Children from unhappy families have more difficulties focusing on learning and cooperating in school, reports a study published July 15 in Child Development.

"Families can be a support and resource for children as they enter school, or they can be a source of stress, distraction, and maladaptive behavior," says Melissa Sturge-Apple, the lead researcher on the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

Relationship patterns in 234 families with six-year-old children were identified as either happy (cohesive) or unhappy (disengaged or enmeshed). In the course of three years, the research found that children from disengaged home environments began their education with higher levels of aggressive and disruptive behavior and more difficulty focusing on learning and cooperating with the classroom rules. These destructive behaviors grew worse as the child progressed through school.

Children from enmeshed homes entered school with no more disciplinary problems or depression and withdrawal than their peers from cohesive families. But these conditions developed as the children continued in school.

The authors believe that the study demonstrates solid evidence of a family-school connection.

Cohesive families are characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles for parents and children.

Enmeshed families, by contrast, may be emotionally involved and display modest amounts of warmth, but they struggle with high levels of hostility, destructive meddling, and a limited sense of the family as a team. Disengaged families are marked by cold, controlling, and withdrawn relationships.

The authors conclude that, "children in the early school years may be especially vulnerable to the destructive relationship patterns of enmeshed families."

Dysfunctional family relationships are not responsible for all or even most behavior difficulties in school, the authors point out. Other risk factors, such as high-crime neighborhoods, high-poverty schools, troubled peer circles, and genetic traits also influence whether one child develops more problems than another child, explains co-author Patrick Davies, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.