Family Treatment Emphasizing Communication, Skill-Building May Reduce Chances of At-Risk Children Becoming Substance Abusers

Release Date: April 12, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Preliminary results of a comprehensive program to prevent children from using alcohol or other drugs shows that a family-treatment approach emphasizing communication and skill-building may be effective in reducing the risk of children becoming substance abusers, according to researchers from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

More than 600 families in the Buffalo-Niagara region and southern Ontario participated in the Families Working Together program, a collaborative project conducted by the UB School of Social Work and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada.

"Children of alcoholics are at higher risk of certain negative outcomes, including alcoholism, substance abuse, depression and anxiety," said Andrew Safyer, Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Social Work and a co-investigator on the project. "Studies show programs that target parents, children and the family itself can be more effective in preventing further substance abuse than approaches focused on youth or parents."

Funded by a five-year $2.9 million grant from the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse of the National Institutions of Health, the Families Working Together program worked with families with a child between the ages of 9 and 12 who has or had a parent with an alcohol problem and a parent or caretaker who has regular responsibility for the child.

Families enrolled in the project were selected based on referrals from substance-abuse agencies, health and mental-health agencies, schools and advertisements in newspapers and on posters. They were selected at random either to attend weekly sessions focusing on family relationships, parenting skills and children's coping and competency skills, or to receive a booklet of information on preventing substance abuse.

Researchers conducted interviews with the families before and after the 14 weekly sessions, as well as four and eight months after they concluded the program.

Weekly meetings followed a predictable structure so families could become more familiar and comfortable with the routine, said Eileen Giancarlo, program coordinator for the UB School of Social Work.

The three-hour meetings were divided into three parts, she said. Sessions began with a family-style meal for participants and program staff, followed by an hour when children and parents attended separate group skill-building sessions. The third hour was used to bring families back together to practice the skills they had learned.

The children's groups focused on skills to build resilience, such as awareness and appropriate communication of feelings; problem solving and social skills; resisting peer pressure and identifying healthy resources within their community, and education about substance use, abuse and addiction.

The parents' groups emphasized an atmosphere of hopefulness leading to positive change, including the importance of tuning in to a child's developmental issues, identifying unique risk and protective factors, as well as communication skills and effective techniques for managing anger, stress and discipline.

"The families we're working with often are feeling really stressed," said Giancarlo. "Even having a meal prepared for them is special. We're not just feeding their bodies, we're feeding their spirits. Staff sit down, talk and eat with these families and as they do, the families experience a style of positive family interaction that they can then try at home. The dinner hour also gives families a chance to practice the communication skills they're learning in the group."

With a great deal of effort going into participant retention, the program provided transportation to meetings, as well as child care, if needed, for siblings not involved in the skill-building aspects of the program. Participants were compensated for their time, and received a great deal of personal attention from program staff, including cards, phone calls of support and referrals to service agencies when needed.

Results of the study have been encouraging, said Thomas Nochajski, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Work and principal investigator on the Families Working Together study. The results of parents' pre-test and post-test views of behavior problems and family functioning show some "very positive changes over the short-term, but it is necessary to determine whether these changes will continue over a longer follow-up period," Nochajski said. Parents in the treatment group reported more improvements in their children's behavior problems, such as general trouble, aggression and oppositional difficulties, than families who received an information packet as treatment. Family functioning also improved more for families who participated in the psychoeducational groups, including areas such as task accomplishment, family roles, communication and expression of feelings.

Families interested in participating in the program can call (716) 829-2220 for more information.

The success of the Families Working Together program would not have been possible, said Safyer, without the support of numerous community partners, including Stutzman Addiction Treatment Services; Catholic Charities, Metro District and Msgr. Carr Clinic; Clearview Outpatient Services, Alcoholism Council of Niagara County; Family and Children's Services of Niagara; Niagara Falls High School; Amherst Youth Board; Erie County Office of Mental Health, and Martha H. Beeman Foundation.

Both the School of Social Work and the program's community partners have benefited and grown from the collaboration, he added.

In addition to providing participants with access to some of the best clinicians in Western New York, partnering agencies received staff training and had access to the university and its resources. The university benefited, as well, from the opportunity to test theory-based "best practices" and to recruit subjects and receive advice from counselors on issues that may impact recruitment and retention of families enrolled in the study.

Safyer added that "the School of Social Work values the importance of partnering with the community to provide care for those in need and further strengthen the quality of support and services."

Other co-investigators involved in the project were David Dewit, Ph.D., of Canada's CAMH; Eugene Maguin, Ph.D., research scientist in the UB School of Social Work, and Scott Macdonald, Ph.D., of CAMH.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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