Rural teens benefit from family intervention

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Increasing family interactions and communication resulted in decreased rates of substance abuse, depression and conduct problems among a group of teens in the rural South, a recent study shows.

The program, called Strong African-American Families and Teens, or SAAF-T, is the first known family-centered program of its kind targeting rural African American teens ages 15 to 16. Similar programs have only looked at older or younger adolescents.

Prior to participating, the situation at home for Karen Carter and her daughter, Chinenye, was difficult.

“It was rocky,” recalls Karen Carter who participated in this landmark program with her daughter. “She would turn to other people to share what was going on in her life.”

Carter adds, “She has an older brother who she is very close with that was incarcerated when he was 17 while she was a freshman in high school. She would turn to him more than to me.”

Carter finds this fact ironic, since she herself is in the education field, working with youth on a regular basis at Walton Career Academy in Monroe, Georgia. “At my job, other kids would come to me for advice but I wasn’t able to talk with my kids,” she explains.

The SAAF-T program purposely targets the blend of two high-risk groups: high school students and adolescents.

“Both periods are associated with increases in drug use and behavior problems,” says Dr. Gene Brody is the founder and director of the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The program incorporates a third high-risk factor: adolescents in rural communities. Life in rural areas of the Unites States have become an area of increasing concern as it pertains to substance abuse, depression and other health issues.

Carter immediately saw SAAF-T’s potential benefits.

“I didn’t have any apprehension about it,” she says. “It helped Chineyne build her independence, helped give her direction and she [opened] her first bank account because of the program.”

Her daughter, however, did not want to participate at first. “There was some initial apprehension in Chinenye going at first, and she didn’t want to open up with the group,” explains Carter.

The program involved eight counties in rural Georgia and was positively embraced by the communities overall.

“Families in every county were extremely receptive,” says Brody. “Over 90 percent of the families approached to participate in the study participated.”

The interactive sessions showed positive changes in Chinenye’s behavior.

“She started cutting out people who were bringing her down and who were making bad choices with their lives,” Carter says. “She is more mindful of the company that she keeps.”

These sessions also helped break down barriers between Carter and her daughter.

“I saw that she was finally healing,” she says. “I didn’t think that she was hurting as much as she was, and she released a lot of hurt and anger. I felt better that she was able to share more and that we took our relationship to a higher level of trust and confidence.” Not only did improvements occur in interactions between Karen and her daughter, but Chineyne started improving in school. She signed up for the swimming and track teams and got a part-time job. She’s now at Georgia Perimeter College and lives on her own.

“She is more responsible and she appreciates us being there and offering help when needed,” says Carter, proudly. “Her father and I talk to her almost every day.”

The participants not only learned from the lessons themselves, but shared them with their friends and families.

“I talked to other parents in my neighborhood and at Church as well who were willing to listen. [Most] of the parents were looking for help and advice,” says Carter.

The program split participants into two groups: one for the parents and one for the teens. Dr. Christina Grange, Dissemination Specialist for the Center of Family Research explains that the driving force of the program, for both parents and children, is awareness.

“We arm parents and children with information to be better able to prepare them against peer influence,” Grange says. “The temptation to yield to bad decisions is very strong, and if they do it they need to recognize the danger – be it sex, alcohol, or substance abuse.”

Grange also aimed to get parents to better recognize the children’s behavior and deal with that behavior.

While the program helped most of the teens involved, some teens still unfortunately made poor choices. However, the program prepares teens for that possibility as well.

“To some degree, experimentation is normative,” says Grange. “Teens will want to explore the world and try things. Even if the teens do try these unhealthy behaviors, we hope the teens recognize the effects which hopefully decrease subsequent uses.”

Chinenye was not the only child in the family who has been benefitted from the program. Her brother, who was recently released from prison, is also getting help.

“Some of the people who introduced us to the program have started mentoring my son. He has already gotten his GED and now he wants to go to culinary school,” says Carter.

Carter has advice for other parents who have teenagers. “Be willing to listen, because if we don’t then someone else will. Be open-minded and listen to your child, because it might save their lives or someone else’s. It is vital to have open communication about everything.”