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UNDERSTANDING DYSFUNCTIONAL AND FUNCTIONAL FAMILY BEHAVIORS FOR THE AT-RISK ADOLESCENT.

ABSTRACT

At-risk adolescents and their impact on families and society, as well as characteristics of both healthy and maladaptive families, are discussed. Cognitive distortions of dysfunctional adolescents and their effect on family members, along with methods for intervention and creating more healthy environments, are delineated from a systemic viewpoint.

In the authors' view, the family is the major social unit for emotional development in adolescents. Thus, understanding families helps therapists conceptualize how adolescents develop affectively, behaviorally, cognitively, and psychologically (Vernon, 1998).

The family is an integral social system (Becvar & Becvar, 1988), held together by strong bonds of affection and caring; at the same time, family members exercise control, approval, and dissent for each other's actions. As part of this interaction, every family has a structure, whether dysfunctional or functional, chaotic or rigid. This family organization helps it to achieve goals within a developmental time frame and to survive as a unit (Kessler, 1988; Thompson & Rudolph, 1998).

At-Risk Adolescents

It is estimated that over seven million American adolescents--one in four--are extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure, while another seven million are at moderate risk (Carnegie Council, 1989; Husain & Cantwell, 1992). In today's society, adolescents are apt to become involved with damaging behaviors, particularly those associated with alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Whether this is due to cultural conditions or erosion of the family unit is debatable (Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 1991).

Unfortunately, along with these pressures, many young people lack guidance and support. The path to adulthood has been described as one of isolation. During adolescence, exploratory behavior patterns emerge. Many of these behaviors carry high risks and have resulted, for example, in an unprecedented number of alcohol-related accidents and school dropouts. The need to develop self-esteem and inquiring minds among our youth has never been more necessary. The Carnegie Council (1989) and other researchers (Thompson & Rudolph, 1998), in formulating goals for educating adolescents, note five characteristics of an effective adolescent:

1. Effective adolescents are intellectually reflective persons who have developing thinking skills. They are able to express themselves in persuasive, coherent writing as well as verbally; they know the basic vocabulary of the arts, math, and sciences, and have learned to appreciate a variety of cultures and languages.

2. They are en route to a lifetime of meaningful work. Work is essential to survival, as well as an integral part of one's identity. Our youth must be knowledgeable about a variety of career options and not be restricted by race or gender. Certainly high school graduation will be a prerequisite for entering the work force and it is hoped that they will understand the advantages of post-secondary education.

3. Adolescents will be good citizens, thus taking responsibility for shaping our world. We need to develop children who are doers, not just subservers--those who can demonstrate on a daily basis their commitment to their own character, their community, and their schools. Also it is hoped that they will understand the basic values of our nation and have an appreciation for both the western and non-western worlds.

4. Adolescents will be caring individuals who are able to think clearly and critically, and act ethically. Our youth must recognize that there is a difference between right and wrong, and must have the courage to act on their convictions. They will model values that have been associated with good family development--including integrity, tolerance, and appreciation of others. They will understand the importance of close relationships with family and friends, recognizing that relationships require effort and sacrifice, and that without them, life has relatively little meaning and can be filled with insecurity and loneliness.

5. Our youth will understand the correlation between exercise, diet, and health. These provide a sense of competence and strength. We must help our youth become proficient because success is directly related to self-image. The effective adolescent will appreciate personal strengths and work to overcome weaknesses.

It is our belief that every youth in our nation, poor or rich, advantaged or disadvantaged, should have the opportunity to achieve success, not just minimum competence, in all of these areas. This is the challenge to our society as a whole--our educational, community and social-support systems. However, it also is a direct challenge to individuals to help families maximize their potential.

Unfortunately, many families are unable to cope with the problems faced by adolescents (Robin & Foster, 1989; Vernon, 1998). Many adolescents are growing into adulthood alienated from others, and with low expectations of themselves. There is greater likelihood that they will become unhealthy, addicted, violent, and chronically poor. Equally disturbing is that adolescents from the more affluent communities are displaying similar problems. Too many students are dropping out of school or participating at a minimal level. Even if they graduate, they have few marketable skills and their parents are not demanding that they acquire these skills.

Affluent parents seem to send mixed messages--that their lives are too demanding, and at the same time, because of their affluence, they do not see the needs of their troubled teenagers. When these problems do hit home, parents' reaction is often shock or dismay.

On the other hand, less advantaged families, in struggling to make a living, do not have the time to build family relationships. Further, greater mobility in quest of economic opportunities makes family cohesiveness less attainable. In a time of great change, many parents are confused about their roles and relationships and are less aware of the new temptations faced by their adolescents (Wicks-Nelson & Israel 1991).

The Carnegie Council (1989, pp. 22-25) reported that in a recent graduating high school class, 92% had consumed alcohol, and of those, 56% had begun in the sixth through ninth grades, while 36% had begun in the tenth through twelfth grades. These numbers do not include those who had dropped out of school, and who were even more likely to use alcohol. Problem behaviors are also interrelated. For example, young people who drink often experiment with illegal drugs. They may smoke and engage in unprotected sex. These same adolescents are more prone to school failure.

More teenagers are becoming sexually active before the age of 16 (Berns, 1993), and girls are becoming pregnant at a greater rate and dropping out of school early. Young mothers are usually economically disadvantaged, have limited opportunities, and their pregnancies lead disproportionately to the birth of low-weight babies who are vulnerable to many poor outcomes. It has been estimated that one-fourth of all sexually active adolescents will become infected with a sexually transmitted disease before graduating from high school, AIDS being the greatest concern (Vernon, 1998).

With the increase in risk-taking behaviors and substance abuse, motor vehicle deaths are also increasing. This is true particularly among those aged 10 to 14 years. This results from association with older adolescents who have been drinking. For this same age group, between 1980 and 1985 the suicide rate doubled. Seriously delinquent activities are peaking now at the age of 15, and of the 28 million boys and girls aged 10 to 17 in the U.S., 14 million are at moderate or high risk due to substance use and other deleterious behaviors (Vernon, 1998). The cost of these behaviors to society is several billion dollars.

Creating Healthy Families

Problem-solving and communication skills are of particular importance, especially when one considers that the relationship between adolescents and parents may be conflictual. If these conflicts are not resolved, it is difficult to restore an equitable pattern of family functioning. The more conflictual the dispute among family members, the greater the need for resolution skills. Robin and Foster (1989) indicate that in solution-focused families, members are able to share their feelings without offending others. They are able to decipher "hidden" messages. Conversely, verbal attacks, shouting, and other power-oriented techniques usually provoke anger in the recipients.

Reiss (1991) has been studying families that do not exhibit pathology in an effort to understand how they communicate, coming up with several hypotheses:

1. These healthy families speak clearly. They are not rigid in their discussions, nor are they confused and chaotic.

2. They tend to agree more often than disagree, and are able to assert themselves without offending others.

3. They have a friendly environment and are able to disagree without upsetting other members.

4. They show variation in affect; they can express happiness or sadness to each other.

5. They have a good sense of humor and have the ability to laugh at themselves.

6. They respect each other's need for privacy, and do not engage in mind reading.

Family systems need versatility, the ability to overcome conflict, and the capability to develop alternative solutions. Healthy families do not accept just any idea. They are not impulsive; they negotiate and compromise. In families that function effectively, grudges are not held very long. Arguments are short and followed by more friendly interactions.

In contrast, families that are unhealthy may find a weaker member to "scapegoat." This helps other family members to feel important. Scapegoating often occurs in families that are too rigid (authoritarian) or disorganized (laissez-faire). Both of these family structures contribute to dysfunctional behavior.

An authoritarian power structure is one in which parents impose their values upon their adolescent children. These children see the adults in the family as demanding and restrictive. Adolescents frequently have no alternative but to break the rules. Even as the adolescent grows older, authoritarian parents have difficulty renegotiating outdated rules. Further, they do not receive much input from the adolescent.

At the other end of the spectrum are the permissive or laissez-faire families in which parents either are too busy or abdicate their parenting responsibilities to social service agencies or to the adolescent. This can create enormous difficulties for adolescents who may be conflictual with their parents as they seek independence, but also need a place where they feel secure and supported and can receive guidance. The permissive family does not provide this. Adolescents in these families view their parents as disinterested, and have to make their own decisions in a very complex world. They may seek love in maladaptive ways, such as by becoming pregnant or through drug-using peer groups. Permissive parents often see themselves as close to, and understanding of, their children. Some even are able to communicate on an informal basis; however, most children in permissive families have a poor self-image and do not develop the skills required in order to compete in today's society. Permissive family structures are often confused with more democratic styles, but they are not the same (Becvar & Becvar, 1988; Robin & Foster, 1989).

The democratic style offers a decision-making method in which the parent is responsible for final decisions, but utilizes problem-solving skills that produce less conflict and greater adolescent developmental achievement. These parents encourage adolescents to participate in matters that are of importance to them. Democratic parents recognize that adaptation, particularly in a society that is rapidly changing, is important; they see their families as flexible rather than rigid. Democratic families understand that family members differ and these differences are respected and encouraged. Children do not have to exhibit maladaptive behavior in order to gain independence. Each member has a chance to contribute in family discussions. In family projects, everyone gets involved whenever possible. It is interesting that these families tend to put a positive light on negative behaviors. For example, if a child is demanding, they see it as assertive (Reiss, 1971).

Democratic families understand that labels placed on youngsters often stay with them for a long time, often into adulthood. Thus, when they disagree, they do not resort to accusations or recriminations, but tend to accentuate constructive exchanges. In contrast, an unhealthy family will accentuate the negative, rather than applying effective problem-solving techniques.

Cognitive Distortions and the Maladaptive Family

Counselors need to understand that not all families face issues involving large conflicts. Reiss (1991) noted in his classic study of families that some do not experience conflict overtly. Children may accept their parents' values, and, yet, remain independent and assertive. Thus, it is important to avoid labeling all adolescents as confrontational in their quest for independence.

Robin and Foster (1989) note that cognitive distortions have a great impact on parent/adolescent relationships in many ways. These distortions may help establish rigid positions that increase maladaptive behavior, anger generated by negative attributions, or illogical thinking, which generally escalates hostility among family members. In their examination of cognitive distortions among parents and children, Robin and Foster have developed eight themes that describe this phenomenon:

1. Perfectionism -- when parents expect their children to behave flawlessly. At the same time, adolescents see their parents as always having the correct answer.

2. Ruination -- the belief that if the adolescent engages in maladaptive behavior, there will always be catastrophic consequences; not only the adolescent's life will be ruined, but also the lives of the other family members. From the adolescent's perspective, restrictions placed by parents will ruin his or her life.

3. Fairness -- the belief by the adolescent that parents should always treat him or her fairly and that life should be fair for everyone.

4. Love and Approval -- based on the concept that no one should have secrets and that everyone should always approve of others' behavior. If you fail to confide, you are lacking in love for another human being.

5. Obedience--the parents' belief that no matter what they say or do, the adolescent should agree without question.

6. Self-blame--the adolescent or parent refuses to accept blame for his or her own mistakes, instead believing that if the other had provided better information or had acted differently, the mistake would not have been made.

7. malicious Intent--the view that if a person misbehaves, it is done deliberately to hurt other family members. Criticism and constructive feedback are seen as hurtful.

8. Autonomy--adolescents' belief that they should be able to do whatever they wish without any restrictions.

Clinicians must recognize that these cognitions serve a purpose for some unhealthy families. They may provide a sense of balance or help the family avoid intimacy. These distortions may even be seen as helpful in improving a particular negative quality.

CONCLUSIONS

During their children's adolescence, parents' decision-making becomes even more difficult due to the complexity of such issues as discipline, schooling, and intimacy. The adolescent is constantly requesting changes in the rules, and in the process parents may disagree with each other. Adolescents are adept at recognizing this ambivalence and may play one parent against the other. Disagreement among parents is not unusual, but when they are unable to resolve a conflict, the disagreement may lead to maladaptive behavior by the adolescent (Haley, 1980; Kessler, 1988).

Most of the problems seen in dysfunctional families with adolescents also occur in normal families; however, the rate of dysfunction is much higher in families that have maladaptive methods of solving problems. In fact, in many dysfunctional families adolescence-related issues are a continuation of prior parental difficulties. However, an implicit goal for every family, even a very unhealthy one, is the growth and preservation of its members.

Typically, the emergence of an adolescent in the family's life cycle results in a period of upheaval (Walsh, 1982). The family's parameters undergo continuous evaluation as the adolescent goes though a period of change--physiological, cognitive, emotional or behavioral. This period of change necessitates a series of psychosocial adjustments within the family, the major one focusing on the adolescent's primary developmental task of becoming independent from parents (Levant, 1984). How the family reacts to conflict during this period of adjustment determines whether the normal processes of adolescence will be resolved or whether they will result in pathology and an at-risk adolescent (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

Maggie Martin, Ed.D., Principal, McKinley Elementary School, Lisbon, Ohio.

REFERENCES

Becvar, D., & Becvar, R. (1988). Family therapy: A systemic integration. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Berns, R. (1993). Child, family, and community. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Carnegie Corporation.

Goldenberg, I., & Goldenberg, H. (2000). Family therapy: An overview (5th ed.). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Haley, J. (1980). Leaving home: The therapy of disturbed young people. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Husain, S., & Cantwell, D. (1992). Fundamentals of child and adolescent psychopathology. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Kessler, J. (1988). Psychotherapy of childhood. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Levant, R. (1984). Family therapy: A comprehensive overview. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Minuchin, S., & Fishman, H. (1981). Family therapy techniques. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reiss, D. (1971). Varieties of consensual experience. Family Process, 10, 1-35.

Robin, A., & Foster, S. (1989). Negotiating parent-adolescent conflict: A behavioral family systems approach. New York: Guilford.

Reiss, D. (1991). The family's construction of reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Terkelsen, K. G. (1980). Toward a theory of the family life cycle. In E. Carter, M. Thompson, & L. Rudolph (1998). Counseling children. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Vernon, A. (1998). Counseling children and adolescents. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Co.

Walsh, F. (Ed.). (1982). Normal family processes. New York: Guilford.

Wicks-Nelson, R., & Israel, A. (1991). Behavior disorders of children. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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Author:Martin, Don; Martin, Maggie
Publication:Adolescence
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:2848
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