Unhealthy Family Problems Damage Young Children

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Melissa Sturge-Apple, the lead researcher on a research paper and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester has found that found that unhealthy family problems can cause damage to young children during their early school years.

The patterns of unhealthy family relationships can lead to 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 Sturge-Apple. “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,” she states. “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," she said.

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Sturge-Apple studied the relationship patterns in 6-year-old children with 234 families. She and her team then identified family profiles that included cohesive, which includes positive interactions, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles. Another pattern they studied was enmeshed families, which family members are emotionally involved and display warmth, but they struggle with high levels of hostility, destructive interfering, and a limited sense of the family as a team. The last profile was disengaged families, which is marked by cold, controlling, and withdrawn relationships.

The research discovered that young children from disengaged families began their education with high levels of aggressive and disruptive behavior and struggling to focus on learning and cooperating with the classroom rules and these behaviors worsened as the child progressed through school.

Researchers then looked at enmeshed homes and found there were no disciplinary problems or depression however, as these kids continued in school, researchers found that they began to show higher levels of anxiety and feelings of loneliness and alienation from peers and teachers.

Sturge-Apple concluded that “children in the early school years may be especially vulnerable to the destructive relationship patterns of enmeshed families.”

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