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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Scientist Is Family Man

LAS CRUCES -- Robert DelCampo, a New Mexico State University social scientist, is the ultimate "family man." He has a family. He teaches courses about families. He studies families. He uses family systems theory in his research and counseling.


"Family therapy is a really hot, growing profession," he says. "The scientific community is finally realizing that you can't just `fix' a problem with an individual, send them back into their life and expect things to be better."

DelCampo says once someone has gone through therapy, they've changed. That change will have an impact on all the other people they interact with in the family and community.

"Instead of looking at individual problems, what family systems theory tries to do is look at the problems that individuals have within the context of the broader family system," he says.

DelCampo takes part in an ongoing research project with scientists at 10 other Western universities. "We look at different facets of how the quality of family life affects work productivity, how stresses and issues at work affect family life, and how to mitigate some of these problem areas," he says.

In a study of 328 women and 187 men, the researchers found that people did perceive the effects of work stress and conflict as influencing the whole family.

An example of work-family conflict in a dual-income family is when the children are sick and the parents have to figure out who is going to stay home with them, DelCampo explains.

"What we're finding, is that women tend to take on the vast majority of the extra burden of carrying on the family life," he says. "Many enlightened men with very good intentions have the erroneous notion that they are going to help their wives with the dishes, housecleaning and child care."

The problem is that to be a "helper" means the ultimate responsibility still lies with the woman. "We're finding that does not mitigate the stress at all," DelCampo says. "Men have to go the next step to take responsibility for household tasks."

In another project, DelCampo and graduate student Elizabeth Knapp wrote a paper about how hospice teams can use family systems theory to help families deal with dying relatives.

In hospice programs, terminally ill patients return home to die with support from professionals including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, social workers, counselors and nursing assistants. These patients receive pain medication but no other medical interventions to artificially prolong their lives.

"Family systems theory gives the team a theoretical base as to how to intervene and consider the entire family instead of just focusing on the dying patient," DelCampo says.

"In this approach, the team deals with how the grown children and the surviving spouse are coping with the situation, whether the family wants chaplain services, and how they can all cope after the death."

In a third project, DelCampo and former graduate student Diane Wolf Tatem did a case study of a child who was diagnosed with selective mutism.

"Selective mutism is when a young child who is fully capable of speaking and understanding will only speak to one or two people in his or her family or community, typically to a mom or grandmother," DelCampo explains. "It's obvious that when a child makes a conscious decision about when and to whom to speak that it's a manipulative thing. It's a way to get attention, because there is always a big reaction."

DelCampo says family systems theory can be applied to work with children who have selective mutism.

"It would be ludicrous to bring a child into a therapist's office and deal one-on-one with the goal of getting that child to speak," he says. "We would look at the selective mutism as a symptom of some larger problem. You see the systems approach here. It's not why isn't this kid talking, it's what's happening in the child's life system, community and family."

In addition to his research, DelCampo teaches courses about the family system, intimate relationships and human sexuality at NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences . He also is a licensed family therapist.