Back to School Blues: How Family Matters

_DSC2330A three year longitudinal study confirmed what family therapists have observed clinically for decades–namely that patterns of family interaction have profound effects on children–both for better and for worse. Here’s the bottom line: if you want your kids to succeed in school, build a stronger, more loving family.

Melissa Sturge-Apple, a researcher from the University of Rochester, studied 234 families with 6 year-old children, and followed the adjustment of the kids in their first three years of school. The study included direct observation of the kids as well as both parent and teacher reports.

file5961243012756What is your family’s structure?

The team identified and described three different family structures that they named cohesive, enmeshed, and disengaged. Which family structure best fits the family you grew up in? How about your current family?

  • Cohesive families have an emotional glue that helps everyone feel connected–when push comes to shove, family members stick together and feel a sense of unity. The cohesive families observed in this study (and many others) were more happy and loving with relationships characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, firm boundaries, and clear roles for parents and children.
  • Enmeshed families lack healthy boundaries, and the roles of children and adults are not as clear or differentiated. There are children involved in adult conversations and activities and vice versa. Researchers noted how the enmeshed families were emotionally involved with one another but in addition to warmth, there were higher levels of hostility, over-involvement or destructive meddling in each other’s lives, and only a limited sense of teamwork.
  • Disengaged families lack the sense of connection that makes members feel safe, loyal, and unified. There may be rules but not as many shared rituals or time together. Sturge-Apple’s team noticed how disengaged families were characterized by too little emotional connection between family members, a lack of teamwork, and relationships that could be described as cold, controlling and withdrawn.

file0001634469948Can you guess what effect family structure had on kids’ adjustment in school?

Results of the study on school adjustment

The children from the disengaged families had the most problems adjusting to school, and their problems showed up right away. Kids from this type of unhappy family were more likely to be aggressive and were often inappropriate in class. They were more alienated from teachers, and had a harder time obeying the rules.

Over the course of three years (the length of the study), the problems continued to get worse. Kids from disengaged families became more alienated from teachers and peers and were later prone to depression and anxiety as well.

The children from the enmeshed families looked initially like they were adjusting to school as well as the kids from the cohesive group since they didn’t have the behavioral problems seen in the disengaged group.

However, as time went on, these children had more problems with “internalizing” behaviors like depression and anxiety. As their problems progressed, so did their alienation from teachers and peers.

Why does this matter so much?

This research is important in a number of ways. First, it verifies what family therapists have described about the importance of healthy boundaries and emotional connection for the success of children, whether at school or in relationships.

file000284591175-150x150The cohesive families had clear boundaries, particularly between adults and children, in contrast to the overly close, boundaryless enmeshed or the rigidly distant disengaged systems. As a result, the kids from these families were able to adjust socially and emotionally and could adapt and thrive in their new school environment.

Besides helping to confirm the importance of family structure, the researchers learned another important fact. They noted that…

“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.”

I would add: without help. These patterns rarely change without intervention.

DSCN3430_2Given the pain and difficulties encountered by the kids from these less healthy family structures, hopefully this research will encourage parents to get the help they need–the sooner the better–to change problematic modes of relating.

Armed with this information, hopefully teachers will make referrals more quickly to programs that offer parents education, suggest books on how to create cohesive families or make referrals to family therapists rather than simply focusing on the acting out or anxious child.

Like a good remodel on an old house, new structures can be built that are safer and sounder for all that occupy them. If your child is struggling to adjust to school, you may just want to take the whole family for a check-up.

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