Family Environment and Children’s Behavioral Disorders

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Family Environment and Children’s Behavioral Disorders

Confounding influences such as family environment may have a significant role in children’s disruptive behaviors at home and at school, which may continue and worsen by the time they reach adolescence (Green & Gibbs, 2010). Green and Gibbs (2010) are referring to parental discord, divorce, neglect, verbal abuse, corporal punishment, parental substance abuse, and poor or inconsistent parenting skills as examples of family environments conducive to children’s disruptive behaviors. Poor or inconsistent parenting skills may include subscribing to an unreliable disciplinary paradigm, such as disciplining the child according to the parents’ mood at the time. Green and Gibbs (2010) also include “harsh punitive discipline,” such as “scolding, spanking, restraining, grabbing” (p. 227) as triggers of disruptive behaviors in children. However, they cite “humiliation or contempt” (pp. 227-228) as the types of abuse responsible for inflicting the most psychological damage in children and the antecedent of most disruptive behaviors. This paper advances the current literature by offering a perspective on different forms of intervention and the implications for school counselors and therapists.

Social impairment is the hallmark of behavioral disorders, which may encompass shouting at teachers or parents, kicking siblings or classmates, and the inability to play with peers. Green and Gibbs (2010) argue that “repressed hostilities and rage” (p. 226) as the result of perceived deficits in nurturing may be the underpinning driving the children’s disruptive behaviors. These scholars suggest that most of the time disruptive behaviors emerge during the preschool years when the children come in contact with their peers. Drawing from their experience, Green and Gibbs believe there is a relationship between how children may behave with others and the type of attachment they may have formed with their primary caregiver, who in many instances may be the mother (Bowlby, 1988). Insecure attachment (avoidant or withdrawn), elicited by perceived inconsistent care, tends to trigger children’s reliance on “primitive structures” such as kicking and screaming, rather than using social skills (Green & Gibbs, 2010, p. 228).

Based on a 2012 study that Duncombe, Havighurst, Holland and Frankling conducted with 373 children between the ages of 5 and 9 years-old, they found that parents’ mental health; a habit of dismissing their children’ s emotions such as sadness, “inconsistent parental discipline and corporal punishment are associated with the development of serious problem behavior” (p. 728). In particular, inconsistent parental discipline is the one especially correlated to disruptive behavior disorders. When these disruptive behaviors continue to escalate as preschoolers start grade school, some children may be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is usually the diagnosis given to children with mild ADHD. Leisman et al. (2010) cite ADHD as “the most common neurobehavioral disorder in childhood” (p. 283). Inattentiveness, being easily distracted, unable to sit down for any period of time, social impairment, and physical impulsivity are some of the characteristics found in both ADHD and ADD. These characteristics range from mild to severe in both ADD and ADHD depending on where they may fall in the spectrum.

Pfiffner,McBurnett, Rathouz, and Judice (2005) argue that disruptive behaviors in children with ADD/ADHD are likely to be not only triggered but also exacerbated by family dynamics. In order to find support for their theory, Pfiffner et al. (2005) assessed 149 children between the ages of 5 and 11 years-old who had been diagnosed with ADHD, and their parents. Grounded on their findings and in agreement with some of Green and Gibbs’ (2010) arguments, Pfiffner et al. cite paternal antisocial behavior; punitive or inconsistent parenting style, and lack of parental warmth in their interactions with their children, as examples of a family environment that may precipitate behavior disorders in their offspring with or without ADD/ADHD.

Although disruptive behaviors are a symptom of ADD/ADHD, not all children with disruptive behaviors have ADD/ADHD. Recent research points to the notion of a behavioral continuum range where normative behaviors of young children are found at one end of the behavioral landscape, and those behaviors that fall outside the normative range are clustered toward the opposite end of the spectrum. In a pioneer study, Wakschlag et al. (2007) examined the quality of behavior of preschoolers (the pervasiveness, intensity and frequency of the behavior) to determine what they refer to as “clinical discrimination” (p. 976). This means, for clinicians to have the ability to discern what falls inside or outside the normative range of behaviors observed in young children.

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