Retrospect and Prospect in the Psychological Study of Families

By James P. McHale; Wendy S. Grolnick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Family Influences on Behavior
and Development:
Challenges for the Future
Michael Rutter
Institute of Psychiatry, London

A wealth of research has shown associations between family functioning and children's behavior or development. As a consequence, we have learned much about how families operate and what types of family malfunction seem to carry significant psychological risks for the children. Given this massive increase in the evidence on possible family influences on children's psychological functioning, it might be supposed that it should have been accompanied by a parallel increase in the mental health of our children. It comes as a shock, therefore, that this has not happened, Over the last half century there have been, in all parts of the industrialized world, tremendous improvements in most aspects of physical health, lnfantile mortality rates have fallen dramatically, life expectancy has increased greatly, and many of the killing infections of early life have been conquered (e.g., smallpox has been eradicated and neither polio nor tuberculosis is the scourge it used to be). In contrast, systematic research has shown that, over the same period, the rates of psychosocial disorders among young people have increased dramatically (Rutter & Smith, 1995). Drug problems have become much more prevalent, crime rates have soared, suicide rates in young people have gone up at the same time that those in older people have come down, and depressive disorders in younger people have increased. If we know so much about family functioning, why have we not been more successful in improving the mental health of our children? That is a challenge that we must accept. Of course, it would be wrong to over-

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