family assessment

One of the many perks of Reanna reading my assignments to me is that I get her editorial critiques of the writing. Academic writing is mostly bad writing, as I’ve been ranting about off and on. Bad writing can be entertaining, though, if it is read to you by a very smart editor like Reanna. Here is one example, Reanna reading Martin Erickson’s critique of the family life cycle theory:

Reanna, reading Erickson: “Perhaps the problems a family is experiencing may have little to do with the family’s deficient ability to negotiate transitions of the FLC but may rather indicate the family’s attempts at creative production and new arrangements that may be a difficult transition into which it may be difficult for a family to adjust. There are many implications of NAT in regard to family therapists. It is hoped that this discussion will spur more in-depth theorizing and research in regard to these issues and provide family therapists with a different way of conceptualizing with which they currently work….”

Reanna, aside: “It is hoped…not by the author necessarily, but, you know, it is hoped.”

Hilarious! Erickson is probably worth reading for any family therapist, but especially so with the added commentary.

The phrase she picked out is a violation of Strunk & White’s Elementary Principle of Composition #14, the most common form of bad writing in academia. For those of you unfamiliar with Strunk & White, get the book The Elements of Style. It’s funny, spot on, and very useful. Here’s the beginning of principle #14:

14. Use the active voice.

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I shall always remember my first trip to Boston.

This is much better than

My first trip to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”

My first trip to Boston will always be remembered,

it becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some person undisclosed or the world at large that will always remember this visit?


According to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), there is a mental disorder that is usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It afflicts somewhere between 2-16% of people, more boys than girls before puberty, but equal numbers of boys and girls after puberty. Family therapists are not into giving medical-model diagnoses in general, but in many cases, a DSM diagnosis is the only way for a family to get their insurance companies to pay for them to get help. In one of my internship sites, for example, I will need to provide a DSM diagnosis after the first session with a family in order to get the clinic paid for our work. As I understand it, this is a common diagnosis for kids who are giving their parents and teachers a hard time.

Note that the word “often” is used to mean something like “more than usual,” so whichever kids who are most like this will qualify for this Disorder, as long as someone important believes that their behavior is significantly impairing their social or academic functioning. Note also that these symptoms could be occurring in just one setting (say, just at school) and the kid will still qualify for ODD, unlike the symptoms for ADHD, which have to occur in at least two settings to qualify for the diagnosis.

Outside of family therapy, ODD is very commonly treated with Ritalin for “comorbid” ADHD. Kids diagnosed with ODD are also fairly commonly given antidepressant and/or antipsychotic medication, on the guess that they have an underlying Mood Disorder or Bipolar Disorder, though there is little to no research on these medications for children, especially in combination.

The following is word-for-word from the DSM-IV-TR, page 102:

Diagnosis criteria for 313.81 Oppositional Defiant Disorder

A. A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which four (or more) of the following are present:

(1) often loses temper

(2) often argues with adults

(3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules

(4) often deliberately annoys people

(5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior

(6) is often touchy or easily annoyed by others

(7) is often angry or resentful

(8) is often spiteful or vindictive

Note: Consider a criterion met only if the behavior occurs more frequently than is typically observed in individuals of comparable age and developmental level.

B. The disturbance in behavior causes clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning.

C. The behaviors do not occur exclusively during the course of a Psychotic or Mood Disorder.

D. Criteria are not met for Conduct Disorder, and, if the individual is age 18 or older, criteria are not met for Antisocial Personality Disorder.

I’m learning about child abuse and neglect in my Child and Family Assessment class. Today I read about the ACE study, by the US Center for Disease Control. It is a huge study, with over 17,000 participants, where they gathered information about childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, and then proceeded to see what health outcomes and behaviors they could predict with that information. It turns out they can predict a lot. They’ve published 50 articles on the study and the research is ongoing–they are continuing to collect health information as the participants in the study age. I’ll present a few of their findings below. For more, see the ACE Study.

Here are some of their findings. I’ll paste in the definitions of the categories of adverse childhood experiences below. Strong correlations were found with the following:

  • alcoholism and alcohol abuse (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (that is, lung disease)
  • depression (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • fetal death
  • health-related quality of life (way more inactivity, severe obesity, bone fractures)
  • illicit drug use
  • ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • liver disease
  • risk for intimate partner violence
  • multiple sexual partners (4 or more categories of ACE correlated with 50 or more sexual partners)
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • smoking
  • suicide attempts (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • unintended pregnancies

Here are the kinds of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction they asked about, quoted from the site:


Emotional Abuse:
Often or very often a parent or other adult in the household swore at you, insulted you, or put you down and/or sometimes, often or very often acted in a way that made you think that you might be physically hurt.

Physical Abuse:
Sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at you and/or ever hit so hard that you had marks or were injured.

Sexual Abuse:
An adult or person at least 5 years older ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way, and/or had you touch their body in a sexual way, and/or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you and/or actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you.


Emotional Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether their family made them feel special, loved, and if their family was a source of strength, support, and protection. Emotional neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Emotional Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form.

Physical Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether there was enough to eat, if their parents drinking interfered with their care, if they ever wore dirty clothes, and if there was someone to take them to the doctor. Physical neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Physical Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form constituted physical neglect.

Household Dysfunction

Mother Treated Violently:
Your mother or stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her and/or sometimes often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard, and/or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes and/or ever threatened or hurt by a knife or gun.

Household Substance Abuse:
Lived with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic and/or lived with anyone who used street drugs.

Household Mental Illness:
A household member was depressed or mentally ill and/or a household member attempted suicide.

Parental Separation or Divorce:
Parents were ever separated or divorced.

Incarcerated Household Member:
A household member went to prison.

Another unfortunately common situation I will have to assess for in the families I see (in addition to drug & alcohol abuse, domestic violence and many other things) is sexual or physical abuse. One of my texts (Patterson’s Essential Skills in Family Therapy: From the First Interview to Termination) estimates that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 9 men were sexually abused as kids. My other practicum text, Brock & Barnard’s Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy, gives this list of indicators of abuse(p. 52):

The presence of an alcoholic parent

The family with poor mother-daughter connections/bonds

A mother who is very dependent either psychologically or physically as the result of illness or accident

A father who appears to be very controlling and possessive of his daughter(s)

An acting-out adolescent girl engaging in sexual promiscuity or suicidal gestures who is a frequent runaway or drug abuser

A child who appears to be very overresponsible and parentified in the family context

One thing I will have to assess in the families I see is possible drug/alcohol abuse, because substance abuse is pervasive, problematic, and interpersonal. One of my texts, Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy, recommends using “objective” measures such as the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (25 items), or the MacAndrew Alcoholism Scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (49 items), to give weight to the assessment. However, it also says that there is a correlation of .89 (that’s very high) between answering yes to two or more of the following four questions  and alcohol abuse (p. 47):

1) Have you ever felt you ought to cut down on your drinking?

2)have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

3) Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

4) Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (eye opener)?

Also, they list Heilman’s eight symptoms of alcoholism:

1) Thinking or talking a lot about drinking or getting high.

2) Increased tolerance. This is not a sign of health!

3) Drinking or taking a drug in a way that speeds up the onset of its effects.

4) Non-social use.

5) Drug/alcohol starts to seem like a medicine. Thoughts of drug/alcohol immediately upon a stressful event.

6) Blackouts. “How did I get home last night?”

7) Taking care to always have a supply of alcohol/drug.

8) Using more than planned.

Finally, Heilman says that anyone who answers yes to the question “Is your drinking ever different from what you would like it to be?” is very likely suffering from alcoholism (p. 48)

I will start seeing clients this summer, so I’m reading two texts about how to structure my sessions, Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy, by Brock and Barnard, and Essential Skills in Family Therapy, by Patterson. One of the things I am to assess as a top priority is the possibility of family violence. (I’ll get a whole class on this next year.) It’s almost always perpetrated by a male. According to Patterson, battering is the biggest cause of injury to women. Here is Brock & Barnard’s list of characteristics that can help identify violent men (p. 46):

1) Believes in the traditional home, family, and gender stereotypes

2) Has low self-esteem and may use violence to demonstrate power or adequacy

3) May be sadistic, pathologically jealous, or passive-aggressive

4) Has a Jekyll and Hyde personality, capable of great charm

5) Believes in the moral rightness of his violent behavior even though he may go too far at times

6) Has perpetrated past violent behavior, which includes witnessing, receiving, and committing violent acts, violent acts during childhood; violent acts towards pets or inanimate objects; and has criminal record, long military service, or temper tantrums

7) Indicates alcohol abuse

To this list, Patterson adds preoccupation with weapons or control.