?  The Journal of Psychology, 121 (6), 563-566. 
  13. Oosterwegel, A., & Oppenheimer, L.  (1993).  The self-system: Developmental changes between and within self-concepts.  Hilldale, NJ: Erlbaum. 
  14. Partridge, S. & Kotler, T.  (1987).  Self-esteem and adjustment in adolescents from bereaved, divorced and intact families: Family type versus family environment.  Australian Journal of Psychology, 39 (2), 223-234. 
  15. Peretti, P.O., & DiVittorrio, A.  (1992).  Effect of loss of father through divorce on personality of the preschool child.  Journal of Instructional Psychology, 19, 269-273.

Web Site References

  1. Dr. Annerieke Oosterwegel –  Dr. Oosterwegel’s web page describes her research interests, projects, and recent publications.  Her research interests focus on the social cognition of the self.  Her research projects focus on the development of self-conception and its motivational aspects of social interaction.  Dr. Oosterwegel is located at the Department of Psychology at the University of Southhampton, United Kingdom.
  2. I CONNECT- -I CONNECT is a web site containing information for adolescents dealing with divorce.   Adolescents can chat live with peers about their experiences.  Electronic journal entries, chronicling specific events and subjective experiences as adolescents are provided.  We recommend this web site for adolescents who may be feeling isolated and in need of information and companionship. 
  3. Virginia Fatherhood Initiative-     The Virginia Fatherhood Initiative (VFI) web page describes the non-profit, charitable, educational organization’s efforts to develop and promote policies of responsible fatherhood through increased involvement of fathers in child-rearing.  VFI is a group of volunteers committed to the promotion of meaningful and positive relationships between children and their fathers.  VFI conducts studies on the effects of father absence on the well-being of children and provides information to the public on the value of fatherhood. 
  4. Children’s Self Concepts: Are They Affected by Parental Divorce and Remarriage.-  – This web page summarizes the following article by Parish, T. S.  (1987).  Children’s self-concepts: Are they affected by parental divorce and remarriage.  Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, (2),4, 559-562.  Parental divorce and father absence are attributed to affect children negatively in the following areas: scholastic, social, and personal.  The results of the study suggest that father absence related to divorce is associated with “diminished self-concepts in children” from a midwest U. S. sample. 
  5. When Dad’s Involved, Everyone Benefits-  – “A child without a father is like a house without a roof.” – A Buddhist saying.  Connie Saindon, MA, Marriage & Family Therapist discusses the benefits for sons, daughters and society to have nurturing and involved fathers.  The negative effects of father absence are also described on the web page.  Daughters are more likely to become depressed if they had fathers who were insensitive or unavailable.  Sons with absent fathers are more likely to engage in criminal activities.
  6. Attachment and Depression: The role of internal representations of the parent-child relationship in college-age females.- –  This web site presents a poster presentation of two studies by E. Homann (October, 1994) at the Attachment and Psychopathology Conference, Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Study 1 explored the internal working models in dependent and self-critical depression.  Study 2 analyzed why are children of divorce more self-critical.  The results showed that subjects from divorced families were highly correlated with self-descriptions of self-criticism.

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