A Focus on Normal and Abnormal Processes
The training and research in children, families, and cultures emphasizes both normal and abnormal processes, because the two foci are virtually inseparable for purposes of gaining both basic and applied knowledge. Theoretical and research models of problems and disorders faced by young people and families must be grounded in knowledge of basic development. That is true because an understanding of basic developmental processes serves as a guidepost for developing models and treatments of disorder. For example, an investigator who is interested in developing models of the etiology and treatment of anxiety problems in children will be at a loss if she does not first understand (a) the points in normal development at which childhood fears are most common among all children, and when they begin to dissipate; (b) the normal development of experience and expression of emotions such as fear and worry, and how those processes may go awry; (c) brain structures and processes relevant to emotion and arousal, (d) basic developmental research on temperamental differences in children that are evident soon after birth, etc. On the other hand, studies of psychopathology have led to numerous discoveries and lines of inquiry about basic developmental processes. For example, studies of children with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and children with Learning Disabilities, are contributing to our understanding of basic processes such as attention, executive functioning, memory, etc. It was through observation of children who had experienced loss and separation that Bowlby developed his attachment model, which has had broad implications for understanding the development of close relationships in normal populations.
The Family Context of Child and Adolescent Psychology
Many of the most troubling problems facing young people have been empirically linked to problems within families, including school dropout, adolescent pregnancy, substance abuse, violence, depression, and suicidal behavior. In particular, family stresses including psychopathology and substance abuse in parents, high levels of marital conflict, and the stresses of poverty, are all associated with higher rates of mental health problems and lower levels of academic success among young people. Better identification of the risk and protective factors associated with such problems, and development of preventive and treatment interventions, is a high priority among public and private funding agencies, and among leaders at the local and national levels.
The training opportunities offered by the Focus in Children, Families, and Cultures can prepare students to effectively address these concerns, and can provide a focal point for multidisciplinary research efforts aimed at identifying pathways towards positive and negative outcomes, and evaluating preventive and treatment intervention programs. A basic tenet is that addressing problems and building the strengths of youth and families requires the joint efforts of professionals possessing knowledge and skills in multiple areas, including social and cognitive development, clinical and preventive psychology, brain and cognitive sciences, the influences of cultural factors, social forces, public policy, and more.
The Cultural Context of Children and Families
The majority of what we know about children, adolescents, and families is based on the study of Caucasian, European Americans from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, the confluence of various national and international changes has made it imperative to widen our understanding of children and families within and across broader diverse cultural contexts. Census data underline what experience has already taught us: the U.S. is increasingly becoming a diverse, multicultural society. These national trends, along with global changes, affect a wide gamut of psychological experiences. Our theories, our assessment methods, our intervention approaches, and our research methodologies need to evolve to meet the changing characteristics of our country and world. That is why issues of culture are an essential ingredient of our theoretical, methodological, and intervention training and research work. Attention is critically paid to cultural and individual differences and diversity among children, adolescents, and families across research, practice, and policy.