Differentiation levels of college students: effects on vocational identity and career decision making.

Author:Johnson, Patrick

According to attachment theory, healthy psychosocial development is associated with secure parental attachment, wherein children or adolescents feel safe enough to explore their environment while knowing their parental figures are accessible and responsive when called upon (Bowlby, 1988). This secure attachment is associated with individuals' ability to connect with others and cope with stressful problems (Ketterson & Blustein, 1997). Similarly, it is necessary for adolescents and young adults to become autonomous or psychologically separate from their parents (Lee & Hughey, 2001), thus developing functional identities of their own (Tokar, Withrow, Hall, & Moradi, 2003).

Research on the attachment and separation process in relation to young adult career development has produced mixed results. For example, parental attachment has been linked to career aspirations (O'Brien, 1996; O'Brien & Fassimger, 1993; Rainey & Borders, 1997; Richie et al., 1997), career planning (Felsman & Blustein, 1999; Kenny, 1990; Lee & Hughey, 2001), career self-efficacy (Lease & Dahlbeck, 2009), and career exploration (Ketterson & Blustein, 1997; Lee & Hughey, 2001). However, psychological separation has not been as clearly linked with career development. Tokar et al. (2003) found that, among the 380 undergraduate students surveyed, greater psychological separation from mothers was correlated with a higher vocational self-concept; however, separation from fathers was related to a lower vocational self-concept and higher levels of career indecision. Lopez (1989) found that lower scores of conflictual independence (i.e., freedom from excessive guilt, resentment, and anger in the relationships with parents) among young adults were predictive of higher levels of vocational identity, indicating a more clear and stable sense of work-related goals, interests, personalities, and abilities. Other researchers found no relationship between psychological separation from parents and young adult career development (Downing & Nauta, 2010; Hartung, Lewis, May, & Niles, 2002; Lee & Hughey, 2001; Lucas, 1997; O'Brien, Friedman, Tipton, & Linn, 2000; Santos & Coimbra, 2000; Thomason & Winer, 1994).

Empirical evidence suggests that achieving the developmental task of career development may be facilitated by a balance in psychological security: healthy levels of attachment and independence from attachment figures, particularly parents (Lee & Hughey, 2001; Rainey & Borders, 1997). The pairing of attachment and independence seems to provide the "most supportive family conditions with respect to commitment to the career choices process" (Blustein, Walbridge, Friedlander, & Palladino, 1991, p. 47). Collectively, studies have shown that strong parental attachment in combination with psychological separation from parents has been linked positively to career commitment (Blustein et al., 1991), vocational identity (Berrios-Allison, 2005; Lopez, 1989), and positive college adjustment (Mattanah, Hancock, & Brand, 2004). Lee and Hughey (2001) found that psychological separateness alone was not significantly associated with the career maturity of college freshmen unless paired with a strong emotional attachment to parental figures. O'Brien and Fassinger (1993) found that female adolescents who exhibited moderate degrees of attachment to as well as independence from their mothers tended to value career pursuits, thus expressing higher levels of congruency and realism with regard to their current career choice. Lease and Dahlbeck (2009) studied the attachment of college students to their mothers and established a positive correlation between elevated degrees of career decision self-efficacy and a higher perceived quality of relationship to those mothers who facilitated the young adult's independence.

Thus, research on career and family dynamics points to the importance of a combination of both healthy attachment to one's parents along with a certain level of psychological separation as contributing positively to aspects of career development. It seems that separation alone does not lead to healthy career development, which may be reflective of the quality of the family interactions surrounding the separation process. Reactive family dynamics may underlie the mixed results found in previous research related to the effects of psychological separation on the career development of young adults. It may be that the level of emotional reactivity associated with the separation process has a defining impact on the career process, especially decision making. Young adults who are attached to their parents and are able to separate with low levels of emotional reactivity may exhibit successful career development.

The need for a balance of attachment to and psychological separation from one's parents is characterized best by the family systems theory concept of differentiation of self. According to family systems theory, within individuals there is a life force driving them to become an emotionally separate person as well as a life force driving them to remain emotionally connected to family (Bowen, 1976, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Differentiation of self refers to an individual's ability to function in an autonomous and self-directed manner without being controlled by family members or significant others and without emotionally cutting off from these significant relationships. In other words, differentiated individuals experience a separate sense of self while staying in contact with significant others. Undifferentiated individuals, on the other hand, tend to remain fused in relationships with parents and significant others or emotionally cutoff from these relationships (Johnson & Waldo, 1998).

A central barometer of differentiation is an individual's level of emotional reactivity, often seen in the ability to separate thoughts and feelings (Bowen, 1978). Differentiated individuals are not overwhelmed by emotionality at the expense of their intellect, whereas undifferentiated individuals are ruled by their emotions. Differentiated individuals are "inner-directed" and readily take an "I position" rather than experience emotional reactivity in response to external events and others' emotionality (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Kerr and Bowen (1988) theorized that an individual's level of differentiation would affect his or her physical, social, and emotional health. A number of studies have explored the effects of differentiation on different aspects of health and well-being. Specifically, higher levels of differentiation have been correlated with healthy psychosocial development in young adults (Jenkins, Buboltz, Schwartz, & Johnson, 2005), successful young adult identity attainment (Johnson, Buboltz, & Seemann, 2003), and greater feelings of well-being (Bohlander, 1999; Skowron, Holmes, & Sabatelli, 2003), whereas lower levels of differentiation have been found to be highly correlated with increased levels of chronic anxiety and symptomatic distress (Skowron & Friedlander, 1998). Differentiation has also been correlated to an individual's overall level of stress and health (Harvey & Bray, 1991).

The process of differentiating from one's family of origin occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, becoming increasingly important in young adulthood (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989) and continuing well into the 30s for most individuals (Lawson, Gaushell, & Karst, 1993; Williamson & Bray, 1988). Young adults are often required to make educational and vocational...

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