Happy and Unhappy Families

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August 2010 - Research from the University of Rochester and the University of Notre Dame published in Child Development analyzed relationship patterns in 234 families with a child aged six. Consistent with long-established family systems theory, researchers found three distinct profiles: one happy, termed cohesive, and two unhappy, termed disengaged and enmeshed. Specific difficulties were encountered in the first years at school depending on the type of dysfunctional profile identified. This study is the first to confirm the existence of these profiles across multiple relationships within the marriage partnership and between children and parents.

Patrick Davies, professor of psychology, explained:

"We were really able to look at the big picture of the family, and 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."

Researchers explain that:

Cohesive families are characterized by harmonious communication, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles for parents and children. Enmeshed families may be emotionally involved and display some warmth, but experience 'high levels of hostility, destructive meddling, and a limited sense of the family as a team'. Disengaged families are associated with cold, controlling, and withdrawn relationships. Researchers assessed families using parent and teacher reports and through direct observation. Participants came to the lab annually for three years, making two visits one week apart. Both parents and their child played Jenga, an interactive game, for 15 minutes. On alternate weeks each parent interacted alone with the child for ten minutes divided between play and clean up. Parents were also videotaped discussing two topics intended to elicit disagreement.

The study evaluated how parents related to one another, noting characteristics such as aggression, withdrawal, avoidance and ability...