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Big brothers: impact on little brothers' self-concepts and behaviors.

When a couple with children divorces, the structure of the family is altered, and the process of disorganization and reorganization can continue for several years. However, as with other crises, divorce has the potential for creating growth and new integrations, although reaching this potential is often a difficult task, especially for the children (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1977). Divorce is not a single event, but a series of changes that begins with the dissolution of the marriage and continues to a possibly prolonged disequilibrium within the family. For the child, this change in family structure can create, among other things, a loss in educational opportunities, severe alterations in parent-child relationships, and a lower standard of living (Wallerstein, 1991).

In a national survey, Furstenberg, Morgan, and Allison (1987) found that children of divorce were significantly worse off than those from intact families with respect to several measures of academic performance, problem behaviors, and psychological distress These differences remained even with such control variables as age, race, sex, and mother's education. Further, Zill's (1983) national survey of 2,161 children between the ages of seven and eleven found that children of divorce reported higher levels of loneliness and boredom than did children from intact families. They also reported more feelings of rejection and belittlement and viewed their home environment in more negative terms when living with their mothers without a father present. In general, there is evidence that children of divorce experience a disproportionately greater number of social, academic, and psychological adjustment problems (Kelly, 1988).

Not surprisingly, these negative aspects of divorce adversely affect the self-esteem and self-concept of these children (Harper & Ryder, 1986; Parish & Taylor, 1979; Rosenberg, 1965). However, the question of which specific aspect of divorce diminishes the child's self-concept has proven difficult to answer. It appears that a combination of factors have this negative impact on the children.

Garbarino (1982) states that the development of a positive self-concept in youth is contingent upon the availability of support systems, which he defines as social arrangements offering nurturance, providing feedback, and serving as resources. From this perspective, divorce can be seen as altering that social support. Nurturance is especially at risk for the child as typically the father leaves the home and the mother's availability is limited by such demands as the need for employment. Another, but related explanation for reduced self-concept is that as the child attempts to make sense of the newly experienced deficiency in parental bonding, he or she may conclude that the reason lies within his or her own inadequacies (Parker, 1978).

A further consideration regarding the effects of divorce on self-concept is centered on the amount of conflict experienced within the family. The general finding has been that in families with high parental conflict, the children suffer from lower self-concepts than do children in low-conflict homes (Bishop & Ingersoll, 1988; Raschke & Raschke, 1979).

The frequency and quality of visitation by the noncustodial parent was also found to affect the child's self-concept. A significant relationship was found between infrequent visiting and poor self-esteem, depression, and anger in children of divorce (Hess & Camera, 1979; Kelly, 1981; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Also, unvisited children are likely to experience feelings of rejection and self-blame (Rose, 1992). On the other hand, predictable and frequent contact with the noncustodial parent has been demonstrated to be associated with better adjustment by the child, unless the father is very poorly adjusted or extremely immature (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox 1982; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

One of the many unfortunately typical consequences of divorce is the reduction in family income. Parish and Taylor (1979) suggested that when assessing the self-concept of children of divorce, such factors as socioeconomic status and mother availability need to be considered. The results of studies measuring the effect of socioeconomic status on the self-concept of children of divorce are mixed. As reported by Guidubaldi and Perry (1985), boys from divorced families, regardless of family income, repeatedly displayed less appropriate behavior, less work effort, and less happiness than did boys from intact families. However, regardless of divorce, children from lower income families were found to perform worse on academic or intellectual measures (Guidubaldi, Perry, & Nastasi, 1987). An additional consideration is the effect of lower income level on the child-rearing styles in low income families were more restrictive and demanding than higher income families.

Clearly, children are faced with many difficulties when their parents divorce. After determining the factors of divorce which adversely affect children, it is important to delineate what these children need in order to resolve their internal struggles. Wallerstein (1983) described six psychological tasks that children of divorce need to master: Acknowledging the reality of the marital rupture; disengaging from parental conflict and distress and resuming customary pursuits; resolution of loss; resolution of anger and self-blame; accepting the permanence of the divorce; and, achieving realistic hope regarding relationships. The child must deal with the psychological task presented by complex changes in intimate relationships and self-concept, without the structural support of the family system (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1977). Perhaps the most important task is to resolve the issues involved with relationships so that the child can believe once again in his or her capacity to love and be loved (Wallerstein, 1983).

In an attempt to alleviate some of the negative effects of divorce on children, the United Way has formed the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. In this program, children from single-parent households are matched with an adult volunteer of the same sex. Following an extensive screening process, an approved adult volunteer is matched with a same-sex child. A Big Brother or Big Sister is expected to continue regular contact (typically 3-5 hours per week for at least one year). Through this process, the adult provides the child with friendship, understanding, feedback, and concern for the child's well-being. Theoretically, if a child receives this type of attention from a caring volunteer, the adverse affects of living in a single-parent household is expected to diminish.

Although there are several possible effects of divorce on children, the focus of this study was restricted to two questions: (1) Does having a Big Brother improve the self-concept of the Little Brother? (2) Do the mothers of matched Little Brothers report a higher level of behavioral functioning in their children than do mothers whose children have yet to be matched with a Big Brother?



Data were collected from 45 boys and their mothers. All the boys were involved in one of two Big Brother/Big Sister agencies in the state of Oklahoma. The experimental group (n = 23) consisted of boys aged 9-15 who had been matched with a Big Brother for at least six months. The control group (n = 22) consisted of boys aged 7-13 who were unmatched but had been on the waiting list to be matched for no longer than one year.


Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale: This is a self-report measure that is completed by the child. The instrument consists of 80 "yes-no" items that form six clusters (Behavior; Intellectual and School Status; Physical Appearance and Attributes; Anxiety; Popularity; and Happiness and Satisfaction). The Piers-Harris has been found to be a highly reliable instrument with test-retest reliability coefficients ranging from .42 to .96 and internal consistency estimates for the total score range from .88 to .93 (Piers, 1984). The reliability scores compare well with other instruments used to measure personality traits in children and adolescents (Piers, 1984). A number of empirical studies have demonstrated the content, criterion-related, and construct validity of this instrument.

Child Behavior Checklist, Parent-Version (CBCL): This is a self-report questionnaire in which the parent rates his or her child's behavior. It consists of 113 Likert-scale questions (0 = Not True; 1 = Somewhat of Sometimes True; 2 = Very True or Often True). The 113 questions comprise the Total Problem Scales. There are eight scales within the Problem Scales (Withdrawn; Somatic Complaints; Anxious/Depressed; Social Problems; Thought Problems; Attention Problems; Delinquent Behavior; and Aggressive Behavior). The CBCL appears to be a highly reliable instrument. The Cronbach's alpha for the Problems Scales is .96 and the test-retest reliability for the Problem Scales is .89 (Achenbach, 1991). A number of empirical studies have demonstrated the content, criterion-related, and construct validity of the CBCL (Achenbach, 1991).


With the cooperation of both agencies, the two instruments were mailed to all participants along with written consent forms for both the boy and his mother. All participants were instructed that their willingness to participate in the study would in no way affect their status within their respective Big Brother/Big Sister agency. From a total of 92 pairs of instruments mailed, 45 usable pairs were returned (48%).


Table 1 contains the means and standard deviations for the boys' ratings of their self-concepts on the Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale. In t-tests comparing scores for boys matched and unmatched with a Big Brother, scores indicated that boys who were matched reported higher self-concepts than did those who were on the waiting list. Analysis of four selected subscales indicated that matched boys reported significantly higher ratings of their physical appearance and popularity. They also reported significantly less feelings of anxiety. On the fourth subscale, which measures feelings regarding intellectual ability, no significant differences were found between groups.

T-tests comparing scores for boys matched and unmatched with a Big Brother on the mothers' ratings on the Child Behavior Checklist were also conducted. No statistically significant differences were found for either the Total Problem Scale or for any of the four subscales that were selected for analysis.


The goal of this study was to gain empirical evidence for what is subjectively recognized as a beneficial program. This is the first study which attempted to objectify the effectiveness of the Big Brother program with regard to the behaviors and self-concepts of the Little Brothers.

The data from the Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale indicated that the matched boys were more inclined to approve of their physical appearance, to think of themselves as popular with their peers, and to feel less anxious than their unmatched counterparts. The fact that the matched boys reported higher levels of self-concept lends support for Garbarino's (1982) assertion that involvement by children of divorce in a social support system can help them in this regard. The association with their Big Brothers may also decrease their level of boredom and loneliness which Zill (1983) found to be significant with children from divorced families.
Table 1

T-test Comparisons of Scores on the Child Behavior Checklist

Variable Matched Unmatched
 (n=23) (n=22)
 M SD M SD t

Total Problem 28.86 20.53 38.77 24.97 1.45
Withdraw 2.08 1.80 2.90 3.03 1.09
Anxious/ 4.21 4.22 6.36 5.35 1.48
Social 1.95 2.05 3.54 3.54 1.82
Aggressive 8.65 7.02 10.90 6.65 1.10

Being matched with a Big Brother appears to counteract to some degree what Kelly (1988) reported about their social and psychological adjustment problems. It was found that boys who were matched reported feeling more popular and less anxious than the unmatched boys. Having a Big Brother may also assist the child in working through some of the psychological tasks associated with coping with divorce to which Wallerstein (1983) referred. The interaction with a Big Brother allows him the opportunity to discuss and express his feelings about the loss with a caring, supportive adult who can provide important feedback and information which can help the child make sense of the disruption within his family.

The hypothesis that the mothers of matched boys would report lower levels of behavioral problems in their children was not supported. However, the data from the Child Behavior Checklist, although not statistically significant, consistently indicated mean scores suggesting a trend in favor of the boys who were matched. One explanation for this is the small sample size, and it is possible that with a larger sample, this trend would yield statistically significant differences. Another explanation is that the mothers in both groups may have been similar in their parenting styles. The fact that all the mothers were interested in seeking support for their boys may be an indication of their similarity.

There are many variables to be explored within this population when considering future research. In terms of gender, studies are needed with regard to the ways Little Sisters are affected by their relationships with Big Sisters. Also, the issue of visitation has been recognized as a significant variable in studying children of divorce (Hess & Camera, 1979; Kelly, 1981; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Other variables to consider include ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the degree of conflict within the family. Future research should also consider the impact of the interaction of these factors.

This study supports prior research in the area of children of divorce, especially with regard to the view that a positive social support system can help children cope with issues that stem from divorce. It also offers new insights into the Big Brother/Big Sister program. Perhaps the most significant impact is that it lends empirical support to the belief that having a Big Brother can be beneficial. The implications of this finding are important for parents, teachers, school counselors, therapists, and others who are involved with the well-being of boys whose fathers are absent from the home.


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Sean Turner, Ph.D., Counseling Psychology, University of Oklahoma.
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Author:Turner, Sean; Scherman, Avraham
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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