Family life isn’t always harmonious, and the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic has certainly led to more difficulties for many families living under one roof. However, the inevitable conflicts or differences that occur in families do not have to be a negative for children.
In fact, years of research by scholars at the University of Notre Dame indicate that there can be constructive, positive conflict that allows children to experience problem-solving and good feelings about family life, something that the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Professor of Psychology Mark Cummings says benefits their development. The new Happy Families Project, supported by a major four-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and led by Cummings, Research Assistant Professor Kathleen Bergman and professor emeritus John Borkowski, is meant to arm as many families as possible in South Bend, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis with critical tools to help them communicate with one another effectively.
The Happy Families Project is designed to help any family work through conflict, no matter the makeup of the household. Cummings, Bergman and Borkowski, whose research is primarily done through Notre Dame’s William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families, developed the program content based on the emotional security theory (EST). The theory is that conflict between two parental figures and the family unit affects how safe and secure a child feels within the family. EST builds upon attachment theory, which posits that for proper social and emotional development, a child must form a bond with at least one primary caregiver, with EST extending that idea to stress the importance of children’s emotional security across all family relationships.
“Emotional security is a critical factor for children’s wellbeing and pro-social behavior. This stimulated us to form these programs,” said Cummings. “The way families choose to deal with conflict matters as well as the way parents are or are not able to adjust their behavior. There have been many studies done on this, with the science providing a very solid foundation for the recommendations for families made by our programs. Emotional security is not a vague notion; it can be measured. We wanted to take all of this information and make something useful for families. We’ve translated this into help for families, based on hard science.”
To reach as many families as possible and, importantly, to ensure the program will be sustainable, the researchers decided on a model that will allow for wide dissemination. They are working with community partners at churches, community centers and schools to recruit volunteer trainers. The initial trainers will go through 30 hours of training with materials compiled by Bergman, Cummings and Borkowski.
“After over 20 years of research by Mark and Katie in developing this intervention, I am happy to join the team in expanding the program to 600 families across the state of Indiana,” Borkowski said.
The materials include information about recognizing different types of communication strategies people use in their own conflicts with family members, the implications of the those behaviors for kids who witness them, and tips for handling conflicts in more productive ways so that families can put those conflicts behind them. Trainers will then be equipped to prepare secondary trainers, who will only need to dedicate about 15 hours to their coaching.
The professors ran successful trials with the program on campus before deciding to introduce the program to community partners in South Bend, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.
As the team developed material, they ensured that coaches could be trained, regardless of their background, with the hope of making the program easy to implement.
“It’s a manualized, four-week program written in everyday language,” Cummings said. “People without advanced clinical training can learn it and reuse over and over; they don’t need a clinical degree. A coach is someone who is well intentioned, able to read and learn the manual and then train others.”
Bergman stressed that this is not therapy but a valuable source of highly reliable information about better ways to communicate in problem-solving situations for the sake of children, and that virtually everyone can get something out of the program to help them better navigate family conflict.
Families will be paid to participate. They will receive $150 over the course of a year, during which they complete the four-week online program and then two virtual follow-up interviews. To participate, families must have at least one child ages 4-17 who has two adult figures in their life (they do not have to live together) and they must read and speak English, although it need not be their first language.
“We think it’s pretty profound. If we can address communication and relationship problems, we can help with skyrocketing mental health issues,” Bergman said. “Of course, we didn’t know about the impending pandemic when we applied for the grant, but it’s very timely right now since stress and conflict are heightened.”
Thomas Lange, a community organizer with Crooked Creek Northwest, a community development corporation in Indianapolis, is the site coordinator for Indianapolis, where two churches, a community center and a school district have already joined as partner organizations.
A former engineer with Eli Lilly and Co., Lange is the founder of Lion Catcher, a nonprofit that partners with schools and community organizations to lift children and families in northwest Indianapolis out of poverty. The name refers to an Ethiopian proverb about the power of collective action: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”
“The idea is to bring together existing programs and providers and focus many programs on a single community,” Lange said.
The Happy Families Project is yet another thread in that web.
“There is a great need for effective communication and conflict resolution in the families we serve. And in any family anywhere, whether wealthy or impoverished,” Lange said.
As site coordinator, Lange is tasked with recruiting public, private and nonprofit partners to the project and with developing a competent pool of instructors who can teach the fundamentals of constructive conflict and conflict resolution to others.
To prepare for this, Lange underwent hours of training with Shaw Center faculty and staff. He expressed confidence in the project based on the available evidence of its effectiveness at the clinical level and the strength of the underlying design and materials.
“The program — the materials, the training, the process, the protocols — is really well designed,” Lange said, comparing it favorably to his experience with pharmaceutical studies at Eli Lilly. “I am highly confident that I can train others to deliver it to families. It’s an amazing process that Notre Dame has developed.”
He said he anticipates a positive impact on families in northwest Indianapolis, a socially, culturally and economically diverse area of the city with a high concentration of low-income households.
Patrice Smith is the recruitment and retention coordinator for the project in Indianapolis and a staff member at Northview Church, one of the partnering organizations in Indianapolis.
“This is more than just a research project. It is an opportunity to come alongside families in such a critical time post-COVID-19,” Smith said. “Many families across the nation have been stretched beyond reasonable limits in light of parenting through a pandemic. Oftentimes, the first thing to suffer during unforeseen circumstances is healthy communication and relational skills, especially when emotions are high.
“With that being said, my hope is that families in our church and community will seize this opportunity to sharpen and widen their communication and relational skills as we all strive to navigate this new normal and soon-to-be post-COVID-19 world.”
Families interested in participating in the program can sign up at this link. Organizations in South Bend, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis interested in receiving training to offer the program to their clients can contact firstname.lastname@example.org