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College of Education

Research focuses on creating healthy family relationships

By Carol J.G. Ward

Communication and strong family relationships are especially important during this time of social distancing when children and adults are sharing the same space 24/7.

“When families or parents are stressed out and not getting along well with each other, it spills over into other areas of our lives. It can spill over into how we talk with our kids. It can spill over into how we perform in other areas of our lives or how our kids might perform,” says Ryan Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research.

One of the primary goals of the consortium, which is housed in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina, is to pursue community-engaged family strengthening research, particularly for low-income and ethnically diverse families, and to emphasize the importance of family relational health as a priority to improve outcomes for children. The consortium, a multi-university initiative of researchers, also has an emphasis on mentoring junior faculty and doctoral students.

“A few of us worked together for a number of years on some large federally funded projects. When each of us moved to separate universities, we created the consortium to be able to continue those collaborative relationships and the mentorship,” Carlson says.

Researchers recently completed data collection and are beginning analysis for a five-year project in the Orlando, Florida, area in which almost 1,500 couples and over 800 individuals were randomly assigned to receive intervention through skills-based workshops or to be part of a control group. The workshops provided education about conflict resolution and healthy relationship skills as well as case management and access to community resources. Researchers will evaluate how this intervention affected mental health such as anxiety and depression, parenting and relationships, and the ability to regulate emotions, as well as other factors such as job and career-readiness skills.

“The primary goal of our work is to create healthy and stable family relationships and certainly a byproduct of that is more positive student outcomes. It’s important to address the whole family well-being because that's the environment the kids are going home to,” Carlson says, adding that students who have stable families perform better in school, are better able to focus, demonstrate better coping skills and are less likely to experience anxiety or depression.

That becomes especially important as families are confined together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We often think about mental health, and we think about physical health. Based on our collective experiences and work with families, during a time like this, it's important to prioritize relational health,” Carlson says.

While some families or couples may find their relationship deteriorating, he adds that people may be experiencing a variety of outcomes during this time of togetherness. Some have found resilience and strengthened bonds in navigating the challenge together.

Because members the consortium have focused research on low-income and ethnically diverse families, they have pivoted to consider how measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are affecting these families and the unique challenges they are facing. They may be struggling with transportation, child care, financial hardship and unemployment, and that affects the quality of their family relationships.

“With COVID-19, the most fragile families don't have a lot of wiggle room in things that could tip the scale and disrupt their stability,” Carlson says. “If you’re on a limited food budget, it's difficult to focus on how you're communicating as a family. When you're worried about how much food is going to be on the table, it's difficult to sit down and work on your child's math homework.”

Looking ahead, the consortium has interest in exploring strategies to support and draw attention to systemic change to better support underrepresented families such as access to community resources, counseling and mental health services.

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