As the recipient of the Jewish Women's Caucus Award for Scholarship of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP), Nemeth delivered the award address, “Jewish Women's Psychological Well-Being: The Role of Attachment and Jewish Identity,” at the AWP's conference on March 9, in San Francisco.
The Association for Women in Psychology is an incorporated, not-for-profit scientific and educational feminist organization devoted to re-evaluating and reformulating the role that psychology and the field of mental health generally plays within the lives of women.
The Jewish Women's Caucus Award was established by the family of Kayla Weiner, to honor her work in the areas of Judaism, feminism and psychology. The award recognizes, advances and honors the development of distinguished scholarship in the field of the psychology of Jewish women.
The topic of Nemeth's lecture is based on a research paper coauthored with Karen M. Obrien, of the University of Maryland, which appeared in the Psychology of Women Quarterly (2005).
The study, based on a sample of 115 late-adolescent Jewish women, demonstrated that Jewish identity, attachment to and separation from parents, collectively accounted for a variance in psychological distress as measured by anxiety, depression, self-esteem problems and interpersonal problems.
“I wanted to challenge the traditional model of psychology that says you have to completely separate from your parents at the end of adolescence,” Nemeth said. “My research says that it is important to balance attachment with separation.”
Nemeth said that most psychologists determine adolescence as ranging between ages 12-26, a group that includes young women of college age dealing with attachment and separation issues. Study participants ranged in age from 17-23 years.
“Young women ask, 'How can I have my own life and still remain attached to my parents?'” Nemeth said. “It's about the idea of bonding, and going out and exploring the world and your individual capability, while also knowing that you can go back to your parents or other key persons for support.”
Jewish ethnic and religious identity also can have a significant effect on how young Jewish women deal with issues of attachment and separation during late adolescence, Nemeth said.
The study found that “Jewish women who had close relationships with their parents (characterized by mutual trust, effective communication and little anger and alienation) evidenced low levels of anxiety, depression, self-esteem problems and interpersonal problems.”
“We found that Jewish identity did contribute to their health and that these factors are connected with aspect of personal well-being among this age group,” Nemeth said. “If we know how this works, we can use a different approach to individuals who seek counseling to deal with issues of anxiety and depression. These issues are rooted in the quality of relationships with parents.”
Nemeth said the study, which sought to define Jewish identity and the effects of anti-Semitism, indicated that while the ethnic/cultural and religious Jewish identity was small contributor to the prediction of psychological functioning of adolescent Jewish women in the collegiate environment, Jewish religious identity did emerge as a significant predictor.
The study also noted that for Jewish parents, keeping close contact with their children is a means of ensuring their health, safety and survival in the context of the historical oppression marked by anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust.
“The earliest studies examining the relationships between Jewish adolescents and their parents came at a time when parents who had survived the Holocaust became parents of adolescents,” Nemeth said. “Some studies said that the trauma of the Holocaust interrupted the separation process. When any group feels threatened with annihilation, the feeling is that they need to stay close to one another and especially to their children.”
Nemeth said that there has been a lot of recent support in the psychology community for looking at Jewish culture and how its shapes separation and character development.
Such research, Nemeth said, also helps with the intervention, evaluation and treatment of Jewish adolescents in a clinical setting.
“The most important thing about separation is that it be free of emotional conflict with parents. The lower the level of conflict, including resentment and envy, the greater the likelihood for healthy psychological functioning in the future,” Nemeth said. “When I do clinical interviews with students, I ask how often they talk to their parents, and what these relationships are like.”
Nemeth said that she was pleased to be recognized for the research she has been involved with for more than a decade.
“To be in the psychology community and pursuing this topic is inspiring. It makes me want to go and do more research,” Nemeth said. “Being able to work with these concepts made me look at my own life. I gained a vocabulary for looking at my own life and that of my clients.”
Nemeth earned a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Maryland at College Park's counseling psychology program in 2002. She completed her predoctoral psychology internship at Pace University, with a rotation at Bellevue Hospital in the inpatient and neuropsychological units. She also completed a graduate certificate for a one-year program on eating disorders at the Women's Therapy Center Institute in New York City in May 2005.
Besides teaching graduate and undergraduate courses at UD, Nemeth has served as adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Pace University, teaching a wide range of courses including counseling skills, multicultural psychology and counseling women.
A member of the American Psychological Association, Division 39 (psychoanalysis) and Division 35 (counseling of women), Nemeth has served as ad-hoc reviewer for the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson