Mapping developmental changes in perceived parent–adolescent
relationship quality throughout middle school and high school
Ashley M. Ebbert, Frank J. Infurna and Suniya S. Luthar
Arizona State University
This study examined changes in adolescents’perceived relationship quality with mothers and fathers from middle school to high school,
gender differences, and associated mental health consequences using longitudinal data from the New England Study of Suburban Youth
cohort (n= 262, 48% female) with annual assessments (Grades 6–12). For both parents, alienation increased, and trust and communication
decreased from middle school to high school, with greater changes among girls. Overall, closeness to mothers was higher than with fathers.
Girls, compared to boys, perceived more trust and communication and similar levels of alienation with mothers at Grade 6. Girls perceived
stronger increases in alienation from both parents and stronger declines in trust with mothers during middle school. Increasing alienation
from both parents and less trust with mothers at Grade 6 was associated with higher levels of anxiety at Grade 12. Less trust with both
parents at Grade 6 and increasing alienation and decreasing trust with mothers in high school were associated with higher levels of depres-
sive symptoms at Grade 12. Overall, girls reported having higher levels of anxiety at Grade 12 compared to boys. Findings on the course of
the quality of parent–adolescent relationships over time are discussed in terms of implications for more targeted research and interventions.
Keywords: adolescence, internalizing disorders, parent–child relationships, relationship quality
The affectional bonds between children and their parents are a
highly studied mechanism for explaining individual development
across the life span (Allen, 2008; Armsden & Greenberg, 1987),
and show variations across stages of child development.
According to attachment theory (Bowlby, 1982), parent–child rela-
tionships provide a foundation for development (Collins & Laursen,
2004a; Steinberg, 2001) and continue to serve as primary influences
beyond infancy and into adolescence (Buist, Deković, Meeus, & van
Aken, 2002). Contrary to stable attachment representations formed
in infancy and early childhood (Berry, Barrowclough, & Wearden,
2007;Ross&Spinner,2001), parent–child relationships in adoles-
cence follow diverse trajectories and undergo changes in patterns
of interacting (Buist et al., 2002; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). In general,
parent–adolescent relationships commonly follow a declining trend
throughout the course of adolescence, marked by decreases in close-
ness and increases in emotional distance as adolescents face devel-
opmental challenges (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). In prior work on
adolescent attachment, the declining quality of parent–adolescent
relationships has been strongly linked to internalizing problems,
such as depression and anxiety (e.g., Luthar & Barkin, 2012).
Although a great deal of research has focused on adolescence as
a significant period for studying the quality of parent–child relation-
ships, relatively little is known concerning the specific course of
changes in perceived relationship quality and its implications for
developmental outcomes (Ainsworth, 1989;Buistetal.,2002).
Even less is known about the risk and protective processes in a
group that has been identified among those most “at-risk”—follow-
ing teens exposed to poverty, trauma, and discrimination—that is,
youth attending high-achieving schools, mostly from affluent fami-
lies (Geisz & Nakashian, 2018). It is now well established that these
youth are at an elevated risk for an array of adjustment problems
2013; Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). With regard to what might
buffer them against stress, resilience research has shown that across
diverse at-risk circumstances, the single most powerful protective
factor is having a strong, supportive relationship with at least one
caregiver (Cicchetti, 2012;Luthar&Eisenberg,2017;Masten,2001).
Accordingly, in this study, our first aim was to track changes in
felt attachment to both parents in a sample of high-achieving stu-
dents across seven annual assessments, spanning age 12 through
age 18. Our second aim was to explore whether such changes in
perceived relationship quality differed by parent and child gender.
Finally, for our third aim, we sought to illuminate which particu-
lar dimensions of felt attachment to parents might most affect
long-term adjustment of anxiety and depression, and also,
whether effects were similar for mothers versus fathers. In discus-
sions that follow, we elaborate on each of our major goals.
Changes in Perceived Parent–Child Relationship Quality in
A major aim of this study was to track changes in felt attachment
to both parents across the period of adolescence spanning middle
through high school. During this transitional period, parent–child
relationships play an integral role in supporting developmental
Author for correspondence: Ashley M. Ebbert, Arizona State University, Department
of Psychology, 950 South McAllister Avenue, Tempe, AZ 85287; E-mail: email@example.com.
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018
Cite this article: Ebbert AM, Infurna FJ, Luthar SS (2018). Mapping developmental
changes in perceived parent–adolescent relationship quality throughout middle school
and high school. Development and Psychopathology 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1017/
Development and Psychopathology (2018), 1–16
changes embedded in adolescence (Allen & Land, 1999).
However, the developmental demands and changes implicit in
adolescence provide for a potentially challenging and stressful
environment (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2002). Developmental
changes embedded in adolescence, such as biological, cognitive,
and social changes, influence unique aspects of parent–child rela-
tionships (Laursen & Collins, 2004; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). For
example, puberty plays a role in transforming relationships, as a
result of cognitive and physical changes designed to initiate a
restructuring of the behavioral system (Blakemore, Burnett, &
Dahl, 2010; De Goede, Branje, & Meeus, 2008; Sisk & Foster,
2004) and necessitate a reorganization of relationships with par-
ents (Collins & Repinski, 1994; Kobak, Rosenthal, Zajac, &
Madsen, 2007). In addition, autonomy-related changes contribute
to an adjustment of relationships and changing family dynamics
(Allen, 2008; Meeus, Iedema, Maassen, & Engels, 2005; Parrigon,
Kerns, Abtahi, & Koehn, 2015).
As adolescents move toward increasing independence from
their parents, parent–child relationships converge toward more
egalitarian relationships (Allen, 2008; Meeus et al., 2005;
Parrigon et al., 2015). The transition to more equality in par-
ent–adolescent relationships is accompanied by changes in sup-
port and conflict (De Goede et al., 2008). Previous studies
examining changes in parent–child relationship quality have
found that perceived closeness and support declines during ado-
lescence (e.g., Feinberg, McHale, Crouter, & Cumsille, 2003;
Helsen, Vollebergh, & Meeus, 2000; Nickerson & Nagle, 2004,
2005; Shanahan, McHale, Osgood, & Crouter, 2007). However,
adolescents’desire for autonomy is less about disengaging from
parental control and more about engaging in family decision
making and aligning assumptions and beliefs that shape relation-
ship dynamics within the family (Collins, Laursen, Mortensen,
Luebker, & Ferreira, 1997; Eccles et al., 1993). Despite their grow-
ing autonomy, adolescents continue to rely on their parents for
social and emotional support (Berry et al., 2007; Raudino,
Fergusson, & Horwood, 2013). Further, the quality of parent–ado-
lescent relationships continues to be relevant (e.g., Steinberg,
2001) and even becomes increasingly prominent as adolescents
navigate these developmental changes (Allen, 2008).
Assessment of relationship quality
How relationship quality is measured depends on the develop-
mental period under study, and on which respondents’perspec-
tives are of central interest (De Goede et al., 2008).
Observational techniques are predominantly used in infancy stud-
ies on parent–child relationships and sometimes with older chil-
dren (Ainsworth, 1989). However, it is self-report measures that
are the method of choice when the goal is to capture the adoles-
cent’ssubjectively experienced quality of relationship with each
parent (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Luthar et al., 2013).
Unlike infants, adolescents have developed the cognitive capacity
to reflect upon and evaluate the quality of their relationship with
their parents (Allen, McElhaney, Kuperminc, & Jodl, 2004).
The specific attachment dimensions we measured were those
captured by the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment
(IPPA; Armsden & Greenberg, 1987), which was conceptually
grounded in Bowlby’s attachment theory research, and designed
to assess adolescents’perceptions of the positive and negative
aspects of relationship quality with mothers and with fathers.
The IPPA measures specific dimensions of affective relationship
quality across three subscales: alienation (feelings of alienation
and isolation), trust (parental understanding and acceptance,
respect, and mutual trust), and communication (extent and qual-
ity of verbal communication with parents) within each relation-
ship (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987). Extending beyond the
traditional qualities of attachment security relevant in early child-
hood (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978), the IPPA closely
tracks the affective and cognitive dimensions of adolescents’per-
ceptions of relationships with their parents (Armsden &
Greenberg, 1987). The IPPA measure also assesses both the
child’s perspective of the child’s regard for the parent and the
child’s perspective of the parent’s regard for the child (e.g.,
trust: “I trust my mother/father”compared to “My mother/father
Armsden and Greenberg specifically focused on unique fea-
tures of parent–adolescent relationships (e.g., alienation, trust,
and communication), given the changes taking place during ado-
lescence. Alienation, measuring emotional and behavioral with-
drawal from parents, may transpire from a sense of adolescent
dissatisfaction with the amount of help they need versus the
amount of help their parents think they need at this stage of
development. Trust, assessing the level of understanding and
respect, as well as accessibility, responsivity, and predictability
and consistency of parents, is critical during a time when family
dynamics and roles are changing as adolescents are trying to nav-
igate increasing autonomy. Finally, communication, the extent
and quality of verbal communication with parents, has important
implications for assessing the quality of parent–child relation-
ships, due to the need to communicate about interpersonal and
psychological changes taking place during adolescence.
The role of affluence in parent–adolescent relationships
There is growing evidence that affluent youth, raised in upper-
middle class, white-collar families are a “newly identified at-risk
group”(Koplewicz, Gurian, & Williams, 2009, p. 1053; Geisz &
Nakashian, 2018). Recent evidence suggests that youth in high-
achieving schools who are generally from affluent families face
several unacknowledged pressures, (Luthar & Kumar, 2018).
Studies have shown a u-shaped link between school level affluence
and adjustment problems, indicating challenges at both socio-
economic extremes (Coley, Sims, Dearing, & Spielvogel, 2017;
Lund, Dearing, & Zachrisson, 2017). We know that for both
sets of youth, parenting matters, but several questions merit fur-
ther attention. In prior efforts to understand risk and protective
processes among affluent youth, there have been suggestions,
for example, that there are stronger ramifications for the quality
of relationships with mothers as opposed to fathers, but these
have been based on cross-sectional data and using global scores
of attachment (Luthar & Barkin, 2012). In the present study, we
provide more thorough and rigorous tests of this suggestion, via
prospective analyses spanning seven annual assessments.
One of the potential causes of distress among affluent youth is
excessive achievement pressures (Luthar & Kumar, 2018). In
affluent communities, there is often an unspoken emphasis on
ensuring that children secure admission to elite colleges. As a
result, many adolescents feel highly driven to excel, not only at
academics, but also at multiple extracurricular activities, with
these pressures beginning as early as the middle school years. In
addition, children’s own maladaptive perfectionist strivings, char-
acterized by an extreme manifestation of achievement failures as
personal failures, contribute to elevated levels of achievement
pressures. Children with maladaptive perfectionism and parents
2 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
who value accomplishments disproportionately to personal char-
acter have been shown to have relatively high depression and anx-
iety (Ciciolla, Curlee, Karageorge, & Luthar, 2017; Luthar &
Aside from achievement pressures, another potential cause of
adjustment disturbances among affluent youth could be discon-
nection and isolation from adults, both literal and emotional.
Among upper-middle-class families, schedules tend to be very
packed, which can sharply diminish the amount of “down
time”shared between adolescents and their parents (Luthar
et al., 2013; Luthar & Ciciolla, 2016). With quantity of time
spent together often being limited, the quality of relationships
with parents, on both positive and negative dimensions, would
logically carry considerable significance for adolescents’adjust-
ment (Luthar & Kumar, 2018).
The Role of Gender in Perceived Parent–Child Relationship
Quality in Adolescence
Different patterns of change observed within parent–child rela-
tionships may depend on the gender of the adolescent and parent
(Biblarz & Stacey, 2010). Although most studies have focused on
the relationship with mothers or combined assessment scores
across both parents (Ruhl, Dolan, & Buhrmester, 2015; Sheeber,
Hops, & Davis, 2001), the few studies that have looked at mothers
and fathers separately have demonstrated that beyond infancy,
perceived relationship quality is uniquely tailored to each parent
(Ainsworth, 1989; Cabrera, Fitzgerald, Bradley, & Roggman,
2014). For example, some studies have found that adolescent rela-
tionships with mothers are typically more secure and of higher
quality than those with fathers (e.g., Luthar & Barkin, 2012).
Previous research examining the critical importance of relation-
ships with mothers has consistently found that adolescents feel
that their mothers know them better than their fathers (Collins
& Russell, 1991).
Traditionally, across diverse cultural contexts, mothers have
been regarded as the primary caregivers (e.g., Bowlby, 1982;
Collins & Russell, 1991; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). Even in more
contemporary families where both parents are employed, mothers
are still considered to be the primary caregivers (Gamble &
Roberts, 2005; Luthar & Barkin, 2012). In general, mothers tend
to engage in more frequent interactions with their children and are
more responsive (Baumrind, 1991; Lewis & Lamb, 2003), whereas
fathers tend to have more distant relationships with their children
and are more demanding (Baumrind, 1991). These findings are
most likely a reflection of differences in time spent with each
parent. In affluent communities, children are even more likely
to spend more time with their mothers than with their fathers,
as fathers are typically the primary wage earners with highly
demanding jobs that require them to spend a significant amount
of time away from families (Luthar & Ciciolla, 2016; Luthar &
Kumar, 2018). As a result of constantly shifting routines, the rela-
tionship quality between fathers and their children is often nega-
tively impacted (Luthar et al., 2013).
In addition, adolescent girls, compared to adolescent boys,
report feeling closer to their mothers and tend to experience
higher quality relationships with both parents (e.g., Hay &
Ashman, 2003; Kenny, 1994). Even though mothers and daugh-
ters are more likely to engage in conflict and disagreement com-
pared to mothers and sons during adolescence (e.g., Collins &
Laursen, 2004b; Laursen, 2005), conflict is a normative part of
parent–child relationships in adolescence and does not
significantly influence adolescents’perceptions of parental
relationship quality (De Goede et al., 2008). Further, studies
have found that compared to boys, girls have greater emotional
needs (Cyranowski, Frank, Young, & Shear, 2000; Rudolph,
2002) and exhibit stronger relationships with both parents overall
(Buist et al., 2002). Similar studies have found that adolescents
typically have closer relationships with their same-sex parents
(Laursen & Collins, 2004), whereas others have failed to find
any gender differences among these relationships (Laible &
Mixed findings, such as these previously described, point to
the need for longitudinal studies to explore the effects of gender
on changes in parental relationship quality throughout adoles-
cence (Ruhl et al., 2015; Simons & Conger, 2007). In the present
study, therefore, a prospective research design that included a
consistent, validated measure of perceived relationship quality
across seven annual assessments (spanning age 12 through age
18) will demonstrate whether gender differences exist among
Developmental Linkages of Parent–Adolescent Relationship
Quality to Mental Health
In general, secure relationships with parents in adolescence
predicts greater life satisfaction, better adjustment, and less psy-
chological distress (e.g., Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Laible,
Carlo, & Raffaelli, 2000). Adolescents who experience indifferent
or neglectful parenting have been found to demonstrate signifi-
cant deficits in mental health and psychosocial development
(Steinberg & Silk, 2002). Among affluent youth, psychosocial
adjustment problems commonly occur when parents are per-
ceived as being insufficiently involved in the lives of their children
(Luthar et al., 2013; Luthar & Kumar, 2018). As suggested earlier
in this paper, we believe that the strength of the parent–adolescent
relationship over time will be associated with key domains of psy-
chological functioning, specifically, internalizing indices of anxi-
ety and depression, at late adolescence. Anxiety and depression
are among the most extensively studied internalizing disorders
traced back to parent–adolescent relationship quality, as well as
among the most common forms of psychopathology affecting
adolescents (Brumariu & Kerns, 2010). Numerous studies have
corroborated the importance of establishing secure relationships
with parents to promote overall self-efficacy (Arbona & Power,
2003; Thompson, 2000), well-being (Nickerson & Nagle, 2004),
and interpersonal functioning (Fuligni, Eccles, Barber, &
Clements, 2001). For example, adolescents who reported having
secure relationships with their parents had fewer symptoms of
anxiety and depression and better overall adjustment (Allen,
Porter, McFarland, McElhaney, & Marsh, 2007; Flouri &
Buchanan, 2003; Muris, Meesters, van Melick, & Zwambag,
2001). By the same token, lower quality relationships with parents
have been linked to later adolescent psychological distress and
mental health problems, even when controlling for peer relation-
ships and negative life events (Ein-Dor & Doron, 2015; Sroufe,
2005). Specifically, studies have found that poor relationship qual-
ity between adolescents and their parents was associated with
anxiety (e.g., Marganska, Gallagher, & Miranda, 2013) and
depression (e.g., Buss, 2000; Sheeber et al., 2001).
Regarding the direction of causality, longitudinal methods are
optimal in trying to determine the direction of effects between the
quality of parent–adolescent relationships and symptoms of anx-
iety and depression (Cicchetti & Sroufe, 2000). Cross-sectional
Development and Psychopathology 3
studies analyzing these links are unable to determine whether
high internalizing distress among adolescents led to poor par-
ent–child relationship quality or whether poor parent–child rela-
tionship quality led to poor adjustment outcomes among
adolescents (e.g., Adam, Gunnar, & Tanaka, 2004). It must be
acknowledged that even longitudinal designs cannot conclusively
“prove”causal links (e.g., due to the possibility of temporally ante-
cedent and later outcome variables being linked with third vari-
ables). At the same time, in the absence of experimental data
manipulating relationship quality and distress to demonstrate
causality (obviously impossible for ethical reasons), multiwave
prospective designs are optimal for testing potential causality.
Accordingly, in this study, we assessed the perceived quality of
parent–adolescent relationships over seven annual assessments
spanning middle school and high school and examined their
links with symptoms of anxiety and depression among adoles-
cents at the end of their senior year in high school.
The Present Study
The aim of the present study is to gain a comprehensive under-
standing of patterns of developmental stability and change in ado-
lescents’perceptions of relationship quality with each parent,
using seven annual assessments based on the same conceptually
sound, well-validated measure of felt attachment with both moth-
ers and fathers. Existing research has been limited by a lack of
continuous, longitudinal measures to examine a single cohort
from middle school through high school. A majority of these
studies have relied on using broad measures of perceived relation-
ship quality that do not adequately assess the specific, underlying
changes in adolescents’perceptions of relationship quality with
their parents (e.g., McGue, Elkins, Walden, & Iacono, 2005).
Thus, much understanding of changes within the parent–child
relationship during adolescence is largely based on generalizations
from cross-sectional studies that have relied on broad measures of
parental support and closeness. To our knowledge, this is the first
multiwave longitudinal study to investigate how parent–child rela-
tionships change throughout the course of adolescence while tak-
ing into account the differential influences of mothers and fathers,
separately, within a sample of mostly affluent youth.
Based on past research, we expect that overall, parent–child
relationships will follow a normative trend of declining closeness
during early adolescence, at both the transition into middle school
and again into high school, but then begin to stabilize during late
adolescence. Specifically, we predict, first, that adolescents will
show increases in alienation and decreases in trust and communi-
cation from middle school to high school, followed by some lev-
eling off around middle adolescence. Second, we predict that
adolescents, regardless of gender, will report having higher quality
relationships with their mothers compared to fathers throughout
adolescence. Third, we predict that girls, compared to boys, will
report having higher quality relationships with both parents.
Based on previous findings suggesting that maternal parenting
is more strongly associated with children’s internalizing problems
(Aunola & Nurmi, 2005), we expect that adolescents’relationships
with mothers may have stronger effects on internalizing problems.
Fourth, we expect that overall, perceived alienation will be more
detrimental to adolescent development compared to the beneficial
effects of trust and communication, in line with the notion that
“bad is stronger than good”; in general, negative events have
stronger, lasting impressions over positive ones (e.g.,
Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). Again, cross-
sectional findings have shown that outcomes in late adolescence
show stronger associations with perceived alienation from parents
than feelings of trust and communication (Luthar & Barkin,
This study uses data from a sample of relatively affluent youth,
who were recruited from a community with a high concentration
of well-educated, high-income, white-collar professionals, who
comprise the New England Study of Suburban Youth (NESSY).
As described in previous reports (Luthar & Barkin, 2012), a
cohort of 335 6th graders (48% female) were recruited from
schools in an upper-middle-class New England community in
1998 and followed annually thereafter. Based on census data, stu-
dents in the NESSY cohort were from upper-middle-class families
with parents having median family incomes in the top 5% of the
country that were three times the national level of about $50,000
at the inception of the study (US Bureau of the Census, 2000).
These high-income, suburban students were predominantly
Caucasian (93%), with the remainder of the sample consisting
of less than 2% each of African American and Hispanic students,
3% Asian students, and the rest coming from other ethnic back-
grounds. Our sample was mostly composed of two-parent fami-
lies, with 79.3% of the sample being married, and only 4
parents divorcing during the course of the study (1 couple in
11th grade and 3 couples in 12th grade). In addition, our sample
had an average of 1.17 siblings (SD = 0.93) with 76.6% of our sam-
ple having at least 1 sibling. Our analyses here are based on 262
students who participated in the study and provided at least one
measurement of perceived relationship quality from Grades 6 to
12 and provided data on our outcomes of interest at Grade 12.
The extent of missing data was acceptable, with only 3% of par-
ticipants having data at only one period and 88.2% of participants
providing data for at least four out of the seven time periods
assessed. Table 1 outlines the percentages of data included at
each time point for the IPPA scale for both mothers and fathers,
as well as our outcome variables (e.g., anxiety and depression).
Table 2 also includes the total number of observations broken
down by IPPA subscales at each time period for mothers and
fathers. Further, there was no evidence of differential attrition
from 6th to 12th grade: there were no significant differences
between 12th-grade participants and nonparticipants in terms
of 6th-grade anxiety (F= 0.33, p= .57) and depressive symptoms
(F= 1.49, p= .22).
Perceived relationship quality
We used the IPPA (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987) to assess ado-
lescents’perceptions of the positive and negative feelings toward
mothers and fathers separately. The IPPA was designed to mea-
sure specific dimensions of affective relationship quality across
three subscales: alienation (feelings of alienation and isolation),
trust (parental understanding, respect, and mutual trust), and
communication (extent and quality of verbal communication
with parents) within each relationship (Armsden & Greenberg,
1987), with 6, 10, and 9 items, respectively. Example items are
4 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
as follows: Alienation: “I don’t get much attention from my
mother/father”; Trust: “My mother/father accepts me as I am”;
Communication: “My mother/father can tell when I’m upset
about something.”Participants answered a total of 50 items (25
pertaining to each parent) using a 5-point Likert scale response
format (1 = almost never or never true,2=not very often true,3
=sometimes true,4 = often true, and 5 = almost always or always
true). The IPPA is a widely used instrument that proved strong
psychometric properties across many samples (e.g., Gullone &
Robinson, 2005; Pace, San Martini, & Zavattini, 2011).
In our analyses, we used the mean scores from each subscale
in order to target the unique facets of change and influence
within each parent–adolescent relationship. Overall, participants
provided an average of 5.73 (SD = 1.59, range 1 to 7) and 5.70
(SD = 1.61, range 1 to 7) waves of data for each measure of alien-
ation, trust, and communication for mothers and fathers respec-
tively. The internal consistencies (Cronbach’sα)forthedifferent
dimensions of perceived parent–adolescent relationship quality
ranged from 0.78 to 0.92 for mothers and 0.78 to 0.90 for
Anxiety symptoms were measured using the total anxiety score
yielded by combining the three dimensions of anxiety (social anx-
iety, physiological anxiety, and worry) from the Revised Children’s
Manifest Anxiety Scale (Reynolds & Richmond, 1985). This self-
report measure consisted of 37 dichotomous-choice items, scored
0 or 1, with higher scores representing higher levels of anxiety
(see Luthar & Becker, 2002). Reliability (Cronbach’sα) for the
total anxiety score at Grade 12 was 0.80.
Depressive symptoms were assessed using the Children’s
Depression Inventory (Kovacs, 1992), a widely used 27-item,
three-choice scale designed for school-age children and adoles-
cents. Each item consists of three choices, with scores ranging
from 0 to 2, with higher scores being indicative of higher levels
of depression. This measure has good psychometric properties,
including criterion and concurrent validity (Kovacs, 1992).
Reliability (Cronbach’sα) for the depressive symptoms score at
Grade 12 was 0.86.
We included gender, ethnicity, marital status, and number of sib-
lings as key covariates in our study because of their known rela-
tionship to parent–child relationship quality. For example,
research has shown that children in single-parent families have
poorer relationship quality (Loeber, Drinkwater, Anderson,
Schmidt, & Crawford, 2000) and endorse higher levels of internal-
izing problems (Hilton, Desrochers, & Devall, 2001). We also
controlled for baseline measures of anxiety and depression at
the start of middle school (e.g., Grade 6), as well as at the onset
of high school (e.g., Grade 9) to strengthen our longitudinal pre-
dictions of adjustment outcomes at Grade 12.
To examine changes in relationship quality and interindividual
differences, we used a multiphase latent basis growth model
(see Infurna & Luthar, 2016; Ram & Grimm, 2007; Singer &
Willett, 2003). We used a multiphase model as opposed to a linear
or quadratic trend model so that we could directly examine poten-
tial differences in the rate of change in each indicator across the
early adolescent (middle school) versus later adolescent (high
school) years. That is, for mothers and fathers each, we modeled
separately the rate of change in alienation, trust, and communi-
cation for middle school (Grades 6–9) and high school (Grades
The repeated measures of each dimension of relationship qual-
ity were modeled as a function of three latent growth factors: level,
middle school slope, and high school slope. The level or intercept
factor quantifies the expected level of relationship quality (e.g.,
alienation, trust, or communication in mother or father) at
Grade 6. Middle school slope scores indicate the extent of change
in the specific relationship quality during Grades 6 through
9. High school slope scores indicate the extent of change in the
specific relationship quality during Grades 9 through 12. The
parameter estimates for middle school slope and high school
slope indicate the total amount of change, on average, that tran-
spired during each of the time periods. The multiphase growth
curve model allowed for the added flexibility of detecting nonlin-
ear patterns of change and estimating variance parameters to
examine whether there were between-person differences in the
extent to which individuals differed in their changes in each
facet of perceived relationship quality.
In order to make use of all available data in the data set and
account for missing data, we reran all of our analyses with
Mplus (version 7.11; Muthén & Muthén, 2013), utilizing full
information maximum likelihood estimation, to make use of
all available data in the data set for unbiased parameter estima-
tion (Graham, Cumsille, & Elek-Fisk, 2003;McDonald&Ho,
Table 1. Percentages of data included at each time point for the IPPA measure and the outcome variables
Grade 6 Grade 7 Grade 8 Grade 9 Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
Mothers 73.28% 78.24% 82.44% 75.95% 88.93% 82.44% 91.98%
Fathers 72.52% 78.24% 82.06% 75.95% 88.55% 82.06% 90.46%
Anxiety 74.05% 79.39% 83.21% 77.10% 89.31% 82.44% 92.75%
Depression 74.81% 79.39% 83.21% 77.10% 89.31% 82.44% 92.75%
Note: N = 262. IPPA, Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment.
Development and Psychopathology 5
Table 2. Descriptive statistics for perceived parent–adolescent relationship quality from Grade 6 to Grade 12, for males and females, separately, and for mothers and fathers, separately
Alienation Trust Communication
Female Male Female Male Female Male
Obs. Mean SD
Obs. Mean SD
Obs. Mean SD
Obs. Mean SD
Obs. Mean SD
Obs. Mean SD
6 95 11.59 4.57 97 11.97 4.86 95 45.57 5.22 97 43.42 7.15 95 38.54 6.18 97 35.10 6.70
7 97 13.16 4.97 108 12.62 4.64 97 42.88 7.07 108 42.52 6.06 97 35.41 7.13 108 33.18 6.97
8 102 13.71 5.33 113 12.89 3.87 102 42.42 7.07 114 41.77 7.38 102 34.65 7.52 114 31.74 6.91
9 97 14.19 5.17 102 12.08 4.13 97 40.60 8.69 102 42.15 5.54 97 33.25 8.17 102 32.50 6.74
10 113 14.93 5.69 120 13.16 4.24 113 39.74 8.78 120 41.43 6.26 113 33.30 8.78 120 32.40 6.92
11 103 15.26 4.70 113 14.28 3.93 103 39.14 8.29 113 39.74 7.08 103 32.97 8.13 113 31.01 5.79
12 112 13.74 4.59 128 13.50 3.87 112 40.36 8.39 129 39.41 6.38 112 33.57 7.62 129 31.05 5.70
6 93 12.36 4.95 97 12.16 4.74 93 43.93 6.27 97 42.26 7.24 93 33.73 7.65 97 32.63 7.37
7 97 13.73 4.76 108 13.00 5.06 97 42.01 6.76 108 40.94 7.59 97 31.16 7.89 108 31.23 7.43
8 101 14.58 4.82 113 13.35 4.52 101 41.31 6.65 114 40.23 8.13 101 30.36 7.36 114 29.61 7.40
9 98 14.81 4.82 101 12.75 5.13 98 39.74 8.03 101 40.53 7.46 98 29.09 7.83 101 30.26 7.82
10 113 15.99 4.95 119 13.76 4.59 113 38.62 7.88 119 40.41 7.31 113 28.80 8.18 119 30.25 7.74
11 103 15.85 4.70 112 14.46 4.39 103 38.29 7.52 112 39.64 7.14 103 28.82 8.52 112 29.51 6.84
12 110 14.95 4.13 127 13.50 4.38 110 39.52 7.50 127 38.92 6.91 110 29.91 7.49 127 29.65 6.50
Note: N = 262. No. of Obs., number of observations. On average, females provided 5.85 (SD = 1.52, range 1 to 7), 5.85 (SD = 1.52, range 1 to 7), and 5.85 ( SD = 1.52, range 1 to 7) observations for mother alienation, trust, and communication, respectively,
and 5.81 (SD = 1.57, range 1 to 7), 5.81 (SD = 1.57, range 1 to 7), and 5.81 (SD = 1.57, range 1 to 7) observations for father alienation, trust, and communication, respectively. On average, males provided 5.63 (SD = 1.64, range 1 to 7), 5.63 (SD = 1.64, range 1
to 7), and 5.63 (SD = 1.64, range 1 to 7) observations for mother alienation, trust, and communication, respectively, and 5.60 (SD = 1.65, range 1 to 7), 5.60 (SD = 1.65, range 1 to 7), and 5.60 (SD = 1.65, range 1 to 7) observations for father alienation, trust,
and communication, respectively.
6 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
Changes in perceived parent–child relationship quality in
Descriptive data are shown in Table 2, that is, means and standard
deviations for each of our outcomes of interest from Grades 6 to
12. These are shown separately by mothers and fathers, as well as
differentiated by adolescent gender.
In addressing our central aims, in a first step, we examined
changes in alienation, trust, and communication separately for
mothers and fathers. Results from our multiphase growth models
examining changes in perceived parent–adolescent relationship
quality from middle school to high school are shown in
Table 3, and Figure 1 graphically illustrates our findings. We
found that adolescents perceived significant increases in alien-
ation for both mothers and fathers (Figure 1a) in middle school
(mothers: 1.58, p< .05; fathers: 1.63, p< .05), and during high
school (mothers: 0.64, p< .05; fathers: 0.57, p< .05), with stronger
increases in perceived alienation in middle school. Focusing on
trust (Figure 1b), we observed that during middle school, there
were significant decreases in perceived trust with both mothers
and fathers (mothers: –3.47, p< .05; fathers: –2.93, p< .05) and
continued decreases in perceived trust with mothers, but not
fathers, during high school (mothers: –1.25, p< .05; fathers: –
0.50, p> .05). With regard to communication (Figure 1c), we
found that adolescents perceived significant decreases in commu-
nication with both mothers and fathers during middle school
(mothers: –4.25, p< .05; fathers: –3.63, p< .05) and stable com-
munication with both mothers and fathers during high school
(mothers: –0.15, p> .05; fathers: 0.32, p> .05).
The variances in Table 3 indicate that there were significant
between-person differences in levels and the extent to which spe-
cific facets of relationship quality for mothers and fathers changed
from middle school to high school. Figure 2,Figure 3, and
Figure 4 illustrate the large amount of between-person differences
in levels of and rates of change in mothers’and fathers’alienation,
trust, and communication from middle school to high school.
This indicates that some individuals may have experienced stron-
ger increases or decreases compared to others. In the next set of
analyses, we examined whether gender moderated levels and
rates of change in each facet of perceived parent–adolescent rela-
tionship quality from middle school to high school.
The role of gender in perceived parent–child relationship
quality in adolescence
Table 3 shows results from our models that included gender as a
predictor of level, middle school slope, and high school slope
across adolescent perceptions of alienation, trust, and communi-
cation with mothers and fathers. Child gender is coded 0 = boy
and 1 = girl; thus, the parameter estimates in Table 3 (second
set of rows, under Mothers and Fathers each) detail whether
there was an effect for girls. Focusing on alienation, we observed
that compared to boys, girls perceived stronger increases in alien-
ation from both mothers and fathers during middle school
(mothers: 1.86, p< .05, fathers: 1.34, p< .05). Based on the
parameters, the average increase in perceived alienation for girls
was 3.44 with mothers and 2.97 with fathers. For boys, the average
increase in perceived alienation was 1.58 with mothers and 1.63
with fathers. We did not find any gender differences in levels of
perceived alienation at Grade 6 or changes in perceived alienation
during high school for mothers and fathers.
Focusing on trust, we found that girls, compared to boys, per-
ceived higher levels of trust at Grade 6 with mothers, but not
fathers (mothers: 1.93, p< .05, fathers: 1.73, p> .06). We also
found that compared to boys, girls perceived stronger declines
in trust during middle school with mothers, but not fathers
(mothers: –3.18, p< .05, fathers: –2.51, p> .05). We did not
observe any gender differences in changes in perceived trust
with either parent during high school.
Regarding communication, we foundthat girls, compared to boys,
perceived higher levels of communication at Grade 6 with mothers
only (3.58, p< .05). Wedid not find any significant genderdifferences
in perceived communication with fathers at any time point.
Figure 1. Graphical illustration of model implied
change for relationship qualities of (a) alienation,
(b) trust, and (c) communication. We see that alien-
ation shows a general increase from middle school
to high school, whereas trust and communication
show declines from middle school to high school.
Development and Psychopathology 7
Developmental linkages of parent–adolescent relationship
quality to mental health
In our next set of analyses, we examined whether particular
dimensions of adolescents’felt attachment to parents from mid-
dle school to high school would predict long-term adjustment of
anxiety and depressive symptoms at Grade 12, and also whether
the effects were similar for mothers versus fathers. We outputted
each adolescent’s estimate for level (Grade 6), middle school
slope, and high school slope for each subscale of perceived par-
ent–adolescent relationship quality (alienation, trust, and com-
munication) and used these estimates in separate regression
analyses to predict each adjustment outcome (see Infurna,
Gerstorf, Ram, Schupp, & Wagner, 2011, for prior use of this
strategy), while controlling for gender, ethnicity, marital status,
number of siblings, and levels of anxiety of depressive symptoms
at Grades 6 and 9. To examine the greatest explanatory power
and unique effects of each facet of relationship quality across dif-
ferent periods of adolescence, we included all variables into the
regression equation and conducted separate analyses for moth-
ers and fathers.
Table 4 shows the results of our regression analyses for the pre-
dictive effects of level at Grade 6, middle school, and high school
changes in adolescent perceptions of alienation, trust, and com-
munication with mothers and fathers on anxiety and depressive
symptoms at Grade 12. Focusing on anxiety, we found that stron-
ger increases in perceived alienation during high school with
mothers (β= 0.10) and fathers (β= 0.22) were associated with
Figure 2. Graphical illustration of between-person differences in level and rates of change in (a) mothers’and (b) fathers’alienation from middle school to high school.
Figure 3. Graphical illustration of between-person differences in level and rates of change in (a) mothers’and (b) fathers’trust from middle school to high school.
Figure 4. Graphical illustrationof between-person differences in leveland rates of changein (a) mothers’and (b)fathers’communicationfrom middle schoolto high school.
8 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
Table 3. Examining changes in alienation, trust, and communication for mothers and fathers and the moderating role of gender
Alienation Trust Communication
Estimate SE Estimate SE Estimate SE
Level 12.01* 0.32 44.19* 0.43 36.51* 0.45
Middle school slope 1.58* 0.32 −3.47* 0.49 −4.25* 0.51
High school slope 0.64* 0.30 −1.25* 0.46 −0.15 0.40
Effect of gender
Level −0.33 0.63 1.93* 0.83 3.58* 0.87
Middle school slope 1.86* 0.66 −3.18* 0.97 −2.14 1.01
High school slope −0.75 0.60 1.45 0.91 0.65 0.79
Level 13.65* 2.18 23.85* 3.81 26.99* 4.18
Middle school slope 5.71* 2.25 21.56* 5.52 26.03* 6.00
High school slope 6.79* 1.88 22.96* 4.89 13.76* 3.56
Covariance between level and middle school slope −1.18 1.77 0.44 3.53 −2.86 3.89
Covariance between level and high school slope −4.88* 1.56 −10.03* 3.04 −8.01* 2.73
Covariance between middle school and high school slope −0.98* 1.52 −3.43 3.85 −4.59 3.52
Residual 7.94* 0.41 15.85* 0.81 14.60* 0.74
Model fit statistics
BIC 8,263 9,449 9,323
RMSEA 0.10 0.08 0.10
CFI 0.91 0.96 0.93
Alienation Trust Communication
Estimate SE Estimate SE Estimate SE
Level 12.54* 0.34 42.42* 0.47 32.75* 0.53
Middle school slope 1.63* 0.35 −2.93* 0.51 −3.63* 0.54
High school slope 0.57* 0.22 −0.50 0.41 0.32 0.38
Effect of gender
Level 0.24 0.63 1.73 0.91 0.84 0.82
Middle school slope 1.34* 0.67 −2.51 1.00 −1.31 1.07
High school slope −0.08 0.47 −0.33 0.89 −0.03 0.75
Level 14.49* 2.19 36.79* 4.51 41.61* 5.46
Middle school slope 5.63* 3.00 27.78* 5.54 25.52* 6.75
High school slope 2.49* 2.02 11.61* 4.06 10.58* 4.16
Covariance between level and middle school slope −1.99 1.84 −7.33 3.96 −10.98* 4.66
Covariance between level and high school slope −3.87* 1.23 −9.82* 2.97 −8.32* 2.91
Covariance between middle school and high school slope 0.66 1.52 −2.15 3.49 0.82 3.69
Residual 8.43* 0.46 14.22* 0.73 16.32* 0.84
Development and Psychopathology 9
higher levels of anxiety at Grade 12. For trust, we found that lower
levels of perceived trust with mothers at Grade 6 (β=–0.05) were
associated with higher levels of anxiety at Grade 12. We did not
find any effect of perceived communication with either parent
on levels of anxiety at Grade 12. Further, when looking at the
effect of perceived relationship quality with mothers on anxiety,
we found that reporting higher levels of anxiety at Grade 9, but
not Grade 6, was associated with reporting higher levels of anxiety
at Grade 12 (β= 0.41). When looking at the effect of perceived
relationship quality with fathers on anxiety, we found that report-
ing higher levels of anxiety at both Grade 6 (β= 0.17) and Grade 9
(β= 0.35) were associated with reporting higher levels of anxiety
at Grade 12. Gender and number of siblings were also significant
covariates, suggesting that girls, compared to boys, had higher lev-
els of anxiety at Grade 12 (β= 0.27), as did adolescents with more
siblings (β= 0.07).
Focusing on depression, we found that stronger increases in
perceived alienation during high school with mothers only (β=
0.95) were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms
at Grade 12. For trust, we found that lower levels of perceived
trust at Grade 6 for both mothers (β=–0.71) and fathers (β=–
0.33) were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms
at Grade 12. We also found that stronger decreases in perceived
trust during high school, with mothers only (β=–0.60), were
associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms at Grade
12. For communication, we found that higher levels of perceived
communication with mothers at Grade 6 (β= 0.41) were associ-
ated with higher levels of depressive symptoms at Grade 12. We
also found that stronger increases in perceived communication
in high school with both mothers (β= 0.83) and fathers (β=
0.58) were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms
at Grade 12. Further, when looking at the effect of perceived rela-
tionship quality with mothers on depressive symptoms, we found
that reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms at Grade 6 (β
= 0.16) and Grade 9 (β= 0.41) was associated with higher levels of
depressive symptoms at Grade 12. Similarly, regarding the analy-
ses for fathers, we found that reporting higher levels of depressive
symptoms at Grade 6 (β= 0.24) and Grade 9 (β= 0.31) was also
associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms at Grade
12. Finally, ethnicity was also a significant covariate, suggesting
that biracial status was associated with higher levels of depressive
symptoms at Grade 12 (β=–1.17).
The present study examined the course of changes in felt attach-
ment to mothers and fathers from the perspective of high achiev-
ing school students across seven annual assessments, spanning
age 12 through age 18, and how such changes in perceived rela-
tionship quality with either parent differed by gender. The study’s
prospective design also highlighted which particular dimensions
of perceived relationship quality with mothers and fathers
might affect long-term adjustment of anxiety and depressive
symptoms at Grade 12. Moreover, the current study explored
these relations among a sample of high-achieving adolescents,
now known to be at risk for elevated distress compared to norma-
tive samples, and also known to be stretched for shared time with
parents (Luthar & Kumar, 2018). For these reasons, there is value
in illustrating the particular dimensions of parent–adolescents
relationships that seem to carry particularly high “protective
potential”for this at-risk group (see Luthar & Eisenberg, 2017).
Previous studies that have examined the developmental course of
parent–adolescent relationships have been limited by using either
cross-sectional or short-term longitudinal data obtained from
inconsistent sources and measures of perceived relationship quality.
Overcoming such limitations and advancing the literature, our pro-
spective, seven-wave study of high-achieving youth utilized a valid
and reliable measure (i.e., IPPA) capable of capturing individual dif-
ferences among unique features of perceived parent–adolescent rela-
tionship quality for both mothers and fathers. The IPPA subscales
also provide information about the degree and affective quality of
adolescent involvement with parents, which has been found to be
distinct from overall attachment quality measures (Heiss, Berman,
&Sperling,1996). Further, the patterns of the IPPA subscale scores
highlight unique elements underlying perceived changes in parent–
child relationships and the qualities that are most impactful on
internalizing adjustment outcomes in adolescence.
Changes in perceived parent–child relationship quality in
Overall, we found that the perceived quality of parent–child
relationships changes significantly during adolescence, a period
marked by developmental demands. Specifically, we found that
the quality of parent–child relationships decreased the most
Table 3. (Continued.)
Alienation Trust Communication
Estimate SE Estimate SE Estimate SE
Model fit statistics
BIC 8,253 9,293 9,462
RMSEA 0.08 0.05 0.08
CFI 0.95 0.98 0.95
Note: BIC, Bayesian information criterion. RMSEA, root mean square error of approximation. CFI, comparative fit index. Mothers. alienation: parameter estimates for middle school slope
latent basis slope factor: 0, 0.60, 0.85, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.49, 0.97, 1 for the time
interval Grades 6 to 12. Trust: parameter estimates for middle school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0.43, 0.67, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high
school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.29, 0.74, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Communication: parameter estimates for middle school slope latent basis slope factor: 0,
0.55, 0.75, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.45, 0.83, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Fathers.
alienation: parameter estimates for middle school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0.42, 0.79, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high school slope latent
basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.76, 1.36, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Trust: parameter estimates for middle school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0.24, 0.47, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time
interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.36, 0.72, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Communication: parameter estimates for
middle school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0.39, 0.63, 1, 1, 1, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12. Parameter estimates for high school slope latent basis slope factor: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.60,
1.13, 1 for the time interval Grades 6 to 12.
10 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
during middle school, at the onset of the teen years (Luthar &
Ciciolla, 2016), and somewhat stabilized by the end of high
school. Taken together, our results demonstrated a general trend
of decreased closeness, consistent with existing research on par-
ent–child relationship quality in adolescence (e.g., Buist et al.,
2002; Steinberg & Morris, 2001). Regarding the unique affective
Table 4. Examining the predictive effects of level, middle school, and high school changes in relationship quality on anxiety and depressive symptoms at Grade 12 for
mothers and fathers, separately
Anxiety Depressive symptoms
Estimate SE βEstimate SE β
Intercept 0.80* 0.03 1.44 7.39* 0.31 1.22
Level alienation 0.03 0.02 0.15 0.08 0.22 0.04
Middle school slope alienation 0.02 0.03 0.05 0.04 0.31 0.01
High school slope alienation 0.10* 0.03 0.31 0.95* 0.33 0.27
Level trust −0.05* 0.02 −0.34 −0.71* 0.20 −0.48
Middle school slope trust 0.01 0.01 0.04 −0.01 0.16 −0.01
High school slope trust −0.01 0.02 −0.06 −0.60* 0.25 −0.34
Level communication 0.02 0.01 0.18 0.41* 0.16 0.31
Middle school slope communication 0.01 0.01 0.06 0.07 0.13 0.04
High school slope communication 0.02 0.02 0.10 0.83* 0.36 0.32
Gender 0.25* 0.07 0.23 0.79 0.74 0.07
Ethnicity −0.04 0.05 −0.05 −1.14 0.50 −0.13
Marital status −0.01 0.07 −0.01 0.76 0.79 0.05
Number of siblings 0.06 0.03 0.09 −0.05 0.35 −0.01
Outcome at Grade 6
0.09 0.06 0.10 0.16* 0.07 0.18
Outcome at Grade 9
0.41* 0.07 0.45 0.41* 0.11 0.42
0.52 0.05 0.40 0.05
Intercept 0.80* 0.03 1.45 7.37* 0.32 1.22
Level alienation 0.04 0.02 0.25 0.21 0.33 0.11
Middle school slope alienation 0.04 0.03 0.10 0.32 0.42 0.08
High school slope alienation 0.22* 0.07 0.39 1.22 1.21 0.20
Level trust −0.02 0.01 −0.20 −0.33* 0.15 −0.29
Middle school slope trust −0.01 0.01 −0.05 −0.25 0.15 −0.17
High school slope trust −0.01 0.02 −0.05 −0.60 0.34 −0.21
Level communication 0.01 0.01 0.07 0.17 0.11 0.16
Middle school slope communication 0.01 0.01 0.09 0.09 0.15 0.05
High school slope communication 0.04 0.02 0.13 0.58* 0.26 0.20
Gender 0.27* 0.06 0.24 0.74 0.70 0.06
Ethnicity −0.04 0.05 −0.05 −1.17* 0.59 −0.14
Marital status 0.02 0.07 0.02 0.74 0.82 0.05
Number of siblings 0.07* 0.04 0.12 0.01 0.48 0.00
Outcome at Grade 6
0.17* 0.06 0.20 0.24* 0.07 0.26
Outcome at Grade 9
0.35* 0.07 0.38 0.31* 0.09 0.31
0.52 0.05 0.35 0.06
Note: N = 262.
Outcome, anxiety at Grade 6 and Grade 9 were included as covariates when the outcome was anxiety at Grade 12, and depressive symptoms at Grade 6 and Grade 9 were
include as covariates when the outcome was depressive symptoms at Grade 12. *p< .05.
Development and Psychopathology 11
components of perceived relationship quality, we observed that
perceived alienation with both mothers and fathers significantly
increased during middle school and high school. Perceived trust
and communication with both parents significantly decreased
during middle school, although only trust continued to decrease
with mothers during high school.
The developmental demands implicit in adolescence, such as
the task of individuation and autonomy seeking, may account
for the decreased closeness and lack of feeling understood that
persist throughout middle school and high school. What is unique
about the dimensions of alienation and trust that continue to
change in the direction of decreased closeness is that they both
share a common quality of whether or not adolescents feel under-
stood by their parents. For example, “My mother/father under-
stands me”and “My mother/father doesn’t understand what
I’m going through these days,”coming from the trust and alien-
ation subscales, respectively, similarly account for the degree to
which adolescents feel understood by their parents. Further, alien-
ation taps into adolescents feeling detached and angry, primarily
as a reaction to feeling that their needs are not being met and that
they are not receiving enough attention. Similarly, trust represents
how accessible and responsive adolescents perceive their parents
to be and whether they feel that their parents are meeting their
developmental needs (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987). As adoles-
cents become increasingly independent during this period of
development (Molloy, Ram, & Gest, 2011), parents may feel
that they are not needed or may feel that their parental authority
is being threatened. As a result, a mismatch between adolescents’
desires for increasing autonomy and opportunities for indepen-
dence provided by parents (Eccles et al., 1993) may account for
persistent increases in perceived alienation and decreases in per-
ceived trust throughout middle school and high school.
In addition, we found that of the three affective components of
felt attachment to parents (e.g., alienation, trust, and communica-
tion), communication was the only dimension that significantly
decreased in middle school but did not continue to significantly
decline in high school. This finding may be accounted for by
the fact that adolescents spend increasing amounts of time with
peers as they enter middle school, and as a result, may disclose
less about their personal feelings and experiences to their parents
than they had in younger years (Laible et al., 2000). However, as
adolescents progress through high school and become closer to
graduating, this group of high-achieving adolescents may rely
on their parents for advice in preparation for college.
The role of gender in perceived parent–child relationship
quality in adolescence
Consistent with previous research, our findings support that the tra-
jectories of change for parent–child relationships are differentiated
by gender (Buist et al., 2002). We found that gender differences
in felt attachment to mothers and fathers were significant for alien-
ation in middle school. Specifically, we found that girls, compared
to boys, showed stronger increases in perceived alienation in middle
school for both mothers and fathers. We also found that girls, com-
pared to boys, showed stronger decreases in perceived trust in mid-
dle school, but only for mothers. Compared to boys, girls also
showed higher levels of trust and communication with mothers at
Grade 6. Although we did not find initial gender differences in per-
ceived alienation, girls reporting significantly higher levels of trust
and communication with mothers reflects a higher level of felt
attachment overall compared to boys. One possible explanation
for these findings may be that girls typically report having higher
levels of relationship quality with mothers (Buist et al., 2002), leav-
ing more room for the relationship to decline in closeness. We
found that the declining quality of parent–child relationships dif-
fered by gender significantly during middle school but did not
find any gender differences in high school.
In line with previous findings, we found that the onset of the
teen years during middle school marked the initiation of emerg-
ing gender differences in adolescents’perceptions of parental rela-
tionship quality (e.g., Luthar & Ciciolla, 2016). When appraising
mean level differences at each grade level, we also found that girls
continued to report higher levels of alienation and lower levels of
trust and communication from Grade 8 to Grade 9, with boys
showing the opposite trend. Overall, girls showed stronger
decreases in felt attachment to parents compared to boys. In gene-
ral, we know that girls are initially closer to both parents than
boys. As a result, the developmental task of individuation and sep-
aration is that much more challenging for girls. Thus, our findings
may be indicative of girls losing more trust and feeling more
alienated in order to increase independence and gain autonomy
in adolescence. Collectively, these findings emphasize the need
to consider gender of both the child and the parent in future stud-
ies on changes in relationship quality across adolescence.
Developmental linkages of parent–adolescent relationship
quality to mental health
Consistent with the current literature, we found that parent–child
relationships continue to be relevant and developmentally associ-
ated with adjustment outcomes beyond infancy and into adoles-
cence (Ruhl et al., 2015). Specifically, our results indicate that
perceived relationship quality with parents in adolescence had sig-
nificant links with psychological distress outcomes, including
anxiety and depressive symptoms. Concerning the specific facets
of relationship quality, perceived increases in alienation with
both mothers and fathers in high school significantly predicted
higher levels of anxiety at Grade 12. Lower levels of perceived
trust with mothers at Grade 6 was also predictive of higher levels
of anxiety at Grade 12. Regarding depression, findings were
mostly significant for mothers. For mothers, our findings showed
that low levels of perceived trust at Grade 6 and decreases in per-
ceived trust and increases in alienation in high school were asso-
ciated with more depressive symptoms at Grade 12. For fathers,
we found that low levels of trust at Grade 6 were also linked to
more depressive symptoms at Grade 12.
A surprising finding was that increases in communication in
high school with both mothers and fathers were associated with
higher levels of depressive symptoms measured at Grade 12.
Even after controlling for baseline measures of anxiety and
depressive symptoms (e.g., Grades 6 and 9), higher levels of com-
munication with mothers and fathers were still significantly asso-
ciated with more depressive symptoms at Grade 12. There are
several potential explanations for this association. Although our
study utilized a prospective study design, there may still be bidir-
ectional influences and a reciprocal cycle in the association
between parent–child relationship quality and mental health out-
comes among adolescents (Rueter & Conger, 1998). Moreover, it
is possible that the declining quality of parent–child relationships
throughout middle school and high school may have accounted
for the maintenance of depressive symptoms as well as the need
for adolescents to communicate more and share their problematic
experiences with their parents throughout middle school and high
12 A. M. Ebbert, F. J. Infurna, and S. S. Luthar
school. In looking more closely at the specific items from the
IPPA scale, the nature of the communication questions lends itself
to the reasonable assumption that adolescents suffering from
depressive symptoms may have reported increases in communica-
tion toward the end of high school based on their need for emo-
tional support. For example, one item reads, “I can count on my
mother/father when I need to get something off my chest”; a child
scoring high on this item is likely to be experiencing symptoms of
depression. Further, the communication questions include items
that are both indicative of existing adolescent problems, such as
“I tell my mother/father about my problems and troubles,”and
items that indicate positive aspects of communication, such as
“I feel my mother does a good job as my mother,”which may be
measuring distinct qualities of communicating. In future research,
it may be useful to separate communication items between those
based on distress and those based on positive communication.
Most likely, the positive items would be related to lower depres-
sion. This possibility warrants further empirical inquiry.
In summary, from early to late adolescence, we observed pat-
terns of change within the parent–child relationship that were asso-
ciated with adolescent adjustment outcomes. Despite finding that
the magnitude of changes in parent–child relationships were
more pronounced in middle school, relationship quality with par-
ents in high school generally had more predictive value of adoles-
cent internalizing adjustment outcomes. These patterns may
suggest a “recency effect”as it were, that is, if there is significant
deterioration in relationship quality in the years just preceding
high school (as opposed to disturbances occurring many years in
the past), negative effects are likely to be seen in anxiety and depres-
sion at the end of Grade 12. In terms of ramifications for long-term
adjustment, findings clearly point to the importance of initial levels
of trust and changes in alienation during high school for both
mothers and fathers. However, more significant findings for per-
ceived relationship quality with mothers support prior suggestions
(Luthar et al., 2013) that the quality of relationships with mothers
(usually primary caregivers) can have especially strong ramifications
for the long-term adjustment of adolescents.
Limitations and future directions
Although this study offers a unique contribution to the existing
literature on parent–adolescent relationships, several limitations
should be considered. The use of self-report data based only on
the perceptions of adolescents (a) leaves open the question of
how parents perceived their adolescents’felt attachment to
them, and (b) might raise concerns about shared method vari-
ance. With regard to the former, in this study, our central interest
was not as much in others’opinions of parents’effectiveness, but
rather, in adolescents’subjective perceptions of their relationships
with parents, and how these perceptions might play out in differ-
ent aspects of their adjustment. Furthermore, adolescents have
been found to provide a more accurate depiction of their relation-
ship with their parents and have been similar to reports from
independent observers, especially regarding unfavorable aspects
of the relationship (Collins & Laursen, 2004a). With regard
to the issue of shared variance, the simultaneous consideration
of multiple relationship dimensions with each parent, for a total
of six in all, would have, in essence, partialed out variance
due to any global positive or negative bias in students’reports,
indicating associations unique to each. Nevertheless, future stud-
ies may consider including additional perspectives, such as obser-
vations of parent–adolescent interactions (De Goede et al., 2008).
In addition, the inclusion of additional variables that may be
affecting parent or family stress variables may strengthen future
studies on the quality of parent–adolescent relationships.
Conflict, for example, is a very normative part of parent–adoles-
cent relationships and may be a significant variable influencing
relationship quality trajectories (Collins et al., 1997). Future stud-
ies will benefit from examining the role that normative increases
in conflict play in typically developing adolescent–parent relation-
ships. Another variable that could be included in future studies is
birth order. Even though we accounted for number of siblings in
the model, birth order could affect parent and family stress levels,
depending on whether or not the participant’s parent is parenting
an adolescent for the first time.
This study explored an ethnically homogenous sample of afflu-
ent families from a suburban area, which may make it difficult to
generalize findings to non-White families or those of lower socio-
economic status. Future studies such as this one could help illumi-
nate general trends across diverse populations, contributing to the
refinement of theories on parent–child relationships across the
years spanning pre- through late adolescence. In addition, the pri-
mary outcomes of mental health that we focused on were anxiety
and depressive symptoms. It will be important to explore further,
in future research, whether developmental changes in perceived
parent–adolescent relationship quality would be predictive of
other pertinent outcomes, including academic achievement and
Finally, we stress the importance of not overinterpreting our
findings on the link between the quality of parent–adolescent rela-
tionships and adjustment outcomes. Although we demonstrate
that certain qualities of parent–child relationships are significantly
associated with increases in anxiety and depression, additional
factors, such as peers, teachers, and communities, may further
account for the influence on adolescent adjustment outcomes.
In terms of implications for practice and policy, results of this
study resonate with prior recommendations for increased atten-
tion to parent–adolescent relationships starting in early middle
school, in the context of high achieving communities (Luthar &
Ciciolla, 2016; Luthar & Kumar, 2018). Associations between
low levels of perceived parent–adolescent relationship quality
and poor developmental outcomes have been repeatedly estab-
lished among various samples of middle- to low-income families
(e.g., Elder & Caspi, 1988; Yeung, Linver, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002).
Although limited, existing research comparing these families with
suburban families suggests that, on average, children’s reports of
closeness to parents may not differ much from those in other
groups. Yet this leaves open the possibility of some cases where
parent–child relationships are troubled, and it would be these
youth who are especially at high risk for maladjustment.
In conclusion, findings from this multiwave study provide
important insights into both patterns of change in the quality of
parent–child relationships across adolescence, and on the ramifica-
tions, for adjustment by late adolescence, of different aspects of felt
attachment to parents. The present findings from a sample from
high-achieving youth demonstrated that decreases in perceived
relationship quality followed a unique pattern of change associated
with adjustment outcomes in adolescence. Results from this work
have strengthened the notion that parents continue to be influential
in providing support during adolescence; highlighted the impor-
tance of parents making adjustments to adolescents’changing
developmental needs; and has provided directions for how future
research might focus on disentangling causal pathways underlying
the dynamic interplay of these relationships.
Development and Psychopathology 13
Suniya S. Luthar gratefully acknowledges support provided by the
National Institutes of Health (Grant R01DA014385), the Rodel
Foundation, and Authentic Connections. The content is solely
the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily repre-
sent the official views of the funding agencies.
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