Contrary to Leo Tolstoy's famous observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," a new psychology study confirms that unhappy families, in fact, are unhappy in two distinct ways. And these dual patterns of unhealthy family relationships lead to a host of specific difficulties for children during their early school years.
"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," says Melissa Sturge-Apple, the lead researcher on the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
"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," Sturge-Apple explains. "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."
The three-year study, published July 15 in Child Development, examines relationship patterns in 234 families with six-year-old children. The research team identified three distinct family profiles: one happy, termed cohesive, and two unhappy, termed disengaged and enmeshed.
Cohesive families are characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles for parents and children. "Think the Cosby family," says Sturge-Apple, offering an example from the popular TV series about the affable Huxtable family.
Enmeshed families, by contrast, may be emotionally involved and display modest amounts of warmth, but they struggle with high levels of hostility, destructive meddling, and a limited sense of the family as a team. Sturge-Apple points to the emotionally messy Barone family in the family sitcom Ever
|Contact: Valerie Alhart|
University of Rochester