Friday, 30 March 2012

The Effects of the Family on Adolescent Development

Adolescent development, which implies biological, cognitive and psychosocial changes, is related to the existing social formations and processes. Family, peer groups, neighborhood and wider community, they all influence this development.

The influence of the family on the development of children has been strongly emphasized. Many factors have been investigated from those easily noticed and measurable, e.g. family economic status to those much more subtle, difficult to measure and subject to different interpretations of obtained results, such as assessment of family relationships. It is not surprising, as it was stated by Petersen and Leffert that it is considered very difficult to document the influence of family on the child’s development.

While children grow up the family itself also has to undergo changes, gradually loosening the control over the young person while withholding the right to forbid excessive or dangerous behavior. The child’s passing through successive stages of development always revives in the parents their own unsolved conflicts specific for each stage.

If the parents did not have the corresponding experience during their own adolescence they may feel the need to release it through the child’s adolescence or to practically experience it. It can be said that adolescence is not only a developmental phase but also a specific mental state. It refers to specific emotions, attitudes and behaviors the traces of which we can sometimes detect in ourselves, friends or patients who have adolescent quality regardless of their age. Adolescence is an inevitable and obligatory process for everyone. If someone does not deal with it at the right time, he/she will try to pass through it at some other, in fact inadequate time and sometimes with undesirable consequences, most frequently during the adolescence of his/her own children. I can mention, for example, the father of one patient of mine who seemed that he was living in an apparently balanced and happy family but he changed entirely his way of life during his daughter’s adolescence. Instead of his traditional clothes he began to follow the fashion of young people, he bought a jeep and started to have love affairs. It looked as if he desperately tried to compete with his adolescent child and her peers, trying to practically experience parts of his own adolescence that he had not lived through at the right time, exerting in this way a harmful influence on his daughter’s adolescent process. The other possibility is shown by the need to prevent the adolescent process in one’s own child due to the lack of one’s own experience of adolescence and, the developmental significance of which is denied to evade the above mentioned consequences. Another patient of mine, the adolescent girl, complained: My mom had very strict parents and was not allowed to do anything. Now she wants me to live in the same way she did. I think she really envies me for having fun, but she would never admit that even to herself. I am really never too late.
Sometimes, I am a little late, but she waits for me and the quarrel starts. She even calls me names when I am late. I would never expect that from her. She was a good mom. She does not understand how such accusations influence my feelings toward her. And all that because of her parents who forbade everything she said that they were too strict. But now when my time has come, she behaves in the same way. When am I supposed to have a good time if not now when I am young?

By losing the parental idealized status characteristic of the preadolescent period, the parents’ narcissism gets always hurt. Various factors contribute to that: the child challenges their values and ideals which it previously accepted without question; the growth of sexuality in adolescents and its gradual decrease in parents; the great parental expectations of the child as a narcissistic extension of themselves, etc. The attack on the parental self-respect provokes longing for the latency child lost in adolescence and for the lost elevated parental status. If the parental depression or hostility are too excessive, Kaplan15 pointed out that one of numerous pathological outcomes in the relationship with the adolescent is inevitable: the attempt to stop the process of growth, abdication or expulsion.

As adolescent becomes more distant and defines himself/herself in opposition to his/her parents, he/she mostly denies the continuous need for restrictions and family support. Stierlin described the ideal type of conflict between parents and adolescents as a loving fight, between actors who mutually affirm their right to exist and to be different. Psychological growth can be viewed as a consequence of the internal stimulus toward maturation and development, along with the equally important interaction between less developed and less integrated psychic structure of the child and more developed one of the parent. The adolescent still needs this interaction with adults.

Maccoby and Martin defined four parental styles. According to them, the authoritative parents exert control and warmth and are willing to support the need of their adolescent children for autonomy by giving them greater responsibilities. The autocratic or authoritarian parents wish to impose strict discipline (or demands) without much warmth or psychological autonomy. Indulgent parents express love, but exert little control and practice great freedom in decision-making. Indifferent parents are deficient in all aspects and their children have the worst outcome. The authoritarian and laissez-faire parenthood more frequently leads to worse outcomes than authoritative parental attitudes. Generally, the research shows that authoritative parental attitudes yield best results in terms of school obligations, regardless of age and sex, socio-economic status and family structure.

Psychoanalysts (e.g. A. Freud) are also aware of the traps hidden in permissive parenthood, which often leads to an increased feeling of guilt in children or adolescents who are too early forced to take responsibility and decisions. Besides, by great permissiveness the parents deprive their children of the opportunity to learn how to cope with aggression within the family. Possible outcomes of over-indulgence can include the neurotic development or certain behavior disorders. Adolescents then unconsciously, through a behavior disorder, try to force their parents to pose restrictions or punish them, in order to diminish the feeling of guilt. Psychoanalysts, however, particularly underline the importance of empathy in parent-child relationship.

Empathizing with the child’s wishes, feelings and needs does not lead necessarily to indulgence, but to the recognition of the child or adolescent as a person who is entitled to his/her own wishes, feelings and needs, demands and attitudes, which the parent emphatically recognizes and tries to bring them into reason. However, it does not mean that the parents should inevitably agree with and approve of all decisions or behaviors based on the needs, feelings, wishes, or even thoughts of the child. If in parental judgement some of these behaviors are too irrational, unrealistic or potentially bad for the child itself, the family, or sometimes parents themselves and wider community, the parents will either forbid them or try to find together with the child a more suitable solution. At the same time the parent is capable to understand that the adolescent can be angry or sad because of the restriction. This is a frequent adolescent reaction, but it should not affect the parental decision regarding the expressed disagreement or restriction. The parent should also prevent excessive behavior of the adolescent on account of the restriction.

The second important element of parenthood is the capacity of the parents for containment. Most frequently, the parents do not worry or immediately get angry at strong emotional outbursts of the adolescent, but try to alleviate his/her strong drives or emotions by their own capacity for containment. In this way the parents not only work out or metabolize the strong feelings and drives of the adolescent and give them back to him/her in a much alleviated form, but they also help the adolescent to lift his/her strong affects and unworked raw drives to the level of mental content, where they are more understandable to the adolescent and easier to cope with through the thinking process. Indeed, today it is generally considered that empathy and containment capacity are fundamental elements of all qualitative human relationships which result in capacity for tolerance and potential for making healthy compromises. One mother asked for consultation because she was worried by the behavior her son was beginning to display toward her. This adolescent boy was living with his mother and sister since the divorce of his parents and he begins to act in a rude manner toward her. The mother is disappointed because her son’s behavior starts to remind her increasingly of that of his father and for which she asked for the divorce. The distressed mother reacts by saying to her son that he is just like his terrible father and that because of such behavior she divorced him. The son’s behavior only got worse. Another mother with more empathy and better containment capacity in a similar situation of the son’s aggressive attacks said to her son that she understands how it was difficult for him at his complicated period to be deprived of his father unlike many of his friends. She added that she thought how he might be afraid to remain too attached to her by growing up only with her, and he probably acted rudely to try to keep her at a distance. Then she stressed that rudeness is neither the only possible nor a good way to protect his autonomy. The son felt relief because the mother helped him to understand better the reason of his behavior, which he was slightly afraid of because he could not control it, and now together with his mother he found the way out. Naturally, it was easier for the mother to talk her son into cooperation because their earlier relationship had been fulfilled with trust, good emotional experiences and comparative harmony due to her empathy, holding behavior and creation of holding environment as well as containment capacity.

In the first case the son did not begin to resemble his father more than the son in the second case, but the mother’s fear of this possibility was greater while her empathy and containment capacity were lower. It seems as if by accusing her son she tries to reestablish her marriage situation and to lead her hurt and disappointed son into moving eventually to his father’s place. In fact, she basically acts in this way mostly because of her inner neurotic motives (which probably affected her bad choice of marriage partner as well) that have colored her relationship with the son since his early childhood.

It is true that the investigations performed have generally shown that positive adolescence outcome is more frequent in families with both parents than in single parent families, although some researchers think such conclusions should be taken with caution. These studies also suggest that changes in family life, such as death or divorce of parents, unfavorably affect the adolescent development, but this inference has been also subject to controversy. The majority of studies also indicates that the mother’s employment does not have a strong or uniform direct influence on children. There are even some indications that it may positively affect the daughter’s development, while it can have negative effects on the development of adolescent sons.

Adolescence is described as a pilot experiment of living« which indicates that trial and error and experimentation make an essential part of this developmental stage. Unfortunately, in contemporary societies experimentation is full of dangers that can even be life threatening. The consequences of experimentation with drugs or sexual experiences include many serious dangers, such as AIDS. Both adolescents and especially their parents strive to create a different and safer climate for experimentation.

Winnicott maintains that many of adolescents’ difficulties for which they ask professional help are due to the failure of their environment. Marital conflicts are an essential, if not a critical external factor that affects the adolescent’s development. In families with mutually reliable and gratifying parents adolescents are healthier, even if parents show some psychopathological signs. Healthy parents respond to the adolescent with untouched self-respect. Their own suppressed narcissism is reflected in their feeling of competency with which they perceive both themselves and their adolescent child. Regardless of challenges provoked in them by growing up of their child, they do not have to show their superiority by underestimating the adolescent’s achievements, and they know how to express in the relation to the adolescent their pride of the adolescent’s progress and to empathize with his/her efforts to make some progress. They can stimulate him/her to make progress without being afraid that such challenges will destroy their relationship or without any feeling of guilt for hampering the adolescent’s development.

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