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Reaching Out to Parents

Research shows there is a direct connection between the family environment and whether kids use drugs or not, says Karol Kumpfer, Ph.D., professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and president of the Society for Prevention Research. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Alan Leshner, Ph.D., acknowledges that a variety of research findings has shown that the family can be a strong influence on both vulnerability and resilience to drug use. It is important for parents to set rules and stay connected to their children. "Teens actually listen to their parents," Kumpfer says. "Setting rules about substance abuse has a major effect."

Kumpfer says that parents can become more aware of the messages they are sending their children about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Many parents -- without understanding the consequences -- routinely ask their child to pour them an alcoholic drink or talk in front of them about how "wasted" they got at a party they just attended. These kinds of behaviors affect children, says Kumpfer. But skill-building programs for parents can help steer them to new behaviors and away from interacting with their children in this way.

A mother smokes with her baby nearby

These programs are particularly useful for families in which the parents themselves are addicted or have substance problems. In families with substance abusers, particularly alcoholics, there is a much higher risk of adolescent drug use for both biological and environmental reasons. Parents in these families need to learn how to reduce the chances of drug use among their children by first addressing their own use.

A growing number of programs, including the Seattle-based Focus on Families, are trying to achieve that goal. Focus on Families is for heroin-addicted parents receiving methadone treatment and for their children. The goal is to reduce parents' use of illegal drugs by teaching them skills to prevent relapse. Parents also are given tools to help them better manage their families and the stresses that go along with family life. "Addicts who are parents have very little to offer as parents," says Kevin Haggerty, project director of Focus on Families. "This program is an attempt to help them and give them the skills they need."

The Strengthening Families Program in Salt Lake City is a similar initiative. SFP seeks to reduce the risk of future substance abuse among the 6-to-10-year-old children of substance abusers. Originally focused solely on teaching parenting skills, it now includes a parent training program, a children's skills training program, and a family skills training program. "We work on improving parent-child relationships -- their time together, their communications patterns," says Kumpfer, who developed the program. Over a 14-week span, children and parents are trained separately during the first hour session. During the second hour, parents and children work together on developing better family living skills. "So far, I haven't run into a parent who didn't want to be a better parent," says Kumpfer. She has found that heroin-addicted or -abusing parents tend to abuse or neglect their children more, have unrealistic developmental expectations, and use excessive discipline. "These programs have to start with building a relationship," she says. One of the key goals is teaching parents to identify and reinforce good behaviors in kids. Although recruitment and retention are difficult with troubled families, Kumpfer has been able to attain an 80-85 percent retention rate by providing meals or snacks, transportation, and child care.

Children also learn to be direct with their parents. Many would like to tell their parents to stop using drugs, but they just don't know how, says one caseworker. The program teaches those skills as well as how to resist peer pressure, handle anger, and cope with stressful situations.
 

Kathy Kuciemba

Focus on Families counselor Kathy Kuciemba.

Haggarty, of Focus on Families, agrees that continuity is necessary for these programs to succeed. After 12 months of study, Focus on Families reported dramatic reductions in heroin and cocaine use as well as significantly improved parenting skills. But, at the 24-month follow up, drug use among some parents returned. Haggerty says the findings underscore the need for family interventions to be ongoing, particularly for parents who are drug addicts. They also found that children of addicts may benefit more if exposed to improved parenting earlier and longer.

-- Janet Firshein

Photo of mother smoking: © Stephanie Rausser/FPG International

Note:

This description is not intended as an endorsement of this particular program.

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