The study followed changes in parenting skills and children's attitudes toward drinking and sex over a seven-month period among 322 rural Georgia families with an 11-year-old child.
About half of the families enrolled in the study participated in seven sessions to boost specific parenting skills and to offer strategies that discourage early alcohol use and sex.
Gene H. Brody, Ph.D., of the University of Georgia and colleagues say their study is one of the first interventions specifically directed at rural black families.
Alcohol and drug use and early sexual activity have been "increasing more rapidly among rural than urban African American youths," Brody says.
Communicative parenting skills and children's attitudes about drinking and sex actually grew worse during the study among families who did not participate in the skill-building sessions, the researchers found.
Brody suggests this turn for the worse may mark a natural point in a child's life when parents are struggling to adjust their control over the changing life of a pre-teen.
For families who participated in the training, the sessions may have "interrupted a decline in parenting behaviors pertaining to involvement, control and communication while teaching new skills at a time when they are most salient for parents and youths," he says.
The sessions helped parents learn to be more vigilant about their children's activities, taught them how to communicate their expectations about drinking and sex and offered suggestions for helping their children deal with racism.
The researchers found a significant link between improved parenting and children's attitudes toward alcohol and sex three months after the sessions ended.
Brody and colleagues say the training could be improved by including fathers and other co-caregivers in the sessions. Fathers "rarely participated in the intervention, though invited to do so," Brody notes.
The research team will focus next on whether the intervention affects the children's actual alcohol use and sexual activity, he says.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute of Mental Health.
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BY BECKY HAM, SCIENCE WRITER
HEALTH BEHAVIOR NEWS SERVICE