Healthy development is generally understood as the progressive physical, emotional, cognitive and social maturation that takes place in a person’s life from conception onwards into adulthood. This process is further influenced by a continuous whirlwind of biological and environmental factors. Of the numerous environmental factors that an individual encounters over the course of the life span, it is clear to see family systems play a significant role and can be extremely impactful on the developmental process. To gain a better understanding of the impact of family on healthy development, it is worthwhile to consider the various family structures that exist in our culture. The portrait of the family in today’s society is no longer rigidly defined by marriage, which is characterized by a two parent household with children; rather there are increasing numbers of single parents, teen parents, divorced parents and same-sex couple parents. “Sometimes we forget the great variety of forms, not only of the families living amongst us, but also those presented in scripture.
There are single person families like Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. There are families experiencing difficulties like Joseph and his brothers, or broken families seeking new life like Naomi and Ruth” (Way, 2003). Of the various forms that the family structure can take, one consistent factor that is crucial for the facilitation of healthy development is family stability. Parental mental competence, stable-loving caregivers, positive or negative parenting are all factors that contribute to the establishment of the stability of the family unit. The home environment is arguably one of the most important facets of an individual’s childhood growth and development. When there is structure and stability children tend to thrive and are more self-aware and assertive, versus when there is little to no stability the opposite effect can be expected to occur. “When disruptions in the stability of the family environment occur, youths’ ability to develop adequate self-control skills may be compromised, leading to both internalizing and externalizing problems (Malatras & Israel, 2013).
Though there are notable differences in the childrearing practices around the world there are marked similarities that exist in the context of determining a healthy family unit. It is helpful to consider socioeconomic status, parental contributions and involvement, sibling relationships, family history and cultural norms when trying to determine the overall health of a family system. Factors such as warmth, emotional availability, routine activities such as predictable bed or mealtime activities, religious observances and communication are of considerable importance when evaluating the health of a family system in the Western culture. However in other cultures such as the Caribbean there is less emphasis placed on the feelings of warmth and emotional connections and more on discipline, control and behavior management. Children in the Caribbean are expected to perform adult responsibilities at a much earlier age than their American counterparts.
For example in a study conducted on child health in Jamaica “at the age of four or five, children of both sexes begin doing household chores such as sweeping, mopping, floor polishing, and caring for younger children” (Sargent & Harris, 1992). Children are also expected to complete tasks such as cooking and laundry as early as the age of seven. Within the constraints of cultural norms, one can say that a healthy family system is one in which the developing child can thrive physically and emotionally and is on track to becoming a functional member of that society. In the same way that a healthy family system can assist an individual in becoming self-sufficient and aware; there are negative impacts that can occur when there are breakdowns in the foundation of the family.
For example in families where psychological maltreatment takes place, the effects can be detrimental to the child who as a result may suffer from low self-esteem, lying, misbehavior, and underachievement in school. The impact of abuse on brain development is also profound and has been linked to a reduction in the size of the amygdala and hippocampus later on in adulthood. It is also noted that the fear, terror and stress associated with abuse may also produce permanent changes due to the overstimulation of the limbic system (Feldman, 2014).
In conclusion, one can clearly see the vast significance that the role of family plays in the physical, spiritual, social and cognitive development of an individual. The family unit is the training ground for life in the world at large and its impact can be either positive or negative. However there are several other factors at work in determining how an individual will handle their life regardless of the cards that they are dealt. For instance a child who grows up in a home where he has been the victim of psychological maltreatment may still have a chance at being a fully functional and contributing member of society due to his resilience and ability to traverse difficult circumstances. Likewise some children who are given all the tools for success, emotional stability and great family environment may still make bad decisions later on in life. The research is unprecedented in its support that healthy family systems, regardless of cultural norms facilitate the production of healthy independent adults who are able to thrive in the society of their upbringing.
Feldman, R. S. (2014). Development across the life span (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. Malatras, J. W. and Israel, A. C. (2013), The Influence of Family Stability on Self-Control and Adjustment. J. Clin. Psychol., 69: 661–670. doi: 10.1002/jclp.21935. Sargent, C., & Harris, M. (1992). Gender ideology, childrearing, and child health in Jamaica. American Ethnologist, 19(3), 523-537. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/645199. Way, P. (2003). Family systems. The Clergy Journal, 80(1), 14-15. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/230514795?accountid=12085.
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