Carolyn Pape Cowan
Adjunct Professor Emerita
Research Interests: 
Research and clinical work with couples making the transition to parenthood and children making the transition to elementary and high school. Focus on couple relationships during adult life transitions, marital distress, parenting issues and supporting fathers' involvement.
  • whatshotResearch Description

    Carolyn Pape Cowan’s research and clinical interests center on couple, parent-child, and family relationships and marital and child development.

    Along with Philip A. Cowan, she has co-directed three longitudinal intervention studies of families. The first, the Becoming a Family Project - a longitudinal study of partners becoming first-time parents - followed families from late pregnancy until their first child had made the transition to elementary school, and addressed 3questions: What happens to couple relationships after the birth of a first baby? Can an intervention designed to strengthen couple relationships during this life transition affect marital satisfaction and stability? How does the quality of the marriage affect the quality of parenting, and the children's development as pre-schoolers, and their adaptation to school?

    The Cowans found that despite many changes in individual and couple functioning after childbirth, there is significant continuity and predictability from before the baby arrives, so that it is possible to identify individuals and couples at risk for distress in the early family years from data gathered in pregnancy. The group intervention had positive effects on parents and their family relationships during the first three postpartum years. Couples expecting a first child were randomly assigned to a couples group meeting weekly for six months, led by clinically trained male-female teams or to a no-treatment control condition. Control couples declined in marital satisfaction over time, a finding replicated since in more than 50 studies, whereas the expectant-new parents in the intervention maintained their marital satisfaction over a period of 5-1/2 years until their children had made the transition to kindergarten.

    Based on the results of this study, the Cowans received a second NIMH grant to follow 100 new families from their first child's pre-kindergarten year through the end of first grade, and with additional funding to the end of 9th grade. This study - the Schoolchildren and Their Families Project - examined the impact on the family of couples groups highlighting the marital relationship or the parent-child relationships. Results showed strong intervention effects on both parents; when mothers and fathers who participate in the interventions changed in positive ways, their children showed more positive cognitive and social adaptation to kindergarten and grade 1, according to their teachers. Couples groups with a focus on parenting produced significant increases in observed parent-child relationship quality, but not in observed couple interaction, whereas groups focused on the couple-relationship affected both parenting and marital quality. A 10-year follow-up as the children made the transition to high school showed 6-year positive intervention effects on couple interaction, as observed, and 10-year positive effects on parents' marital satisfaction and children's adaptation to high school, as reported by their teachers.

    A third intervention study, funded by the California Office of Child Abuse Protection, focused on encouraging low-income fathers to become and stay involved with their young children. The Supporting Father Involvement Project (SFI) is an ongoing collaboration between Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan (UC Berkeley) and Marsha Kline Pruett (Smith College) and Kyle Pruett (Yale University School of Medicine). In the original randomized trial, 279 Mexican American and European American low-income parents were randomly assigned to couples groups, or fathers-only groups, all meeting for 16 weeks, or a 3-hour group meeting control session with the same staff. Parents in the control condition showed no positive changes and significant negative changes over 18 months. Participants in the fathers groups showed significant increases in father involvement but their couple relationship satisfaction declined. The couples group participants showed even more positive changes than those in the fathers-only groups, including couple relationship satisfaction that was maintained over time. A replication of the original SFI study with 270 new families that also included African American families showed positive results equal to or better than those described in the first phase of the study. A third SFI trial included families who had been referred to the Child Welfare System because of concerns about child abuse, neglect, and/or domestic violence. The SFI intervention produced positive shifts in Child-Welfare-referred parents’ symptoms of alcohol use, couple conflict and violence, and harsh parenting and family income, and prevented a rise in children’s problem behaviors.

    SFI groups are now being conducted throughout California, and in Hartford, Connecticut, Alberta, Canada, and London, England.

    The Cowans have been concerned about "getting the word out" about the findings of family research and intervention to those engaged in family work and in discussions of government and workplace policies that affect families. For some years, Carolyn Cowan headed a “Getting the Word Out” committee of faculty and graduate students in Clinical and Developmental Psychology at UCB. The committee developed and offered yearly consultations to campus Child Care Staff, parents, and Teachers and Child Care Workers throughout the Bay Area. 

    Carolyn and Phil Cowan received an award in 1992 from the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) for Distinguished Contribution to Family Systems Research, and another in 2010, along with Marsha and Kyle Pruett and Jessie Wong, from the Men in Families Focus Group of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) for the Best Research Article.

    Because Dr. Cowan retired in 2005, she is no longer able to mentor new graduate students through the doctoral program, but she and Phil Cowan are available to discuss the work of Visiting Faculty and graduate students interested in these topics.

  • placeSelected Publications

    Bronstein, P. & Cowan, C.P. Fatherhood Today: The Changing Role of Fathers (1988). New York: Wiley.

    Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (1992). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. New York: Basic Books. Translated into 6 languages and then republished by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2000).

    Cowan, P. A., Powell, D., & Cowan, C. P. (1997). Parenting interventions: A family systems perspective. In I. E. Sigel & K. A. Renninger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol 4. Child psychology in practice (5th ed., pp. 3-72). New York: Wiley.

    Measelle, J. R., Ablow, J. C., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (1998). Assessing young children's views of their academic, social, and emotional lives: An evaluation of the self-perception scales of the Berkeley Puppet Interview. Child Development, 69, 1556-1576.

    Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2002). What an intervention design reveals about how parents affect their children's academic achievement and behavior problems. In J. G. Borkowski, S. Ramey, & M. Bristol-Powers, (Eds.), Parenting and the child's world: Influences on intellectual, academic, and social-emotional development (pp. 75-98). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2002). Interventions as tests of family systems theories: Marital and family relationships in children's development, and psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology. Special issue on Interventions as tests of theories. 14, 731-760.

    Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Ablow, J., Johnson, V., & Measelle, J. (Eds.). (2005). The family context of parenting in children's adaptation to school. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Alexandrov, E., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2005). Couple attachment and the quality of marital relationships: Method and concept in the validation of the new Couple Attachment Interview and coding system. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 123-152.

    Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2006). Developmental psychopathology from family systems and family risk factors perspectives: Implications for family research, practice, and policy. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental Psychopathology. Vol 1 (2nd ed.). (pp. 530-587). New York: Wiley.

    Schulz, M. S., Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2006). Promoting Healthy Beginnings: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Preventive Intervention to Preserve Marital Quality During the Transition to Parenthood. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 20-31.

    Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2007). Attachment theory: Seven unresolved issues and questions for further research. Research in Human Development, 4, 181-201.

    Cowan, C.P., Cowan, P.A., Cohen, N., Pruett, M.K., & Pruett. K. (2008). Supporting  fathers’ involvement with kids. In Jill Duerr Berrick and Neil Gilbert (Eds.). Raising Children: Emerging needs, modern risks, and social responses. (pp. 44-80). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Busch, A. L., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2008). Unresolved loss in the Adult Attachment Interview:  Implications for marital and parenting relationship.  Development and Psychopathology (20), 717-735.

    Cowan, P.A., & Cowan, C. P. (2008). Diverging family policies to promote children’s well-being in the United Kingdom and United States: Some relevant data from family research and intervention studies. Journal of Children’s Services,3,4-16.

    Ablow, J., Measelle, J., Cowan, P.A., & Cowan, C.P. (2009). Linking marital conflict and children’s adjustment:  the role of young children’s perceptions. Journal of Family Psychology. 23, 485-499.

    Cowan, P. A. and Cowan C. P. (Eds.) (2009). Special Issue of Attachment and Human Development. Couple Relationships: A missing link between adult attachment and children’s outcomes.

    Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., & Mehta, N. (2009). Adult attachment, couple attachment, and children's adaptation to school: An integrated attachment template and family risk model. Attachment & Human Development. 11(1), 29-46.

    Cowan, P.A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., & Pruett, K.D., & Wong, J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 71, 663-679

    Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2010). How working with couples fosters children's development: From prevention science to public policy. In M. Schulz, M. Pruett, P. Kerig, and R. Parke (Eds.). Strengthening couple relationships for optimal child development. Washington, D. C.: APA Publications.

    Cowan, P., Cowan, C., & Knox, V. (2010). Marriage and fatherhood programs. Future of Children, 20, 205-230.

    Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., & Barry, J. (2011). Couples’ groups for parents of preschoolers: Ten-year outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(2). doi: 10.1037/a0023003

    Knox, V., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., & Bildner, E. (2011). Policies that Strengthen Fatherhood and Family Relationships: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know? Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 635, 216-239. doi: 10.1177/0002716210394769

    Cowan, Philip A., & Cowan, Carolyn Pape. (2012). Normative family transitions, couple relationship quality, and healthy child development. In F. Walsh, (Ed). Normal family processes: Growing diversity and complexity (4th ed.). (pp. 428-451). New York, NY: Guilford Press

    Holmes, E. K., Cowan, P.C., Cowan, C.P., Hawkins, A. (2013). Marriage, fatherhood, and parenting programming (2nd ed.). In N. J. Cabrera & C. S. Tamis-LeMonda (Ed.), Handbook of father involvement: Mulitidisciplinary perspectives. (pp. 438-454). New York: Routledge.

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