Family cohesion and adaptability as correlates of overcontrolled or undercontrolled behaviors of children

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Dysfunctional families have been thought to display interaction patterns which are unhealthy along two dimensions: cohesion and adaptability. Previous theories have postulated that functioning at either extreme of these two dimensions is not healthy whereas functioning at more moderate levels is healthier. However, little research has been done on symptom types as they relate to these family interaction patterns.

This study was designed to offer evidence for the Circumplex Model of family interactions which contends that unhealthy family functioning reflects interaction patterns at either extreme of these two dimensions. Also, this study attempted to predict symptom types associated with these family interaction patterns.

The Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scale, a self-report measure, was used to derive measures on family adaptability and cohesion. Also, the Child Behavior Checklist was used to collect data on the behavior patterns of the family triads that were studied.

Finally, father-mother-child triads were observed and their behaviors rated by two independent raters while they were engaged in family interaction tasks. Their behaviors were coded on the Defensive and Supportive Communication based coding-system.

Through multi-variate analysis of variance it was found that overcontrolled children (shy, anxious, and inhibited) tend to come from families which score high cohesiveness whereas undercontrolled children (aggressive, acting-out) tend to come from families which score low cohesiveness. No significant relations were found between family adaptability scores and symptom type.

On directly observed behaviors family triads with overcontrolled children exhibited significantly less judgmental behavior, less control behavior and greater empathy toward each other than family triads with undercontrolled children.

These results offer partial support for the Circumplex Model of family interactions and clarify some of the behavioral problems of children which come from the different family types. One goal in validating this model is to provide a conceptual frame work for the diagnosis and treatment of family systems. When a family's functioning on the dimensions of cohesion and adaptability is determined treatment goals become more explicit. A child's symptom complex is also necessary for defining treatment goals. Implications of such treatment planning was discussed.