A family-based program helped decrease rates of behavioral problems such as fighting and stealing, as well as drinking and drug use, among African American teens living in rural Georgia, in a new study.
Both teens and their parents attended sessions focused on academic success, making and following household rules, resisting peer pressure and dealing with discrimination and racism.
Almost two years later, those paid off in significant drops in the number of teens using or abusing substances and in the frequency of conduct problems.
"During the high school years is when kids often begin to use drugs and escalate their use of drugs, so it's really an important time to introduce some prevention programs," said study author Gene Brody, from the University of Georgia in Athens.
He added that rural teens once trailed far behind their urban peers in rates of drug use and behavioral problems, but that in recent years, researchers have noticed they're becoming more and more at-risk.
Brody's team specifically designed the program for, and offered it to, African American 16-year-olds and their parents living in rural communities.
The program consisted of five two-hour sessions. During each session, groups of caregivers learned parenting practices, including how to provide academic support and set rules and limits around substance use, while teens' sessions taught them about self-control, setting academic goals and dealing with racism.
Another set of teens and their parents served as a comparison group, and went to regular sessions on exercise and nutrition that didn't cover substance use and behavioral issues.
Each group included about 250 teenagers and their primary caregiver, usually their mom.
Before the sessions started and almost two years later, the researchers interviewed teens about their drug, cigarette and alcohol use, symptoms of depression and behavioral problems, including whether they'd gotten into fights or been suspended from school.
Before the program, they found rates of conduct problems and depression symptoms were "moderate to high," while substance use was low.
At the final interview, kids who'd attended the program reported about one-third fewer recent conduct incidents, and about half as many had drug and alcohol problems as the comparison group. They also had slightly fewer depression symptoms.
On average, kids and parents in both groups attended four out of their five assigned sessions—which is impressive in this population, Brody said.
Most of the parents worked full time, and were still below the federal poverty line, with an average yearly income of less than $18,000, he and his colleagues reported Monday in Pediatrics.
Gustavo Carlo, who studies adolescent development at the University of Missouri in Columbia, called the findings "impressive" and "promising," and said the program had the features that researchers are realizing can be crucial for reaching minority adolescents.
"One of the core components of many successful programs with minority youth is the inclusion and the focus of family," Carlo, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
"This sounds like a program that could be tweaked and possibly useful for other minority youth," he added.
However, Carlo pointed out that wherever such a program is started, it will require training and work to adapt it to the specific needs of youth in that area—as well as commitment and funding from higher-ups.
Brody said he didn't know how much the program would cost to implement on a wider scale, but he's hopeful that it would be feasible outside of research studies, such as in churches and boys' and girls' clubs.
"There was great excitement around the program," Brody said. "These parents realize, there's not a lot of opportunity to help them or to help their youth develop in a way that's going to put them on a path to success."
Parents can start learning lessons from the success of the program now, Carlo said, including the importance of knowing their teens' friends, setting limits and structure to encourage time-management and instilling in their kids a sense of racial and ethnic pride.
The findings, Brody concluded, "show that staying involved in the lives of our adolescents is very important."