Parenthood in Multi-Problem Families
The family, as the facilitating and promoting nucleus of human development, allows the elements that form it to fulfil two vital functions: to ensure the continuity of human beings, and to achieve a balance between growing up/individualization and the socialization of each of the family members. In this sense, the family, particularly through parents, is one of the most important sources of socialization and education (Alarcão, 2002; Relvas, 2000; Pinsof, quoted by Ribeiro, 1997).
The evaluation of parenthood, from an ecosystemic perspective, has inherent to it the existence of distinct forms through which parents manage their responsibilities, reflecting the combination between their capacities and characteristics, the developmental needs of the child, and available resources (Calheiros, 2006; Pecnik, Daly, & Lalière, 2006; Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1998). Under normal conditions, the family ecosystem maintains a dynamic balance between resources and stress levels (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004; Fuster & Ochoa, 2000). Nevertheless, in the case of many families, namely multi-problem families, frequently the changes occurring outside the family, in combination with changes within the family, produce a state of ecological instability whereby the level of stress exceeds available individual and family resources (Alarcão, 2002; Cancrini, Gregório & Nocerino, 1997; Neto, 1996).
It thus becomes clear that the parental role in these multi-problem families becomes equally deteriorated, in terms of bonding and socialization. It is often the mother figure that takes up a key role, her success in life frequently corresponding to child bearing, resulting in high expectations and assigning too high a value to the role of motherhood (and where criticism of the mother-child interaction is perceived as a personal disqualification). She is, nevertheless, a chaotic figure, sometimes withdrawing from her position in the centre, oscillating between anger and depression, simultaneously accusing and defending her husband. The participation of the male figure depends on the position that the mother plays within the family system, and it is more likely when the mother assumes a position of increased detachment. The network of informal support is particularly important in the children’s education, and is often ensured by members of the extended family and/or significant people. Power ends up being split among various people who assume the leading role in turns, not following a clear or coherent system of rules or principles.
Thus, the nature of parental power becomes confusing. On the one hand, the hierarchy of power is compromised by the serious deterioration of its exercise and distribution. On the other hand, parents sway between authoritarian and absolute power, and periods of physical or psychological surrender of their roles, which coincide with the delegation of parental duties on one child (parental child). Dysfunctional alliances are common between parents and children: the child is put in a position of split loyalty and forced to choose between one of the parents, remaining in a undesirable power situation regarding the father, who he sides with (Alarcão, 2002; Linares, 1997; Minuchin et al., 1967; Minuchin, 1982; Neto, 1996; Sousa, 2005).
The combination of a deteriorated parenthood, where emotional ties are neglected thanks to the instrumentalisation of the parental bond, and the lack of harmony in the conjugal relation, often characterised by conflict and frustration, frequently leads to the sexual exploit of children. The same as with erotic impulses, parents’ aggressive impulses flow freely, leaving the children without the control of protective functions. This leads to physical abuse, which often occurs over a background of abandonment and lack of care (Alarcão, 2002; Cancrini et al., 1997; Linares, 1997; Sousa, 2005).
In the case of children, the unpredictability of the parents’ answers are reflected in breaches in basic security and in interiorized unsafe bonding models (there are no implicit or explicit rules of behaviour that can be interiorized). They basically learn that behaviour prohibitions are associated to power or to the emotional mood (normally one of unhapiness) of the mother or any other person in a position of power. Accordingly, they need their parents in order to organise their interpersonal transactions, which makes their own autonomy process and a serene exploration of their surroundings difficult. The existence of several potentially parental figures does not mean to have parents. In the majority of cases, this factor, allied with the high vulnerability of the milieu, provokes feelings of fear, neglect, defensive behaviours, and premature emotional self-sufficiency in children and adolescents.
The absence of rules in the parents-children interactions (structures of socialization) is connected to the absence of instructions on how children shall behave in future (lack of knowledge of cultural norms), and foster conflict with the surrounding milieu.
In the case of adolescents and young adults, it causes disturbances that prompts them to act, and inaptitude in integrating external systems. The most common pathology is of a social or psychopathic nature, associated to problems in school adaptation, delinquency, drug dependency, and alcohol abuse (Alarcão, 2002; Fulmer, 1989; Linares, 1997; Minuchin et al., 1967; Neto, 1996; Sousa, 2005).
However, there are also positive aspects of parenthood in multi-problem families. There is recognition that parents love their children, albeit being incompetent in the exercise of their duties, a situation that stems from their own reference models, equally unstable and unsafe. They find in their children reservoirs of loyalty and dependence that keep the various elements together (Minuchin, Colapinto & Minuchin 1998; Sousa et al, 2007; Sousa, 2005). The emotional lability that characterizes these families, and the intensity of the lack of harmony and conflict they experience, allow the creation of less monolithical lives, and of fissures through which some mechanisms that protect and transform deficiencies of the parental role can develop (e.g. a mother who argues with her husband in the face of his aggressiveness with their children) (Alarcão, 2002; Linares, 1997; Sousa, 2005).
Accordingly, it is of particular importance that professionals working with multi-problem families do not ignore the way the family functions as a whole, as this could be the entrance door to a change that allows the family to foster its development as an ecosystem, alongside the personal development of those who form it.
Rute Isabel Ribeiro de Oliveira Piedade Valente
Student of the Master Degree in “Victimization of Children and Adolescents” Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon
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