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Psychological approaches to the family

The vastness of the field
The family as an entity
The family from a child development perspective
The family both as an entity in itself and as the producer of developmental and welfare outcomes of its members
Family social wellness

The vastness of the field

Most of the more than 5,000 listings on the family in the Harvard libraries appear to be by professionals in social psychology and human development. Figure 4.1 illustrates the daunting quantity of this work in the subset of theories relating to family development over the life cycle (Mattessich and Hill 1987). Fortunately for our project, these fields produce periodic review volumes. While this body of work focuses on middle-class, largely White, North American families, it distinguishes and classifies various categories of findings that provide useful starting points for study and for comparison in other cultures and settings. Approaches can be broadly divided according to their focus:

1. On the family as an entity; its adjustment and preservation;

2. On child development, viewing the family in terms of its contributions to child welfare;

3. On the family as a system with internal dynamics that produce developmental and welfare outcomes of its members.

We reviewed selected aspects of this literature under these three headings.

The majority of family studies are not directly pertinent to inter national development, yet they often suggest relevant research that might be conducted in the future. Many questions of relevance to international development remain to be investigated - for example, the extent to which skills and other traits made available through the social context are transmitted to the child through the agency of the family.

Fig. 4.1 - Genealogy of evolving family development frameworks from origins in family life-cycle categories, theories of human and life-span development, and theories of life events and life crises (source: Mattessich and Hill 1987)

The family as an entity

Kreppner and Lerner (1989), in their introduction to the book Family Systems and Lifetime Development, note the following different perspectives on the family itself:

1. A system focusing on general dimensions of family interaction and taking into account all family members;

2. A series of dyadic interactions;

3. The sum of interactions among all family subgroupings - dyadic, triadic, tetradic;

4. A system of internal relations in reaction to broader contexts such as external social support, intergenerational, and historic influences.

Much research also has described the family as a social entity with a predictable life cycle (Mattessich and Hill 1987). Of interest for international development are the life-cycle models studies of work and stress and the systems models designed for family counselling and preservation activities.

Life-cycle models

Life-cycle and family development models (Mattessich and Hill 1987) commonly divide the family life cycle into seven stages: newly established (childless); child-bearing (infants and preschool children); with schoolchildren; with secondary-school or adolescent children; with young adults aged 18 or over; middle-aged (children launched); ageing in retirement. Within any given culture, similar stages can be defined and can be specified for single-parent, polygamous, or other family configurations, such as the number and functions of siblings. This approach dovetails with the concerns of Bruce and Lloyd (1992), noted in chapter 3 on economics, that more needs to be known about the effects of variation in household composition.

Figure 4.2 from Mattessich and Hill (1987, 460) illustrates the potential usefulness of life-cycle research for targeting development inputs by showing that families are most likely to have insufficient resources in the early child-bearing stage, but are most likely to be dissatisfied with their resources when their children reach school age. Stages at which the family is most susceptible to disintegration also might be identified by this method (with special reference to couples who separate not long after the birth of a child).

Fig. 4.2 Stages of the family life cycle (source: Mattessich and Hill 1987)

Families and work

Piotrkowski, Rapoport, and Rapoport (1987) review many industrialized country studies linking the work of spouses to family satisfaction, stability, and other welfare measures. The availability of alternate child care and the effects on the family of balancing domestic and income-generating tasks are major issues. This domestic literature provides hypotheses and discussion topics for international researchers in intra-household and women's economic studies. Some studies link male occupational status and earnings positively to marital satisfaction, but find the reverse for women, with high female job status and earnings correlated to low self-esteem and depression in males and greater probability of dissolution of the marriage. These findings are counterbalanced by other studies reporting positive family effects of women's work (Skinner 1980).

Poor family correlates of women's work appear linked to lower-middle-class beliefs that the wife's work is an indicator of the husband's failure as a breadwinner; favourable outcomes are linked to more egalitarian upper-middle-class beliefs. Job satisfaction is significantly linked to positive parent-child interactions, but very high job involvement requiring long work hours strains all aspects of family functioning, particularly when the female partner is job-involved.

Conventional gender roles that assign most domestic work to the female partner prove extremely resistant to change, even when both partners earn equally outside the home (Blumenstein and Schwartz 1985). Rather than evolving towards more egalitarian solutions over the course of a marriage, conventional roles become more rigid and restrictive (Mattessich and Hill 1987).

Stress and coping

Family stress theory can be applied to critical work events that negatively affect the family, such as job loss, and to chronic work stressors such as job dissatisfaction, instability, shift work, inadequate child care, and role overload (Piotrkowski and Kattz 1983). Other sources of family stress are death, divorce, separation, illness, and social dysfunction.

Stress theory (Boss 1987) studies the phenomenon of family coping, which is the management of a stressful event by the family as a group and by each individual in the family. "Coping refers to efforts to master conditions of harm, threat or challenge when a routine or automatic response is not readily available" (Monet and Lazarus 1977, 8).

Figure 4.3 shows a contextual model of family stress. The sequence A-B-CX at the centre has been termed the ABC-X model, where A is the crisis event, B the resources available, C the perception of the event, and X the degree of manifested stress. On the basis of all the influences represented in the model, the family mobilizes its resources either into constructive coping or negatively into crisis. Thus, coping is a process involving the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses of the family as a collective. Summarizing research in this field, Boss (1987) concludes that the main determinant of why some families cope while others fall into crisis is the meaning that the event holds for the family and the individuals within it. The extent to which constructive interpretations result in adequate coping depend on the degree of support provided by the internal and external contexts. We return to the theme of coping in our discussion of Schneewind's model of the family (Schneewind 1989) at the end of this chapter.

Fig. 4.3 The contextual model of family stress (source: Boss 1987)

Counselling models

These family systems models provide conceptual frameworks that can be used in counselling by marital and family therapists. They draw their rationale from perceptions regarding the social changes in family structure discussed in chapter 2. Burgess (1926) theorized that the family had changed in function from an economic institution to a structure for providing companionship, and should henceforth be defined as a network of interpersonal relationships. These frameworks have tended to use circumplex models, with two-dimensional classification schemes (Becker and Krug 1964; Peterson and Rollins 1987).

Fig. 4.4 Circumplex model - couple and family map (source: Olson, Russell, and Sprengkle 1984)

Olson (Olson, Sprengkle, and Russell 1979; Olson, Russell, and Sprengkle 1984; Olson and Lavee 1989) has been influential in designing a circumplex model of marital and family systems (fig. 4.4). The model depicts two dimensions- "cohesion" and "adaptability" and makes use of a third dimension called "communication," which is not pictured (Olson and Lavee 1989). These three dimensions were drawn from the conceptual clustering of concepts from six social science fields, including family therapy (Kaslow 1987).

Family cohesion is defined as the "emotional bonding that family members have toward one another" (Olson, Russell, and Sprengkle 1984, 60). Specific indicators for measuring the family cohesion dimension are emotional bonding, boundaries, coalitions, time, space, friends, decision-making, and interests and recreation. The cohesion dimension ranges from "disengaged" (very low) to "separated" (low to moderate) to "connected" (moderate to high) to "enmeshed" (very high). The extremes (disengaged or enmeshed) are considered to be problematic. Families falling in the middle of the dimension (separated or connected) are healthy, because family members can be both independent of, and connected to, their families.

The second dimension, "adaptability," is defined as "the ability of the marital or family system to change in its power structure, role relationships, and relationship rules in response to situational and developmental stress" (Olson, Russell, and Sprengkle 1984, 60). This dimension ranges from "rigid" (very low) to "structured" (low to moderate), to "flexible" (moderate to high), to "chaotic" (very high). Again, a middle range of the dimension is considered to characterize a well-functioning family. A structured relationship is generally less rigid, less authoritarian, and more shared. A flexible relationship is even less rigid and the leadership is more equally shared. A rigid relationship (highly authoritarian) and a chaotic relationship (has erratic or limited leadership) are considered to be problematic for individual and relationship development in the long run.

Based on the two dimensions (cohesion and adaptability), the 16 types of marital and family systems shown in figure 4.4 have been used in clinical diagnosis and for specifying treatment goals with couples and families. The third dimension, family communication, is not pictured but is considered to be a facilitating dimension that enables families to move on the other two dimensions.

Olson and Lavee (1989) summarize similar work by 11 other theorists (table 4.1). In the variation represented by the Beavers system model (Beavers and Voeller 1963), cohesion is rephrased as a centripetal-tocentrifugal dimension: a centripetal family type finds the most relationship satisfaction within the family; a centrifugal family, in contrast, views most relationship satisfaction as coming from outside the family. Beavers' formulation brings in life-cycle considerations: for example, a family with small children is more centripetal; as the family matures and children grow up, such a family may move to a more centrifugal style. All such generalizations must be seen as culture specific, however: in certain societies, it may be mothers with young children who engage most frequently in neighbourhood activities (Fischer 1977), and grandparents who are most centripetally involved with their children and grandchildren.

Experience with these models may provide a useful starting point for designing similarly constructed culturally appropriate models in other countries. The importance of the models may lie less in their accuracy of representation than in their ability to engage counselors and families in a dialogue or bargaining process through which issues surface and are discussed, family communications improve, and problems such as anger or depression are resolved. Expressing the positions of different families and family members, along a continuum such as "cohesiveness" that is value free, relieves the negotiators from labelling them as good or bad. "Balance" may be viewed as a positive term for compromises that reduce family stress.

Table 4.1 Theoretical models using cohesion, adaptability, communication

Reference Cohesion Adaptability Communication
Beavers and Voeller
Centripetal- centrifugal Adaptability Affect
Benjamin (1977) Affiliation Interdependence  
Epstein, Bishop, and Levin (1978) Affective involvement Behaviour control, problem-solving roles Communication, affective responsiveness
French and Guidera
  Capacity to change power  
Gottman (1979) Validation Contrasting  
Kantor and Lehr (1975) Affect dimension Power dimension  
L'Abate (1987) Intimacy Power  
Leary (1957); Affection Dominance  
Constantine (1986) Hostility Submission  
Leff and Vaughn (1985) Distance Problem solving  
Parsons and Bales (1955) Expressive role Instrumental role  
Reiss (1981) Coordination Closure  

Source: Olson and Lavee (1989).

Every culture has its own polarizing issues, over which family members engage in bargaining. These issues could be determined through focus groups and other forms of research and then depicted experimentally along the axes of circumplex models. Acceptable degrees of cohesion are culture specific. The concept that enmeshment is undesirable is a value judgment that may be specific to US or Western culture of the twentieth century. As noted in chapter 2, the cultural ideal of the good family has changed in the West from one of greater to less "closeness." A leading American economist (Becker 1981, 244) endorsed this shift in values: "Nostalgia for the supposed closeness of traditional families overlooks the restrictions on privacy and free choice, the very imperfect protection against disasters, and the limited opportunities to transcend family background."

Many societies continue to value family togetherness above privacy, autonomy, or free choice, and yet the family seems to function well at the enmeshed extreme of Olson's model. (Olson, Russell, and Sprengkle [1984] did acknowledge that as long as all the members are willing to accept the expectation of family togetherness, the family can function well.)

While an adaptability dimension may prove universal, the degree to which adaptability implies shared decision-making is likely to vary. The Olson model assumes that certain structures, such as egalitarianism or democracy, are better than others. Some argue that in societies with highly differentiated gender roles, as in some African and Asian countries, a male-dominated leadership pattern within the family is perceived to be fair by the family members. Meanwhile, feminists within these cultures contend that such consensus is itself highly contested and a matter of struggle and power relations.

For purposes of modelling the effects of good versus poor management on developmental outcomes, these models are conceptually flawed by false sets of opposites. On the dimension of cohesion, for example, some of the worst-managed families are both disengaged from each other emotionally and overly enmeshed in each others' lives - where uncommunicative adult children continue to live intrusively in their parents' homes, for example. The "false opposites" problem also could explain why family members rarely rate themselves in the same quadrants as do the therapists working with them (Olson and Lavee 1989): Friedman, Utada, and Morissey (1987) found that family members tended to rate their families as disengaged, whereas therapists tended to rate these same families as enmeshed.

Marital and family therapy

Counselling on the basis of the above models is embedded in the broader field of marriage counselling and family therapy (Kaslow 1987). Marriage counselling in an informal context is as old as the family: family problems are a common reason for consulting elders and religious practitioners and for seeking dispute resolution. In Yoruba traditional society (chapter 7), it is not uncommon for domestic disputes to be brought before a third party, known for his or her wisdom. Like traditional midwives, such family counselors may potentially serve as a resource for development.

In the United States, marriage counselling entered the formal practice of therapy in the 1920s (Kaslow 1987). Family therapy evolved, following World War II, out of frustration over the slow improvement of individuals in therapy under conditions in which their family contributed to their pathology. It continues to be primarily an adjunct to the treatment of troubled individuals who often are viewed as acting out the pathology of the family as a whole. Kaslow reviews the nine "schools" of marriage and family therapy, depicted on the horizontal axis of figure 4.5. Most recently, avant-garde or post-modern family therapists are interested in language and stories that families relate about themselves. The therapist and family together generate a new narrative, transforming the pathological tale that first created the family problem. Healing occurs during the process of searching for meaning (Doherty 1991).

The formal approaches of these and similar schools draw heavily on Western intellectual tradition. They could possibly contribute to the design of family preservation programmes in countries that have well-established therapeutic practitioners drawing on the same traditions; such countries might include Mexico and the Philippines. Knowledge of the techniques taught by these schools provides no substitute for personal ability: personal style and talent appear to determine the success of these approaches, which often are almost synonymous with the names of their founders (Kaslow 1987).

Counselling for family management

The circumplex models do not deal with the home economics issues of providing physical resources such as money, food, or health care. These aspects can affect family functioning; as noted by the National Academy of Sciences (1976), inadequate resources are the central villain in undermining the families' adequacy for child development.

The McMaster model of family functioning (MMFF), described by Epstein, Bishop, and Baldwin (1984), has been a workhorse model for family management counselling for 25 years. This model's stated assumption is that the primary function of the family unit is to provide a setting for the development and maintenance of family members on the biological, social, and psychological levels (Epstein, Bishop, and Baldwin 1984, 78). Hence, family issues are grouped into three areas - the basic task area, the developmental task area, and the hazardous task area.

Fig. 4.5 The nine schools of marriage and family theory (source: Kaslow 1987)

The MMFF model puts the basic task area (providing food, money, transportation, and shelter) as the most fundamental of the three areas. The developmental task area includes family issues related to the stages of developmental sequence of the family. At the individual level, these issues include crises in infancy, childhood, or adolescence; at the family level, these could be such issues as the beginning of the marriage or the first pregnancy. The hazardous tasks area encompasses how families handle crises resulting from accidents, illness, or loss of income or job, for example. The MMFF model suggests that families who are unable to handle these task areas are most likely to develop clinically significant problems.

The MMFF model has six dimensions of family functioning that designate the structure, organization, and transactional patterns of the family. These six dimensions are problem solving, communication, roles, affective responsiveness, affective involvement, and behaviour control. A summary outline is presented in table 4.2.

The definition of healthy or effective family functioning according to the MMFF model is summarized as follows. An effectively functioning family is expected to deal with each dimension successfully. Effective families solve their problems easily, whereas ineffectively functioning families do not deal with at least some of their problems. Effective families communicate in a clear and direct manner, have clear and reasonable roles and accountability, are capable of expressing a full range of emotions, have empathic involvement in particular activities and interests of individual family members, and have flexible behaviour control.

The MMFF model lays strong foundations for the transmission of coping skills and for conflict resolution. We believe that this model also provides a useful starting framework for developing other similar culture-specific tools. The use of the MMFF cross-culturally would require empirical testing of the skills dimensions appropriate to the setting: for example, in Javanese society it is socially unacceptable to express anger freely, even within the family; anger is usually shown very subtly or through refusal to speak.

Table 4.2 Summary of dimension concepts of McMaster model of family functioning

Problem solving

Two types of problems:
- Instrumental and affective

Seven stages to the process:

1. Identification of the problem
2. Communication of the problem to the appropriate person(s)
3. Development of action alternatives
4. Decision on one alternative
5. Action
6. Monitoring the action
7. Evaluation of success

- Most effective when all seven stages are carried out
- Least effective when families cannot identify problem (stop before step 1)


Instrumental and affective areas

Two independent dimensions:

1. Clear and direct
2. Clear and indirect
3. Masked and direct
4. Masked and indirect

- Most effective: clear and direct
- Least effective: masked and indirect

Roles: two family function types

Necessary and other

Two areas of family functions

Instrumental and affective

Necessary family function groupings

A. Instrumental
1. Provision of resources

B. Affective
1. Nurturance and support
2. Adult sexual gratification

C. Mixed
1. Life skills development
2. Systems maintenance and management

Other family functions

Adaptive and maladaptive

- Role functioning is assessed by considering how the family allocates responsibilities and handles accountability for them


- Most effective when all necessary family functions have clear allocation to reasonable individual(s) and accountability is built in
- Least effective when necessary family functions are not addressed and/or allocation and accountability are not maintained.

Affective responsiveness

Two groupings:
1. Welfare emotions
2. Emergency emotions


- Most effective when a full range of responses is appropriate in amount and quality to stimulus
- Least effective when range is very narrow (one or two affects only) and/or amount and quality is distorted, given the context

Affective involvement

A range of involvement with six styles identified:

1. Absence of involvement
2. Involvement devoid of feelings
3. Narcissistic involvement
4. Empathic involvement
5. Overinvolvement
6. Symbiotic involvement


- Most effective: empathic involvement
- Least effective: symbiotic involvement and absence of involvement

Behaviour control

Applies to three situations:

1. Dangerous situations
2. Meeting and expressing psychobiological needs and drives (eating, drinking, sleeping, eliminating, sex, and aggression)
3. Interpersonal socializing behaviour inside and outside the family

Standard and latitude of acceptable behaviour determined by four styles:

1. Rigid
2. Flexible
3. Laissez-faire
4. Chaotic

To maintain the style, various techniques are used and implemented under "role" functions (systems maintenance and management)


- Most effective: flexible behaviour control
- Least effective: chaotic behaviour control

Source: Epstein, Bishop, and Baldwin (1984).

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