This article was written by Carrie Gates and was originally posted on the University of Notre Dame's College of Arts and Letters website.
More than one billion children worldwide are growing up in communities where political violence and armed conflict are part of everyday life.
Mark Cummings, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame, wants to understand how that violence affects children’s emotional security and development — and, ultimately, give families the coping skills to improve children’s well-being.
With research projects in Northern Ireland, Colombia, Israel, Croatia, and Iran, to name a few, Cummings sees his international research as a natural extension of his groundbreaking work on emotional security and family relationships.
“I felt that children’s security also relates to broader aspects of the social ecology — including community and culture,” he said. “And I tested this notion in the research I’ve done in Northern Ireland. I found that not only does sectarian conflict affect children’s security about the community, but it also creates more family conflict, which in turn undermines children’s security about the family.”
Cummings recently won the 2017 Urie Bronfenbrenner Award for Lifetime Contribution to Developmental Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s developmental psychology section. The honor recognizes his work in the science of developmental psychology and his efforts to apply it to society.
Director of Notre Dame’s Family Studies Center and co-founder of the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families, Cummings has published more than 300 articles and a dozen books on children’s emotional security and adjustment. His most recent book, Political Violence, Armed Conflict, and Youth Adjustment, was published in April.
He has also received research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Administration for Children and Families, and the government of Northern Ireland — including a recent $3 million NIH grant to study parent-infant relationships and a second $3.5 million NIH grant to study families that include children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, Cummings was a student of psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who helped form the foundation of attachment theory—the concept that a strong emotional bond between mother and child is essential to development.
“I came along right around the time when the theory was being developed and tested initially,” Cummings said. “From the beginning, I felt that the mother-child relationship is very important, but that other relationships would also affect emotional security and be important aspects of a child’s development.”
Over the past 35 years, he has done extensive research to show that inter-parental relationships, father-child relationships, and other family relationships and processes are also related to children’s short-term and long-term adjustment and well-being.
His pioneering work on marital conflict has been particularly influential in the field. Cummings has shown that destructive parental conflict — like yelling and fighting — undermines children’s emotional security about the family, while constructive conflict actually increases it.
In all of his research, Cummings believes it is important to involve his undergraduate and graduate students. Each project includes a team of 10 to 20 students who help with data collection, coding, and working directly with families.
“It’s very satisfying to involve them, and they make many valuable contributions,” he said. “They get hands-on experience with research, with real families in the community. And it provides them with a strong foundation if they go on to graduate school, be it in psychology, social work, or medicine.”
Cummings has also used his research as the basis of a variety of education and intervention programs — through the Shaw Center and internationally — that help families learn to better handle conflict or foster more constructive relationships for the sake of their children.
“We’ve shown significant benefits over time in terms of child adjustment, by teaching parents to handle conflict more constructively,” he said.
“It is exciting to be able to use findings from my years of research to develop strategies to strengthen family relationships — and rewarding to see the programs we develop making a difference in families’ lives.”