The theory of parent-child interaction implies that through repeated and close parent-child interactions, children acquire social-behavioral orientations that extend into their interpersonal relationships (Patterson, 2002). Recently, the topic of parental psychological control has received much attention in Taiwan. Parental psychological control is defined as the presence of parenting behaviors that intrude on children’s emotional and psychological autonomy (Barber, 1996) and are manipulative and intrusive to children’s thoughts and feelings, such as withdrawing one’s love or inducing guilt; such parenting can be predictive of numerous types of psychological maladaptation in children (Barber & Harmon, 2002). Research has indicated that psychologically controlling parental behavior may be linked to internalizing problems, such as higher levels of anxiety (Nanda et al., 2012; Seibel & Johnson, 2001) and lower levels of social consciousness (Baumrind, 1991), in children. Additionally, parental behavior of psychological control may enmesh children into the parents’ psychological worlds, may encourage dependency in children, and may inhibit individuation by infantilizing children (Barber & Harmon, 2002). Emerging adulthood is a developmental stage when young people are experimenting with various approaches to living and gradually moving toward making decisions with long-lasting implications (Arnett, 2000). Self-differentiation is a crucial developmental task in emerging adulthood. According to Erikson’s (1968) psychosocial developmental theory, emerging adults must simultaneously cope with the challenges of constructing stable self-identities and developing intimate relationships with others. Parental psychological control that inhibits individual discovery and expression may be negatively linked to poor ego development and even social maladaptation (Barber & Harmon, 2002). Thus, investigators should investigate how parental psychological control interferes with the emerging adult’s progress in establishing a stable identity and maintaining good interpersonal relations with others. Therefore, this study aimed to examine the associations between parental psychological control and social anxiety and examine the mediating role of the differentiation of self during the stage of emerging adulthood. To further clarify the mediating mechanism of the differentiation of self, the mediating pathway of each dimension (i.e., emotional reactivity, I-position, emotional cutoff, fusion with family, and fusion with others) was examined separately in this study. Additionally, to account for gender effects, a stratified analysis by gender was conducted for whether parental psychological control differently affects social anxiety through the degree of self-differentiation in male versus female participants. The participants of this study comprised 955 emerging adults (364 men and 591 women) aged 18—25 years (mean age: 21.41 years). The measurement instruments used in this study were as follows: the Chinese version of the Parental Psychological Control Questionnaire (Cheng, 2014), the Social Anxiety Scale for Adolescents (Cheng & Chen, 2015), and the Differentiation of Self Inventory (Lam & Chan-So, 2015). These scales were internally consistent with Cronbach’s alpha coefficients >.70. The participants’ age distribution and the degree of their reliance on resources from their family indicated that they may be susceptible to indirect control by their parents. Therefore the variables of age, school attendance, financial dependence, and whether they lived with their parents were treated as control variables in this study. The study’s used structural equation modeling with the bootstrapping approach to examine the mediation effects of the five dimensions of the differentiation of self. The results demonstrated that parental psychological control positively predicted social anxiety in emerging adults. Differences were noted in the mediating effects of the five dimensions of the differentiation of self and the moderating role of gender. First, we revealed that the “emotional reactivity” and “fusion with others” aspects of self-differentiation had significant indirect effects and that these results did not significantly differ between male and female participants. Second, we found that the “I-position” aspect of self-differentiation had a significant indirect effect among female but not male participants. Lastly, we found that the “emotional cutoff” and “fusion with family” aspects of self-differentiation had no indirect effects in either male or female participants. The findings of the present study indicate that parental psychological control, with its characteristics of manipulation and enmeshment, harms the development of emotional abilities in emerging adults by making it difficult for these individuals to distinguish between the emotional and intellectual processes. Individuals who perceive more psychological control from their parents tend to have lower degrees of differentiation of self and feel anxiety in interpersonal relationships because they tend to reproduce the unresolved attachment emotions of their original family (Bowen, 1978). In addition, according to the internal working model theory, individuals may internalize experiences of being rejected by their parents. If parents frequently induce guilt in or withdraw love from their children, children may perceive themselves to be loved only conditionally. When children transfer this experience to social relationships, they may worry about others' evaluations of them and attempt to ensure they meet the expectations of others. Such children are thus more likely to feel intense anxiety in social interactions. Furthermore, our findings indicate that women may be more likely than men to feel anxiety and guilt in the process of individualization in Chinese society (Tsai & Wu, 1998). Parental psychological control may thus restrict women from asserting their own principles and positions in interpersonal interactions, especially in high-pressure situations, and this may generate feelings of social anxiety that hinder their interpersonal relationships. Based on these findings, we demonstrated that examining the mediating role played by self-differentiation, and further exploring its individual dimension can contribute to our understanding of the links between parental psychological control and social anxiety in emerging adults. Additionally, further clarification of gender-specific effects in these associations are warranted. Most research in Western societies has viewed the construct of "fusion with family" as embedded in "fusion with others." Our findings, however, revealed the necessity of distinguishing between the dimensions of "fusion with family" and "fusion with others" when self-differentiation is investigated in Chinese society. The cultural emphasis of filial piety and collectivist values privileges the role of “family” in Chinese society and thus indicates that the aspect of "fusion with family" could be very different from the aspect of "fusion with others." Future research to explore the indigenous nature of the "fusion with family" dimension of self-differentiation prevalent in Chinese communities is recommended. A major limitation of this study was that all data were self-reported. Future research could collect data from diverse sources, such as collecting parental reports of psychological control in addition to child reports. Narrative research is also an alternative approach to examine how the effects of parental psychological control in emerging adults might generate and develop into unique narrative experiences in interpersonal relationships.
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