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The Ecological Systems Theory Children And Young People Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5467 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The definition of Family has become increasingly controversial over the past few decades. Family in the twenty-first century is different to everyone; all families have different structures and functions, beliefs and parental attitudes. The term family refers to a unit consisting of people who are related to each other – either biologically by notions of blood relations, or alternatively by legal means such as by marriage” (Kirby, et al 2000, p45).

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The definition of a family has changed a lot over the years; there are several reasons for the definition to change. The view of the typical nuclear family is no longer the norm within society. Nowadays there are more families of divorce, stepfamilies, and extended families, rich and poor families. There is not a single definition for what a family is; people have their own view of what a family is. There are many factors that make families different, such as ethnicity, religion, and economics. Levine (N.D) suggests that families have three basic goals for their children; survival, economic self-sufficiency and self-actualization” (Enrique, et al, 2007).

Family structure and family functioning can affect a childs development in many ways. Family functioning is more significant to a childs development than the structure of the family. Family structure is the way in which a family is set up, for example, single parent families, extended families and nuclear families. Family functioning refers to how family members are emotionally attached, how well they communicate emotions and information and respond to problems (Freistadt and Stohschein. 2012).

Everyone has a different view of what family is and how families should be structured. Some make the assumption that children can only be brought up successfully in a two-parent family structure involving a heterosexual relationship. Others take the perspective that children can function well in any family structure, provided certain basic conditions are met” (Wise, 2003).

The family is a social system endorsed by law and custom to take care of its members needs” (Kepner, 1983). The emotional bondings and relationships between the members of the family, and their responsibility to the family unit hold them together through the changes of transitions and the complicated connections.

Family Systems Theory

Murray Bowen developed the Family Systems Theory, he recognised that the family was an emotional unit and any changes to the family functioning would influence all members of the family. The Family Systems Theory emerged from the General Systems Theory by scholars who found that it had a lot of relevance to families and other social systems. (Morgaine, 2001).

The Family Systems Theory refers to a family as a system in which each member can never be considered in isolation without reference to the roles, responsibilities and behaviours of other members of the family. The family is seen a dynamic unit according to the Family Systems Theory. Changes are constantly occurring and each member of the family takes on new roles and responsibilities, and internal patterns are adopted. The relationships between the individuals in the family unit are mutual and constantly changing.

The family is an example of an ongoing, self-regulating, social system that has certain features – such as its unique structuring of gender and generation – set it apart from other social systems. Each family system has their own structure, the psychobiological characteristics of its individual members, and its sociocultural and historic position in its larger environment” (Broderick, 1993, p37).

The family as a system links all individuals together and understands that things going on in the environment can influence all individuals even if not all of them are actively engaged, for example parents workplace. The Family Systems Theory recognises that small things can impact the family system, for example, the loss of a parent can affect the relationship the child has with the other parent and/or siblings.

According to Bowen each member of the family system has roles and boundaries. Individuals in the system are expected to engage with each other in a certain ways according to their role and their relationship with other members. Within the boundaries of the system, patterns develop as certain family member’s behavior is caused by and causes other family member’s behaviors in predictable ways. Maintaining the same pattern of behaviors within a system may lead to balance in the family system, but also to dysfunction” (GenoPro, 2013).

There are four main principles of the Family Systems Theory; wholeness, integrity of subsystems, circularity of influence and stability and change. Wholeness refers the family as one unit however each member of the family have certain attributes of their own. Integrity of subsystems means that each relationship is a subsystem, for example; mother and father relationship or mother and child relationship or vice versa. Relationships between relationships are also subsystems. Circularity of influences means that the subsystems and relationships depend on each other and if there is a change in one subsystem it has an impact on other systems. Stability and change refers to external influences that can affect the individual or subsystems, for example parents workplace. The wellbeing of the child, therefore, can be conceived of as dependent upon the functioning of elements of the entire family system” (McKeown and Sweeny, 2001, p6).

Family systems are different in all families. Parental attitudes are important in setting up an environment in which their child can flourish. Campion (1985) says that if a child grows up in a stable and loving environment, the child will usually develop a sense of self-respect and self-discipline. The child understands what is expected of him. However it can be argued that a child who has been brought up in a family system where the parents attitudes lack maturity, the child is more likely not to flourish in the environment and not understand what is expected of them, therefore cannot develop a sense of their own competence. (Campion, 1985).

Campion (1985) suggests that children take on the roles, which have a function in their family system. It is believed that if children see themselves as the disobedient one in the family setting, they may carry out their difficult behaviours in school. Likewise a child who is obedient may also carry out this behavior at school.

The Ecological Systems Theory

The Ecological Systems Theory was produced by Bronfenbrenner in 1979.

Bronfenbrenners Ecological Systems Theory states that the environment is reflected in an individuals development. Bronfenbrenners ecological approach refers to layers of environmental influences that impact an individuals development. The interactions with people and the environment are key to development. This theory can apply to individuals at any stage of development.

The theory identifies five environmental systems in which the individual interacts with; microsystem, meosystem, exosystem, macrosystem and chronosystem.

The microsystem refers to each setting, which the individual is an active participant, such as; family, school, community, friends. This layer has the most immediate and earliest influences on the child. The relationships in the microsystem can be bi-directional; this means that the childs behaviours can be influenced by the family or friends and vice versa. The meosystem refers to the relationships between the settings in the microsystem and the individual; an example of this would be the relationship between home and school. The exosystem refers to a setting where an event happens, which affects or is affected by what happens in the setting that the developing individual is in. The child is not an active participant in this layer. The structures in the exosystem can affect a childs development by interacting with the structures in the microsystem, for example; mothers work place can affect the amount of time the mother spends with the child. Although the child is not directly involved with the structures in the exosystem, they do feel the positive and negative impacts that are involved with the interaction between the systems. The Macrosystem refers to the wider social systems, for example; government legislations and economic factors. These things affect the child indirectly however it has an impact on the developing childs life. An example of this could be that the childs family is living in poverty therefore this can cause social exclusion and the child might not have access to school trips or community play areas. The chronosystem refers to how things change over time as it relates to the childs environment. There are various elements within this system that can be internal or external. An internal influence could be the physiological changes that occur while the child gets older. An external influence could the timing of their parents getting a divorce. The older the individual gets might impact how they react to environmental changes and may be able understand how the change will influence them.

External influences

There are a lot of external environmental factors that can influence the family system and the developing child. External influences can have an impact on a childs social, emotional and physical development. The World Health Organization says, “Childhood experiences have lifelong consequences in terms of health, education and economic status” (World Health Organization, 2009).


There are a lot of controversial issues with regard to media and the effect it has on children and families. Most research is concerned on the amount of time children spend engaging with media and the possible effects media has on a childs development and wellbeing. Media can impact the way children understand the world, it can also affect their family life.

Media can have a positive impact on a childs social development, for example if a child is shy, the use of social media, offers children the chance to connect with others and form positive relationships. Some children find social situations intimidating and may find it hard to respond to questions. Diaz et al (N.D) suggests the use of text messages or Facebook, has the potential to allow children to interact with more thought.

Media also poses some negative consequences on the developing child. Many parents worry about their child when they are interacting online, parents do not know who or when their children are interacting with. Media has changed a lot over the years and when some parents where younger they did not have access to things like the Internet. Parents mainly focus on the negative impacts media can have on children’s lives for example, there are stories in papers that state that children have been meeting up with strangers, this can cause distress to the parents. Online risks – being contacted by strangers or seeing inappropriate content – come fourth and fifth in the list of nine worries: one in three parents say they worry about these risks a lot (Livingstone, et al, 2012). There are tools that allow parents to restrict the content that the child might have access to and manage what sites the child uses.

However media can also be used for children to do their homework, this aspect of media is supporting a childs intellectual development. Today, children and teens frequently use home computers and the Internet for their schoolwork, and parents generally believe that computers are an important educational resource” This shows that the use of computers can positively affect the child, the use of computers also teaches the child how to become familiar with the key board, how to write emails, and use word processor. Computers are used in everyday situations; therefore children should have access to them. Parents should encourage children to use computers and show them how to search the Internet to help them develop intellectually and cognitively. If children are doing homework and achieving academically, both the parents and the child will be happy.

Media can influence a childs development. Children can use media to increase their understanding of the world around them, as well as teach positive social behaviors”. This statement shows that children can gain understandings of the world and develop socially by engaging with media such as watching television. Television viewing has been studied in children who are academically gifted, with results suggesting that selective viewing can promote academic abilities” (Pitman, 2008). This shows that TV can influence a childs intellectual development.

Television can have diverse affects on a childs development. Television can be used as a method of teaching, some TV programmes for children have educational values, for example, Sesame Street, can teach children about the alphabet, simple mathematics, culture and kindness. The educational value of Sesame Street, has been shown to improve the reading and learning skills of its viewers” (Canadian Pediatric Society, 2003). Parents should encourage their children to watch educational shows, to enhance their learning and development, parents can spend time with their child whilst watching TV shows, this will help the child develop socially and intellectually, it can also benefit parents knowing what their child is watching.

Television can also be seen as a negative influence. More than 1000 studies confirm that exposure to heavy doses of television violence increases aggressive behaviour, particularly in boys” (Huston et al, 1992). This can affect the family functioning as it can impact the relationships between the child and the family. It can cause stress on the family system, families may be prone to conflict if the child is being aggressive, this could impact the parents and cause stress between the mother and father. Aggressive behavior can impact a childs well-being and social development.

By watching television, the child tends not to engage in play or exercise activities and is more likely to eat unhealthy snacks. This can impact a childs physical development and lifestyle. Television viewing makes a substantial contribution to obesity because prime time commercials promote unhealthy dietary practices” (Canadian Pediatric Society, 2003). Fast food advertisements promote an unhealthy lifestyle, which has negative affects on children and families and can lead to eating disorders or diseases such as diabetes.

Consumerism can influence the family system; consumerism encourages the purchase of goods and services. Children are seen as potential consumers; most children want the new gadgets, toys and designer clothes. This can have a negative affect on the family system as it could cause stress on parents to buy the latest things. This can impact a family financially and emotionally. Parents are working long hours to get money to buy their children the latest toys and gadgets.

Bingham (2011) stated Britain was ranked as the worst country in the industrialised world to be a child. This is due to the rise in consumerism and media available to children.

Media affects the time that families spend together; Bingham (2011) refers to television as a babysitter and children’s bedrooms as media bedsits. Media is taking away the quality time that used to be spent as a family away.

Consumerism causes a lot of pressure on parents, which can lead to conflict between mother and father, and the child. Parents are more concerned about social perceptions then whether or not they can afford to buy new products for the children. Bingham (2011) says that a report shows that a mother was contemplating whether to buy her three year old soon a Nintendo DS, because she was convinced that if she never her son would get bullied. This shows that society has changed so much over the years; it is assumed that parents want their child to have the best things in life rather than spending quality time with their children. Parents will work long hours to provide for their children and put themselves through stress and finance issues just so that their child is not labeled as poor.

Media Advertising has a big impact on children. “Probably the clearest evidence we have that television influences children’s thinking and behavior is the fact that advertisers invest literally billions of dollars trying to influence the perceptions, choices and behaviors of children through advertising” (Clay, 2003). Advertising puts pressure on parents to work longer hours to make money so that they can buy new things for children, children can often become the victim of bullying if they do not have the latest things, this can affect the childs emotional well-being.

Teenagers often have role models that they have seen in the media, for example a celebrity. A role model is a person that sets an example and their behavior is imitated. Role models can influence an individual in various ways. Television can also contribute to eating disorders in teenage girls, who may emulate the thin role models seen on television” (Canadian Pediatric Society, 2003). This is an example of role models having a negative effect on an individual. This will not only impact the teenager it can also cause problems for the family unit. Some teenagers become obsessed with self-image, because they see skinny celebrities in magazines or on TV, this can affect their emotional and physical development. From the teenager having an obsession with being thin, it can cause parents to worry about their childs health and development. This can cause to conflict between the child and parents and can cause stress on both the child and the parents. The childs attitudes and behaviours may change which might have an impact on the family.

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Children today are described as the digital generation because children no longer sit at home with parents reading books and playing board games, they are either watching television or playing video games. From a young age children are immersed in media experiences. Media can have a negative impact on a childs life, it can cause children to get distracted from doing homework, or children will begin to spend less time with parents. This can affect the parent-child relationship, as there will be no communication with one another if the child is engaged in a media activity. Overall, children between the ages of two and 18 spend an average of almost five-and-a-half hours a day at home watching television, playing video games, surfing the web or using some other form of media” (Clay, 2003).

Parental employment

Bronfenbrenner acknowledged that there are direct and indirect family related factors that can influence the childs development. A Parents workplace is an external factor that influences a childs life and the family as a system.

Parents have a significant role in shaping their childs future. Mothers and fathers employment affects both the income of the family and the time spent with their child. The early years in a childs life are most important to development, hence the controversial arguments about whether parents employment has an affect on a childs development. Most studies suggest that working mothers affect a childs development more than working fathers. Ermisch & Francesconis study ” The effects of fathers’ employment on the outcomes studied were generally less important than those of mothers’ paid work” (Ermisch & Francesconi, 2001).

Working mothers is a factor that can have both positive and negative affects on a childs development. A positive factor could be that the mother is providing financial security for the child, for example, if the mother has a comfortable salary, it means there is more money for the family, therefore more family holidays, day trips, clothes, a child-minder, etc. However if the mother is working long hours, it might cause more stress on the mother, and less time spent with her child. Evidence from a study about parent employment and time spent with the child shows Although full-time work increased family income, less time for mothers to interact with their families tended to reduce childrens later educational attainments” (Ermisch & Francescon, 2001). This study suggests that children’s achievements are being affected by their parents employment because parents and children are not spending time together.

Parents that work will often put their child into childcare. This can have positive and negative affects on children in the early years. A positive aspect of childcare is that it provides the child with opportunities to form relationships with other children, this will impact on the childs social and emotional development, nurseries also provide enriching opportunities for children to learn and develop. A negative aspect of putting a child in childcare is that is can cause emotional stress on the child, if the child does not like attending nursery is can make parents feel guilty about leaving them and cause emotional stress on the family as a system.

An evaluation of the governments scheme to encourage parents to go back to work found mixed outcomes of the affects nursery has on a child. The study found positive as well as negative effects, however. Children appeared to gain in confidence, but those in daycare for longest were more “antisocial, worried and upset” (Melkle & Ward, 2007). These findings send out mixed emotions about putting children in childcare. The positive affects are that the child forms relationships and gains confidence. However for parents who work long hours and need to put children in childcare full-time might worry about the impact it may have on their child. This may cause some parents to think-twice about going back to work, this can have a negative affect on the families income which will impact the family system and cause problems.

Shaffer (2004) concluded What can be safely concluded is that, where conditions are optimal, children of employed mothers may actually benefit compared with those of non-employed mothers, largely as a result of extra experiences with other adults and with peers in day-care settings.” (Springwood, N.D).

A study carried out by the Institute of Child Health found that working mothers of five-year olds engaged in less active activities and more likely to eat unhealthy. (BBC, 2009). This study suggests that because parents work long hours they do not have time to make healthy meals therefore they make unhealthy snacks because it is the quicker option. There are so many mixed reviews about how parent employment affects a childs development. It seems that everything parents do will affect the child; therefore it is important that families try to balance out the positive and negative outcomes.

Working mothers are put under stress to provide for their family, spend time with their child and ensure that they live healthy lifestyles. Nowadays everything is expensive and parents have no choice but to work, to ensure that they can afford housing, childcare and basic necessities. “With many more mums having no choice but to work these days and with government policy actively encouraging it, it is difficult to know how mums can do better” (BBC, 2009).


There are numerous economic factors that can affect families and the developing child. The community where families live plays an important part in shaping the their daily lives. The local economic systems differ depending on jobs and services provided by the business sector of the community.

Children’s economic wellbeing is directly related to their families. When families have a low income they are less likely to provide for their childs needs. Parents uniformly identified poverty as the primary barrier to their capacity to provide adequate care for their children… Parents accepted personal responsibility for their economic and parental failings, equating no income with bad parenting. Depression and despair associated with poverty were acknowledged to impair parenting and increase self-doubt about parenting capacity” (Russell, 2008, p. 83).

Failure to meet the economic needs of families can lead to social exclusion and can also cause problems that can affect individuals, families and the community, such as higher crime rates, child abuse and neglect, higher substance abuse.

A disadvantage for families living in a low economic area is social exclusion. Social exclusion affects adults; thus adults that are parents and their children. There are many negative outcomes of social exclusion for the developing child and their family. Social exclusion does not necessarily mean that the family has a low income; families may be socially excluded from society because of job loss, poor housing, and education. Social exclusion affects the whole family unit.

Poverty is another factor that is linked to the economy. It can affect the child socially, educationally and personally. Poverty is the single greatest threat to the well-being of children in the UK” (Sharma, 2005). There are many negative impacts that poverty can have on the family system and the developing child, it can cause stress for parents, and the childs diet and health can suffer. Everyone is entitled to have their basic needs met; however children that are living in poverty go without food, toys and clothes. For poor families, raising a child is not just about struggling to make ends meet; its about struggling to give the child a chance to grow and thrive” (Sharma, 2005). This can cause families to become stressed and depressed, as they feel that they have failed their child. It may also cause conflict in the family.

The socio-economic status of families can affect all aspects of a childs development. Socio-economic status is arguably the single biggest external factor in a childs development as it determines other opportunities, such as access to education” (Patrick, 2012).

The income of a family is likely to influence many aspects of family decisions and behaviours. If parents are unemployed it can impact the family system, parents may argue with one-another which in-turn may impact on the childs wellbeing, it can cause emotional stress on the family as a whole and cause financial stress. Unemployment causes financial hardship which, in turn, causes a deterioration in family relationships” (Broman, et al N.D).

Unemployment will have a major impact on the parents, therefore it will impact their children, for example, parents may struggle to provide children with laptops or books, which can impact on their educational achievements and affect their social life, which may lead to social exclusion.


The government is another external influence that impacts the family system and the developing child; the government is a factor in Bronfenbrenners macrosystem. The government can have positive and negative influences on families. There is a lot of debates about how the government has cut working tax credits, this is can have a negative affect on families.

The government influences parents workplace and in-turn the child. “It is vital that those in power listen to what children and their families are saying about life in the UK. The government needs to make sure parents earn enough to spend fewer hours in work and more time with their children, protect childrens play facilities from spending cuts and consider reforming the laws controlling advertising to children” (Bingham, 2011). The government has proposed that both parents can share up to a years leave to look after their new-born children. Nick Clegg stated The changes will allow fathers to play a greater role in raising their child, help mothers to return to work at a time thats right for them, and create more flexible workplaces to boost the economy” (Department for Business Innovation & skills, 2012). This will affect the family system in a positive way as it allows both parents to share the responsibilities of caring for their child, this allows each parent to bond with their new-born child, and spend more time together as a family.

Although the child is not actively engaged with the political environment, the government can cause distress in a childs life. For example, the government decides if our country should go to war. In some countries there are wars going on this can impact on a childs development and the family system. Firstly war can cause a lot of stress on the community, violence can physically and psychologically scar children. Secondly the childs parent may be part of the army and have to go to war, this can cause stress on the child and breaks in the family system.

The government is in charge of putting new policies and legislations in place in order to make things better for everyone. The government made positive changes to legislations that affect parental leave, the right to flexible working hours, job-sharing, and paternity leave” (Springwood, N.D). The government is in charge of policies in schools. This influences the family because the child is an active participant in the school setting, which means that the parents will have to communicate with the schools, to see how their child is developing. The government has introduced home-school partnerships, to encourage parents and teachers to work together to provide the best quality care for the child.

The government can affect a developing child if they have a disability because they make the policies and legislations. There are legislations in place that impact a disabled childs life and education. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 means that schools must include all children and make reasonable adjustments to provide enriching opportunities for disabled children. (CSIE, 2012).

The government has an affect on economy. There have been new policies introduced recently that state that better-off families will lose some or all of their child benefits. In families were one parent earns £50,000, they will lose some of their child benefits and parents who earn £60,000 will have their child benefit withdrawn entirely. David Cameron said that the move was fundamentally fair”(BBC, 2013).

Some families have opted out of receiving child benefits, however some families missed the deadline to opt out and will now have to fill in self-assessed tax forms each year. This causes problems for families, it can cause families to lose income that they have worked hard for which can have emotional affects on the parents. More than a million people are set to be affected by the cut, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimating that they would lose an average of £1,300 a year” (BBC, 2013).

There are a lot of arguments about whether it is fair or not. It could be argued that it is not fair to punish people who have a good career. However some will argue that the better off families should contribute to society.

This change in economy will affect millions of families. It will affect the families overall income and childcare. There are a lot of issues regarding this change.

The prime minister stated “If we don’t raise that… from that group of people – the better off 15% in the country – we would have to find someone else to take it from.” (BBC, 2013).

One mother who will be affected by the child benefit cuts, believes that the cuts are being administered unfairly. I’m a single mother and I work full-time, meaning that I am reliant on childcare. My son has Asperger’s syndrome and getting him the care he needs is costly” (Harris, 2013). This is an example of how the government can affect a family in a negative way and affect the child.


The neighborhood in which families live in is considered to be an external influence that can impact families lives and children’s development. Changes that occur in the neighborhood can be both positive and negative. A positive impact may be that there are lots of job opportunities in the area, t


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