Parents play an important and ongoing role in influencing their children’s attitudes and behavior toward alcohol and other drug use, according to a growing body of research. Yet while studies show that close parental monitoring serves as a protective factor against youth substance abuse, many parents lack the communication and parenting skills that can help them become a positive force in their children’s lives. To address this need, a small but growing number of prevention programs nationwide are focusing on ways to help parents develop these skills—including three innovative, locally developed, parent-education programs that are currently participating in SAMHSA’s Service to Science Initiative: Make Parenting A Pleasure, Parents LEAD, and Youth First Family Connections.
Service to Science is a national initiative designed to enhance the evaluation capacity of innovative programs and practices that address critical substance abuse prevention needs. By applying more rigorous evaluation methods to their work, participants in Service to Science can improve their program’s effectiveness. “But we’re also in the business of helping to ‘grow’ programs to fill gaps in prevention programming,” explains Kim Dash, Chief of Service to Science. “And one of these gaps is in parenting education.”
The three participating programs share the goal of teaching parents to better understand and respond to their children’s physical and emotional needs and to communicate more effectively with them. Where they diverge is in their approaches.
Make Parenting A Pleasure (MPAP), based in Eugene, Oregon, is a curriculum-based program that provides parents of children aged 0 to 8, who have been identified as at risk for child abuse and neglect, with social support and education on positive parenting practices. The goal: To reduce the impact of adverse childhood experiences—repeated, traumatic events in children’s lives that have been shown to negatively affect children’s development and place children at higher risk for substance abuse.
Under the MPAP model, a trained educator facilitates 12 weekly meetings for a group of parents that has been referred to the program from schools, recovery programs, health providers, the courts, or other agencies. Meetings focus on healthy self-care—including strategies to reduce stress and manage anger—as well as communication skills, positive discipline, and promoting healthy child development. The model is one of helping parents to identify and build on their strengths while they learn parenting skills and strategies that will work for their families.
By learning and sharing experiences alongside their peers, parents feel less isolated and often form bonds with other participants that last beyond the program, according to Minalee Saks, Executive Director of Parenting Now!, which developed MPAP. “We give parents credit for wanting to do the best possible job raising their children. Parents want to participate in MPAP because we make it clear we’re on their side, we respect them for their commitment and for what they bring to their child.”
The MPAP model has been implemented in 220 sites in Oregon and 900 sites around the world, where it has been readily adapted for diverse cultures, according to Saks. With the help of Service to Science, Parenting Now! hopes to move MPAP further along the path toward becoming listed in SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices.
Parents LEAD (Listen, Educate, Ask, Discuss) of North Dakota also targets parents directly, through a statewide, web-based communication program designed to help parents initiate and/or continue conversations with their children regarding alcohol and other drug abuse.
The importance of ongoing dialogue can’t be underestimated, according to Pamela Sagness, Prevention Administrator for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. “Many parents think that substance abuse is a one-time discussion. It’s more about having many talks over the course of your child’s lifetime. But parents don’t always know how to begin these conversations or where to turn for guidance. That’s why the program was developed.”
The Parents LEAD website , begun in 2005 and re-launched in 2011, offers a one-stop resource for information and advice on how to begin and sustain developmentally appropriate conversations with children on alcohol and other drugs. To facilitate this process, the site offers a selection of realistic scenarios depicting situations parents might encounter at different developmental stages in their child’s life, accompanied by sample parental responses. The site also offers parents the opportunity to pose questions to a youth development specialist during online parenting forums and to subscribe to a listserv that delivers tips specific to the age of the subscriber’s child.
The website is designed by North Dakotans to appeal specifically to North Dakotans, according to Sagness. “People here are looking for prevention information from a trusted source. Our research shows that parents want to hear about programs from other parents, teachers, clergy, and other local sources,” she says.
Sagness is convinced that Parents LEAD is filling an important gap in state-level parenting education programs. But to assess its reach, more evaluation needs to be done, she says. “We’ve already completed a preliminary evaluation, but we hope that by participating in Service to Science we can address more of our ongoing evaluation challenges.”
In contrast to the other two parenting programs, Youth First Family Connections (YFFC), based in Evansville, Indiana, targets both parents and their older teens, creating an environment where families can repair breakdowns in communication and address family conflict. Specifically, YFFC is designed to reduce teen alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use by helping families better handle conflict and strengthen communication, management, and monitoring strategies. Sessions focus on listening skills, goal setting, decision-making, and ways that parents can support teens.
Unlike individualized counseling programs, YFFC uses a multifamily approach: Teens and parents learn to strategize together about ways to make better choices, first with their peers and then as a family unit. “Parents and teens sometimes have unresolved issues that contribute to poor communication and erect roadblocks to moving forward in their relationship,” says Mary Ruth Branstetter, one of the program’s authors. “The YFFC sessions explore the entire family dynamic and help identify the root causes of communication problems,” she says. “This can lead to a paradigm shift in how parents communicate.”
YFFC helps fill an important gap in programming for parents of older teens. Branstetter says, “Parents have a brief window of opportunity to reach their teens while they are still living under the same roof. If parents are communicating with teens and setting boundaries, this will help teens be more resilient when they head out on their own.”
To better gauge the program’s longer-term impact on family cohesion and parent effectiveness, Branstetter and Youth First are looking to Service to Science for guidance. “The program and the research have been evolving,” she says. “We think we’re ready to incorporate more rigorous evaluation methods.”
The Service to Science initiative provides innovative programs with the evaluation expertise to help determine their effectiveness. By addressing the need for parent education, programs like these fill critical gaps in prevention programming and help lay the groundwork for healthy interactions and better stress management within families—factors that can support children in making healthy decisions when they are faced choices about alcohol and other drug use.
For more information on the SAMHSA Initiative, contact the Service to Science Lead in your service area.
 Roper Youth Report, 2009.
Shillington, A.M., S. Lehman, et al. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse (2005).
 Anda, R., et al. Adverse Childhood Experiences Study , conducted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ongoing)