This study found that family difficulties handling adolescents’ autonomy negotiations, as observed at age 16 years, were able to predict a substantial degree of the variation in young adults’ hostility as rated by their peers over a decade later. Substantial continuity was found between adolescents’ hostile behavior as displayed with parents at age 16 years and adolescents’ later hostility as perceived by close peers at age 25 years. Similarly, continuity was also found between fathers’ hostility displayed toward their adolescent and the adolescents’ later hostility as a young adult. The strongest prediction of later young adult hostility was obtained from paternal behaviors undermining adolescent autonomy. Even after accounting for stability in adolescents’ hostile behavior across contexts, fathers who undermined their adolescents’ autonomy more had adolescents who were later rated as more hostile by their young adult peers. These predictions were also made after accounting for a more general marker of young adult psychosocial functioning, suggesting their specificity to processes surrounding hostility in social interactions. Given that both the observational measures in adolescence and the peer ratings in young adulthood were completely independent and each contained nontrivial amounts of measurement error (e.g., unreliability of ratings), it appeared that a strikingly large proportion of the true variance in young adult hostility could be accounted for from observations of a carefully selected 30-min family interaction in adolescence. Limitations and implications of each of these findings are discussed in detail below.
The finding of substantial correlations between adolescents’ hostility within their families at age 16 years and hostility as rated by close peers at age 25 years provides solid evidence that the precursors of patterns of hostility in social interactions in young adulthood could be observed in family interactions during midadolescence. This continuity suggests that robust patterns of hostile interaction in close relationships may be established by mid-adolescence and persist well beyond this era. Other researchers have also found sizeable correlations in hostile behavior across this part of the life span in areas such as aggression and antisocial behavior (Eron & Huesmann, 1990
; Pulkkinen, 1996
). This study was one of the first to assess the continuity of such behavior in social interactions using observational and independent rater data.
This study also found heterotypic continuity in fathers’ hostile behaviors predicting the later hostility of their young adult offspring. One explanation for this heterotypic continuity is that fathers’ hostile behavior toward adolescents leads them to expect hostility from others well into the future, even where it may not exist, and to act aggressively in “response” (Dodge & Somberg, 1987
). Alternatively, fathers’ hostility may have represented longstanding, enduring patterns of hostile interaction with their adolescents and to some extent may have been a reaction to the adolescent’s own hostile behavior in interactions. A third possibility is that patterns of hostile interaction may have been genetically transmitted. This possibility seems less consistent with the current data, however, both because maternal hostility toward adolescents’ was not predictive of later adolescent hostility and, more importantly, because parents’ hostility toward one another in marital interactions (i.e., as adults in peerlike relationships—the closest analogy to what we observed in young adulthood) was not related to adolescents’ peer-rated hostility as young adults.
It is important to note that the hostility observed during adolescence occurred in a particular context—handling a disagreement in which the adolescent’s cognitive autonomy was being negotiated. Thus, the hostility that was observed occurred in response to a challenge to the adolescent’s autonomy and can be seen as reflecting a fundamental difficulty negotiating autonomy without undermining the relationship with parents. As such, hostility within this context may have been more meaningful, and hence more predictive of future difficulties, than hostility occurring in other aspects of the adolescent–parent relationship. This suggests the importance of autonomy processes in adolescence, but it also suggests that the results of this study should not be taken as generalizing to show that all signs of adolescent hostility with parents are necessarily predictive of future social difficulties.
The strongest and most striking finding in this study was the degree of continuity between fathers’ autonomy-undermining behavior and later hostility on the part of their young adult offspring. Notably, this behavior was not simply correlated with later hostility but predicted the development of young adult hostility (e.g., predicting future levels of this hostility even after taking into account concurrent levels in adolescence). This finding suggests that fathers were adding an important element to observed interactions over and above what adolescents were contributing. This finding was expected based on prior research and theory (Allen, Hauser, O’Connor, et al., 1996
; Allen, Moore, & Kuperminc, 1997
) but was nevertheless striking in its magnitude. After accounting for gender and prior psychiatric history, this effect alone accounted for 25% of the variance in young adult hostility. Even after further accounting for adolescents’ and parents’ hostility in interactions at age 16 years, fathers’ autonomy-undermining behavior accounted for an additional 13% of the remaining variance in young adult hostility—a figure that may underrepresent the true effect size given attenuation due to unreliability in assessing fathers’ autonomy-undermining behavior and to use of untrained lay reporters to assess young adult hostility. Further, predictions from fathers’ autonomy-undermining behaviors existed over and above predictions of a general measure of ego resiliency as rated by peers. This indicates a degree of specificity to these predictions—they were tapping not simply general levels of social functioning but rather a process that appeared more tightly linked to patterns of hostile social interaction.
Although this nonexperimental study cannot demonstrate the presence of causal relations, these effect sizes are consistent with the hypothesis that interference with appropriate adolescent autonomy strivings presents a powerful potential threat to social development well into the future. If further research supports the idea that such a causal chain exists, how might it work? It has been previously suggested that autonomy-undermining behavior may teach the adolescent that close relationships will not be flexible enough to permit autonomy to be attained via direct discussions (Allen, Hauser, O’Connor, et al., 1996
). If adolescents learn from interactions with parents that autonomy is easily threatened and unlikely to be attained without use of hostile, distancing behavior, then over time they may come to perceive that autonomy in other close relationships is also most likely to be attained by literally or emotionally escaping from the relationship (Steinberg, 1990
). Given that autonomy needs continue to arise in adult relationships (Baxter, 1994
), hostility in young adulthood may reflect a learned approach to creating distance in relationships when normal autonomy needs arise. This may occur either because the adolescent has come to expect autonomy to be undermined in new relationships and uses hostile behavior to reflexively preempt these imagined threats or because the adolescent has simply not had the opportunity to learn to use reasoned, discussion-based approaches to handling autonomy concerns. Although this study does not prove the existence of causal mechanisms such as these, our findings clearly suggest the need for further research exploring these and other possible explanations for these striking continuities. Whatever the explanation for these continuities, this study emphasizes that family interaction patterns in adolescence may have very important implications for social functioning well beyond the end of adolescence and outside of the family.
One intriguing aspect of these findings was that predictions were made primarily from relationships with fathers but not mothers (with the one exception that adolescents’ own displays of hostility toward both parents were predictive of later hostility). Given that post hoc analyses did not find significant differences between predictions from fathers versus mothers, these findings should be taken only as showing that fathers appear quite important in predicting later hostility and not as showing that mothers are necessarily unimportant (or even less important) in this regard. The importance of fathers is being increasingly recognized in research on adolescent social development (Phares, 1992
; Phares & Compas, 1992
). In particular, fathers may play a role in mediating the transition into adultlike activities and relationships beyond the home—a transition in which autonomy negotiations are likely to play a central part. More generally, Freitag, Belsky, Grossmann, Grossmann, and Scheuerer–Englisch (1996)
note that fathers may play a particularly important role in giving their offspring opportunities to explore issues of autonomy and relatedness throughout childhood. It may be that this role becomes even more important as the autonomy strivings of adolescence emerge.
In adolescence, fathers may partly serve to represent the larger social world beyond the family. When fathers undermine adolescents’ autonomy strivings, these autonomy-undermining behaviors may be particularly problematic as they may set up a pattern of the adolescent expecting to need to use hostility to “blast out” of potentially autonomy-threatening social interactions in the world beyond the family. This pattern is quite analogous to the finding from prior research that adolescents’ who are struggling with autonomy at age 14 years with either parent become more hostile in their families over the following 2 years (Allen, Hauser, O’Connor, et al., 1994
). In further support of this explanation is the finding from this sample that paternal behavior undermining of adolescent autonomy is also predictive of lower levels of academic achievement during and beyond adolescence (Bell, Allen, Hauser, & O’Connor, 1996
). Adolescents who have experienced paternal undermining of their autonomy clearly struggle not just with friends but in school as well, as development proceeds. No Gender of Adolescent × Gender of Parent interactions were observed, indicating that fathers’ behaviors did not predict significantly different outcomes for male and female adolescents.
Notably, there was only a very marginal effect of severe adolescent-era psychopathology in predicting young adult hostility, and psychopathology did appear to alter appreciably the patterns of continuities observed between adolescent–family interactions and young adult hostility. This finding is in keeping with reports of long-term studies that have shown that the sequelae of adolescent psychiatric hospitalization on functional outcomes tend to be highly selective and focused in young adulthood (Allen, Hauser, & Borman–Spurrell, 1996
). It further suggests that hostility in young adult close relationships is not predicted simply by the presence of prior psychopathology in adolescence but rather by focal interactions that disrupt or block the normative the process of establishing autonomy in the context of positive parental relationships.
Several limitations to these data warrant mention. First, the sample is an unusual one, reflecting two distinct, relatively small samples originally drawn from discrete and demographically homogeneous sites. Although this sample provides opportunities to explore the effect of severe psychopathology on later development, replication of these findings with broader and more diverse samples is certainly warranted. Second, even the presence of longitudinal findings over a 10-year period are not logically sufficient to support imputations of causality to processes observed in adolescence. Third, these data yielded evidence of striking areas of homotypic and heterotypic continuity in processes leading to young adult hostility, but they do not tell us what factors may have mediated such continuities. It may be that the interactions predicting hostility alter personality development of those adolescents observed and lead to subtle forms of psychopathology. Alternatively, the interactions may have simply taught adolescents discrete patterns of dysfunctional behavior that were repeated in new settings but that otherwise left development unaffected. Future research is now needed to begin to identify the links in the chain that mediate the continuities in predictors of hostility across this important decade of life.