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Journal of Family Issues


An Exploratory Study of the Nature of Family Resilience in Families

Affected by Parental Alcohol Abuse
James P. Coyle, Thomas Nochajski, Eugene Maguin, Andrew Safyer, David
DeWit and Scott Macdonald
Journal of Family Issues 2009 30: 1606 originally published online 30 June 2009
DOI: 10.1177/0192513X09339478

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Journal of Family Issues
Volume 30 Number 12
December 2009 1606-1623
© 2009 Sage Publications
An Exploratory Study 10.1177/0192513X09339478
of the Nature of Family hosted at

Resilience in Families
Affected by Parental
Alcohol Abuse
James P. Coyle
University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Thomas Nochajski
Eugene Maguin
University at Buffalo, New York
Andrew Safyer
Adelphi University, Garden City, New York
David DeWit
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, London, Ontario, Canada
Scott Macdonald
University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Resilient families are able to adapt to adversities, but the nature of family
resilience is not well understood. This study examines patterns of family
functioning that may protect families from the negative impact of alcohol
abuse. Naturally occurring patterns of family functioning are identified and
associations between these patterns and parenting, current parental alcohol
use, recent family stressful events, supportive relationships outside the
family, and demographic characteristics are assessed. Cross-sectional data
are analyzed from racially diverse American and Canadian families (N = 674)
who have at least one parent with an alcohol abuse problem and a child
between ages 9 and 12 years. Cluster analyses derived from family function-
ing indicators are used to identify naturally occurring family patterns. Multivariate
assessments evaluated relationships between family functioning clusters and

Authors’ Note: The results of this study were previously presented at the Society of Social
Work and Research 2006 Annual Conference and at the Eighteenth National Symposium of
Doctoral Research in Social Work at the Ohio State University. Please address correspondence
to James P. Coyle, School of Social Work, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Avenue,
Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9B 3P4; e-mail: jcoyle@uwindsor.ca.


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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1607

potentially influencing factors. The study results reveal a continuum of fam-

ily functioning associated with parenting, child’s perception of teacher car-
ing, and race.

Keywords:  resilience; family; family functioning; parenting; alcohol abuse

A ll families experience stressful events, some of which can be at cata-

strophic levels whereas others are easily managed. They include nor-
mative events such as illness or death of a family member and divorce.
They also include nonnormative hardships, such as disabling conditions,
substance abuse, employment problems, or natural disasters. Stressful events
challenge families’ ability to function.
Alcohol abuse has a significant impact on families. Approximately 25%
of children are affected by alcohol abuse in the family (Grant, 2000).
Families with parental alcohol abuse are more likely to experience increased
family hostility, poor parenting, and decreased child monitoring (Chassin,
Pillow, Curran, & Molina, 1993; Sher, 1991). Miller, Smyth, and Mudar
(1999) found that mothers with alcohol and other drug problems were more
punitive toward their children, and that punitiveness continued even after
the substance abuse problem subsided. Children in these families are at
increased risk for early alcohol use and problem behavior (Chassin, Pitts,
DeLucia, & Todd, 1999).
However, some of these families are resilient. They are able to maintain
or return to above-average functioning despite experiencing increased
stress. Resilience occurs when individual, family, and environmental pro-
tective factors ameliorate acute or ongoing risks resulting in positive out-
comes (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Although resilience has been primarily
used to describe individuals who successfully overcome childhood adversi-
ties (see Werner & Smith, 2001), it has recently been applied to families.
Hawley and DeHaan (1996) define family resilience as the path a family
follows as it adapts and prospers in the face of stress, both in the present
and over time. Resilient families respond positively to these conditions in
unique ways, depending on the context, developmental level, the interac-
tive combinations of risk and protective factors, and the family’s shared
outlook (p. 293).
Risk is described as any factor expected to result in adverse outcomes
(Kirby & Fraser, 1997). Resilience can only occur following significant
risk. Protective factors are internal strengths and external resources that
reduce the impact of risk factors. McCubbin and McCubbin (1993)
proposed a model of family resilience in which family protective factors

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1608   Journal of Family Issues

lead to family adjustment and adaptation despite the presence of risks and
stressors. Adjusting to stress is a function of (a) vulnerability to increased
stresses, (b) current family problem-solving capacities, (c) the meaning that
the family ascribes to the stress, and (d) the presence of supportive
res­ources. Maladjustment can lead to an intolerable increase in stressors and
push a family into a crisis that challenges the family’s ability to function.
These crises require the family to use internal and/or environmental
res­ources to develop new problem-solving methods. Effective changes
allow the family to positively adapt to stress whereas the inability to adapt
is characterized by a cycle of increased stressors and failed functioning.
Walsh (1998) suggested that family functioning characteristics, such as
positive beliefs and values, role adaptability, closeness or cohesion, effec-
tive communication, and problem solving are key protective factors that
influenced resilience. Research has supported the importance of these fac-
tors, finding that emotional support between family members, open and
honest family communication, positive beliefs, and flexible roles promote
resilience in families (Greeff & Human, 2004; McCubbin, Balling, Possin,
Frierdich, & Bryne, 2002), and supportive family environment reduces the
negative impact of parental alcoholism on children (Barrera, Chassin, &
Rogosch, 1993). Resilience is also influenced by supportive relationships
or resources outside the family unit. Help from extended families (McCubbin
et al., 2002), community assistance to offset low income (Edin & Lein, 1997),
and emotional support from friends (Orthner, Jones-Sanpei, & Williamson,
2004) have been found to positively influence family resilience.
Resilience has been examined in a broad range of families that include
any “group of persons with whom one shares a bond of connection by vir-
tue of blood, marriage, adoption, or long term commitment” (Patterson &
Garwick, 1994, p. 288). Additional research suggests that resilience may be
influenced by family structure, socioeconomic status (SES), child gender,
and race or ethnicity. For example, single-parent families often have red­uced
parental monitoring, which has been shown to increase child delinquency,
particularly for boys (Griffin, Botvin, Scheier, Diaz, & Miller, 2000).
Possibly for the same reason, children from families with less than four
children are more resilient than children from larger families (Werner &
Smith, 2001). Families with a low SES affected by unemployment or
chronic poverty tend to focus energies on improving finances rather than on
family relationships or parenting (Orthner et al., 2004). Gender differences
have been found, in which family cohesion and communication predicted
mood, problem behavior, self-esteem, and grades for girls, but only
predicted problem behavior and self-esteem for boys (Grossman et al.,

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1609

1992). Finally, race and ethnicity are associated with families’ appraisal of
stress (McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, Elver, & McCubbin, 1998) and
beliefs about coping abilities and causes of illness (Garwick, Kohrman, Titus,
Wolman, & Blum, 1999; White, Richter, Koeckeritz, Lee, & Munch, 2002).
Family resilience research has suggested the negative impact of risk fac-
tors such as alcohol problems (Chassin et al., 1993; Sher, 1991) and has
demonstrated the protective nature of well-functioning families (Greeff &
Human, 2004; McCubbin et al., 2002). Several mechanisms of protective
factors have been hypothesized (Luthar, 1993; Rutter, 1999), but only
qualitative studies in which the respondents defined resilience have studied
multiple family protective factors (Greef & Human, 2004; Marsh et al.,
1996; McCubbin et al., 2002). However, resilience concepts, particularly in
families, and operational definitions remain unclear (Luthar, Cicchetti, &
Becker, 2000). The McCubbin and McCubbin (1993) model describes
processes of adjustment and adaptation in families, and in various studies
(McCubbin et al., 1995; McCubbin et al., 1998; McCubbin et al., 2002),
McCubbin and colleagues report the impacts of diverse risk factors, family
coping, and family hardiness. However, operational definitions of coping
and hardiness are ambiguous, and protective family functioning mecha-
nisms and positive outcomes are not well defined or measured. Walsh
(1998) suggests specific family functioning factors that promote resilience.
However, these factors are unrelated to the type of risk, and whether all
factors or only some factors need to be present for resilience to occur is not
addressed. Family functioning processes are also limited, with many stud-
ies inferring family functioning from effective individual functioning
(McCubbin et al., 1995) or one individual’s perception (Orthner et al.,
2004). In families that are at risk as a result of parental alcohol abuse, fam-
ily functioning and supportive relationships outside of the family could
explain how some families reduce the negative outcomes associated with
this problem. Family functioning could be construed as a protective factor,
because families who are adaptive, cohesive, have positive beliefs about
their ability to manage stress, and have good communication and problem-
solving skills would be expected to better manage adversity. If family
functioning is conceptualized as a resilient outcome, as some studies have
suggested (Gomel, Tinsley, Parke, & Clark, 1998; McCubbin et al., 1995),
this would not explain the mechanism that produced resilience (Coyle et al.,
2005). Therefore, this study conceptualized indicators of positive family
functioning as protective factors that could reduce the impact of parental
alcohol use. Risk factors and supportive relationships outside of the family
could affect the strength of this family functioning.

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1610   Journal of Family Issues

This study examined family functioning in families affected by parental

alcohol problems to discover discernable patterns that may be useful in
describing family protective mechanisms. The influence of other factors on
family functioning was also assessed. Although all families were at risk as a
result of parental alcohol use, the impact of current parent drinking and
stressful events was examined. Associations were also assessed between
patterns of family functioning, parenting, and supportive relationships out-
side of the family. Because previous research has not clearly explained
causal relationships between these factors, cross-sectional data were studied
to explore naturally occurring patterns of behavior and associations between
family risk and protective factors. Two research aims were examined:

1. What naturally occurring patterns of family functioning can be found in

families affected by parental alcohol abuse?
2. Is family functioning associated with (a) parenting; (b) current parental
alcohol use; (c) recent family stressful events; (d) supportive relationships
with neighbors, teachers, and professionals; (e) family structure; (f) socio-
economic status; (g) child gender; (h) ethnicity; and (i) country?


This study used data from a National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism–funded (RO1 AA1164701A1, principal investigator: T. Nochajski),
binational (United States and Canada), experimental research study of a fam-
ily-based alcohol prevention intervention program. Families with at least one
child between the ages of 9 and 12 and a parent with an alcohol problem were
recruited into the study (N = 674). Alcohol problem was defined as past treat-
ment for alcohol abuse or current alcohol use that suggested alcohol depend-
ence or caused work or relationship problems. Study families consisted of
parents or guardians, who were primarily female with a mean age of 39 years,
and one child. The parent with the alcohol problem was not necessarily the
parental respondent; however, he or she had to have regular contact with the
child. The mean child age was 11 years, with slightly more boys than girls.
There were significant differences between U.S. and Canadian families.
Canadian families were 89% White whereas U.S. families were 63% Black.
Sixty percent of U.S. families had incomes under $15,000 whereas 48% of
Canadian families had incomes more than $30,000. U.S. families had slightly
more children and fewer high school graduates. Demographic information is

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1611

Table 1
Sample Characteristics
Characteristic Description Total Sample Canada United States

Age Parent age, M (SD) 39 years (6.3) 39.3 years (5.7) 38.6 years (6.8)
Child age, M (SD) 11 years (1.3) 10.8 years (1.2) 11 years (1.3)
Gender Female parent, % 88.1 88.6 87.7
Female child, % 46.7 47.4 46.0
Ethnicitya White or 60.8 88.7 33.8b,***
 European, %
Black or African 34.6 5.2 62.9b,***
 American, %
Native 7.9 11.0 5.0b,**
 American, %
Hispanic, % 3.3 2.4 4.1
Other ethnicity, % 3.6 5.1 1.8
Family Single parent, % 45.0 41.3 48.5
  structure No. of adults in 1.85 (1.8) 1.73 (0.8) 1.96 (2.4)
  family, M (SD)
No. of children in 2.24 (1.4) 2.05 (1.02) 2.43b,*** (1.64)
  family, M (SD)
Income Less than $15,000 44.0 27.8 60.1b,***
  per year, %
More than $30,000 26.3 47.6 13.5b,***
  per year, %
Parent High school 45.5 41.3 49.6b,*
  education   or less, %
Country United States, % 50.6

Note: N = 674.
a. Percentages equal more than 100% because respondents could choose more than one
b. Differences between U.S. and Canadian families: *p <.05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.

presented in Table 1. Families were recruited through substance abuse and

mental health treatment agencies, schools, newspaper and poster advertise-
ments, and by word of mouth. They received a stipend for participation and
transportation was arranged if needed. The risks and benefits of participation
in a research study were discussed and all participating family members
reviewed and signed informed consent forms. Families were randomly
assigned to a treatment intervention following the first interview. This study
analysis was completed prior to this intervention.

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1612   Journal of Family Issues

Family functioning was measured by the Family Assessment Measure
(FAM III; Skinner, Steinhauer, & Sitarenios, 2000), which was completed by
both parent and child respondents. FAM III has been used for more than 20
years and has discriminated between problem and nonproblem families in a
number of clinical studies that examined the impact of physical and mental
disability, alcoholic parents, and various emotional and mental disorders. It
has also shown good construct validity compared with other family assess-
ment instruments (Moos & Moos, 1981; Olson, 1986). The FAM III includes
subscales that approximate Walsh’s (1998) five key resilience factors. Sample
items included “We get straight answers to our questions” (communication),
“We deal with our problems even when they’re serious” (problem solving),
“We feel close to each other” (cohesion), “We can’t rely on family members
to do their part” (adaptable roles), and “It’s hard to tell what the rules are in
our family” (family beliefs and values). Family rese­archers have discussed
the limitations of using one respondent’s perception of family functioning
(Jacob & Windle, 1999) versus assessing discrepancies between multiple
views (Larsen & Olson, 1990). A number of reasons influenced the decision
to average parent and child responses for each item to produce a family meas-
ure. Both parent and child responses were considered important in measuring
family processes, but using separate measures could potentially complicate
the exploratory analysis, which emphasized overall rather than differing per-
ceptions of family functioning. A family measure would also emphasize
family process rather than individual perception. Although the entire FAM III
scale has excellent reliability, the five-item subscales used in this analysis
have lower internal consistency. In the study sample, internal consistency
was slightly larger for parents than for children, and reliabilities for combined
parent and child responses ranged from α = .57 for adaptable roles to α = .70
for involvement/cohesion, with α = .64 for communication and beliefs or
values and α = .62 for problem-solving tasks.
The Alabama Parenting Questionnaire (Shelton, Frick, & Wooton, 1996)
evaluated positive parenting (e.g., “You [your parent] let your child know
when he/she is doing a good job”), parent–child involvement (e.g., “You
[your parent] play games/do fun things with your child”), monitoring (e.g.,
“Your child [you] stays out past the time that he/she should be home”), and
discipline (e.g., “You [parent] threaten to punish your child and then you do
not punish him/her”). Parent and child responses were again averaged to
produce a family measure of parenting. Reliability of these combined
scores was satisfactory (α = .8 for involved parenting, α = .78 for
­monitoring, α = .75 for positive parenting, and α = .68 for discipline).

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1613

Although all families were at risk because of parental alcohol abuse,

current-level parental alcohol use was estimated by adding the number of
times that the respondent and the partner drank alcohol during the past month.
A count of family life events (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994), such as family
moves; changes in family composition due to birth, marriage, or death; family
illness; and exposure to violence, provided an estimate of family stress.
Helpful resources outside the family included the number of professional
services used in the previous 3 months, such as medical, legal, counseling,
recreational, and educational assistance. Parents reported participation in
voluntary community groups and responded to a five-item scale rating how
well neighbors help each other and watch out for children (NLSCY, 1998).
Children were asked whether their teachers cared about them and how often
they gave good help or advice (Dubow & Ullman, 1989). Unfortunately, a
measure of help from extended families was not included in this study, so
the influence of this important support was not able to be analyzed.
Family structure, SES, family ethnicity, child gender, and country were
analyzed using questionnaire items about family demographics. Family struc-
ture referred to the number of parents or caretakers and the number of chil-
dren in the home. SES was a combined measure of income, education, and
neighborhood characteristics, as suggested by Hollingshead and Redlich (1964).
Standardized measures of family income, parents’ education, and an index of
neighborhood problems were averaged to measure SES. The neighborhood
problems index included items associated with lower SES, such as high unem-
ployment, vandalism, abandoned houses, run-down property, racial and ethnic
conflicts, and presence of drunks, winos, junkies, and street people (Elliott,
Ageton, Huizinga, Knowles, & Canter, 1983), and had an internal consistency
of α = .9. These items were scored so that higher scores indicated fewer prob-
lems, matching the scoring for income and education. Family race was identified
by parents and included White or European, Black or African American, and
Native American. Other races or ethnicities were not included because they were
reported by less than 5% of families.

Because previous research had not predicted which combinations of
specific family indicators may act as protective factors, cluster analysis was
used to explore naturally occurring patterns of family functioning derived
from the five FAM III subscales. Ward’s (1963) hierarchical approach was
used to identify all possible groupings of the family functioning variables.
This is an exploratory analysis, similar to a factor analysis, in which an
iterative approach is used to classify families according to similarities

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1614   Journal of Family Issues

between the derivation variables until all families were contained in one
group. A number of methods were used to determine the optimal number of
clusters. First, the analysis was replicated by randomly splitting the sample
in half and then further splitting the first half into two random groups
(Group A: n = 180; Group B: n = 157; and Group C: n = 337). The cluster
analysis results of Group A were used to predict the results of Group B, and
all three cluster analyses were compared to each other. Group C would then
be validated by the analysis of the previous two groups. Second, the differ-
ences between clusters were inspected using graphs of cluster iterations
called dendrograms (Calinski & Harabasz, 1973) and statistical measures
(Pseudo F and Pseudo t2). Cubic clustering criteria were not used because
it is inaccurate when assessing highly correlated derivation variables (Sarle,
1996). Third, theoretical meaning was considered, and fourth, association
with parenting, which was not included in the cluster analysis, was used to
validate the chosen solution.
Further analyses examined the associations between the cluster analysis
of Group C (n = 337) and other variables. Even with missing data, this
sample size was large enough to reach 80% power for a small to medium
effect size at α = .05 for these analyses. MANOVA was used to analyze the
relationship between the clusters of family functioning (independent vari-
able) and parenting (dependent variables). The impact of additional factors
(second research question) on the family functioning cluster solution
(dependent variable) was assessed with multinomial regression. Independent
variables included family life events, current parental alcohol use, use of
professional services, parent involvement in community groups, neighbor
and teacher helpfulness, and demographic characteristics (i.e., family struc-
ture, SES, gender, and ethnicity).


Cluster analysis was completed on each randomly chosen group. A one-

way ANOVA found no differences between the groups in demographic
characteristics and derivation variables, except in the number of adults in
the home F(2, 266) = 4.97, p < .01. Group B had a higher mean number of
parents, M = 2.25, than Group A and C, M = 1.74 and M = 1.72, respectively.
The five derivation variables were highly correlated, ranging from r = .53
between adaptability and problem solving to r = .7 between cohesion and
beliefs. However, no variables were combined because no two variables
were more highly correlated with each other than with the remaining
­variables. The cluster analysis outcomes of the three groups were similar,

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1615

Figure 1
Graphs of Derivation Variable Means by Cluster
(1, 2, 3) for Groups A, B, and C

and a predicted cluster solution of Group B, using means and standard

deviations from the Group A cluster solution, compared well with the actual
cluster analysis results; kappa = .43. Each of these analyses suggested three
clusters of families. Families clustered into either above-average, average,
or below-average groups (Clusters 1, 2, and 3 respectively) on all five
derivation variables, as shown in Figure 1. A three-cluster outcome was
chosen based on these factors. Cluster iterations showed that the largest
differences between solutions occurred for two or three clusters. Changes
in pseudo-F and pseudo-t2 measures also suggested three or two clusters.
The pseudo-F measure peaked at three or at two clusters, and the difference
between pseudo-t2 measures of adjacent iterations shifted from small to
larger differences at three clusters. Conceptual utility supported three clusters,
because a two-cluster solution combined the above-average and average
groups, losing the ability to distinguish the differences between these groups.
Three clusters of family functioning were further validated by the asso-
ciation between these clusters and parenting. The four parenting measures

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1616   Journal of Family Issues

Figure 2
Graph of Parenting Means by Group C Clusters

(invo­lvement, positive parenting, monitoring, and discipline), F(2, 267) =

19.7 to 33.5, p < .001, demonstrated the same high, medium, and low split
as the cluster analysis groups (depicted in Figure 2). Post hoc tests indi-
cated significant differences between below-average cluster families and
both above-average cluster and average cluster families for all parenting
subscales, p < .001. Differences between above-average cluster and aver-
age cluster families were only significant for the discipline subscale, p < .05.
Because the cluster means for the parenting subscales so closely resembled
the cluster means of the derivation variables, the correlations of these items
were examined. The correlations ranged from r = .22, between role adapt-
ability and parent involvement, to r = .44, between beliefs and discipline,
suggesting that parenting was a different construct than the family function-
ing variables that were used in the cluster analysis.
Further associations from the second research question assessed the imp­act
of risk factors, protective factors outside the family, and demographic char-
acteristics. No associations between the three clusters of family functioning
and life events or current parental alcohol use were found. The use of pro-
fessional services, parent participation in community groups, and the parent
rating of neighbor helpfulness were also insignificant. Relationships were
found between family functioning and teacher caring, χ2(8, n = 269) = 19.85,

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1617

p < .05. Children in the better functioning Clusters 1 or 2 were more likely
to perceive their teachers as caring and giving helpful advice (58% and
56%, respectively) than in the lower functioning Cluster 3 (39%). Although
there were no associations between the three clusters of family functioning
and most demographic characteristics (number of adults and children in
home, child gender, and SES), race did have a significant influence. African
American families were more likely to be in the high or medium clusters
than in the low cluster, compared with other racial groups, χ2(2, n = 278) =
12.7, p < .01. This occurred despite lower SES, F(1, 266) = 46.96, p < .001,
and more life events, F(1, 540) = 11.52, p < .001, reported by these families.
In addition, despite the number of demographic differences between U.S.
and Canadian families, country had no overall eff­ect on cluster membership.
Nor were cluster by country interactions found in any of the analyses.


There are four primary findings from this analysis. First, the cluster ana­
lysis used to identify patterns of family functioning (first research question)
showed the unexpected result that all five family functioning variables (i.e.,
role adaptability, cohesion, communication, problem solving, and beliefs or
values) clustered together in above-average, average, and below-average
groups. This clustering was duplicated by all four parenting subscales. In
general, families with above-average functioning also had above-average
parenting (positive parenting, parent–child involvement, monitoring, and
discipline). The same relationships occurred for families with average and
below-average family functioning. Previous research has shown relation-
ships between family functioning, parenting, and family resilience (Costigan,
Floyd, Harter, & McClintock, 1997; Myers & Taylor, 1998). However,
causal relationship between family functioning and parenting cannot be
determined because these may be reciprocal family processes. These results
suggest that families with parental alcohol problems can be differentiated
by the level of family functioning and that families function at the same
level on a range of family functioning and parenting dimensions. Some
families function well despite parental alcohol abuse whereas others do not.
This continuum of family functioning is interesting because previous
res­earch has not reported this finding. It also supports the conceptual model
of family resilience proposed by Walsh (1998) because all of her keys to
­family resilience appear to occur together. This provides empirical support
for using positive family functioning as a protective mechanism.

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1618   Journal of Family Issues

Second, the expected associations between the clusters of family func-

tioning and the current level of parental alcohol use, stressful family events,
and most demographic characteristics, including number of parents, number
of children, child gender, and SES, were not found. There was also no sig-
nificant influence from neighbor helpfulness, parent participation in com-
munity voluntary groups, or use of professional services. Three factors may
have influenced the non-significant impact of parental alcohol use. First,
one third of the cases had missing data, perhaps related to respondents’
reluctance or inability to estimate partner’s current drinking. Second, the
small amount of cases in the above-average cluster (23 of 227 cases) limited
the validity of the analysis. Finally, the impact of episodic or binge drinking
was not well measured. Regarding community support, previously research
reports have been mixed. Unlike studies of the positive impact of support-
ive relationships (Orthner et al., 2004), Myers and Taylor (1998) found
community support associated with reduced family functioning, suggesting
that families sought outside support only after internal functioning failed.
Third, Black families were more likely to have above-average or aver-
age rather than below-average family functioning compared with White
and Native American families. This occurred despite lower SES and more
stressful family life events reported by these families. Although this study
provides no explanation for this finding, family resilience research suggests
that background affects resilience through family beliefs (McCubbin et al.,
1998), and Black family beliefs are a possible explanation of this result.
Cultural pride, kinship, spirituality, and high expectations for children are
common in African American families (Mosley-Howard & Evans, 2000),
and these beliefs may overcome the impact of higher levels of risk. Elder,
Eccles, Ardelt, and Lord (1995) found that African American parents were
better able to use cultural beliefs to decide parenting strategies, and help
from extended families and church membership, not measured in this study,
may also influence this result. Both Walsh (1998) and McCubbin and
McCubbin (1993) highlighted the importance of family beliefs or schemas
that influence ability to problem-solve and cope with stressful situations.
The perception that the world is comprehensible, meaningful, and man-
ageable improves a family’s ability to overcome acute and chronic risks
(McCubbin et al., 1998). Although this study analysis did not discover that
such beliefs had a larger impact than other family functioning indications,
further study of the role of beliefs is warranted.
Fourth, no differences were found between U.S. and Canadian families
despite significant country differences in income, race, number of children

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1619

in the family, and parental education. This suggests that above-average,

average, and below-average family functioning may occur across families
despite differences in SES, race, and education. This provides additional
strength for the cluster analysis findings because the same continuum of
family functioning occurred in significantly different family groups.
Study limitations were primarily related to the availability of well-measured
variables of resilience. The larger study assessed a wide range of individual,
family, and community variables associated with the impact of parental
alcohol problems on children. Consequently, different types of family func-
tioning, a wider range and accumulation of stressful events, and current
versus the overall impact of alcohol abuse were minimally measured.
Measures of help from extended family and other informal organizations
such as churches were absent. Using an average of parent and child res­
ponses for family functioning and parenting may have produced a clearer
finding between families but may have masked important family differ-
ences. Finally, the sample was not random because it was composed of
volunteer families who may have been interested in the treatment options
that were offered by the larger study.


This study explored naturally occurring patterns of family functioning to

identify possible protective factors against the effect of parental alcohol
abuse. The clustering of family functioning dimensions supports Walsh’s
(1998) keys for family resilience. This could be used to improve operational
definitions of the family coping and problem solving referred to in McCubbin
and McCubbin’s (1993) model of family resilience. For example, family
cohesion, communication, role adaptability, and beliefs may better specify
the mechanisms of family coping. The continuum of family functioning also
suggests the use of scales that measure a range of behavior rather than simply
absence or presence. Family functioning as a protective factor is helpful con-
ceptually because it suggests a method for obtaining resilience, although the
influence of other potential protective factors is yet unclear. The role of ethnic
or racial background in forming family beliefs is suggested by McCubbin and
associates (1998); however, as this study shows, the mechanisms in which
this affects family functioning need better explanation.
These issues challenge researchers in a number of ways. First, opera-
tional definitions of resilience concepts can be improved by using measure-
ment scales that discriminate between different indicators of family
functioning. The FAM III measures in this study could be improved by the

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1620   Journal of Family Issues

use of more complex scales that better distinguished between family func-
tioning indicators. More complete measures of supportive relationships
outside the family are also needed, including extended family, friends,
church, and informal neighborhood organizations. Second, family proc-
esses are better calculated by reports from multiple family members or
observational measures that estimate family interactions rather than by the
judgment or functioning of an individual member. Comparing perceptions
between different family members may also provide a richer description of
family protective mechanisms. Effective protection could be influenced by
gender, age, and personal characteristics of family members. Third, although
this study suggests that family functioning may be able to influence the
impact of parental alcohol problems, the relationships between family func-
tioning and other family risk factors, such as chronic economic adversity,
physical and mental illness, death, or natural catastrophe, should be assessed.
Finally, longitudinal analysis is needed to delineate any causal associations
or identify a possible moderating effect of family functioning on diverse
risk factors. Longitudinal studies should assess the stability of family resil-
ience over time, examine the impact of earlier risk and protective factors on
subsequent risk and protective factors, and compare resilience mechanisms
at different family developmental stages. Resilience processes in families
with young children may be different from families with adolescents or
families in which adult children no longer live in the parental home.
This study also has implications for family practitioners who typically
help at-risk families by identifying family processes that ameliorate those
risks. Many traditional models of family therapy models emphasize the
importance of communication and problem solving (see Minuchin, 1974;
Satir, 1983) for assessing and improving family functioning. However, this
study suggests that other dimensions of family functioning may be just as
important. Struggling families may be better helped by identifying positive
cultural beliefs or identifying available resources outside of the family.
Role adaptability may be more helpful than clearly defined, hierarchal roles
often used in structural family therapy (Minuchin, 1974), and improved fam-
ily cohesion may be a prerequisite for better communication and problem
solving. Treatment programs that address this wide range of family skills
and parenting have been recommended for families with parental substance
abuse (Kumpfer & Tait, 2000). Treatment foci include family meals that
may enhance cohesion; skills training in family communication, parenting,
and children’s problem solving; role reversal exercises between parents and
children; and discussions about family traditions and beliefs. This treatment
program was able to improve family functioning and was associated with
decreased youth problem behaviors, including substance abuse.

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Coyle et al. / The Nature of Family Resilience   1621

These results advance our understanding of resilience in families who

are at risk as a result of parental alcohol problems. The continuum of fam-
ily functioning and parenting suggests measurable protective factors that
shape resilience. The protective nature of family functioning, the effect of
outside support, such as teachers, and the impact of beliefs influenced by
race provide guidance for future research that can better define and explain
a model of family resilience. Learning how families successfully overcome
the risks and stressors affecting them is an important goal for family
res­earchers and practitioners.

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