The Catholic University of America

Training in the Children, Families, and Cultures (CFC) Concentration

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. Estimates hold that as many as 12% of the nation’s youth suffer from a mental disorder. 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 Children, Families, and Cultures specialization can prepare students to effectively address these concerns, and can provide a focal point for multi-disciplinary 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, learning problems, etc. Students can choose to emphasize one or more of those areas in tailoring their didactic and research training experiences.

The Cultural Context of Child and Adolescent Psychology

The majority of what we know about children, adolescents, and families is based on the study of Caucasian, European Americans. Yet, the confluence of various national and international changes has made it imperative to study children and families within their diverse cultural contexts, because otherwise our body of knowledge and the training we provide are destined to become obsolete in short order. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census underline what experience has already taught us: the U.S. is becoming a diverse, multicultural society, and so-called ‘ethnic minority’ groups will soon comprise the majority of Americans. This is especially true for young people, since the proportions of ethnic minorities are highest for the youngest Americans (while European-Americans still predominate among older Americans).   Increasing numbers of young Americans self-identify as being of more than one race, which is a trend that is likely to continue. 

The terrorist attacks, and the national soul-searching about America’s cultural identity and its place in the world, have made it plain that ignorance and insularity no longer suffice in a world made smaller by technological revolutions in communication and travel. The boundaries that for centuries distanced cultures from one another are dissolving. The United States is currently experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history. Businesses are international. Global travel is accessible to the average family. We are all changed in the process.
These trends affect a wide gamut of psychological issues in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Our theories, our assessment methods, and our research methodologies need to evolve to meet the changing characteristics of our country. That is why issues of culture are an essential ingredient of our theoretical, methodological, and intervention training and research work.