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What's Your Family's Style?

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: According to a recent study, kids who grow up in families that have a healthy balance of interest and involvement and a steady supply of support and affection -- families that psychologists refer to as "cohesive" -- tend to do better in school.

family photograph
No shock there, really. What's perhaps more interesting is that the researchers identified two types of dysfunctional families that seem to produce kids who have specific kinds of school problems. Those from families described as "disengaged" -- distant, lacking in emotional connection, cold -- start school with an elevated risk for bad behavior (including aggression) and have difficulty learning and getting along with other children. 

Those from dysfunctional homes described as "enmeshed" (families that are close but battling, with open hostility) typically enter school without behavioral issues, but -- like the kids from disengaged families -- they face "higher levels of anxiety and feelings of loneliness and alienation from peers and teachers" as their school years go on. (The researchers were careful to say that other factors, such as the school and neighborhood environment and peer groups, also play a role in children's school problems -- sometimes a larger role than family dynamics.)

The study, conducted by psychology professors at the University of Rochester and Notre Dame University, was published in the July issue of Child Development Magazine. Researchers looked at more than 200 families that included a 6-year-old child, studying parent-child interaction as well as information gathered through interviews with family members and teachers. They found that the majority of families (59 percent) were healthily cohesive, 22 percent were enmeshed and 19 percent were disengaged. 

"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," said one of the study's authors. Most of us -- even those who grew up in families with very clear problems -- seek to do better when we form our own families. But sadly, it seems that no matter how hard we may try, it's very difficult to avoid replicating the very patterns that made us so certain we wouldn't become like our own parents. 

Since we live in a very media-centric society, the study's authors helpfully provided a television or movie reference to help us understand each family type (though their references are, as my teenager would say, "mad old"). Anyway, if your family is loving and supportive, provides healthy limits and a stable, consistent base (i.e., it's cohesive), you're like the Huxtables on "The Cosby Show." If your family is basically loving but fights all the time, and everyone is in everyone else's business (i.e., it's enmeshed), you're like the Barones on "Everybody Loves Raymond." And if your family barely speaks to one another, nobody shares their emotions and basically you act like a bunch of total strangers (i.e., it's disengaged), you're like the family in the 1980s movie "Ordinary People."

So: Which kind of family did you grow up in? And what kind are you living in now?


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