Understanding Dysfunctional and Functional Family Behaviors for the At-Risk Adolescent

By Martin, Don; Martin, Maggie | Adolescence, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Understanding Dysfunctional and Functional Family Behaviors for the At-Risk Adolescent


Martin, Don, Martin, Maggie, Adolescence


ABSTRACT

At-risk adolescents and their impact on families and society, as well as characteristics of both healthy and maladaptive families, are discussed. Cognitive distortions of dysfunctional adolescents and their effect on family members, along with methods for intervention and creating more healthy environments, are delineated from a systemic viewpoint.

In the authors' view, the family is the major social unit for emotional development in adolescents. Thus, understanding families helps therapists conceptualize how adolescents develop affectively, behaviorally, cognitively, and psychologically (Vernon, 1998).

The family is an integral social system (Becvar & Becvar, 1988), held together by strong bonds of affection and caring; at the same time, family members exercise control, approval, and dissent for each other's actions. As part of this interaction, every family has a structure, whether dysfunctional or functional, chaotic or rigid. This family organization helps it to achieve goals within a developmental time frame and to survive as a unit (Kessler, 1988; Thompson & Rudolph, 1998).

At-Risk Adolescents

It is estimated that over seven million American adolescents--one in four--are extremely vulnerable to multiple high-risk behaviors and school failure, while another seven million are at moderate risk (Carnegie Council, 1989; Husain & Cantwell, 1992). In today's society, adolescents are apt to become involved with damaging behaviors, particularly those associated with alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Whether this is due to cultural conditions or erosion of the family unit is debatable (Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 1991).

Unfortunately, along with these pressures, many young people lack guidance and support. The path to adulthood has been described as one of isolation. During adolescence, exploratory behavior patterns emerge. Many of these behaviors carry high risks and have resulted, for example, in an unprecedented number of alcohol-related accidents and school dropouts. The need to develop self-esteem and inquiring minds among our youth has never been more necessary. The Carnegie Council (1989) and other researchers (Thompson & Rudolph, 1998), in formulating goals for educating adolescents, note five characteristics of an effective adolescent:

1. Effective adolescents are intellectually reflective persons who have developing thinking skills. They are able to express themselves in persuasive, coherent writing as well as verbally; they know the basic vocabulary of the arts, math, and sciences, and have learned to appreciate a variety of cultures and languages.

2. They are en route to a lifetime of meaningful work. Work is essential to survival, as well as an integral part of one's identity. Our youth must be knowledgeable about a variety of career options and not be restricted by race or gender. Certainly high school graduation will be a prerequisite for entering the work force and it is hoped that they will understand the advantages of post-secondary education.

3. Adolescents will be good citizens, thus taking responsibility for shaping our world. We need to develop children who are doers, not just subservers--those who can demonstrate on a daily basis their commitment to their own character, their community, and their schools. Also it is hoped that they will understand the basic values of our nation and have an appreciation for both the western and non-western worlds.

4. Adolescents will be caring individuals who are able to think clearly and critically, and act ethically. Our youth must recognize that there is a difference between right and wrong, and must have the courage to act on their convictions. They will model values that have been associated with good family development--including integrity, tolerance, and appreciation of others. They will understand the importance of close relationships with family and friends, recognizing that relationships require effort and sacrifice, and that without them, life has relatively little meaning and can be filled with insecurity and loneliness. …

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