Family-based program helps youth avoid risky behavior — even those who may be genetically prone to it

Children’s behavior is determined, in part, by their genes and by the settings in which they develop. A new longitudinal study describes how a family-based prevention program helped rural African American teens avoid engaging in risky behaviors, even if some of them may have had a genetic risk to do so.

“This study demonstrates that parents play an important role in protecting their children from initiating harmful behaviors, especially when the children’s biological makeup may pose a challenge,” notes Gene H. Brody, Regents’ Professor, director of the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia, and the lead author of the study. The study, by researchers at the University of Georgia, the University of Iowa, and Vanderbilt University, appears in the May/June 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers developed a program called “Strong African American Families” to help rural African American 11-year-olds avoid such risky behaviors as drinking, smoking marijuana, and having sex. Almost 650 children and their mothers participated in the two-and-a-half-year study, which compared mothers and children who took part in the prevention program with mothers and children who only received information about adolescent development. The parents enrolled in the program learned parenting skills that included vigilance, emotional support, communication, and promotion of racial pride. Children who took part learned strategies for setting positive goals, making plans to attain those goals, and avoiding influences that could block their success.

Two years later, the researchers collected DNA from saliva samples from all the children to see if they carried a gene found to increase the risk of substance use. Teens who had the gene but didn’t participate in the program were almost twice as likely to have engaged in the risky behaviors as teens who had the gene and took part in the program.

“Much of the protective influence of participation in the prevention program came through the program’s enhancement of parenting practices that deter teens’ involvement in risky behaviors,” adds Brody. “The power of such parenting practices to override genetic predispositions to drug use and other risky behaviors demonstrates the capacity of family-centered prevention programs to benefit developing adolescents.”

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