3 minute read

Family Assessment

What, Where, And How Of Family Assessment

Questionnaires, structured and unstructured interviews and tasks, descriptions of observations in naturalistic settings and in the laboratory, and scoring systems have been developed to assess family life and describe the family along many different dimensions. One dimension could be a global one, for example, placing the family along a continuum of competence. Is this family functioning optimally, is it functioning adequately, or is it severely dysfunctional (Beavers and Hampson 1993)? Descriptions and reviews of the reliability, validity, and in some cases, clinical utility of a large number of these methods and scoring manuals can be found in the following books: W. Robert Beavers and Robert B. Hampson (1990); Anne E. Copeland and Kathleen M. White (1991); Harold D. Grotevant and Cindy I. Carlson (1989); Theodore Jacob and Daniel L. Tennenbaum (1988); Patricia K. Kerig and Kristin M. Lindahl (2001); Luciano L'Labate and Dennis A. Bagarozzi (1993); Richard H. Mikesell, Don-David Lusterman, and Susan H. McDaniel (1995); David H. Olson, Candyce S. Russell, and Douglas H. Sprenkle (1989); Barry F. Perlmutter, John Touliatos, and Murray A. Straus (2000); Irving E. Sigel and Gene H. Brody (1990); and Froma Walsh (1993).

Social scientists and mental health professionals often study the dimension of family structure. Family structure is characterized by the roles and relationships among the individual members of the family. Who disciplines the children? Who provides leadership and helps in problem solving? Who does one turn to for support and encouragement? The family may include one or several male and/or female adults of various ages, in varying biological relationships with one or several male and/or female children of various ages from infancy through adulthood. Each child and adult has varying physical, cognitive, emotional, and social characteristics and possible problems in living that he or she brings to daily family life. Assessment of family structure and its changes over time may be made to understand, for example, general and specific effects of age, education, marital status, socioeconomic and other social conditions, developmental processes, roles, culture and the acculturation process, and religious beliefs and practices.

Assessment may be made of the dimension family dynamics. Family dynamics consist of the sequence of interactions (parent-child exchanges) and transactions (parentA-child-parentB-child-parentA exchanges); their synchrony, reciprocity, and patterns of mutual influence. When a child hits a sibling, does the mother or father respond first or not at all until one of the sibling cries? What does mother say and do? If the father is present, what does he say or do after watching? Is he silent throughout the encounter? What does each of the children say or do next in response to their mother and/or father? What does the mother and/or father say or do in response to the children's next words or actions? Is there a pattern, across parent-child or sibling-sibling conflicts, especially over time, in how the family acts? Study also may be made of how these interactions and transactions affect family structure and the family subsystem relationships. These patterns may affect individual child, marital, and family characteristics, and these, too, may change over time. These analyses may provide information about family cohesion and intimacy, distribution of power in the family, decision making, family flexibility, and family competence and adjustment.

A wide variety of chronic or acute stresses may affect family structure and dynamics including, for example, violence between the adults in the home, separation and/or divorce of the parents, and the illness, injury, or death of a child, parent, grandparent, or animal companion.

The assessor decides whether the focus should be on the whole family or one or more of its subsystems: parental, marital, or sibling. One or more family members' individual attitudes, values, and perceptions of family life and relationships may be the focus. Description and ratings of family life may also be made after whole family interviews. Family behavior may also be observed, described, and scored in the home (e.g., at dinner); or coded from videotapes made of the family dinner or in a laboratory (e.g., planning a menu); or by a mental health professional after, for example, hearing an hour-long argument about the lack of manners or a child's refusal to eat at the dinner table. The information obtained from different persons (inside or outside the family), from different methods (objective or subjective), and in different social contexts may be similar, but each may be unique, and all may be relevant for more complete and useful understanding (Hayden et al. 1998; Snyder et al. 1995).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Assessment - Why A Family Assessment?, What, Where, And How Of Family Assessment, Selection Of Assessment Methods