Dr. Renee McDonald, Associate Professor, Psychology Department and Dr. Ernie Jouriles, Professor and Chairman, Psychology Department
Mental health is a family affair for Ernie Jouriles and Renee McDonald. The two psychology professors are husband and wife as well as co-founders and co-directors of SMU's Family Research Center, which officially opened in October 2006.
The mission of the Family Research Center is multipurpose: to advance knowledge about family functioning and malfunctioning, to train students in clinical psychology and, in some instances, to treat families who participate in programs at the research center.
One ongoing study involves assessing the effects of witnessing spousal (or partner) violence on young children in the family. There is also a treatment aspect to this study.
Clients at battered women's shelters who have young children who exhibit some kind of aggressive or antisocial behavior are invited to participate in the program. The program helps the women get back on their feet when they leave the shelter. Then they work one-on-one with the women teaching them parenting skills.
A doctoral student is assigned to work with the mother in her home. An undergraduate psychology student is assigned to work with the child in the home at the same time. This "baby sitting" frees the mother up to focus on the training, plus it gives the undergraduate student an opportunity to observe and learn in a home setting.
During the home visits, which take place approximately once a week for six months, the doctoral student works with the mother on specific parenting skills, such as how to respond to a noncompliant child. Each skill will be worked on for three or four sessions until it is mastered. Role-playing is part of the effort, and the child might be brought in to interact with the parent at some point.
A newer study at the Family Research Center is a date-rape "virtual violence" program. Modeled after pilot training virtual-reality programs, the computer simulation program teaches college-age women to recognize warning signs of date-rape and learn ways to react to prevent it. "We're trying to evaluate whether virtual reality can help teach this skill better," says McDonald.