Macalester Today Winter 2011

Family Feuds

Rachel Lucas-Thompson may only be in her second year of teaching psychology at Macalester, but with her research she has already tapped into two of the most media-centric and controversial subjects in her discipline: maternal employment and marital conflict.

She recently gained worldwide publicity—including mentions on NBC and in Time magazine—for coauthoring a University of California– Irvine study showing that children whose mothers return to work before the kids are 3 are no more likely to have problems than are kids whose mothers stay home with them. This study, done with Joann Prause and Wendy Goldberg at UC–Irvine, was a meta-analysis of 69 studies conducted between 1960 and 2010. “Overall I think this shows women who go back to work soon after they have their children should not be too concerned about the effects their employment has on their children’s long-term well-being,” says Lucas-Thompson.

Now she has moved on to a new study in which she is looking at how parental conflict and marital quality affects kids’ development and reaction to stress, and how those reactions are related to other outcomes for kids, such as behavioral and physical issues.

“We already know that little kids and teens display different patterns of physiological dysregulation,” says Lucas-Thompson. Specifically, younger kids exposed to stress show an exaggerated physiological reaction to mental discomfort, whereas teens exposed to stress show a dampened physiological response to stress. “Both are maladaptive responses,” she adds.

This new study, in which she is looking at children ages 10 to 17, is trying to determine when in adolescence that change happens and why. “Is it developmental? Familial? Environmental? Is it adaptive?” asks Lucas-Thompson.

She first got interested in the effects of ongoing family stress on kids while growing up as the only child of two academics living on the north side of Chicago. “I started to realize the big differences between my family and others, and how many of my friends’ families were dysfunctional,” she says. “I started to realize what a big stressor marital conflict is for kids.”

By fall she and her team of undergraduate research assistants had studied 64 families and were hoping to have 100 by the end of the semester. Each visit takes two to three people to run; most are done on nights and weekends. Lucas-Thompson was simultaneously writing an NIH grant that would allow her team to study an additional 200 teens and families and follow them for three years. “My student researchers are very active and absolutely essential to the work,” she says. “Students play such a critical role in research here at Macalester.”