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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Comparing Families: "Between" and "Within"

A person commenting on this blog recently complained about the suggestion she felt I’d made, that adoptive and non-adoptive families are “just alike”. Of course they aren’t because no two groups of families are just alike. There are large differences between families, just as there are large differences between individuals.

But here’s the tricky part: the differences between families are actually smaller than the differences WITHIN families! Figuring out all the differences between groups and individuals shows that the average difference between two children in a family is bigger than the average difference between children of two different families. (Please note that I’m talking about the average difference; choose your families or your children, and of course you can find families that are very different, and brothers and sisters who are very similar.)

How can this be? Don’t we blame-- or credit-- families for making people who they are? How can one family make children who are very different, but different families not have such a big impact?

The answer is that it’s a mistake to assume that family experiences in and of themselves are the sole, or even the primary, shapers of human personality. This is the case even when the family experience includes a factor we think of as unusual and powerful, such as separation from the birth parents. Michael Rutter, a leading researcher whose group has investigated the development of children adopted to England from the appalling Romanian orphanages, wrote in 2002 that “it is clear that parental loss or separation carries quite mild developmental risks unless the loss leads to impaired parenting or other forms of family maladaptation”. Although severe neglect or abuse in families can influence children’s development, the many “good enough” (though different) ways to care for young human beings do not seem to have specifically different outcomes.

One reason that family experiences alone seem to have fewer predictable effects than you would expect is that children bring something to the table too. Individual differences between children mean different ways of responding to the same experiences. For example, firm discipline may work very well with most children, but may be so overwhelming to the unusually sensitive child that he or she learns nothing but to be frightened. Children within a given family may respond quite differently to the parents’ preferred approach; they can be different to begin with, and their different responses (although to the same treatment) can make them even more different than they were .

Children’s individual differences include differences in temperament, a term that describes personality characteristics that have biological causes. For example, children who have perfectly normal activity levels may still be quite different from each other, with some much higher and others much lower in their preferred amounts of activity. Depending on the family and its circumstances, either a high or a low activity level can make for either a good or a poor developmental outcome. One important factor is what is called “goodness of fit” between the child’s temperament and those of the parents. Active, sports-oriented parents may be very pleased with a lively child, but it’s possible that quiet, scholarly parents will find it easier to get along with a less active son or daughter, and would find themselves scolding and disapproving of a more active child, even against their own intentions.

The temperaments and past experiences of child and of parent can make a major difference to their understanding of each other’s communications. For instance, in the American Psychologist for February-March 2011, an issue focused on infant mental health, Ed Tronick and Marjorie Beeghly show a series of photographs of an interaction between a mother and baby. Mother bends down to tickle the baby with her hair, and the baby grabs the hair and won’t let go. Mother raises her head with a brief, unintentional expression of anger and pain, and baby flings its hands across its face in a gesture as if to ward off attack. In a few seconds, they are both smiling and returning to normal. But what if the baby’s temperament was such that it took more than a few seconds to recover from the “threat”? Mother might become discouraged about playing, and be less likely to start a play sequence. What if mother’s temperament made it easy for her to interpret the baby’s “attack” as intentional, so she continued to look angry for several seconds? Baby might become wary of interactions that led to scary situations. In both cases, a member of the pair might misinterpret the other’s communication, and their attitudes toward each other would change. Such very brief interchanges can establish better or worse ways of thinking about each other and getting along.

Psychological and behavioral differences can create different experiences for both children and parents. But it’s important to remember that while people live in families, families live in houses or apartments, that are in neighborhoods, in countries, and in economic circumstances. Just as the quieter parents may scold the lively child, so may parents living in an upstairs apartment scold the child who disturbs the neighbors, and the father who works the night shift may have a different attitude toward rough and tumble play than the one who can count on sleeping at night. Active parents with a big house in a mild climate, and plenty of time and money for sports, have different attitudes toward their active children than quiet parents living in a crowded apartment with crotchety relatives, especially if the neighborhood is not safe for playing outside. Poverty brings down punishment on the heads of children who are careless about possessions, while affluent parents may not find it worthwhile to fuss.

No, adoptive and birth families are not just alike, but neither are two random birth families or two adoptive families. They can’t be just alike, because the initial differences between parents and babies are woven into greater and greater individuality within the families. A long list of factors helps to determine how babies and parents develop their relationships. As is so often said in infant mental health circles, it’s not rocket science-- it’s a lot more complicated than that.

1 comment:

  1. I am curious about who claimed all families are alike. Are you taking issue with Tolstoy? Of course all families are different, adoptive, natural, blended or what-have-you.