Family Interventions Curb Risky Teen Behaviors
> 12/21/2007 11:19:41 AM

Teenage misbehavior often proves harder to contain in low-incomecommunities with little fundamental stability. Young people free fromthe guiding hand of adult supervision often turn to drugs, low-levelcrime and risky sex, but recentstudies indicate that long-held policies that attack theindividual behaviors themselves and aim to scare teens into complianceare less effective than interventions focusing on family cohesion andresponsibility.

The studiesin question concerned the south Florida Hispanic community,where rates of HIV and drug use are disproportionately high due, inlarge part, to poverty and poor academic performance. More than 250Hispanic 8th graders and their primary caregivers were assigned to oneof three intervention outlines: Familias Unidas/HIVPrevention, a plan designed to improve parent-child communications andinclude parents in an STD/drug use discussion based on the familymodel; PATH, a program intended to increase parent-child dialogue butnot specifically focussed on doing so within the family/communitymodel; HeartPower, an American Heart Association program aimed directlyat the teens themselves in order to combat the behaviors (like smoking,sedentary living and substandard diet) responsible for obesity and poorcardiovascular health.

Researchers conductedfollow-up surveys one and two years after the one-year interventionsended, finding that rates of smoking and drug use were consistentlylower among the children involved in Familias Unidas despite the factthat parents and caregivers received most of the instruction in thisprogram and children were often absent from the process. These resultswere most clearly apparent during the summer vacation period, whenchildren have far fewer obligations, academic or otherwise.

The larger conclusion: including parents in thehealth and behaviors conversation greatly improves outcomes even whentheir children are not present. For kids this young, warnings about theconsequences of risky behavior, while at times effective, do notsuffice, because parental influence, particularly in the traditionHispanic community, remains paramount. Without the security of thefamily unit, 14 year-olds cannot be expected to effectively managetheir own time, and most low-income households cannot afford to pay forsummer programs for their high school children. Parents who are able tobetter regulate their kids' schedules, even in their own absence, willbe more effective in guiding their behaviors, and the degree ofreverence in which kids hold their immediate family seems particularlyhigh among this social group. The kids themselves, of course, wouldsooner base their behavior on the parental model than the advice ofunknown mental health and behavioral specialists. Perhaps, in the faceof this study, researchers should avoid overestimating the autonomy ofthese young teens and place more value in advising their parents.

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