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Happy And Unhappy Families

August 2010 - Research from the University of Rochester and the University of Notre Dame published in Child Development analyzed relationship patterns in 234 families with a child aged six. Consistent with long-established family systems theory, researchers found three distinct profiles: one happy, termed cohesive, and two unhappy, termed disengaged and enmeshed. Specific difficulties were encountered in the first years at school depending on the type of dysfunctional profile identified. This study is the first to confirm the existence of these profiles across multiple relationships within the marriage partnership and between children and parents.

Patrick Davies, professor of psychology, explained:

"We were really able to look at the big picture of the family, and what was striking was that these family relationship patterns were not only stable across different relationships but also across time, with very few families switching patterns."

Researchers explain that:

  • Cohesive families are characterized by harmonious communication, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles for parents and children.
  • Enmeshed families may be emotionally involved and display some warmth, but experience 'high levels of hostility, destructive meddling, and a limited sense of the family as a team'.
  • Disengaged families are associated with cold, controlling, and withdrawn relationships.

Researchers assessed families using parent and teacher reports and through direct observation. Participants came to the lab annually for three years, making two visits one week apart. Both parents and their child played Jenga, an interactive game, for 15 minutes. On alternate weeks each parent interacted alone with the child for ten minutes divided between play and clean up. Parents were also videotaped discussing two topics intended to elicit disagreement.

The study evaluated how parents related to one another, noting characteristics such as aggression, withdrawal, avoidance and ability to work as a team in the presence of the child. Researchers assessed the emotional availability of parents, whether they provided praise and approval or ignored the child during shared activities. They also noted how the children related to their parents, noting whether attempts to engage them were 'brief and half-hearted or sustained and enthusiastic'.

The study found that children from disengaged homes started school with higher levels of aggressive and disruptive behavior and more difficulty focusing and cooperating with classroom rules. These behaviors tended to increase with time. Children from enmeshed homes began with no more disciplinary problems or depression and withdrawal than those from cohesive families. However, as children from families with either type of destructive relationship pattern continued in school they began to suffer from higher levels of anxiety and feelings of loneliness combined with alienation from peers and teachers.

While the study identified a clear connection between family characteristics and behavior at school the researchers caution against concluding that dysfunctional relationships are responsible for the majority of difficulties encountered. They point to other relevant risk factors, including high-crime or deprived neighborhoods, peer pressure and genetic traits.

Lead researcher Melissa Sturge-Apple, an assistant professor of psychology concluded:

"Families can be a support and resource for children as they enter school, or they can be a source of stress, distraction, and maladaptive behavior. This study shows that cold and controlling family environments are linked to a growing cascade of difficulties for children in their first three years of school, from aggressive and disruptive behavior to depression and alienation. The study also finds that children from families marked by high levels of conflict and intrusive parenting increasingly struggle with anxiety and social withdrawal as they navigate their early school years."

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