Which sitcom/movie family is most like your home environment:
a) The Cosby Show [Huxtable family]
b) Everybody Loves Raymond [Barone family]
c) Ordinary People [Jarrett family in Lake Forest, IL]
If you answered “a,” you can stop reading and call your parents to thank them for giving you a solid foundation in life.
If you answered “b” or “c,” you will probably be interested in the research of psychology professors Melissa Sturge-Apple and Patrick Davies at the University of Rochester in New York. It was featured yesterday on The Today Show, and I was so intrigued that I tracked down their most recent studywhich was published in the July 15 issue of Child Development [Vol. 81, Issue 4, pages 1320-1335].
Their work builds on the foundation of earlier studies which found that dysfunctional family experiences can undermine a child’s ability to adapt and navigate early school experiences. Since families are our source of support and protection, the dysfunction impacts:
- academic competence
- peer relationships
- behavioral control
Why? A child’s internalizations of family experiences are used as blueprints for interpreting and responding to novel challenges outside the family. In other words, we treat new people the way we were treated at home.
A child’s social adjustment is key to academic development. Children from disengaged and enmeshed families exhibit a heightened vulnerability and difficulties in emotional adjustment to school. Family dysfunctions are a source of stress and distraction.
Children from disengaged families have the most problems. They start out in school with higher levels of aggression and disruptive behavior. They have more difficulty focusing and cooperating. These behaviors escalate as the child gets older.
Children from enmeshed families suffer from higher levels of anxiety, loneliness, and alienation as they get older.
The study followed 234 six-year-old children and their parents for three years:
The study examined how the parents related to one another, noting any aggression, withdrawal, or avoidance and observing their ability to work as a team in the presence of the child. Were parents emotionally available to their child? Did parents provide praise and approval? Or, did they ignore the child during shared activities? How did the child relate to the parents? Were attempts to engage the parents brief and half-hearted or sustained and enthusiastic?
Cohesive Families: The Cosby Show
The Gold Standard
- Harmonious interactions, emotionally warm and close, and agreeable relationships
- Firm but flexible roles for parents and children
- Children have access to resources such as support and warmth ~ children feel loved, protected, safe, and self-confident
- Children have better peer relationships at school
- Conflict and differences are resolved
- Low levels of interparental hostility and withdrawal, parental intrusiveness, and family competition
- High levels of parental emotional availability, child relatedness, and family cooperation and cohesiveness
- Gives children the most solid foundation for a well-adjusted life with reduced risk factors
- Enchanced social development which is the key to academic success
Enmeshed Familes: Everybody Loves Raymond
- Entangled, intrusive relationships laced with hostility
- Lots of emotion and conflict
- Low levels of cohesion ~ limited sense of the family as a team
- Modest levels of warmth and availability in parent-child relationships
- Access to resources comes with a cost [strings attached]
- Significant destructive meddling: restrictions in personal and psychological autonomy ~ children are slow to develop an individual personality
- Very high levels of interparental hostility, parental emotional availability and intrusiveness, and family competition
- Lower levels of interparental withdrawal, child relatedness, and family cooperation and cohesiveness
- Entanglement in family drama may result in greater emotional disengagement from school
- Inability to focus and concentrate in school
- Difficulties learning to play in the sandbox or get along with others
Disengaged Families: Ordinary People
- Rigid boundaries
- Barren emotional climate: Cold, indifferent, unsupportive, controlling, and emotionally withdrawn relationships
- Criticism and anger
- Alienation and disenfranchisement ~ feelings cannot be discussed
- Family members function as distinct entities rather than part of a unified whole ~ very little connection
- Relatively high levels of interparental withdrawal, parental intrusiveness
- Low levels of interparental hostility, parental emotional availability, family cooperation, competition and cohesiveness, and child relatedness
- The family’s failure to fulfill the responsibility of providing support, resources, and protection result in a child’s difficulties in regulating behavior in the school context
- Children may dismiss or downplay the value of interpersonal relationships
- Children begin their education with higher levels of aggressive and disruptive behaviors
- Children have more difficulty cooperating with classroom rules
- Children have heightened levels of depression and anxiety
- Children have more difficulty focusing on learning
- Children have significant doubts and worries about the ability of the family to serve as a source of protection in the face of external demands
A huge shout-out to Susan Hagen at the University of Rochester for granting me access to the study as well as preparing a press release that distilled complex academic research into terms a layperson can comprehend.
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