Avoiding the Rubber Room

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Everybody experiences adversity throughout their lifetime. It is the support of those around us and our own attitude that get us through it.

Submitted: February 18, 2019

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Submitted: February 18, 2019



Avoiding the Rubber Room


During the 1990’s Urie Bronfenbrenner introduced a theoretical model employing bi-directional proximal processes to illustrate multi-dimensional environmental influences on human behaviour (Boemmel & Briscoe 2001). There have been several key people throughout my life that have influenced me in achieving my potential.

Bronfenbrenner posits that there are four interrelating layers of environmental systems which influence human behaviour (Paquette & Ryan 2001). The four systems include the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The four systems are bi-directional and multi-dimensional continuously influencing an individual’s behaviour through time (Lerner 2002, Paquette & Ryan 2001, ).

The immediate environment of a child is described as the microsystem (Paquette & Ryan 2001). The microsystem includes parents, siblings, teachers and others who directly interact with the child over a sustained amount of time. The influence generated by interaction is bi-directional and individuals within the child’s microsystem have the greatest influence on that child’s behaviour (Harms 2010, Paquette & Ryan 2001).

My parents divorced when I was two years old. My father insisted that I remain with him in North Carolina. My mother moved to California with my two older brothers, a younger brother and my younger sister. I was subsequently turned over to my father’s sister, who was not able bear children of her own. My Uncle Ray and Aunt Skip raised me as their own child until I was five. During the 3 years I spent as an “only child”, Aunt Skip focused much of her attention on me. She interacted daily in my care and playtime. Aunt Skip used to regularly read to me and taught me how to read before I was old enough to attend kindergarten.

Several risk factors came into play as a consequence of my parent’s divorce; intimate attachments formed during infancy were broken creating high levels of stress (eds. Barnes & Rowe 2008, Harms 2010, Li et al 2008). Instability over extended periods of time caused by changes in family structure have been associated with a higher incidence of many problem behaviours (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci 1994, Li et al 2008). The child would also be less likely to succeed with their own marriage in adulthood (Li et al 2008). The presence of someone who is committed to close interaction with the child in a quality activity has been shown to appreciably reduce the chances of the child developing mental health problems (Boemmel & Briscoe 2001, Bronfenbrenner 1990, O'Connor & McCartney 2007).

A key protective factor during the loss of one or more parents include the availability of a nurturing caregiver (Boemmel & Briscoe 2001, Bronfenbrenner 1990, Harms 2010). The divorce of my parents produced several risk factors to my health and mental well-being but protective factors, such as the intimate care provided by my aunt Skip, reduced the negative repercussions of instability. I learned to read and developed a keen love of books at a very young age.

The mesosystem is the next proximal process which surrounds the microsystem. The mesosystem is comprised of relationships between individuals in a child’s microsystem (Paquette & Ryan 2001). It is the interactions between parents, siblings, teachers and church that do not directly involve the child but have a significant impact on the development of that child nonetheless (Paquette & Ryan 2001).

When I was five years old my biological mother came to North Carolina and took me back into her custody. She had remarried by this time to a man named Dick Simms. My youngest brother, Rick, was born shortly after they retrieved me from my Aunt Skip. There were now six children fathered by three different men within my microsystem. I was a middle child in a family of five boys and one girl. I used to watch Dick as he interacted with my brothers and sister; he had a talent for uniting the family and was a great role model as a father. Dick and my mother later divorced when I was eleven.

During early childhood a child will begin to develop a sense of independence as he begins school and ventures away from the home (Harms 2010) but long term instability is a potential risk factor in the proper development of a child’s behaviour (eds. Barnes & Rowe 2008, Bronfenbrenner & Ceci 1994, Happell et al 2008). Resilience may be demonstrated when the child establishes new relationships as a protective factor to compensate for the loss of previous relationships (Harms 2010). The presence of a role model can also provide a protective factor to a child’s development when a child has to deal with adversity (Elder et al 2009 p 145).

I remember holding my Aunt Skip’s hand in the lawyer’s office. I looked up to her and asked “Mamma, why are you crying?” I later kicked and screamed as I was put over Dick’s shoulder and carried to the car. I sat quietly in the back seat and read the billboards and street signs as we drove west; away from everything I had known.

The interactions between my brothers and sister were new influences in my behaviour. Dick is all I know about being a father. The interactions between Dick and my brothers and sister would later greatly influence how I interacted with my own children in so many positive ways. Dick and my mother divorced when I was eleven. A resolution that marriage has intrinsic value grew from that divorce.

The exosystem surrounds the mesosystem. The exosystem are relationships that don’t come into direct contact with the individual but profoundly influence that individual in indirect ways (Paquette & Ryan 2001). The exosystem may include the workplace of one or both parents, the health care system, or the education system (Paquette & Ryan 2001).

I was part of the “welfare” system as a young adolescent. This system is well known within America but is somewhat complicated when attempting to describe it to anyone outside America. I believe Australians refer to a similar system as “The Dole”. The American Government would give my mother a cheque and food stamps each month according to the number of children she had in her care. The consequences of this condition meant that we lived in poverty. Poverty is an important risk factor to consider during a child’s development. Eamon & Keegan (2001) posits children being raised in poverty are more likely to be rejected by their peers and are more likely to experience conflict with their peers. Disappointment and anxiety are risk factors created when there is a wide gap between actual wealth and perceived desired wealth (Li et al 2008).

Other risk factors in a child’s development to consider during adolescence include a lack of perceived emotional support, substance abuse in the home, and parent-child conflicts (Harms 2010, Robinson 2009). Protective factors, such as establishing a positive self-concept and a positive attitude to life (Castillo 2011, Elder et al 2009) may support resilience. An adolescent may also establish supportive relationships as a protective factor (Elder et al 2009, McDermott 2004, Robinson 2009). Adolescence is a period of time between childhood and adulthood when decisions concerning your future are made (Elder et al 2009).

I chose to leave home at sixteen years of age in an effort to separate myself from the detrimental behavior expressed in and around my home. I apprenticed as a carpenter over the next four years forming new relationships with coworkers having goals that were more in common with my own.

All of a child’s environmental influences are shaped through culture, laws, and public policy (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci 1994). The macrosystem is the outer-most layer of influence in Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical model (Paquette & Ryan 2001).

My high school offered an aviation course. During the first semester the course provided the ground school needed to obtain a private pilot’s license. The second semester involved the purchase of a radio controlled model plane and subsequent assembly of the model. Upon completion of the course I could gain hours of flying time with a qualified pilot and eventually fly solo and be awarded a private pilot’s license. I had a keen interest in flying and I learned that obtaining a private pilot’s license secured a means for a vocation in aviation. I completed the first semester with marks equal to the Australian “high distinction” or 96%. During the second semester I was told that I would have to come up with $168.00 (U.S.) to buy the model plane. I did not have the money. I was not only embarrassed by my low economic position and shunned by my peers in the class, I also received a failing mark in the course. The failing mark was not because of my lack of ability to perform the tasks, but from my lack of funds to buy the model plane. I also didn’t have the $800.00 (U.S.) needed for the hours I had to fly to obtain a private pilot’s license. I never finished my pilot training.

Risk factors are created when the parents of a child possess a low education or a low-paying job (Li et al 2008). Socio-economic disadvantage has been linked to higher rates of mental disorders, marital problems, and stress (Attree 2004, Elder et al 2009, Li et al 2008). A person gains the capacity for hope as they gain autonomy (Castillo 2011, Elder et al 2009, Welzel & Inglehart 2010) but the excessive materialism present in post-modern society removes this autonomy from the individual (Li et al 2008).

On a more positive side, cognitive ability has been shown to increase with a rise in conflict (Arranz et al 2010). Adapting a different strategy to regain automony and realize my potential would be a protective factor I could utilise in this situation (Castillo 2011, Elder et al 2009, Welzel & Inglehart 2010). My potential as a child growing up in America was limited by the low socio-economical position in which I grew and developed. I shifted from a career in medicine and aviation to manual labour. I later rested my hopes of achieving my potential on my own hands, believing that I would achieve my potential through building.

Bronfenbrenner’s model appears at first glance to be simplistic in nature (Paquette & Ryan 2001). There are four systems influencing the behavioural development of a child (Boemmel & Briscoe 2001, Paquette & Ryan 2001). His model becomes much more complicated as you realize that it is not the four systems so much as how these systems interrelate in bi-directional and multi-dimensional ways over time (Lerner 2002, Paquette & Ryan 2001).

In this essay I explained each of the four systems associated with Bronfenbrenner’s model at different moments in time. But all four systems come into play at all times throughout the child’s life. As an example, when I was left in the care of my Aunt Skip I now had a new set of individuals within my microsystem. This caused a change in the mesosystem as those new people in my microsystem interacted.

My Uncle Ray was a farmer so the change continued to ripple through my exosystem. My mother was born and raised in California and my Aunt Skip and Uncle Ray were both born and raised in North Carolina. There are significant differences between American culture on the West Coast and American culture in the South affecting my mesosystem. The ripple traveled both toward and away from me in subtle but very significant ways.

Bronfenbrenner didn’t stop there. This was but one moment in my life as a child. What Bronfenbrenner was demonstrating through his model was that all four of these systems of environmental influences on a child’s behavior transpired continuously through time.

Risk factors produced by adverse conditions throughout childhood create higher risk of children suffering mental health problems later in life (Harms 2010, Eamon & Keegan 2001). There are many protective factors which may minimize or even eliminate these risk factors (Elder et al 2009).

Urie Bronfenbrenner posits that there are four interrelating layers of environmental systems which influence human behaviour. The four systems are bi-directional and multi-dimensional continuously influencing an individual’s behaviour through time. Bronfenbrenner’s theoretical model may be utilised in identifying some of the risk factors affecting an individual’s behaviour so that protective factors may be established to build resiliance and minimise mental health problems.







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