Although problematic child or adolescent behaviour is a common presenting problem to psychologists, it is often most effectively treated in the context of family functioning, and with parental input. It is not uncommon for problem child and adolescent behaviour to reflect problems in the relationship of the parents. It is also common for parents to ask for updates on recent understandings of appropriate parenting styles for different types of problems. Further, some problems come from outside the family system, school-based bullying being a common and perhaps under-recognised trauma for children and adolescents.
As is the case in relationship conflicts, sex and gender play a significant role in parenting and family functioning. Recent research has highlighted the sex-based differences in behaviour, of boys and girls, and of mothers and fathers. This applies to the development of males and females throughout life, and also to the styles of parenting typifying mothering and fathering. Needless to say these matters are complicated when parenting by non-resident ex-partners, and when step-parents become involved, or paternity is disputed.
Disrupted family functioning tends to have a ripple effect, impacting extended family in negative and often unintended ways. Needless to say it remains the responsibility of adults to ensure the psychological wellbeing of minors, and in most cases children are best served by ongoing contact with both parents and extended family. Adapting parenting styles for healthy child development is more easily achieved with an understanding of the various roles parents can adopt, and by valuing what each parent is able to bring to their children’s wellbeing.
Input from teachers in the assessment of school aged children can be of great assistance both in gaining insight into their behaviour outside the home setting, and in assessing academic achievement, friendships and potential for bullying. Similarly, input from extended family can help to ascertain if a problem is specific to a family unit or more generalised. In the case of separated or blended families children’s lives are more complex, and their behaviours may vary depending on the context.
Although assessment of parenting and family functioning ideally includes all interested parties, this cannot always be accomplished. Family therapy usually aims to be inclusive within the limits of safety, but where this cannot be assured, working with primary caregivers is still sought. A difficult situation arises with adolescents approaching age of consent or adulthood. In this case parental input is sought, but many adolescents refuse to engage therapeutically if parents are to be informed of sensitive (often sexual) information. Discussions prior to therapy aim to inform consent and choice, but remain limited by both safety and privacy concerns.
B.Nursing, B.A. (Psych),
B.Soc.Sc (Psych Hons), MAPS
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools...