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Relationships between child behaviour problems and family functioning: A literature review

N.M.C. Van As and J.M.A.M. Janssens

Relationships between family functioning and child behavior problems that are described in the literature are mostly based on empirical studies and clinical experience with families expe­riencing moderate to severe child rearing difficulties. Van As (1999) compared problem families experiencing only mild child rearing difficulties, with normal families, and found comparable results. In problem families, the parents were less supporting, the parent-child relationship was characterized by an imbalance, the family was judged less cohesive and less structured (at least according to the mothers and children), and the quality of the communication between parents and child was judged lower by both parents and children, than in normal families. Although the differences in scores between the problem and normal families were often small, they proved statistically significant. Family functioning in problem families was less efficient than in normal families. This may indicate that there is a continuum from normal family functioning to severe family dysfunctioning, as Kousemaker and Timmers-Huigens (1985) suggested. These authors distinguish four types of families. The normal families, placed at the one end of the continuum, are characterized by no special child rearing difficulties. The clinical problem families, placed at the other end of the continuum, experience severe and enduring difficulties in child rearing. Between these two poles Kousemaker and Timmers-Huigens distinguish between families experiencing stress in parenting, and families experiencing a crisis in parenting. The mildly disturbed problem families of Van As’ (1999) study are comparable to families experiencing stress. Although these families do not experience severe difficulties, the parents of these families often seek help, in the form of advice, books or parent programs, to be better able to handle the daily hassles of parenting. The difference between the mildly disturbed problem families in Van As’ study and the clinical problem families that are described in the literature is probably not a qualitative difference, but a difference of degree. In our view, this underscores the importance of prevention and early intervention programs, such as parent education programs. These early intervention programs may prevent family functioning from worsening and may help parents to improve their parenting practices, the relationship with their children, the family structure, and the communication with their children. Thus, these programs may prevent families from moving from the stage of parenting stresses to the stages of parenting crisis and enduring family dysfunctioning (Patterson et al., 1992).

The results on differences between the problem and normal families show that family functioning is clearly linked to child behavior problems. However, no conclusion can be drawn about the direction of effects. A less supporting parenting style, a disturbed parent-child relationship, a less cohesive and less clear family structure, and negative parent-child communication may, each, or in combination, cause child behavior problems. But the reverse may also be true. The most plausible explanation is one of transactional family processes, in which child behavior, parental functioning, and family functioning, influence each other and are influenced by each other at the same time in rather complex processes.

To investigate the direction of effects, longitudinal studies on family processes are needed, which enable us to study relationships between child, parental, and family characteristics over time (Lytton, 1990). Furthermore, the effects of intervention studies can tell us something about the direction of influence in family processes. For example, if parent programs directed at changing parental cognitions and behaviors, produce changes in child behavior, this would support the hypothesis that parental behavior directly influences child behavior. Of course, these findings do not deny the possible role of child effects on parental behavior, which may operate at the same time.

We tried to explain the development of child behavior problems from various theoretical approaches, that is, the parenting approach, the intergenerational family systems approach, the structural family systems approach, and the communication approach. Each approach uses its own concepts to explain relationships between child behavior problems and family factors. It could be argued that there are relationships between certain concepts, and that certain con­cepts might even focus at the same aspects of the reality of family life, while using different concepts. Although family problems may be labelled differently by the different theoretical approaches, the differences may be not as large as they seem to be at first sight. Van As (1999) found strong relations among concepts referring to the quality of the parent-child relation: parental support, vertical loyalty, family cohesion and positive parent-child communication. So, the concept of family functioning refers to the interrelated aspects of parenting practices, the quality of the parent-child relationship, family structure, and the communication between family members. According to Lange (1994), in helping families experiencing child rearing difficulties, it would be best to pay attention to all these aspects of family functioning. Thus, all factors of family functioning that might be related to child behavior problems are subsequently examined to build a complete picture of the family’s functioning. Interventions can subsequently address those aspects of family functioning that need improvement most urgently. By examining all aspects of family functioning, one can prevent situations in which problem families are helped by improving one aspect of family functioning, whereas other aspects of family functioning that need improvement too and that preserve the problematic situation, are ignored. More information on the relationship between family functioning and child behavior problems will be helpful to address relevant issues in intervention programs. 

Van As, N.M.C. and Janssens, J.M.A.M. (2002). Relationships between child behaviour problems and family functioning: A literature review. (Conclusion) International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 2002/1-2, pages 40-51 pp 50-52 

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