The Role of Sense of Belonging and Family Structure in Adolescent Adjustment: An interview with Zoë Rejaän

Among adolescents, a strong sense of belonging seems to be linked to important psychological outcomes. However, parental divorce may impact adolescents’ sense of belonging not only within the family but within other social contexts as well.

 Zoë Rejaän’s 2021 paper, The Role of Sense of Belonging and Family Structure in Adolescent Adjustment, provides a comprehensive look at the role of sense of belonging and family structure in youths’ adjustment in areas of problem behavior and wellbeing.

Zoë kindly took the time to answer our questions about sense of belonging, family context, and adjustment in adolescence.

1. What is the main takeaway of your article?

The main takeaway of our article is about the importance of social connectedness during adolescence, and how major life events such as a parental divorce can have disruptive effects that may persist until years after the initial separation. In line with previous studies, our findings show that perceptions of belong towards family, peers, school, and the neighborhood affect adolescent adjustment in terms of wellbeing, internalizing and externalizing problem behavior, regardless of family structure. Yet, adolescents after divorce generally score lower on family belonging than their peers from intact families, even after controlling for several negative family processes that are usually associated with divorce. Additionally, our study revealed significant differences between adolescents’ post-divorce belonging to maternal and paternal households, being that belongingness to mothers’ homes was both higher and less sensitive to various factors such as contact arrangement and interparental conflicts. Finally, our results suggest that a reduced sense of belonging may partly explain why divorce constitutes a risk for adolescent adjustment problems. Taken together, our study makes a meaningful contribution to the existing literature, as it advances our understanding of the role of sense of belonging, family structure, and family processes in adolescent adjustment.

 2. What questions does this paper address? Why were these questions important?

Our study addresses several descriptive and explanatory research questions regarding adolescents’ belonging to different social contexts, different indicators of adolescent adjustment, and family structure. We found it particularly important to include family structure in our study, as most of our knowledge on belonging and adjustment stems from intact two-parent families.

Given the substantial changes in family functioning that typically follow a parental divorce, we argued that this knowledge could not just be generalized to non-intact families. Furthermore, we continued the work of past studies and adopted an ecological perspective by examining belonging to the family, peer, school, and neighborhood context. Based on previous research, we wanted to examine whether a lack of connection to one context, such as the divorced family, perhaps could be compensated by strong connections to another context, such as the peer group. Such a finding would provide clear goals for educational and community programs targeting youth in general, but those from divorced families in particular. However, we did not find any interaction effects of adolescents’ belonging to different contexts on their adjustment. It could be that the interweaving nature of multiple contexts of belonging requires a person-centered approach instead of the variable-centered approach that we used.

3. What do you wish more people knew about this topic?

First of all, I wish that researchers from different scientific disciplines would exchange knowledge and integrate expertise more often, also on the subject of belonging. Together with our research team*, we aimed to gain insight into the mechanisms and conditions that affect adolescents’ sense of belonging following a parental divorce by reviewing empirical research from multiple disciplines**. Although children’s and adolescents’ belonging has mostly been studied from a social science perspective, we found that the notion of belonging is also relevant to other scientific disciplines, but that it is often not recognized or studied as a (core) concept, which hinders a shared understanding of the subject. By collaborating with researchers from other disciplines, our goal is to further our understanding of how belonging can be promoted, for example in relation to language and communication in families, geographical and spatial environments, or family and divorce law.

Second, with regard to the findings from our current study, I hope that future studies will also investigate adolescents’ sense of post-divorce belonging in relation to each parental household separately. As I mentioned earlier, we found significant differences in perceptions of family and neighborhood belonging to maternal and paternal households, in favor of maternal households. Yet, previous studies have treated family and neighborhood belonging as single contexts, assuming that children and adolescents after divorce have their sole or main residence with one parent and using terms like ‘residential’ and ‘non-residential’ to describe parents’ roles in their lives. Since shared residence arrangements are now increasingly common in many Western countries and more adolescents thus spend a substantial amount of time with each parent, we hope that both parental homes will be taken into account when studying post-divorce belonging.

* This study was conducted within the research project ‘Where do I belong’, which is part of Utrecht University’s strategic theme, Dynamics of Youth. See:

** Rejaän, Z., van der Valk, I. E., Schrama, W., van Aalst, I., Chen, A., Jeppesen de Boer, C., Houtkamp, J., & Branje, S. (2021). Adolescents' post-divorce sense of belonging: An interdisciplinary review. European Psychologist.

4. Are there any papers, videos, blog posts, etc. that you would recommend to readers who are interested in this topic? 

In addition to our interdisciplinary review, I recommend the work of Valarie King on family relationships in stepfamilies and family belonging across family structures, and Aslantürk & Mavili’s recent mixed-method study on the sense of family belonging in university students from single-parent and intact families.

Furthermore, I would like to recommend interested readers to watch “Farewell Paradise”, an autobiographical and retrospective documentary by a Swiss-Dutch director about her parents’ disruptive divorce and its’ radical consequences for her and her siblings. This moving documentary touches upon subjects such as post-divorce changes and transitions, belonging, and resilience.

5. What are you most excited to see in this field in the future? What questions are you particularly excited to get answers to?

Now that we have examined family structure differences in adolescents’ sense of belonging, I am excited to focus on individual differences in belonging among adolescents from divorced families, and thus investigating differences within instead of between groups. Especially in terms of practical and clinical applicability, more knowledge is needed about the circumstances and processes that can enhance experiences of belonging during adolescence. By integrating expertise from researchers from different scientific disciplines, and using innovative, longitudinal, multi-method research designs, we hope to ultimately come to an integrated understanding of a complex societal issue such as belonging after divorce. As for now, we will continue to follow and hopefully add to this line of research, and, with that, better informed clinical and societal practice.

6. Do you have any other information you would like to add about your study’s findings?

A final point of interest based on our study findings is that a sense of belonging is important to take into account for adolescent functioning post-divorce. Not only the belongingness to their homes, but also to the neighborhoods they grow up in, their schools, and their peers. Further, we found that especially feelings of belonging to the paternal home are under threat after a divorce. The latter should be investigated further, since an increasing number of children after divorce commute between their mother’s and father’s homes.





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