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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

Happy Families Project turns domestic disputes into harmonious households

A group of Notre Dame researchers is currently trying to show that fighting in households does not have to be a destructive aspect of family life. These researchers are leading the Happy Families Project with a mission to use domestic disputes as an avenue for improving communication and strengthening familial relationships.

The project, led by psychology professor E. Mark Cummings, research assistant professor Katie Bergman and professor emeritus John Borkowski, helps families better handle everyday challenges and conflicts. The project leaders claim that if disputes are handled in a certain way, they can actually be beneficial and lead to a more harmonious household.

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From left to right: Cummings, Bergman and Borkowski currently lead the Happy Families Project.


The project is based on over 20 years of research primarily conducted by Cummings but builds on findings dating back a century. According to Cummings, conflict has been well established as a predictor of problems children experience such as depression, anxiety and conduct issues. Through his research, Cummings found that if the conflict was resolved in a positive manner it created a constructive experience through which all members of the family benefitted.

“[The research] gave us an impetus to think about how to develop programs to get this information out to parents,” Cummings said. “We did a number of studies over the years where we developed programs based on this research, presenting it in a very user-friendly way.”

The result was the Happy Families Project. Cummings and his team have translated his research into a teachable program that is accessible to all families. Their four-step training program is designed to teach families conflict resolution techniques and strategies and equip them with the tools needed to constructively mediate disputes among themselves. 

After years of testing the Happy Families Project on campus, it is expanding to South Bend, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. To facilitate the program’s rollout and reach a large and diverse set of families, Bergman said the Happy Families team is partnering with a multitude of community organizations such as churches, community centers and nonprofits. Bergman and her partners will teach the program to trainers in these organizations who will in turn teach it to local families.

“This is the first time that we’ve really gotten to step out into the community and put the program into the hands of the people who would actually be working with these families,” Bergman said. “It’s an exciting step.”

Cummings stressed that this program is still a work in progress. The primary goal of the expansion is to determine not only if the program works but why the program works and if some families benefit more than others. Cummings said this process will serve the dual purpose of testing the effectiveness of the program while also providing a valuable scientific learning opportunity.

“This is really, in some ways, the best way to test the theoretical model — to do it in the real world rather than just a laboratory setting,” Cummings said. “We’ll learn a lot scientifically as well as providing a service that should be highly valuable, we hope, based on past work for families.”

The current expansion is funded by a four-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. The team originally applied for the grant before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and while the pandemic forced them to adapt the training program to go virtual, it also exacerbated family conflicts and confirmed the need for constructive conflict resolution, according to Borkowski.

“Strengthening families became even more important with the pandemic,” Borkowski said, noting that anxiety, depression and stress levels have dramatically increased during the pandemic. “This program addresses these issues. It is even more relevant today than in pre-pandemic times.”

Borkowski also noted that the virtual format has increased the portability, accessibility and scalability of the program. However, it is unclear if virtual learning impacts the efficacy of the program — an issue the team will monitor as in-person training returns in the future.

Moving forward, the Happy Families team will continue their rigorous testing of the training program. If the results are positive, Borkowski said he would like to see the program taught nationwide. 

“It’s clear that there’s a need out there, and people see it fitting in as one small tool in their arsenal to improve family life, reduce stress and mental illness problems,” Borkowski said.

Bergman said she is excited by the recent progress of the project and is looking forward to seeing how their research can create a positive impact in the community.

“We’re getting closer and closer to our ultimate goal with this kind of work which is to make supportive programs accessible,” Bergman said. “That’s why we do the research — to find out how we can help families.”