In parents' hands

by Howard Dukes

SOUTH BEND — E. Mark Cummings enrolled at Johns Hopkins University with the hope of becoming a physician.p. A single class changed his outlook and started a lifelong quest to understand how parents and children relate to one another. That class studied how emotional relationships between parent and child impact the development of the latter.p. Cummings, now the father of four children, became so interested in the topic that he decided to switch his major from premed to psychology, with a focus on family psychology.p. Cummings’ work on how marital conflict affects children took him to the University of California, Los Angeles for graduate studies, then to the National Institute of Mental Health and eventually to the University of Notre Dame. Cummings, who came to Notre Dame in 1996, is among the psychology professors conducting research for Notre Dame’s Center for Children and Families. His wife, Jennifer, is a psychologist. She, too, works on the research projects.p. The research conducted by professors such as Cummings and John Borkowski deals with issues ranging from the challenges facing first-time mothers to marital conflict.p. It was while working at the National Institute of Mental Health that Cummings narrowed his research focus to studying the impact that marital relationships have on the social and emotional development of children.p. “That’s where I became convinced that to understand children’s development. You needed to look at more than just the parent-child relationship you needed to look at the (parental) relationship,” Cummings said.p. In the late 1970s, the National Institute of Mental Health’s research on children’s social and emotional development showed that marital conflict had a major impact on children.p. “High marital conflict is linked to more aggression in kids (and) more emotional problems,” Cummings added.p. That children exposed to high amounts of marital conflict and abuse would be at risk for emotional problems is not a stunning revelation, Cummings acknowledged.p. “But conflict is inevitable in families. You can’t get around it,” he said.p. So while it may be tempting to conclude that all marital conflict is bad, such a conclusion would not help families.p. “You have disagreements every day,” he added. “Our goal is to sort out ways of handling everyday conflicts which are inevitable and find out ways to do it better.”p. And while some adults take the “not in front of the children” approach, Cummings said such a tactic is unproductive for two reasons. First, children can sense when there is tension between adults. Second, children benefit from seeing their parents resolve conflicts in a positive manner.p. “It’s also important because if parents don’t know how to handle conflict constructively, it gets worse,” he added. “It can lead to divorce; it can lead to abuse.”p. Cummings is now conducting two major five-year projects as a part of the research conducted by the Center for Children and Families. The Couple to Kids project, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is in its fifth and final year.p. Cummings said he hopes to get additional funding to extend the project for another five years. He added that findings have been published in academic journals, but he is reluctant to talk about any findings until the research is completed. That could be as early as the end of the year, or in another five years if he receives additional funding.p. The second project, called Me and My Family, is in its fourth year.p. That project is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and Cummings plans to request additional funding to extend the life of that project as well.p. He said extending the life of the project means increasing the amount of information available to researchers.p. Families participating in the two major research projects come to the university, where they are asked to discuss their everyday differences as they would in their own homes.p. The talks take place in rooms set up to look like a family room or kitchen, Cummings explained. Researchers observe the couples using two-way mirrors. Small cameras mounted on a wall record the sessions.p. Cummings said researchers also needed a way to see how couples interact when they are at home.p. So the staff developed a one-page checklist that included the elements that are important to resolving everyday disagreements.p. “We just trained parents how to check off what happened after they had a disagreement,” Cummings said.p. “On the back side of that piece of paper, we had everything we know kids will do in response to disagreements.”p. Then the staff gave the parents a brochure and its terms and made sure they knew how to complete the checklist.p. Cummings said parents have a reputation of being unreliable observers, and for that reason, many researchers are reluctant to use them in family research.p. When parents receive the proper training, Cummings said, they often are as reliable as research assistants.p. Three-hundred area families are involved in the first project, while the second project includes 240 families evenly split between the Michiana area and Rochester, N.Y.p. Most of the couples are married. Others are divorced. Some have never been married. The main requirement is that the parents have a stable relationship. The father is often the missing element in family research because of assumptions they won’t participate.p. The Couple to Kids project calls for the families to come to Notre Dame for an interview three different times during the course of the study.p. “We observe them here, and we record them at home, and we’re learning a whole lot about the difference between constructive and destructive conflict in families,” Cummings said of the project.p. The Me and My Family project has a similar setup, but it tests a theory called the emotional security hypothesis. The theory states that children’s emotional security is influenced by their relationship with their parents and the parents’ relationship with each other.p. Me and My Family builds on a research project Cummings worked on in the 1960s that studied the parent-child relationship by looking at how interaction between the adults affects a child.p. “You say family functioning affects a kid’s development,” Cummings said. “The question is why?”p. July 8,2003

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