Judith Cahn, EdD
Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Family, School and Community: The Psychological Impact of Connectedness
Dovid excitedly dashed into the house, dropped his book bag, informed his mother that he was having dinner at Chaim’s house and ran back out to join his friends. They were headed to their favorite rebbe’s after-school shiur and then on to basketball. If Dovid was asked about his life, he would enthusiastically describe all his activities.
A block away, Dovid’s classmate Moshe arrived home after school, and sat in the kitchen eating a snack while leafing through some papers. Moshe’s mom tried to encourage him to join with others his age at the rebbe’s shiur and then dinner at a friend’s house. Moshe did not want to confess to his mother that the suggestions made him quite uncomfortable, particularly because he didn’t really feel welcome in other homes. He would rather spend time at home, online. He also knew that sharing this feeling would hurt his parents since, as baalei teshuva, they are careful about living a Torah life. Moshe would not describe much about his daily activities with enthusiasm. In fact, he would not be eager to discuss them at all.
NUMEROUS EMPIRICAL STUDIES of the general population have been conducted to examine adolescent connectedness to family, school, and community and its impact on their health and adjustment. The brief introductory scenarios above convey behavioral outcomes that can result from vastly differing degrees of feelings of connection to community. Connectedness is a critical component of the health and well being of our families, and this article reviews the relevant research and its implications for the Orthodox Jewish community.
Human development reflects the interaction between the individual and the individual’s environment. For an adolescent, this includes the interrelationship of the individual with his neighborhood, community and school. Positive developmental outcomes increase dramatically when there is a good fit between the needs of individuals and their social environments. Conversely, studies evidence the negative effects of an absence of social connections. In essence, a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the opportunities afforded by his social environments may predict greater risk for future psychological difficulties.
Connectedness to Family
Clearly, family environment exerts a powerful influence on the developing child, which continues through adolescence. Literature abounds on the family milieu as both a risk factor and a protective factor in adolescence, with much attention paid to the impact the parent-child relationship, the family structure, and the parenting style have on the development of the child.
The parent-child relationship begins at birth, with bonding typically occurring between parent and infant. Infants are biologically preprogrammed to form close attachments. The attachment between caregiver and child serves as the secure base from which an infant can begin to explore the world.,
Deficient parental bonding and insecure attachment impact a child’s mental health and well-being.,, Research has extended beyond just the parent-child relationship and has also examined the impact of the broader family structure and family dynamic on the adolescent, such as how cohesive the family is and parenting style. Family cohesion is defined as the “emotional bonding that family members have toward one another.”  An optimal cohesive family structure has been associated with greater well being in adolescents, and has been shown to buffer negative psychological effects. Overall, increased family cohesion is related to reduced risk among adolescents, suggesting that it acts as a protective factor.
However, there are varying levels of family cohesion, and extreme in any direction can also be detrimental. Families operate within invisible boundaries. Family systems can range from disengaged to enmeshed, where either extreme may prove to be a handicap for family members.
In disengaged families:
- members function separately and autonomously;
- there is minimal interdependence and minimal emotional support;
- communication is often tense and guarded.
In enmeshed families:
- family members are overly involved with each other;
- autonomy of individuals is inhibited.
While a disengaged family system may accept and protect individuality of family members, actions of one family member do not cross over rigid boundaries. In disengaged families, individual members are involved with their own work, community events, and other issues and are disconnected from each other’s lives. In an enmeshed family, by contrast, family members are over-involved with each other, and actions of one family member immediately reverberate throughout the rest of the family. Either family structure, if taken to an extreme, can be detrimental – especially to an adolescent – who is seeking to individuate developmentally, despite needing appropriate support. The ideal, therefore, is to achieve an appropriate balance of connectedness: a measured degree of cohesion, ensuring connection while fostering individuation. Parents must be present for their children, interested and involved – but not overly involved, leaving room for adolescent children to spread their wings.
Connectedness to School
One of the significant manifestations of inadequate community integration in adolescents is compromised academic achievement. Parents of adolescents reporting inadequate community integration, or connectedness, tend to describe their teenagers as lacking persistence in achieving goals. This refers to an adolescent’s motivational level and the ability to follow through on tasks in school, or in general. The literature is replete with empirical evidence of the relationship between a sense of belonging in school and academic achievement.,,,, Sense of belonging, a component of relatedness and connectedness, has multiple, strong effects on emotions and cognitive processes, and a lack of it has been linked to a variety of health and adjustment problems. Lack of community integration and poor experiences with the community have been shown to have long-term influences on young adult educational attainment.
The intensity of peer connections for teens is evident even on a neurological level. Brain scans show how teens respond more strongly to social connections, commonly known as “peer pressure.” In fact, brain activity demonstrates that social rejection or peer exclusion are perceived by adolescents as a fundamental threat to their basic physiological existence. The neurological findings explain why psychological and physical health problems and behavioral pathologies are more common among people who lack social attachments.
Connectedness to Community
In light of the benefits of connectedness to community, it is critical to identify how such connectedness to community is formed. Youth connectedness to community is influenced by the quality of youth-adult exchange, availability of outlets for creative engagement, well-advertised opportunities for meaningful input, safety, perceived inclusion, knowledge of community events, and awareness of youth impact on community policies. Positive relationships and group involvement promote a healthier sense of connectedness, as does religious involvement.
In addressing the experiences of those who return to Orthodox Judaism (baalei teshuva), Danzger describes social integration as the inclusion in the fabric of community life, shedding one’s former lifestyle and associations and becoming part of the new community. It includes adopting and conforming to the community’s norms and standards, and ultimately achieving acceptance within the group.
In analogous studies of immigrant acculturation, the need to belong is examined through the lens of how immigrants are received within communities and perceived by their communities. Inclusion requires a joint commitment from both the newcomer and the community. The community needs to be in a position to accept and accommodate the new community member. Both quantitative and qualitative studies show that marginalization and exclusion have negative consequences, which points to the impact of community reception of members. A study examining the perception of baalei teshuva regarding their social integration into Orthodox communities found that “…baalei teshuva often feel marginalized and develop a variety of strategies to deal with alienation by hiding their baal teshuva status or adapting to the requirements of the community in an effort to integrate, or associating primarily with other baalei teshuva to form separate communities.”
In studies about how youth acculturate and how well they adapt, it is evident that those with an integrated acculturation profile had the best psychological and socio-cultural adaptation outcomes. This finding was equally evidenced in the recent study of adolescent children of newly-Orthodox Jewish parents in the United States. The study showed that adolescent children of baalei teshuva who feel well integrated into their religious community are reported by their parents to exhibit lower levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties than those who report low levels of integration. 
Although results from the study indicated that only 15% of the sample population reported feeling poorly integrated in the community, nevertheless, our focus should be on reducing that number and preventing any increase. It is important to note, however, that by virtue of participant recruitment, respondents, to some extent, were already connected to the Orthodox Jewish community through the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP), the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) or included on a shul or Jewish community list. The study may not have reached those who do not feel a sense of community connectedness.
A similar study examining family functioning among returnees to Orthodox Judaism in Israel yielded comparable findings that lack of integration is related to longer-term difficulties. It is evident that community integration, feelings of connectedness and a sense of belonging play a protective role for families, their children and adolescents. Community awareness that the culture in its shuls, schools, and organizations will inevitably impact the lives of families is a first step to creating a welcoming, accepting environment that yields positive results for all.
Implications for the Orthodox Jewish Community
The conclusions of the research pose serious implications for Orthodox Jewish communities. It is critical that strategies be developed and implemented to provide every opportunity for families to successfully connect with their communities. In the case of adolescents, educators and community leaders should focus on the frequency and nature of youth-adult exchanges, as well as the environments within which teens congregate. Is the community inclusive? Welcoming? Warm? Accepting?
As Jewish day schools and yeshivot tend to serve as a center of the Jewish community, school leaders must provide information and guidance to parents about how to best support their children, as well as all children within the community, on an academic, social and emotional level. Jewish educational institutions need to maintain environments that encourage student feelings of connectedness. These feelings can be achieved through student outlets for creative engagement, opportunity for meaningful input, and activities to promote positive social interactions. Given that our Torah legislates acts of kindness and inclusion, providing students with the chance to practice social skills can promote v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, treating people the way you want to be treated.
Teachers and school administrators, who have become increasingly more educated about bully prevention, should have a heightened awareness of particular stresses that adolescents experience. We should work proactively toward the goal of creating a sense of belonging among students and their families, to ensure that all remain included and connected.
To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
Judith Cahn, EdD, recently completed the study of Adolescent Children of Newly-Orthodox Jewish Parents: Family Functioning, Parenting, and Community Integration as Correlates of Adjustment at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
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