Maternal Employment, Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Problems

Stacy De Coster, North Carolina State University

Criminological and mental health theories long have recognized the family as an important context for understanding adolescent problems, emphasizing the relevance of family structural positions (e.g., family income and female headship) and family processes (e.g., parenting practices and familial interactions). Despite this general interest in family structure and family processes, research on adolescents has focused little attention on one of the most marked changes that has faced American families in recent decades. Specifically, little attention has been focused on the role of maternal employment in the development and/or control of adolescent problems. The present paper addresses this gap in the literature by developing a theoretical model that links the gendered ideologies and work and family roles of mothers to the delinquency and depression of their adolescent children. The theoretical models posits the following causal links: (1) the gendered ideologies and roles (work and family roles) of mothers coalesce to influence maternal distress; (2) maternal distress, in turn, influences parenting practices, which affect peer relationships; and (3) parenting practices and peer relationships combine to predict the likelihood of delinquency and depression during adolescence. My discussion of this theoretical model emphasizes the ways in which the model addresses recent critiques of power-control theory (Hagan, Simpson, and Gillis 1985), which arguably is the most well-developed theory dealing with the relationship between maternal employment and the adolescent problems of delinquency and depression. I test the theoretical model using data from the National Survey of Children (Zill, Furstenberg, Peterson, and Moore 1976; 1981; 1987) and covariance structure analysis. The results of the empirical analysis lend general support to the proposed arguments and contribute to the limited understanding of both the conditions under which maternal employment and/or nonemployment influences adolescent problems as well as the processes through which maternal employment and/or nonemployment influence such problems.

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Updated 05/20/2006