Lead researcher Melissa Sturge-Apple of the University of Rochester in New York said the study identified three distinct family profiles -- one happy, termed cohesive, and two unhappy, described as disengaged and enmeshed.
The happy family is cohesive and marked by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth and firm but flexible roles for parents and children.
"Think the Cosby family," says Sturge-Apple, offering an example from the TV series about the Huxtable family.
The second type -- enmeshed -- is emotionally involved and displays modest amounts of warmth, but they struggle with high levels of hostility, destructive meddling and a limited sense of the family as a team. Sturge-Apple gives the emotionally messy Barone family from TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond," as an example.
The third type -- disengaged -- is marked by cold, controlling and withdrawn relationships. The pleasant suburban family in the movie "Ordinary People" is a classic illustration of this type of family in which feelings cannot be discussed.
"This study shows that cold and controlling family environments are linked to a growing cascade of difficulties for children in their first three years of school, from aggressive and disruptive behavior to depression and alienation," Sturge-Apple explains.
The findings are published in Child Development.