For nearly 20 years, Penn State Research Professor Mark Feinberg has been developing and sharing Family Foundations, a course for couples expecting their first child that focuses on how to work as a team, communicate, and solve problems. New research shows that couples who took Family Foundations classes 10 years ago had more positive family relationships and experienced fewer family, parent and child problems than other families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their findings, recently published in the journal Family Process, showed that the parents who were randomly assigned to Family Foundations classes reported that their children experienced significantly lower levels of negative mood, behavior problems, and sibling conflict than children in families in the control group. They also reported lower levels of their own hostility, harsh and aggressive parenting, and coparenting conflict.
The Family Foundations parents also reported relatively higher levels of positive aspects of family life during the early months of the pandemic — including warm parenting, couple closeness, sibling warmth, and family cohesion.
Feinberg noted that Family Foundations' approach can have long-lasting and broad impacts because "it promotes positive changes in parents' teamwork, leading to better parent mental health, parenting warmth and sensitivity, and ultimately leading children to feel less stress, experience less depression, cooperate more, form better friendships, and do better in school."
Measuring Family Foundations' impact
For the study, Feinberg’s research team surveyed 400 couples who participated in his Family Foundations study 10 years ago and also asked participants to complete eight days of daily reports that described day-to-day changes in stressful events, mood, sleep, family tension, children’s behavior, and use of health-protective behaviors to prevent COVID-19 infection.
Prior research has found that taking the Family Foundations classes reduced preterm birth and low birthweight, enhanced the quality of family relationships and reduced family violence, and enhanced the mental health of parents and their children through infancy, early and middle childhood.
Feinberg suggests that the skills parents learn in Family Foundations may benefit families during times of crisis because strong teamwork helps parents manage stressors such as changes in jobs, finances or medical concerns — whether these stressors arise during the transition to parenthood or during a pandemic.
Research-based tips on building happier families
Feinberg offers suggestions for building happier families based on his research.
"Look to see how you can support your partner in their parenting — listen to them, provide appreciation, recognize the challenges and strains they are under," said Feinberg. "Excessive arguing and conflict over children and parenting will lead both parents to feel undermined and demoralized. And those negative feelings will lead parents to be less patient, less warm, and harsher with the children.”
Feinberg added, "Don't bury frustrations and anger, but don't let tension and frustrations overwhelm the positive connection and caring between you. In the end, that positivity and care between you will be what supports your own mental health and your child's life-long well-being and happiness."
Investment in prevention yields lifelong benefits for parents and children, said Feinberg. He urged policymakers to consider making greater investments in prevention and public health programs like Family Foundations that aim to enhance family functioning and resilience.
The research team also included Associate Research Professor of Health and Human Development Jacqueline Mogle, Assistant Research Professor of Health and Human Development Michelle Hostetler, Associate Professor of Health and Human Development Damon Jones, Assistant Professor of Health and Human Development Samantha Tornello, Postdoctoral Scholar Lindsey Gedaly, research assistant Joseph Cifelli, all of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State; and Jin-Kyung Lee, former postdoctoral scholar in Penn State's College of Liberal Arts.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Children’s Health and Development and the Social Science Research Institute.