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Broken Family to Broken Home: Managing Threats to Family Bonding

Gabriel’s mom wasn’t concerned until his fifth-grade teacher called to set up a meeting. She didn’t have much time between raising three children and working full-time outside of the home, but she managed to leave work early one day to make it to the conference. The concern in Ms. Salas’ voice was enough to make this meeting a priority.

During the drive to the school, Gabriel’s mom debated on what the conference was about. She and Gabriel’s father had just finalized a nasty divorce a few months ago, and she thought things were finally settling down. Even though he had to move from the house, he had lived in since birth and only saw his father every other weekend, Gabriel was smiling again and making friends at his new school. What was going on now?

What is a broken home? A broken home is a household that is no longer functioning as a family unit. Broken homes can be caused by addiction, death, poverty, violence, marital problems, poor family relationship, and many other factors. Families don’t need to be separated to be in a broken home, as the term is a description of family dysfunction.

While the causes of broken homes are quite numerous, the three obvious types occur when parents are separated, divorced, or widowed. In all of these cases, the once-intact home is literally broken apart.

In other cases, the breakdown of the family is a process that can happen whether the home itself is broken or not. Marital problems, poor family relationships, mental health issues, financial problems, and changes in living arrangements can break apart families. All of these instances are also known as a broken family.

Parents fighting loudly in front of children about financial matters or otherwise can break apart a family. Spousal or child abuse can also break apart a family. 

If a family is broken but still living together, a child might benefit from the parents separating. If the child has seen or experienced abuse, neglect, or violence within the home, he or she is at higher risk for short and long-term mental health challenges.

Research has shown that broken families and poor family functioning can have a more negative impact on children than the separation of parents (source).  

How Broken Homes and Families Negatively Affect Children

According to a study conducted by professor Judson Landis, well-adjusted, and positive children are far more likely to come from intact and happy homes. He also found that the emotional climate of the home has more of an effect on personality development than the family structure.

A warm and stable family environment teaches children positive behaviors and coping mechanisms. A mom who has moved her children in and out of several different boyfriend’s homes may be neglecting to think of the impact the transitions are having on her children.  

Therefore, children who come from unstable but intact families can experience the same or more severe adjustment issues as children coming from broken homes (source).

Sometimes to mend a family, the home itself might, in fact, need to be broken. Although it may sound counterintuitive, fighting and spousal abuse can do a significant amount of damage to a child’s development.  

Children who come from stable and healthy homes not only have fewer issues adjusting to new people and situations but also have less of a risk of delinquency.

If a child sees his parents using aggression in the home, he will start to believe it is okay to use aggression to get what he wants. But if parents solve their problems and show affection in healthy ways, a child is less likely to act out at school or other places outside of the home (source). 

Ms. Salas had a severe look on her face when Gabriel’s mom got to her classroom door. She asked Gabriel’s mom to have a seat and pulled up a chair across from her.

“Ms. Benson, I called you in today because Gabriel has been having issues with some of his classmates,” Ms. Salas continued, “Gabriel has been calling some of the female ’student’s names and putting his hands on them in inappropriate ways.” 

Gabriel’s mom shook her head and looked down in embarrassment. She knew what was happening. She and Gabriel’s dad had argued constantly. But while Gabriel’s mom tried to keep her calm, his dad didn’t. He yelled, called her horrible names, and had put his hands on her one too many times. She didn’t think Gabriel had seen any of these fights, but now she was starting to think otherwise.  

If you want to learn more about how fighting parents impact the development of their kids, we have a thoughtful article on the topic here.

Signs of Family Dysfunction

Detachment is one of the biggest causes of juvenile and adult delinquency. When children come from broken families, the likelihood of them experiencing some sort of detachment rises. There are many ways to identify this lack of attachment and other signs of a broken family.  

One sign of a broken family is when children spend a frequent amount of time without one or both parents. A parent might have a full work schedule that doesn’t allow much time to be home. Or a parent might choose to spend his or her time hanging out with friends instead of spending time with his or her children. When children are unsupervised, there are more opportunities for delinquent behavior.  

A lack of love and respect from one or both parents can lead to children feeling the same way about their parents. If children do not care what their parents think, they are more likely to act out in negative ways.

They might also try to get attention from their parents in negative ways because of the example set by the parents in the home. Additionally, detachment can occur if children are not given chances to share their lives with their families. If they feel like no one cares, children are more likely to display delinquency.

Dysfunctional families drive delinquent behavior in children due to the lack of attachment. If children feel as though no one cares about them, they are more likely to seek out attention in negative ways (source).

Families who model and practice healthy levels of attachment and positive interactions can help teach children how to seek attention in positive ways. 

Predicting Child Delinquency

Walter R. Gove and Robert D. Crutchfield conducted a study of families in Chicago to find out more about what causes juvenile delinquency. They surveyed 620 families and asked parents questions about their thirteen-year-old children.

Both two-parent and single-parent families were included in the survey. The researchers asked questions in regards to family structure, parental characteristics, household characteristics, and parent-child relationships. Here are some of the key results (source):

  • The way a parent feels about a child and his or her behavior affects delinquency
    • Children who misbehave upset their parents.
    • Parents who do not like how their children behave tend to push their child towards more misbehavior.
  • Broken homes, negative interactions between parents, physical punishment, and negative parent-child interactions lead to delinquency.  
  • Families who cannot function in a positive way have a negative impact on the children.  

Therefore, if a parent does not like a child or appears to dislike a child, they can push their child to delinquency. Parents who love their children and show them affection can help teach them how to behave positively. The effect of broken families, not necessarily broken homes, has a strong impact on delinquency.  

Gabriel’s mom looked up from her lap and tried to explain the situation the best she could. She knew she didn’t need to tell Ms. Salas all of the details, but she couldn’t help but share how hard the last two years had been. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked. “I want Gabriel to be happy and healthy, but I feel like I am failing him.”

Ms. Salas shook her head and smiled slightly.

“You are doing a wonderful job with Gabriel and your current situation. Nothing about this is easy. However, I think I can help you. I had a situation last year with a student whose parents constantly fought in front of her and about her. Some of the ideas we came up with really seemed to improve not only the broken family but also the student’s attitude and behavior as well. Would you like to hear some of the ideas?”

Gabriel’s mom nodded gratefully. Even though she and Gabriel’s dad had an incredibly toxic relationship, she hoped she could use some of the ideas to fix the broken family the fighting had created. She would do anything to help make sure Gabriel was on the right path.   

Fixing a Broken Family

Create a Strong Home Environment

While positive parenting practices alone cannot prevent delinquency, they can play a huge part in stopping negative behaviors in children. Parents who truly believe in and model positive actions and reinforcements have a strong positive effect on their children’s development. Whether the family home is intact or broken, these practices can work to make families strong, helping the kids in the home feel connected.

Monitoring children is one element of positive parenting. If parents pay attention to what their child is doing and saying, not only will they know their child better, but they will also create an environment where sharing is encouraged.

Asking how a child’s day at school was, attending parent-teaching conferences, and showing a real interest in a child’s hobbies can help build a child up instead of breaking him or her down.

This part is critical. Even if parents are not in the same home, they should still pay attention to their child’s friendships, whereabouts, and activities and share the information with each other. Open communication between parents and kids is another key ingredient of a healthy and functioning family.

Separated or divorced parents should use kind words with each to teach their children positive interaction skills. When parents spend time with their child and model positive sharing with each other, they pick up on that.

Slowly but surely, they will begin to copy the behaviors they see. You may see them take one step forward and two steps back, but over the long run, they will move further forward than you think.   

Parents should be on the same page regarding discipline. Health and consistent practices help to create positive outcomes for parents and children. If parents create the same house rules and hold their children to them, they develop a sense of security and stability. Additionally, rules teach children right from wrong.  

If the parents can come to a consensus, both punishments and rewards should be consistent and similar so children know what to expect in each situation.

By having similar expectations, parents can monitor their children and give them boundaries to keep them safe. Parents do not necessarily have to be living in the same home for these practices to be easy and effective (source).

Make Family Relationships the Highest Priority

In order to repair the damage broken families cause children, parents must focus on rebuilding positive relationships with each other. Not only will a positive relationship model ideal behavior for children, but it also creates a much healthier home environment, even if the parents do not live in the same house. Living by the golden rule of treating each other the way you want to be treated is not a cliche, and can help in tough situations.  

In a 2009 study of adolescents in a correctional center in Cameroon, researcher Ilongo Fritz Ngale came to several interesting conclusions regarding family relationships (source).

First, the majority of teens surveyed do not receive moral education from their parents. Instead of learning the differences between right and wrong at home, many of the juvenile delinquents who were surveyed developed their moral code from other outside the home.  

Second, the majority of teens surveyed have either one or both parents working at a job that keeps them away from home quite frequently. The parents might be working long hours, multiple jobs, or in locations far away from home. Not only are the parents not able to be home, but they also are working at low-paying jobs. This environment of poverty and absentee parenting directly correlates to juvenile delinquency.  

Here are some other key findings:

  • Only 43% of teenagers surveyed developed their moral compass from their parents
  • 88% of fathers and 34% of mothers have the lowest-paying jobs
  • 73% of fathers have jobs that keep them away from their families at all times and all hours of the week

This research highlights the importance of positive family relationships. If parents are present and involved with their children, there is a far lower likelihood that their children will exhibit delinquent behavior.

When parents choose to spend time with their children and show interest in their children’s lives, children are less likely to display negative behaviors. While it is sometimes not easy for parents to make additional time for their children, it is necessary to ensure their children have a strong and positive upbringing.

Kids need to feel safe, protected, and secure in order to thrive. When parents work together to make sure this happens, the effects on the children are usually positive and long-lasting.  

Be Connected, Committed, and Resilient During Tough Times

As we have previously discussed, there are many steps families can take to help strengthen bonds and repair damage. There are too many risks and consequences associated with broken families for parents to step back and do nothing. The influence of family relationships on delinquency is too strong to be ignored. 

If parents show children love and respect, and accept them for who they are, a happy and healthy home environment can be created. Even if a family is broken, parents can work together to commit to improving the current situation.

One helpful strategy is to take the time to create a plan for positive parenting. If parents can come together to focus on their children’s development, the children will have positive upbringing and moral development.

If you want to learn more about becoming family-oriented, we have a well-researched article on the topic here.

Final Thoughts

When parents are harsh and unloving toward each other, the children learn from the negative behavior modeled. Positive modeling begets positive behavior, and negative modeling begets negative behavior.  

It certainly isn’t an easy task to repair a broken family. Families can experience so much pain and hardship that it seems impossible to fix anything. But these are the time’s parents need to be the strongest for their children.

Tough times are when children need their parents the most. If parents can shine a light on a positive and united future, children can feel secure in what will happen next in life. Children need this love and support to grow and experience healthy emotional development.