Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Myths and Realities About American Families

by H. Stephen Glenn

Several years ago a popular song focused on the endless stream of bad news that dominates media in the United States. The chorus includes the phrase "sure could use...a little good news today."

This chorus could be said to reflect the feelings of people who work to support children, youth and families. That constant flow of negative information and stereotypes about families undercuts the hope that we know is necessary for all of us to thrive. It has been said that "hope dies in the face of pessimism...hope thrives on an awareness of positive alternatives."

Resiliency studies show that hope, optimism and family cohesiveness are the critical variables present in highly functioning families. The truly good news is that all these variables are present in highly functioning families. Any family, in any socio-economic situation or with any level of education can acquire and use these attitudes to great advantage-and studies show that many, many families do just that. We just don't hear about or focus on that good news often enough.
As a society, Americans tend to be alert to what's wrong rather than what's right. We do this on the job, in our schools, in our relationships and in our families. But, thankfully, this attitude is undergoing a change in America. We are becoming more aware of the power inherent in heeding and building on the positive aspects of our jobs, schools, relationships and families.

While attempting to make this change, it is helpful to be guided by the principle, "Sometimes we find in a careful study of our recent past keys to our future."

To understand this saying, we can look at the work of epidemiologists (people who study the incidence, spread and control of disease). When a new disease appears in a population, they seek out the survivors of it-those who were fully exposed to it but didn't become ill-to find out what protected them. By cutting through the misinformation and determining why these people are doing so well, scientists can pass along what they learned, which ultimately empowers others at risk of catching the disease to face the challenge more effectively.

In applying this principle to families in America, it is clear that we can do the same thing. "Bad news," which is often news taken out of context or outright misinformation in the media that is passed along verbally, can be quite frightening. But getting the full story-the reality-is most often very encouraging and empowering.

Following are some common, modern-day myths about families accompanied by realities that disprove them. Read them, pass them along and watch hope grow.

Myth #1: The American Family is Disintegrating.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing references to the shakiness of the family as a unit of social cohesion and support. As I am writing this article with the radio on in the background. i heard a commentator say, "given the disintegration of the family in America...."


The commentator should have said "the disintegration of many families in America." The truth is that there are probably more healthy, high functioning families in America now than in the recent past.(As a percentage of the whole.)
In the 1950's, the bell curve representation of the American family would look like a one-humped camel: a large curve with steep sides, small "tails" and a broad dome. Statisticians would say this represented a homogenous population, with a relatively small group above the norm who were very high functioning and a slightly smaller group that would have been considered low functioning-for example, those struggling within the criminal justice system. Most families however, were concentrated in the middle-on the broad dome of the camel hum. They had some problems, but they got by.

The majority started to feel the increase of modern pressures on family life; mobility, loss of extended family, television, two-wage-earner families, increased adolescent pregnancy, increased drug use. These pressures built up on the dome until the weight collapsed it, forcing families to move to one side or the other of the middle. The one-humped camel developed two humps (a bi-modal distribution) with some families moving toward being less effective and others moving toward leaning how to be healthier and more effective in the face of societal pressures. The latter group once again formed the majority, but a smaller one than that of the 1950's. The less effective families remain in the minority, but it is those families that media focused upon and turned into a stereotype to represent the state of the American family.

However, as this article will reveal, the majority of American families are functioning relatively well or are moving through the valley of the two curves. Renowned family therapist K. Virginia Satir once said the vast majority of families will go through periods of dysfunction as they adapt to a changing world. Any system open to growth and change will experience dysfunction as it changes (and, remember, that during times of change, thisng will often get worse before they get better.)
It is important to keep our perspective: the majority of families are working hard to improve their family life rather than giving up-or disintegrating. For example, surveys in 1962-63 revealed that 85% of all fathers said raising kids was primarily a mother's responsibility. Now surveys show that about 40% of all fathers think raising children is a joint responsibility. Twenty-five years ago when I taught family-oriented workshops, about 10% of the participants were fathers. Today, fathers make up about 35% of the attendees. This speaks volumes about the health of American families. Resiliency studies consistently show that having involved parents is a very strong protective factor for children.

Families are facing challenges each day with optimism, hope and commitment. And while modern American lifestyles can scatter family members in various ways, many families are learning to "reintegrate" themselves so they can preserve the strength inherent in families that have healthy bonds. here's how they're doing it.

  • They establish family rituals and traditions that give them a sense of identity.
  • They have regular, effective family meetings.
  • They are pro-active in preparing their children with essential life skills and leave little room for society to exploit them.
  • They incorporate their children's peers into family activities.
  • The problem-solve together.
  • They treat dialogue and collaboration as priorities
  • They have a spiritual base and encourage their children to contribute in meaningful ways to relevant institutions and the community in general.
  • They teach discipline by coaching with firmness, dignity and respect.


"I am the way I am because I come from a dysfunctional family."


We hear the statement above all the time. But the "dysfunctional family" is a stereotype. Most families function. They just may not be functioning in all ways according to the ideal of certain best-selling authors. Not all so-called "dysfunctional" families do everything in dysfunctional ways, nor do all so-called "functional" families do everything in healthy ways. Nor does any family affect any two members the same way. For example, three children raised by the same parent(s) may report very different perceptions of that family.

We are having the experiences we are having because of the way we are currently responding to issues from our family. What's important about this knowledge is that we can choose to respond to those issues in ways that make us feel good or at peace with ourselves. In other words, if our learned responses to unsettling family issues have not made us feel good in the past, we can learn different responses that will make us feel better in the future.

The power inherent in this insight was brought home to me at a recent conference. When I finished my presentation, a woman came rushing up to me with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. She said, "I was needy and came into the recovery field for help. I now see that I have allowed myself to become buried in stereotypes. When I arrived this morning, I was an adult child of an alcoholic, codependent from a dysfunctional family. Now I realize I am just a person with a wide range of experiences. Some good and some painful.

"by calling my family 'dysfunctional', I have lost sight of many wonderful and healthy experiences in my family of origin that I need to celebrate and take strength from. I have also avoided being specific about my issues and working on my responses to them."


Research indicates that approximately 90% of all abusive parents were themselves abused as children.


Many people are familiar with this statistic and jump to the conclusion that if a child is abused, he or she will grow up to be an abuser. The statistic above relates to parents who are identified by some social institution as being abusive. Adults who were abused children but don't abuse their own children are not reported to authorities.

Research from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that 60%-65% of abused children do not repeat a pattern of abuse when they have children. Some research indicates that children who learn to act upon emotions rather that react to them are able to break the pattern. It is the child who thinks she caused the parent's anger that caused an abusive act, who has no contingency plan for dealing with feelings of anger. When that child has children of her own and feels angry with them, she believes her children cause her anger (as she had once caused her parent's anger), so the only reaction she knows is to hurt the children.

An abused child who asks, "When I get angry with my children, what can I do to handle the anger differently?" is setting out on a different path. As adolescents or as adults facing this question, they may remember that their friends' parents didn't express anger by means of verbal or physical abuse. Or, through reading or seeing movies, they may come to understand that there are many ways to handle anger and to relate to others that don't involve harming another.

Parents, teachers, counselors, mentors and other adults can help support this learning process early by talking with a young person about an event in which their feelings were involved. "What were you feeling?" "What did you do in response to the feeling?" "What were the results of doing that?" "What else might you have done in response to the feeling?" "If you did that, what might have been the results?" (This is easiest to do when the focus is on a recent event, but after the young person's feelings are calmed down and he is distanced a bit from the situation.)


Many people express the belief that most American young people are doing poorly and are hostile toward adults. Some studies have even shown that increasing numbers of adults admit to being frightened by young people in general and will go to significant lengths to avoid contact with them.


Constant references in the media and in conversation to negative trends regarding young people skew our perspective. No matter how "bad" things have become in America, we have never reached the point where more than 20-25% of our young people become statistics in human or welfare services or the criminal justice system (many hwo do become involved in those systems are counted several times in all three systems, hence the high percentage). Basic math indicates that the vast majority of young people are growing up in family and community environments that prepare them reasonably well for the routine tasks of life-the same as preceding generations.

And while popular myth has it that most young people don't respect adults as they once did, the facts show something else. A recent nationwide study by Search Institute asked young people aged 12 to 18 to name the three people they most look up to. More than 55% identified one or both parents. The next largest percentage-about 47%-named a teacher, counselor, youth worker, grandparent or other adult mentor. Tallying in with much lower percentages-18-20%-were sports, entertainment and political celebrities.

Young people also were asked whom they would consult or whom they could count on to be there for them if they had a serious problem. Again, parents topped the list at more then 50%. Next, 40-43%, came counselors, student assistance workers, teachers and other adult mentors. Then, ahead of their friends, came their friends' parents. When asked why they would go to an adult rather than a friend with a problem, the typical response was, "My friends don't know much more about things than I do. I need someone with experience to rely on."


The majority of families in the United States are doing OK at their job of raising kids. They're functioning fairly well, even though they may go through periods of difficulty. Families are producing children who view their parents and many other adults as people they can look up to and count on. Our challenge is to balance our concern for young people who are struggling with a practical awareness of what relatively successful kids are doing differently. This perspective will allow us to teach, lead and encourage troubled kids with an attitude of optimism and hope.

Reprinted from Student Assistance Journal with permission of Performance Resource Press, Inc., 1270 Rankin Drive, Suite F, Troy, MI 48083;248/588-7733.

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