The Modern American Family in Transition

Thomas Ahern Blog, Featured_front, Uncategorized

It was 1982 and I was about to meet psychoanalyst and founder of the Orthogenic School, Bruno Bettelheim. It was long before I had developed any professional maxims as an undergraduate psychology student at Boston University. He was speaking on child development and I was excited to hear from an international expert known for his work in treating and educating emotionally disturbed children. I recall how impressed I was with how he seamlessly wove together a considerable amount of knowledge of social, economic, demographic, and healthcare advances that impacted culture and children. I’ll never forget running to the elevator to stand next to this industry titan just so I could be in his presence. Although he would later be largely debunked, it was a transformational moment in my educational development because it deepened my understanding of the complexity of family functioning. Years later, I trained with researcher, author, and psychologist, Dr. Steven Glenn who taught me about the impact of rapid social change on the performance of the American Family. These two men shaped my thinking and inspired my commitment to family and the importance of family systems in behavioral health treatment.

As we prepare for Calo Programs 5th annual Healing Trauma Conference there cannot be a more challenging time in modern society to be a parent. Not only are families being bombarded with stories of political unrest, terrorism, economic distress, school violence, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, neglect and suicide, but reports coming out of community mental health centers, treatment facilities, emergency rooms, campus counseling programs, hotlines and criminal justice systems suggest that record numbers of Americans are having professional outside intervention to assist in their lives. It also seems that parents have to navigate a dizzying array of contradictory expert advice on just about everything from prenatal care, to preschool, nutrition, technology, and discipline, to name a few. As blogger Jennifer Fulwiler expresses in the book “All Joy and No Fun, The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”, “As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every single aspect of my children’s lives. I have to make ALL THE CHOICES about ALL THE THINGS and I am EXHAUSTED”. It seems there was a time when parents just did things the way their own parents did and they didn’t burn up half their mental energy questioning all of their decisions.

As someone who works for a company that advocates for an increased understanding and compassion for young people experiencing the effects of early life trauma, I can’t help but wonder what is the state of the American Family and the role of the helping professional? Is the family less effective in preparing youth for adult life or is this part of a media-hyped phenomenon that is creating more anxious parents? Has the changing family climate stressed an increasing number of families beyond their ability to cope? If so, does the family experience this collective stress in the same way that a child who suffers early trauma and remains unaware of how it is affecting them? In my view, these questions mandate that behavioral healthcare professionals seek a broader understanding of our culture that is impacting our families so that we can provide some relief, hope and a better perspective for the families we serve.

This year’s Calo Programs conference theme is, “Reclaiming the American Family”. We will explore how families have been impacted by a set of complex, multifaceted societal trends that have impacted parenting and explore techniques and strategies that mitigate these trends. Here’s a sneak peak…..

According to Glenn (1986), there was a time in America when attitudes, values, and behaviors of each generation were passed on naturally, generation to generation. This cultural transfer occurred as a child grew up living and working alongside his/her parents. If we use the lifestyle of the 1930’s as a launching point, it was essentially rural. Television did not exist and telephones were rare. Extended family lived close by and provided needed support. The typical pattern of life for children was working with their parents, making decisions, solving problems, being part of decisions being made, learning values and getting on-the-job training for adulthood. In all probability, children would often work ten hours a day alongside one or both of their parents. This left about six waking hours after the day’s activities for discussion, learning handcrafts and life lessons. Everyone had meaningful responsibilities which contributed to the stability and success of the family. By the age of 16, the child was ready to fill the parent’s role because they had lived that life since birth. This was the consistent pattern of life for nearly 70% of all Americans in 1935.
The role of the school during this period was specific and focused. The chief problems of the era were illiteracy, shortage of information and general isolation. Teachers were people that were hand-picked because their values were consistent with local parents. In this way, parents maintained control and limited the impact school had on their children. Together these two institutions had the job of preparing young people for successful living and adulthood.

The destructive impact of the Depression on society is undeniable, but according to Glenn the greatest social change ever known in this country to impact families occurred between 1935-1950. America went from 70% of all people living in a rural environment in 1935 to 70% living in an urban environment, meaning parents commuted to work and owned a television and telephone. This was a complete reversal of the 1935 statistic in only 15 years! Furthermore, by 1970, 90% of families either lived an urban lifestyle or in an urban environment. In addition, during this time, schools expanded into unimaginable areas increasing their role in children’s lives. This increase in education, technology and information introduced significant stressors to the family lifestyle as varied role-models through television and media expanded value systems and introduced cultural and social differences. In addition, as dependency on automation and technology buffered youth from the natural environment children became removed from the natural consequences of their actions. Finally, as advances in affordable transportation decentralized the family fewer intergenerational associations for support were available.

Consider the impact of this rapid social transition on the extent of quality family interaction alone. Urbanization virtually eliminated the likelihood that a child would work for any significant portion of time alongside either of his/her parents. As a result, children became increasingly vulnerable and dependent on others for psychological maturation and preparation for life.

Since the 1980’s many American families had both parents at work outside the home. Changing roles and shifting economic conditions made it a necessity. However, as psychological research emerged to suggest a more child centered parent model many parents increased the amount of time spent with their children. According to the Journal of Marriage and Family, the time parents spent with their children has risen since 1985. Although some studies suggest working parents provides a positive role model for the child in a family where both parents are employed, further investigation reveals this dual parent employment had major consequences for family life due to the deteriorating quality of that time spent together.

Ground breaking new research from the University of Toronto and Melissa Milkie, a sociologist shows no relationship between the amount of mothers’ time spent and children’s outcomes. But in fact, the study found that it’s the quality of that time and not the amount that is important. One key instance when parents time can be particularly harmful to children is when parents are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious. This suggests that the social resources supporting the mental health of parents and the connection they share with their children is substantially more important than the amount of time spent.

Parents of the past learned by modeling themselves not only on their parents, but on uncles, aunts, and grandparents at home or nearby. As they grew up, they learned how to care for younger siblings because they were expected to. The isolated nuclear family and the sharp sequestration of age groups in today’s society combine to deprive today’s children of these experiences. The challenge in our modern times is the perceived sizeable cultural pressures for intensive parenting that may interfere with the quality of the parent-child relationship. The competition for jobs, what we think makes for a successful child, teenager, and young adult, and what we think in a competitive society with few social supports is going to help them succeed. Introduce the world wide web and mobile technology and we have become more disattuned than ever.

According the Rob Gent, Calo Programs’ Chief Clinical Officer and author of their proprietary treatment model, one of the most important factors in mitigating all of these societal trends is the ability of a child to bond/securely attach with her parents, starting from the moment she leaves the womb. Parental bonding through secure attachment helps a child feel safe, secure, nurtured and loved. The parent-child attachment is one of the strongest predictors of mental, social, physical and emotional health. Working parents of the 2000’s who establish and maintain security through structure and connection, make family time and their child’s development a priority, just as many parents did from the golden era. Creating a secure, healthy attachment with your child requires more than the amount of time spent together — it requires love, nurturing, commitment, attending to a child’s physical needs and developing a sense of connection. Parents need to provide experiences that promote the development of self and a capacity to experience joy.


Calo Programs’ Healing Trauma Conference; Restoring the American Family is scheduled for May 22-24, 2017 at Camden on the Lake Resort in Lake Ozark Missouri. Guest speakers include author, teacher and Sandy Hook survivor Kaitlin Roig Debellis, Child Psychiatrist Dr. Susan Rich, Chief Clinical Officer Rob Gent and more. Special appearance by the Calo Canines and several alumni. For more information contact Nicole Fuglsang at [email protected].