The faculty and graduate students of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences examine the psychosocial functioning of human beings from infancy to old age. We research the dynamic worlds of individuals, dating partners, married couples, and families as they change and are changed by the contexts in which they exist. Our approach to these research endeavors bridge basic and applied research and includes elements of sociology, anthropology, psychology, neuroendocrinology, economics, and demography.

The research conducted by HDFS faculty and students falls into eight primary themes:

Infancy and Childhood

Children’s experiences in infancy and across childhood set the stage for development throughout the life course. Understanding how children develop and what aspects of their relationships with others and of their environments are most promotive of development are key questions considered by the HDFS faculty.

Edward Anderson investigates how child development is affected by parental divorce, repartnering, and remarriage. His research focuses on factors that contribute to positive child well-being in the face of these transitions.

Aprile Benner studies young children’s experiences of the transition into formal K-12 schooling and the school characteristics and interpersonal processes that facilitate or hinder successful entry into elementary school.

Ted Dix focuses on development in infancy and early childhood, with an emphasis on how maternal depression and low parenting competence affect developmental risk in the first five to eight years. This work addresses how individual differences in parenting and emotional self-regulation lead to differences in children’s early development.

Elizabeth Gershoff studies how early childhood programs can improve the school readiness and overall health of low income and at risk children. She currently has funding from NICHD to study the mediators and moderators of the impacts of the federal Head Start program on young children, using several nationally collected datasets of children in Head Start.

Nancy Hazen examines infants’ and young children’s relationships with parents and peers, and how these relate to children’s developmental outcomes. For example, she studies how infants’ attachment relationships with their parents relate to their later socioemotional development, as well as how individual differences in children’s peer interactions relate to children’s social competence with peers.

Deborah Jacobvitz examines the adjustment of infants and young children who have experienced abuse and neglect as well as emotionally attuned and sensitive caregiving.  She studies a range of outcomes including the attachments that children form with their caregivers and their ability to regulate their behavior and emotions.

Stephen Russell studies mental health, academic success, and well-being in children. His research focuses on the roles of families and schools as contexts for development, and he is particularly interested in the potential of policies and programs to promote contexts in which children can thrive.

Adolescence and Young Adulthood

Adolescence is a time of rapid physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. It is during this developmental period that young people are figuring out who they are and where they fit in. Historical and cultural changes across the past 100 years have essentially extended these identity tasks into young adulthood. HDFS faculty are interested in all facets of adolescents’ and young adults’ development, and they place particular attention to how environmental settings shape young people’s growth.

Aprile Benner studies young people’s academic, social, and emotional growth and how social contexts influence school transitions, experiences of marginalization and discrimination, and health behaviors. Her research is particularly focused on the experiences of low-income and racial/ethnic minority adolescents and young adults.

Karen Fingerman studies the transition to adulthood and young adults’ relationships with their parents. Her research has explored how parental support may help (or hinder) young adults’ adjustment and psychological well-being. She has examined estrangement from parents in early adulthood, “helicopter parents,” the effects of the Great Recession on young adults and their parents, and young adults’ daily experiences with their parents. Her research also includes salivary stress hormones and biomarkers of stress reactions in young adulthood. Her cross-cultural research on young adulthood includes samples from Germany, Hong Kong, and Korea.

Elizabeth Gershoff explores how the contexts in which adolescents and young adults develop impact their psychological and behavioral health and their academic achievement. She has studied a variety of contexts, including schools, neighborhoods, and policy environments, with a particular focus on the short and long-term impacts of violence exposure, in its many forms, on the healthy development of adolescents and young adults.

Deborah Jacobvitz draws on data from a 20-year longitudinal study to examine continuity and change in young adults’ relationships with their parents and the effects of early experience on the quality of their current romantic relationships.

Su Yeong Kim studies how Chinese American children transition from adolescence to young adulthood and how they negotiate their relationships with their parents during this transition.

Stephen Russell studies mental health, academic success, and well-being in adolescents and young adults. His research focuses on the roles of families and schools as contexts for development, and he is particularly interested in the potential of policies and programs to promote contexts in which young people can thrive. Most of his work has focused on intersections of marginalization, with particular emphasis on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

Fatima Varner studies how parenting relates to African American adolescents’ academic achievement and socioemotional development. Recently, she has been exploring factors related to gender disparities in achievement among African American adolescents.

Adult Development and Aging

Increased longevity over the past century has doubled the period of adulthood. Although adults may experience declines in physical and cognitive functioning over time, they often experience improvements in their social and emotional well-being. Faculty in HDFS examine the interplay between psychological, social, and physical aspects of adult development. For example, they research such topics as how family may serve to bolster physical or mental health in late life, and by contrast, how psychological disorders may be associated with diminished physical well-being during this time in the life course. 

Karen Fingerman studies social and emotional aspects of adult development and aging. Her studies cover the period from the transition to adulthood to late, late life. 

Marci Gleason is interested in how pathological personality traits present in older adults and the influence such traits have on health and relationship functioning as individuals age.

Lisa Neff is interested in understanding differences in the way older versus younger adults approach dating and marriage. She is especially interested in examining how the manner in which couples navigate relationship difficulties may change as we age.

 

Faculty and graduate students have the opportunity to join the Aging Network at UT Austin, of an interdisciplinary group of scholars who study cutting edge issues in the field of aging: https://sites.utexas.edu/agingnetwork/

Graduate students in HDFS also have the opportunity to complete the Portfolio in Aging and Health during their doctoral studies: http://sites.utexas.edu/aging-and-health-portfolio/

 

Parenting and Caregiving

Children’s first, and longest lasting, relationships are with their parents. The faculty in HDFS are committed to understanding how parent-child relationships develop in the early years of life, change over subsequent years, and persist into adulthood. They are also interested in how the act of being a parent affects adults’ own functioning and relationships with their partners and co-parents.

Edward Anderson conducts research on how parenting practices are affected by divorce and the entrance into new romantic relationships. Dr. Anderson studies how parents attempt to balance the potentially competing demands of their own needs for adult companionship and romance with that of their children’s needs for parental involvement and attention.

Ted Dix examines the role of parenting in children’s socioemotional development across the first five to eight years. In particular, he addresses why many parents engage in negative and insensitive care, how children respond to such care over time, and how the related inhibition of social engagement undermines children’s development in diverse domains.

Karen Fingerman studies parent-child relationships in adulthood. She directs the only ongoing longitudinal study of 3-generation families in the world with young adults, their parents, and their grandparents. This project includes a global survey, daily diary surveys, and salivary samples, providing insights into complexities in the parent-child tie at different ages and over time. 

Elizabeth Gershoff studies how parenting behaviors, particularly disciplinary behaviors, affect children’s social and emotional development. She is an internationally recognized expert in the negative effects of physical punishment on children. 

Marci Gleason is interested in the role parenting plays in committed relationships. She studies how the transition to parenthood and family activities influence couple functioning.

Nancy Hazen investigates how parents’ caregiving quality and attachment relationships with infants and toddlers relate to their children’s later social competence. She also studies how mothers and fathers work together as parents, what predicts effective parenting, and how parents’ coparenting quality relates to child outcomes.

Deborah Jacobvitz addresses why parents parent the way they do and identifies patterns of caregiving that are critical for the optimal development in children. For example, she has published studies on the developmental origins, correlates and outcomes of sensitive care, parental withdrawal and parent-child role-reversal.

Su Yeong Kim studies parenting of adolescents among by both mothers and fathers in Mexican American and Chinese American families.

Stephen Russell studies family economic stress and how it shapes parent-child relationships in the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. His studies consider implications for risk behaviors such as substance use and abuse, as well as cultural differences in these family processes.

Fatima Varner studies the role of parenting in adolescent academic achievement and socioemotional development. She also explores how contextual factors such as socioeconomic resources and discrimination influence parents’ behaviors and mental health.

Interpersonal Relationships

Our faculty are interested in the factors that affect the formation, maintenance, and (sometimes) deterioration of personal and family relationships throughout life. We explore a wide variety of personal relationships, including friendships, family relationships (e.g., parent-child relationships, in-laws, siblings), romantic liaisons (e.g., causal hook-ups, dating relationships) and marriages. Collectively, we adopt a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches. Regardless of the type of relationship being scrutinized, the theories guiding the work, or the methods employed, the impact relationship and life transitions have on interpersonal relationship dynamics is a key focus across many faculty labs.

Edward Anderson studies how children influence adult’s decisions concerning when and how to repartner after divorce. He also investigates how repartnering alters the existing co-parental relationship between ex-spouses.

Ted Dix examines how early parent-child relationships regulate the quality of parenting and the emergence of children’s socioemotional competence. Emphasized in this work is the importance of parent-child relationships in the emergence of positive, coordinated patterns of parent-child interaction based on shared goals, effective patterns of communication, and well regulated affective states.

Karen Fingerman studies age differences in personal relationships across adulthood. Her research includes parent-child ties in adulthood, romantic ties, and non-family ties. She has analyzed "big data" with her doctoral student to examine age differences in romantic relationships. She is currently conducting research investigating older adults' social ties using experience sampling and ecologically-valid measurement techniques such as actigraphs and electronically-activated recorders.

Marci Gleason studies the role of social support in couple functioning when couples are experiencing stressful life circumstances such as first time parenthood and serious family illness.

Nancy Hazen examines individual differences in parent-child relationships, parents’ marital relationships, and children’s peer relationships, as well as interrelations between parent-child and marital relationships, and between parent-child and peer relationships. For example, she has examined individual differences in couples’ transition to parenthood, and how this relates to their marital quality, their parenting quality, and their children outcomes.

Deborah Jacobvitz draws on Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory to study couple communication, relationship loss and grieving, and attachment-related mental processes. For example, she has published papers on how couple communication changes over the transition to first-time parenthood and its effects on parents’ well being.

Lisa Neff studies how marriages change and develop over time. Her work explores the relational processes, both cognitive and behavioral, that predict whether initially satisfying marriages remain happy or deteriorate during the early years of marriage. 

Stephen Russell has studied sexuality and romantic relationships among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and young adults.

Health and Biobehavioral Processes

HDFS faculty who are interested in health and biobehavioral processes seek to understand how individuals’ relationships and social experiences are associated with their health and well-being. Researchers examine a variety of physiological processes including salivary hormones, genetic predispositions, and daily symptoms that are associated with people’s behaviors, emotions, and experiences. Faculty also investigate how experiences and interactions with important others in individual’s lives impact mental health and risky health behaviors.

Aprile Benner explores the mental and physical health consequences of adolescents’ experiences in their proximal contexts (schools, homes, neighbrohoods). Her current work investigates how social and demographic isolation and marginalization within schools influences adolescents’ substance use and mental health.

Ted Dix studies the role of mothers’ depressive symptomotology in the emergence of a variety of problems in children. Critical for approximately 20% of children in the U.S., depressive symptoms in mothers are linked to children’s emerging aggression, defiance, depression, anxiety, school failure, and relationship problems. Dr. Dix examines the conditions under which these symptoms pose particularly high risk.

Karen Fingerman studies 3-generation families using daily diary approaches and assessments of salivary hormones. She also collaborates on a study of older adults’ daily activities, social and cognitive functioning using actigraphic and fMRI technologies. 

Deborah Jacobvitz examines the role of early experience in a variety of childhood behavior problems. She has published studies on how temperament and early parental care contribute to the development of depression, anxiety and ADHD in school children. She has also published studies on relations between adults’ attachment-related mental processes and their emotional and physical health.

Su Yeong Kim examines how language brokering in Mexican American families relates to family members’ health.

Lisa Neff is interested in the links between marital exchanges (e.g., conflict resolution, social support, etc.) and individual’s physiological functioning, as well as in how the stress of health problems may alter relationship dynamics. 

Stephen Russell is an expert in adolescent behavioral and mental health. His research was among the first to document health disparities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and young adults. Ongoing studies of LGBTQ health include a population-based study of school policies and programs and adolescent adjustment; a longitudinal study of risk and protective factors for youth suicide; and a multi-method study to understand generational differences in minority stress and health.

Diversity and Culture

In the past century, the U.S. has witnessed rapid demographic changes that have changed the face of the American population. Simultaneous increases in technology and communication have made the world a much smaller place. Research by HDFS faculty is responsive to our changing world. Our work places attention on many aspects of diversity and culture, including the sociodemographic characteristics of individuals’ environments, differences in how diverse groups of individuals shape and are shaped by these environments, and variations in these processes across diverse geographic regions both nationally and internationally. 

Aprile Benner studies variation in young people’s interpersonal interactions and the demographics of their larger developmental contexts and how these relate to outcomes for children and adolescents of different races/ethnicities and socioeconomic strata. In particular, she has studied how the race/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of schools and neighborhoods influence young people’s development as well as the antecedents and consequences of prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization.

Ted Dix examines how culture and a wide range of socioeconomic factors influence the emotional processes individuals activate to adapt to life experience. Dr. Dix’s work includes examination of how such social factors influence parenting stress and the activation of depressive patterns of family interaction in response to stress.

Karen Fingerman has studied young adults’ relationships with their parents in different countries (Germany, Hong Kong, Korea). Her research within the U.S. also considers ethnic differences in family ties across adulthood. 

Elizabeth Gershoff conducts cross-cultural and cross-national research to consider whether there are cultural differences, or cultural universals, in the extent to which parenting practices are associated with child and adolescent outcomes.

Deborah Jacobvitz explores how cultural beliefs and values contribute to parenting. For example, she has published cross-cultural studies examining how qualities of parental caregiving contribute to attachment relations in Korea and the United states.

Su Yeong Kim focuses on how culturally specific factors (acculturation/language brokering) influence the development and well-being of children in immigrant families.

Stephen Russell is an expert in understanding health disparities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and young adults. His studies focus on the intersections of personal and social identities including race/ethnicity, gender, social class, and age for shaping personal health and population disparities. In other studies, he has examined cultural differences in family processes that shape adolescent adjustment.

Fatima Varner examines how processes related to ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status influence family processes as well as adolescents’ academic and socioemotional outcomes. In particular, she is interested in the role of discrimination on parenting and adolescent academic achievement.

Contexts of Human Development

The HDFS faculty are interested in how contexts outside the family affect individual development. We explore both proximal contexts that individuals experience directly and distal contexts that affect individuals indirectly. In some instances, contexts are closely tied to the physical settings in which individuals spend their time, such as schools, neighborhoods, or workplaces, while in other cases contexts are not defined by a particular physical space but instead are manifested in social trends and opportunities or societal stratification, including socioeconomic resources, the media, or family or social policy.

Edward Anderson studies how the legal system influences child development and family relationships during the dissolution of couple relationships. He is interested in how alternatives to the adversarial litigation process, such as parenting coordination, can assist families in resolving contested custody disputes.

Aprile Benner examines how larger societal stratification systems and more proximal contexts, such as schools and neighborhoods, influence children and adolescents’ well-being. Her work places particular attention on the developmental consequences of matches and mismatches between young people and their  social contexts.   

Elizabeth Gershoff explores a variety of contexts of individual child and youth development, including neighborhoods, schools, early childhood education settings, and public policies. She is particularly interested in the roles played by socioeconomic resources and violence exposure across various settings.

Deborah Jacobvitz has published studies on how the content and structure of early family relationships shape children’s developing representations of emotion and relationships.

Su Yeong Kim studies the intersection of family and cultural contexts in the development of children of immigrants in the United States.  

Lisa Neff studies how the context of a marriage can shape and constrain marital outcomes. Her work highlights how and when stressors external to a relationship (e.g., work stress, financial difficulties, etc.) may interfere with couples’ capacity to engage in relationship-promoting behaviors, and thereby contribute to marital declines over time.

Stephen Russell is an applied developmental scientist who is particularly interested in the potential of policies, programs and community practices to promote social justice for children, adolescents, and families. He studies families, schools, and youth engagement in performance and art (poetry, film and visual media) as contexts of adolescent development. Most of his work has focused on policies, programs, and practices that promote the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

Fatima Varner examines how family and school contexts influence African American adolescent development.

To explore these themes, HDFS faculty and students conduct original research, including both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, and use large-scale, nationally-representative secondary data sets. Our methodologies range from advanced quantitative methods to in-depth qualitative inquiry, and we strive to translate what we learn into programs and initiatives that directly benefit the lives of families