Kris Knutson Investigates the Feelings of Family Separation Among College Students

Greetings! My name is Kris Knutson and I am a (relatively) new faculty member in the Department of Communication and Journalism at UWEC. I am really excited to be talking to you today about a study of mine that was recently published in Family Science.

Retrieved from

I am a quantitative social scientist by training which means that I use statistics to help me understand the communicative phenomenon I am investigating. In this study, my co-author and I used mediational analyses to analyze our data. This is a fancy way of saying we were interested in answering the question of “How?”

We had two big “how” questions we attempted to answer in this study, but I am only going to talk about one of them today.

We began with the very common-sense assumption that college students would perceive greater separation from their families at the end of a typical college semester than they did at the beginning. We were interested in figuring out how that change happened.

So, we set out to find variables that would help us explain the phenomenon we were investigating. We knew that feeling an increasing sense of separation from one’s family is considered very normal for college students, and we thought that college students might feel more separated from their families because they perceive less social support from their families.

Social support, as we measured it, is experienced when individuals perceive that there are people in their lives who they can go to when things aren’t going right. These people will help them with their problems, help them deal with their emotions, help them make decisions, and overall just be there as individuals who will listen to them (Zimet, Dahlem, Zimet, & Farley, 1988). What is important to remember with social support is that a person has to perceive the support to be affected by it (Wills & Shinar, 2000). So, while parents might think that they provide a lot of support to their children who are in college, if college students feel like they shouldn’t need that support or that they can’t truly access it because of a large distance between them and their parents, they might not recognize and label the supportive messages they get from their parents as “supportive.” If they do this, they don’t reap the benefits of that support.

We predicted that social support was part of the explanation of how family separation increased across a semester, but we knew that there was more to it than that. So, we decided to look at loneliness as another explanatory variable; we thought if students felt like they weren’t able to get support from their family members then those feelings of separation from their families might make them feel lonelier. Once they felt more loneliness, it only made sense that they would also experience more stress.

In all, our predicted model indicated that students would feel greater separation from their families across the course of a college semester because they first feel that they are getting less support from their family members which leads to increased loneliness which then leads to feelings of greater stress.

In testing this hypothesis we found that students do report feeling more disengagement from their families at the end of normal fall semester than they do at the beginning of a semester. Also, the order of the explanatory variables in our model was found to be correct. You can explain changes in perceptions of family separation by a decrease in perception of family support which leads to an increase in perceptions of loneliness and then an increase in perceptions of stress.

So, what does this all mean? Well, it asks us to remember that although separation from one’s family upon going to college is considered a “normal” process, there are psychosocial consequences associated with that transition (e.g., increased loneliness and thus increased stress). Thus, it is important that students are consistently made aware of the support services that they can access on campus because they might not see their families as viable options for needed support.

As with all things, however, our model only answers part of the “How?” question. There are many other variables that would help us better understand how perceptions of family separation change across a semester, and those are things that my co-author and I (as well as other researchers) can look at for years to come!

Thanks so much for reading about my research! If you have any questions, you can feel free to email me at

Wills, T. A., & Shinar, O. (2000). Measuring perceived and received social support. In S. Cohen, L. Underwood, & B. H. Gottleib (Eds.), Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zimet, G. D., Dahlem, N. W., Zimet, S. G. & Farley, G. K. (1988). The multidimensional scale of perceived social support. Journal of Personality Assessment, 52, 30-41. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa5201_2.


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