A recent three-year longitudinal study confirmed what family therapists have observed clinically for decades: that patterns of family interaction have very important effects on children — both for better and for worse.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want your kids to succeed in school, build a stronger, more loving family.

Melissa Sturge-Apple, a researcher from the University of Rochester, studied 234 families with 6 year-old children, and followed the adjustment of the kids in their first three years of school. The study included direct observation of the kids as well as reports from both parents and teachers.

What’s your family’s “structure?”

The research team identified and described three different family structures that they named: cohesive, enmeshed, and disengaged.

Which family structure best fits the family you grew up in? How about your current family?

Here’s the scoop:

  • Cohesive families have “emotional glue” that helps everyone feel connected. When push comes to shove, family members stick together and feel a sense of unity. The cohesive families observed in this study (and many others) were happier and loving, with relationships characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, firm boundaries, and clear roles for parents and children.
  • Enmeshed families are different in that they lack healthy boundaries. The roles of children and adults are not as clear or differentiated. There’s a tendency for kids to be involved in adult conversations and activities, and vice versa. Researchers noted how the enmeshed families were emotionally involved with one another, but in addition to warmth, there were higher levels of hostility, over-involvement or destructive meddling in each other’s lives — and only a limited sense of teamwork.
  • Disengaged families, on the other hand, lack the sense of connection that makes members feel safe, loyal, and unified. There may be family rules but not as many shared rituals or time together. The research team noticed how disengaged families were characterized by too little emotional connection between family members, a lack of teamwork, and relationships that could sometimes be described as cold, controlling and withdrawn.

Can you guess what effect family “structure” had on kids’ adjustment in school?

Results of the study on school adjustment

The children from the disengaged families had the most problems adjusting to school, and their problems showed up right away. Kids from these families were more likely to be aggressive and were often inappropriate in class. They were more alienated from teachers and had a harder time responding to structure and following rules.

Over the course of three years, the length of the study, the problems with these kids continued to get worse. The children became more alienated from teachers and peers and with time were more prone to depression and anxiety.

The children from the enmeshed families looked initially like they were adjusting to school as well as the kids from the cohesive group since they didn’t have the behavioral problems seen in the disengaged group.

However, as time went on, these children had more problems with “internalizing” behaviors like depression and anxiety. As their problems progressed, so did their alienation from teachers and peers.

Why does this matter?

This research is important for a number of reasons. First, it verifies what family therapists emphaize about the importance of healthy boundaries and emotional connection for the success of children, whether at school or in the family relationships.

The cohesive families had clear boundaries, particularly between adults and children, in contrast to the enmeshed or disengaged systems. As a result, the kids from these families were able to adjust socially and emotionally and could adapt and thrive in their new school environment.

Besides helping to confirm the importance of family structure, the researchers learned another important fact:

“What was striking was that these family relationship patterns were not only stable across different relationships but also across time, with very few families switching patterns.”

We would add: without help. But we also know full well that these patterns can change with intervention.

Given the pain and difficulties that kids can carry, this information will hopefully encourage parents to get the help they need—the sooner the better—to change problematic modes of relating.

Armed with this information, hopefully teachers will make referrals more quickly to programs that offer parent education, suggest books on how to create cohesive families or make referrals to family therapists, rather than simply focusing on the acting out or anxious child. Too often these kids are labeled, isolated, and referred to individual counseling. This approach to the problem really misses the boat!

Like a good remodel of an old house, new structures can be built that are safer and sounder for all that occupy them. If your child is struggling to adjust to school, you may just want to take the whole family for a check-up.