Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Nurturance: A Neglected Dimension in Family Therapy with Adolescents

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Nurturance: A Neglected Dimension in Family Therapy with Adolescents

Article excerpt

This paper offers a model for integrating a nurturance framework into family therapy approaches with adolescents. This approach is seen as adding an important but neglected dimension to commonly used approaches, thus increasing both flexibility in treatment and the likelihood of a positive outcome. Steps to an effective treatment approach are outlined and guidelines offered for both in-session work and out-of-session tasks.


Family therapy has become increasingly accepted as an important modality of treatment for adolescents. Family theory and research suggest that parental connection and its overt expression in the form of parental nurturance are positively correlated with health in both the adolescent and the family. However, the literature that addresses family therapy applications to adolescent treatment tends to neglect this dimension in favor of focus on issues of power/control and separation/autonomy.

This article will first. briefly review research supporting the importance of parental connection and nurturance in effective parenting of adolescents. Second, a review of the applications of family therapy to the treatment of adolescents will be organized into three prevalent frameworks: (a) the family life cycle/developmental task of individuation/separation; (b) the use of organizational concepts; and (c) behavioral focuses on conflict, power, and control issues. A discussion follows that suggests how parental connection/nurturance can be incorporated into these frameworks. The article then addresses specifically how therapists can help parents develop greater connectedness with their adolescents within the context of therapy. Finally, the article offers guidelines for out-of-session tasks designed to increase parental nurturance. Therapists incorporating this framework and corresponding in-session and out-of-session tasks will enhance their flexibility in therapy with adolescents and their families and increase the overall effectiveness of treatment.

I define nurturance as a subset of behavior within the more general category of interconnectedness or attachment behavior. Nurturant acts are behaviors directed toward another individual with the intent of providing physical or psychological nourishment. Like Wood (1985), I believe that an important dimension of a successful nurturant act is that the nurturer accurately assesses and responds to the emotions and needs of the other individual.

This idea is also supported by attachment therapy, which suggests that secure attachment is characterized not only by the amount of contact between parent and child but also by how well the contact fits both the personal rhythms of the child and the child's developmental stage (Bowlby, 1982). This means that the parent needs to discriminate between the parent's own needs and emotions and those of the adolescent. Thus, an example of a successful nurturant act with an adolescent might be a parent who pats his/her adolescent on the arm instead of hugging him/her in front of the adolescent's peers.

Family Theory and Research

Wood (1985) notes that while many family clinicians focus on dysfunction associated with extreme family interconnectedness, investigators of family and small group behavior outside the field of family therapy do not ascribe dysfunction to strong but not extreme family interconnectedness. In fact, many family sociologists, such as Hill (1989), Hess and Handel (1959), and Nye and Rushing (1969), emphasize the positive aspects of family closeness.

Despite differences in theoretical orientation, social psychological literature supports the hypothesis that successful adolescent development is based on the family's ability successfully to balance the need for individuation with connectedness and intimacy (Gilligan, 1987; Grotevant & Cooper, 1986; Hill & Holmbeck, 1984). One well-developed theory based on a social-developmental orientation is Baumrind's (1989, 1991) typology for parenting behavior. …

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