A social worker must draw upon a variety of human behavior theories to gather information about clinical cases. By means of gathering this information, a comprehensive theoretical of analysis the client’s development and functioning can be established. Through a bio-psycho-social, person-in-environment perspective, insight is gained about the client and their presenting problem to assess their current situation and develop strategies for intervention. For the purposes of this paper, the 1991 American Drama film entitled “Boys N The Hood” will serve as the case and the main character, Trey Styles, will be considered as the client. This will be done in attempts to analyze how Trey is integrated, and how well he’s functioning in his environment to build a “thoughtfully eclectic” understanding of his case from a social worker’s perspective.
Identifying information about the character
The client, Trey Styles, was a 10 year old, Black American male growing up in South Central, Los Angeles, California during the 1980s. He was active, in seemingly good health, and was the only child his mother Reva had. She was depicted as an independent, relatively successful Black woman in graduate school. Trey’s father, Furious, was in his late 20s and worked on a community level with home loans. The two were separated but remained communicative and cordial in order to co-parent Trey. Despite their best efforts to effectively raise Trey, both parents resided in destitute neighborhoods that ultimately exposed him to a number of risk factors (e.g., alcoholism, crack epidemic, crime, discrimination, ethnic stereotyping, gang culture, gun violence, illegal drug trades, oppression, police brutality, prejudice, racism, and unemployment), which collectively influenced his development and contributed to his functioning, as well as, the way he coped with the stress.
Description of the character’s current situation/presenting problem
Disruption occurred when Trey was forced to relocate after his mother received a phone call from his teacher. The phone call indicated that Trey was a “very bright boy” but had been in a fight, which breached a family contract he previously signed at home. This contract stated that if he continued “acting out” again in school he would be sent to live with his father. Trey initially stated slight discord with his mother about the relocation. “When are you coming back?” he asked after being dropped off at his father’s house. Despite this and the fact that his father resided in an equally if not more dangerous environment (e.g., 9.84 mile distance from Watts to Inglewood according to WorldAtlas.com), his mother felt this was a necessary decision to make in order to help Trey modify his behavior, channel his energy in more productive ways, and detour future conduct related issues by giving him more of his father’s perspective on life during his middle childhood development years.
Description of the character’s biological, psychological, & social development & functioning
Trey was constantly changing due to the biological, psychological, and social aspects that interacted to influence his growing process. The interrelationship between those three entities is the essence of the holistic bio-psychosocial perspective. This perspective attests that there is a mind-body connection, in which workings of an individual’s mind can affect their body and vice versa. The individual’s social or cultural environment can also influence their mind-body interactions. This perspective is useful because it addresses the biological, psychological, and social influences on Trey’s overall functioning.
The concept of the neurobiological origins of relationships asserts that a nurturing environment is essential for a developing brain (Schore, 2001). During critical periods of development, such as first 10 years of life, certain competencies must be gained or they will never be acquired. This is because, during this time, the brain pathways that are repeatedly used become hard wired and those that are not used become eliminated. Millions of neural connections were seemingly made in Trey’s brain as he began to connect with life and interact with his environment. His brain’s ability to lay these new connections is called plasticity (Kolb & Whishaw, 1998).
Trey’s character was 10 years old in the beginning of the film, which is during the middle childhood development stage, and he would soon be entering puberty (e.g., hormonal and physical changes). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011), Trey met developmental milestones for this stage. He had independence from his family (e.g., walked home), developed confidence (e.g., he wasn’t hesitant about public speaking), and, his gross motor (e.g. large bodily movements) as well as, fine motor skills (e.g. small bodily movements) were developed. The gross motor skills impacted his physical ability and fine motor skills impacted his writing ability, for instance, he played football with his friends and he drew comic book characters. He also wanted to be to be accepted by his peers (e.g., he smugly referred to himself as a comedian when disrupting the class).
Trey’s father was a positive role model for Trey who taught him the importance of discipline and responsibility in relation to various avenues of life. Without the nurturing from his father, none of these aspects would have formed. Scholars have noted the detrimental effects of a father’s absence on children and that it may increase their chances of using drugs and/or alcohol (Albrecht & Amey, 1998 ; see also, Gil, Vega, & Biafora, 1998). Unlike his friends, who were involved in unscrupulous activity, his father was present and used attachment techniques (e.g., eye contact, talking) to reduce his stress. Nevertheless, severe and long-term trauma can trigger metabolic changes in the brain that control social functioning. Perhaps this is why adolescent Trey displayed erratic behavior at his girlfriend’s house after he was heinously harassed by a police officer (e.g., he punched the air and cried); his stimulus barrier was low due to the accumulated stress.
Trey was a marginalized individual who endured multiple injustices and traumas. Nonetheless, Trey’s resiliency shined through, as he was later able to combat the trauma, manage the stress, and ultimately rewire his brain. The paradox of resilience (e.g., learning from trauma) resided in a broader geographic and political context that influenced Trey’s access to resources (Robinson, 2013). Despite this, Trey’s family promoted education, health, and well-being, which demonstrated their “positive development under stress” (Ungar, 2011, p. 422). But, every family will evidence resilience in a manner that is congruent with its particular context (Becvar, 2013).
Systems and Ecological Theory
Systems theory describes a set of interrelated parts, comprising a functional whole. According to this theory, all systems are made of other systems and are a part of bigger systems. The theory provides a framework for understanding human existence and recognizes the transactional nature of human life within physical and social environments. However, it lacks a true understanding of power differentials and social injustice established via institutionalized oppression (e.g., classism and racism), which could be a limitation in Trey’s case. Nonetheless, it could aid in analyzing the interconnected parts that may have stifled Trey’s growth, adaptation, and the pursuit of goals.
Social systems are persons or groups of people interacting and mutually influencing each other’s behavior. According to systems theory, Trey would be considered as the focal system (e.g., primary system of interest) or the holon (e.g., the social entity; simultaneously apart of the whole). Trey’s family members would be considered as the subsystems (e.g., composite parts) and his community would comprise the suprasystem (e.g., larger systems), in which he and his family is a part of. The introduction of Trey’s father was an example of a subsystem interaction. And, his father became the new driving force within his life and their interaction influenced Trey as he developed.
The primary function of systems is the transfer of energy. This system was open (e.g., free exchange of energy across boundaries) and had good input (e.g. energy and resources transferred into the system). Because the system was being fueled by good energy sources (e.g., higher education and income) Trey gave good output. His parents worked to generate income, and in turn Trey was able to develop talents and connections that could later be used to further enhance his family’s capabilities to meet their goals. This was evident through his early compliance of doing household chores and later attending Morehouse College).
The ecological theory is an offshoot of the systems theory. It offers a more specific view and puts emphasis on the family context (Bronfenbrenner, 1997). The theory is strengths focused and assumes that change is possible through development that occurs across the life course. The ecological perspective relates to Trey’s relationships with his environments (Germain,1995). It justifies that an individual continually creates, restructures, and adapts to the environment as the environment affects them (Ungar, 2002). It is useful to further analyze the hierarchy of social systems nestled around Trey.
According to this theory, there are different levels of the environment (e.g. micro, meso, exo, and macro). The microsystem is the closest system to an individual where interactions affect their development or behavior (e.g. Trey’s parents influence him and vice versa). There was disruption within Trey’s mesosystem (e.g., parent-child interactions). Disconnection occurred because of his mother’s time-consuming exosystem (e.g., she was in graduate school), which illustrated how the micro and external social entities had bi-directional i nfluence of the situation. It also illustrates the importance of embeddedness; the dependence of a set of relationships on its environment (Schmidt, 2013).
Trey subsequently experienced adaption (e.g. he was relocated to cope with external demands). He was relocated to a new habitat (e.g. father’s neighborhood) in order to better “fit” the environment. According to Robbins (2012), “Goodness of fit” between people in their environment enables people and their environments to mutually adapt to one another (p. 33). This was a good idea theoretically, because successful interactions with the environment gain competence; however, the new habitat was within a macro system (e.g., broader social context) that introduced Trey to a subculture of drugs, violence, coercive power (e.g., racism), in addition to, the larger cultural context of poverty and lack of resources. But, the positive family relationship indicated a strong coping resource of relatedness for Trey (e.g. he felt attachment to his environment).
An individual’s personality is thought to develop during early childhood, which is central to the core beliefs of psychoanalytic theory. The theory has philosophical underpinnings that follow a Freudian perspective. It takes into account the existence of an individual’s unconscious and preconscious motivation, the existence of an ego, the existence of defense mechanisms, and feelings of ambivalence. Limitations to this theory are that it does not sufficiently appreciate the role of the environment and Sigmund Freud work was not focused on children nor was it culturally sensitive. But, the development of Trey’s personality can be analyzed using this theory because it has an intrapersonal emphasis on the notion that humans could best be understood through the study of psychological phenomena.
Psychoanalytic theory uses Freud’s structural model of the id, ego, and superego. It encompasses instinctual drives, as well as, moral and value judgments. The super ego is the last component to develop and is the judicial or moral component of the personality. It is derived from a parental system of rewards and punishments during childhood, whereas improper behaviors go into the conscious and proper behaviors go into the ego ideal (e.g., schemas/ideas Trey had about who he wanted to become). Trey developed self-control as a result of his father’s parental involvement, which replaced the need for parental control over time. He internalized ideas and values of the society and later incorporated features of both his parents personality’s into his own (e.g., unselfishness, work ethic, and importance of education).
Trey was in the latency period of the psychosocial stage of development, which is another derivative of the psychoanalytic theory. During latency period, children tend to channel their sexual instinct (e.g., libido) into socially acceptable external activity (e.g. school, play, and friendships). Trey’s drives were seemingly latent (e.g., hidden) because friendships, household duties, and work did consume most his physical or psychic energy. Therefore, the author will rule out Oedipus conflicts with his father or ego failures from the previous phallic stage due to Trey’s defense mechanisms. He began using defense mechanisms to mediate between external realities and his internal realities.
Ego Psychology is another area of psychoanalytic theory that comprises this concept of defense mechanisms. This concept is one of the twelve ego functions Blanck (1979) selected and is said to be used by an individual in order to later function optimally. This theory analyzes the way an individual either adapts to their social and physical environment or modifies the environment to correlate with their personal needs and wants (Schamess & Shilkret, 2011, pp. 62-63). Trey’s problems in social functioning were in relation to both deficits in coping and fit among environmental conditions, needs, and resources. His ego elicited immature defenses (e.g., acting out, fights at school), neurotic defenses (he repressed memories of blood and dead bodies into his unconscious), and developmentally early/psychotic defenses (e.g., he denied/minimized the severity of the deprivation within his environment).
Correlations can be made with other ego functions. Trey’s reality testing was intact because his perception was accurate, there was no evidence of hallucinations or delusions, and he could distinguish objective reality. Trey knew and anticipated consequences because of his parent’s reinforcement; however, poor judgment did occur. He had impaired impulse control because he went from stimuli to response without thoughtful contemplation, at times (e.g., he jumped out of his window to do a “drive-by” shooting with his friends but soon reconsidered). In terms, of self-concept, Trey had high self-esteem and he was confident; however, struggled with regulation and control of drives (e.g., he lacked the ability to tolerate anxiety).
Object relations theory is another derivative of psychodynamic theory, synonymous with interpersonal relationships, which focuses on attachment rather then libido. A philosophical underpinning of this theory is that human experience in relationships forms the basis of their internal lives and perception of the external world. Limitations to applying this theory in Trey’s case are that it does not address skin color differences nor does it adequately address sociocultural and socioeconomic factors. Yet, the theory emphasizes the relationship between a child’s affect and significant “objects” (e.g., persons) in the environment. According to the theory, Trey experienced “object loss” (e.g., loss of a person), which lead to mourning. He also had “object love” (e.g., love of the person) for his father and his friends (e.g., he referred to them as his brothers). The significant relationship he had with his girlfriend during adolescence was an example of object constancy (e.g., Trey was able to sustain a mature relationship with her despite its pressures and stress).
Attachment theory is an extension of object relations. It focuses on the importance of the social environment and interpersonal relationships for psychological development and functioning throughout an individual’s life course. According to theory, the primary motivator for behavior is the need for significant relationships with others. Successful attachment is contingent upon the establishment of a secure base (e.g., parents have an intuitive and sympathetic understanding of the child attachment behavior). Trey’s parents shaped their behavior accordingly to lessen his anxiety, which created secure attachment. The theory also appreciates the importance of the father’s role in the attachment process. Furious was an involved father who provided a secure base for Trey’s exploration (e.g., fishing trip) and had a good understanding of his attachment style (e.g., he was very reliable, responsive, and consistent to his son, which eased Trey’s anxiety and later built trust, cooperation, and helpfulness within him).
Secure attachment is essential for healthy emotional development and functioning because it fosters independence, mastery, and emotional self-regulation. It promotes exploration and a tolerance for separation without distress. Trey’s parents assured him that he was worthy of care and when he began to expect that care, he developed a sense of self worth and self esteem. Trey’s father also exhibited a willingness to allow his son to explore, which is another example of establishing secure attachment. This showed respect for Trey’s desire to extend his relationships outside the parental sphere (e.g., relationships with similar other boys in the neighborhood).
Cognition is the mechanism by which learning takes place. Cognitive theory focuses on the development and structure of thought processes. These processes affect an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior, which contribute to their overall development. Jean Piaget (1972) referred to the cognitive development occurring around Trey’s age, in the beginning of the film, as the concrete operations stage. During this stage, Trey was able to think logically in consistent ways, but only with regard to real and concrete features of his world, not abstract or hypothetical situations. At school, Trey was able to locate Africa on the map and regurgitate important facts his father told him about the origins of mankind; however, he had difficulty understanding his classmate when he expressed an alternative viewpoint. This led to a debate because Trey wanted to classify all the students in the room as descendants of Africa. Classification is a logical principle gained in this stage, unfortunately a fight broke out between the two.
At the start of the film Trey was also at the conventional level of moral development, which occurs from ages 9 to 15 years. Cultural differences are a concern when applying this theory, as well as, the potential to perpetuate power hierarchies but it has a strong environmental focus that fits the social work person-in-environment perspective. After relocating with his father, Trey became a good son who was other focused and defined what was right by the way those close and important to him defined it. He tried to avoid punishment by being obedient and helpful, which apparently carried over from the pre-conventional level. His initial “acting out” behavior showed deficiencies in moral development and may have been in response to his cognitive representation of environmental events (e.g. anxiety caused by helicopters, sirens, bullying, fighting). As he grew older, he was able to manage the stress of the environment, which indicated that he learned societal norms, ethics, and morals.
Empowerment theory, which is grounded in Marxist ideology and Paulo Freire’s work, asserts that problems arise from larger societal issues (e.g., society fails to meet the needs of its members). Some limitations to using this theory include that it relies too heavily on partnership, places too much emphasis on process, and existing barriers hinder empowerment. Still, this theory is concerned with the process of gaining power and by doing so, achieving personal and collective aspirations. Reva went to graduate school, which demonstrated to Trey self-efficacy while Furious emphasized the development of knowledge, critical consciousness, and social action that helped Trey to develop empowerment (e.g., a sense of personal freedom).
The theory also focuses on the structural barriers that block people from access to necessary resources. For example, Trey’s school was supposed to provide an opportunity for him to develop intellectual competencies instead a dull White teacher delivered a lecture on Pilgrims and Indians then jadedly corrects herself to “Native Americans” in front of a bored class of uninterested Black students, in which Trey became the “class clown” and gets into a fight, which causes him to relocate. Another example is when Trey witnessed the Black law enforcement officer arrive one hour after a home invasion that involved gunfire then declined to file a report because nothing was stolen and commended the intruder’s behavior (e.g., expressed a desire to have found Trey dead when he arrived on the scene). According to the philosophical underpinnings of this theory, Trey was not to blame for his lack of access to power and resources; rather society was to blame.
A strengths based perspective of social work is coupled with empowerment theory, which believes that people could be responsible for social action if their consciousness was raised. Trey’s father was an advocate for his community and Trey witnessed him raising a level of consciousness among its members (e.g., he educated members of the community about property value and gentrification). Raising critical consciousness involves three cognitive components, for instance, identification with similar others (e.g., Trey’s father spoke to him and his friend about not being afraid of their own people), reducing self-blame (e.g., Trey’s father assured members of the community that the crack epidemic was not because of the “boyz n the hood” and argued that the problem came from those who had the capital to transport drugs into their community), and a sense of personal freedom (e.g., Trey taught his son the importance of being self reliant and self sufficient, so Trey gained employment, his own transportation, and higher education). The strengths based perspective also shows interest in an individual's resilience (e.g., how Trey overcame hardship in order to lead successful, healthy, well developed life). The strengths based perspective focuses on Trey’s talents, values, and positive qualities rather than his problems or shortcomings.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is another alternative theory that stemmed out of civil rights and ethnic studies during the 1970s. It is an approach that offers a radical lens which to make sense of racial inequality in society. The key concepts of this theory are power, race, ethnicity, and racism. Some limitation of CRT include that it lacks empirical evidence and is highly subjective but race was a central theme in Trey’s life. The construct of race is about stratification, which puts a racially justified hierarchy among people in society. And, Trey was in a distinct group based on obvious physical differences (e.g., Black/African American), which makes this theory useful to analyzing case.
Trey exhibited slight internalized racism, which was apparent when he was apprehensive to talk with his father on the street corner in Compton because the community was heavily concentrated with Black people. But, his father challenged this thinking and taught him two major themes of CRT, nationalism (e.g., not aspiring for success within dominant institutions, but rather embracing Black owned business) and assimilation, to help refute racism by exposing the dominant group to successful others (e.g., Furious encouraged Trey to go to college and take the SAT but reminded him the test was culturally biased with exception to the math portion). Another major theme of this theory is structural determinism and it was evident when Trey’s teacher called his mother and showed general resistance to paradigm shifts (e.g., Reva informed her that she was in graduate school and was still in communication with Trey’s father). Reva’ said, “ Or did you think we made babies by ourselves?” which indicated that the teacher probably fit that information into her worldview rather than adjusting her thinking (e.g. Reva became an exception to the rule rather than an indication that the rule is incorrect). Trey overheard his mother’s conversation and made a condescending response as if the school was at fault; perhaps he was having an issue assimilating into ideology of the dominant culture since his outburst occurred during a lecture about American history.
Middle Childhood is a critical period of development and it is crucial to have a good fit between a child and a caregiver, in order to facilitate healthy brain development and steer them toward optimal functioning. But, it is equally important to ascertain if their environment is conducive to healthy development. In evaluating Trey’s case through various concepts, the author constructed a thoughtfully eclectic understanding of Trey and his situation. Trey’s presenting issues indicated that interactions between himself and his environment inhibited his developmental potential but with his father’s influence helped him turn negatives into positives (e.g., sublimation). The author concludes that the majority of negative impact on Trey’s brain development was caused by environmental/external factors.
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