Family boundary diffusion, individuation, and adjustment among young adults: an investigation of gender and family structure effects




Perrin, Marei Bindi

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Drawing on structural family systems theory, this study investigates the relations among family boundary diffusion experienced during adolescence, psychological individuation, and adjustment, from the perspective of older adolescents and young adults. Previous research suggests that boundary diffusion, such as triangulation and parentification, are linked to a variety of negative outcomes for adolescents and young adults (e.g., Buchanan et al., 1991; Hetherington, 1999; Jacobvitz & Bush, 1996), although not uniformly so (e.g., Arditti, 1999; Rosenberg & Guttmann, 2001). Theorists have argued that diffuse family boundaries may hinder the psychological individuation process (Jurkovic, 1997; Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1989), which in turn may be related to low psychological well-being among young adults (Lapsley, Rice, & Shadid, 1989; Mattanah et al., 2004). However, the consequences of some types of boundary diffusion, in particular parentification, may vary depending on the contextual fabric in which they occur (Jurkovic, 1997). Hence, this study explores the extent to which family structure (young adults with married parents versus young adults with divorced, single parents) and gender may impact the relationships among boundary diffusion, individuation, and adjustment. Four-hundred-and-four older adolescents and young adults drawn from the community and a university setting participated in the study. Roughly equal numbers of men and women from both married and divorced family backgrounds were recruited. Participants were asked to reflect back to their adolescence (ages 14 to 17) and completed questionnaires assessing triangulation and parentification experienced by mothers and fathers during this time period. Current psychological individuation from mothers and fathers as well as current general and relationship-specific adjustment were also assessed via self-report measures. As expected, results indicated that participants with divorced parents experienced more boundary diffusion than participants with married parents. Overall, boundary diffusion was reliably associated with poorer adjustment and less psychological individuation irrespective of gender and family structure. Within this general pattern of findings, one notable exception existed: parentification by the same-sex parent among participants with divorced parents appeared not to be related to adjustment, which stood in contrast to findings for participants with married parents. Triangulation, on the other hand, emerged as a consistent and reliable predictor of psychological individuation and adjustment irrespective of family structure and gender. Lastly, as hypothesized, psychological individuation fully mediated the relationship between boundary diffusion and adjustment for the overall sample. This model was also fully supported for women and partially supported for men. Intervention implications arising from this research, including the importance of addressing triangulation dynamics in families and the potential fruitfulness of attending to individuation themes for young adults with histories of boundary diffusion, are highlighted.



Young Adults, Family boundaries, Adjustment, Divorce, Structural Family Systems Theory