Many educationalists and politicians are beginning to support the notion that ‘Yob parents are to blame for child crime’ and child disturbance, according to Ahmed and Bright (2002). This emphasis on external influences upon the child, advocates a behaviourist perspective of child development, with little or no emphasis on biological or individual responsibility, Bijou and Bauer (1961). For many years psychologists have investigated and tried to tease out how development is influenced by nature or nurture. Rigel (1978) has suggested four different models concerning the significance of external and internal influences.
The models range from a passive person and passive environment, to a model that perceives development through an active person and active environment. The latter model implies a transactional process involving the interplay between the individual and social influences that are fluid and continuous. Many studies have been carried out by researchers such as Murry and Stein (1991) to investigate child disturbance, that have focused on the relationship between children and the mental state of their mothers. The numerous studies undertaken by various researchers produce contradictory conclusions concerning the influence of parents upon children’s mental states. Often only one piece and perspective of research is utilised to produce simplistic and dogmatic conclusions as reported by Ahemed and Bright above. Thus, the essay will try to examine various possible causes of disturbed children, then move on to evaluate the influence parents have upon children’s disturbances.
The two principle perspectives concerning child development in general and more specifically, the development of disturbing behaviour can be placed within the nature, nurture debate. The medical model and nature perspective were dominant in the mid twentieth century and implied that ‘disorders were located within the individual. However, although there may be neurological problems associated with disturbance, the medical model does not take into account that development does not occur in a ‘vacuum’ and a social context should be considered and its effect upon the emotional and behavioural processes.
Conversely the social-environmental model implies that impoverished environments, lack of discipline and abusive parental styles contribute absolutely to disturbed children (Woodhead, 1995). However, Woodhead argues that the medical and social environmental models alone are too simplistic to account for the complexity of development, and that what is required is an understanding of how the continuous interaction between the individual and their environment shapes social, emotional and behavioural disturbances.
Another disputed domain, is the classification of dysfunction and disturbing behaviour. Herbert (1991) suggests that behaviour is age specific and what constitutes disturbed behaviour at one age is considered ‘normal’ at another. Using judgements from parents teachers and ‘others’ in 100 studies, Achenbach et al (1987) found little correlation between what parents or professionals classified as disturbing behaviour, thus inferring that dysfunction is not only age specific but also ‘context-embedded’. Thus, Chess and Thomas (1984) have suggested that to understand and evaluate disturbing behaviour we should scrutinise the ‘goodness of fit’, which views the problem in terms of the social context and the historical biography of how the child has faced similar situations in the past.
Weisz et al (1993) concluded that his cross cultural studies implied that the categorisation of disturbance is culturally specific and heavily dependant upon social expectations. Thus so far it appears that there is certain ambiguity in the classification of disturbance on many dimensions. What adults or professionals specify as disturbance in a certain age group, social context or culture could be perceived completely differently in other circumstances and by others. This ambiguity should be paramount when labelling children as ‘disturbed’ particularly by the ‘professionals’ whose analysis are often perceived as conclusive.
So far it would appear that research carried out to investigate the identification of disturbed behaviour has produced some disparate results, which are further complicated by issues of age, social context and cultural expectations. Also disputed is the issue of either an internal or external influence upon the development of disturbing behaviour, which the essay will now address specifically focusing on the popular argument that parents should be blamed for children’s disturbing behaviour.
Richman et al (1982) found a continuity of problem behaviour over time and also a gender difference with boys displaying more disturbing behaviour than girls. This gender difference can be perceived as supporting the nature and biological/medical model of development as mentioned above, which would suggest an innate aspect of disorder. Richman et al also identified certain ‘clusters’ of behaviour that were not age specific and to different degrees demonstrated continuity, for example restlessness, discipline problems and poor concentration.
Although Richman et al noted that there could be a biological difference in disturbing behaviour, he also observed that there were social or external influences that contributed to risk factors in disturbing behaviour. For example, the occupation of the parents, their marital relationships, the mothers mental state and parental attitudes to the children were all associated with children’s disturbed states. Thus those children with parents in ‘lower’ occupations, where the relationship between the parents are strained and the parents are critical to the child produces heightened disturbance in children. The notion of negative responses and criticism from the parents was highlighted as one of the causes of disturbing behaviour in the case study of Andrew, The Open University (1995) also supported by Belsky (1984).
However, there have been criticisms of the methods used in Richmans study and the way the data was exclusively utilised without scope to recognise any other relevant variables that might also have contributed to the results obtained. Also Richmans conclusions are only associations between external risk factors and disturbing behaviour in children. Nevertheless, they do indicate that parents are associated with their children’s developing behaviour and emotions. Yet, there is little to demonstrate how this influence is internalised by the child and the interaction that occurs between the parents and the child to which we turn next.
Bowlby (1953) suggested that young infants and the parents make an attachment bond that is biological in nature in the very early stages of the child’s development between 6 months and three years of age. Any separation from the parents, particularly the mother would lead to depravation. Drawing on the psychodynamic perspective, this early deprivation would manifest in later life in the form of emotional and social development problems. However, many contemporary researchers and professionals are very critical of Bowlby’s conclusions and have rejected and abandoned his primary notions of maternal deprivation (Cowie, 1995).
Nevertheless, Rutter (1985) implies that privation in early childhood could lead to disruptive behaviour and he also noted that separation was distressing to the emotions of the child, which supports the conclusions of continuity offered by Richman. Rutter also suggests that early experiences are crucial for the child’s later emotional state and ability to cope with stress, which supports the notion of goodness of fit and historical biography as mentioned by Chess and Thomas. If we accept that parents are principally to blame for the disturbing behaviour of their children, we are also advocating an ideology of children as innocent victims with no responsibility for their disturbance. Kessen (1979) believes that the innocent child ideology shifts responsibility upon the parents and particularly mothers in the interest of social control.
Murray (1991) investigated the association of child disturbance and the mother’s mental state. Utilising a longitudinal study of mothers suffering from postnatal depression and a control group, she found that young infants were indeed impacted by their mother’s mental state. Children, particularly boys with mothers affected by postnatal depression demonstrated a tendency to be more insecurely attached while taking part in the ‘Strange Situation’. Insecure attachments are associated with psychological disturbances. Murray and Stein (1991) imply that the ‘depressed’ mother utilises reduced maternal speech, is less responsive to the child’s signals and demonstrates hostility towards the child, which they believe is the process that leads to disruption in the child.