Stronger father-son relationships curtail youth delinquency, local research finds

Men’s Health Awareness Month—or Movember—typically illuminates the physical maladies of the male population—not to mention the ability to sport grizzly facial hair. But this week, we highlight local research focused on the family health of men.

The Prevention Research Center of Michigan in Ann Arbor has found through a multiple-session program that Flint-area families are learning to build better father-son relationships. The effects? Curbing youth delinquency or what they have termed “risky behavior.” But it has also shown valuable for the participatory fathers, too.

Cleopatra Caldwell, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health is the mastermind behind the ongoing study dubbed Fathers and Sons.

“To protect children from harm, we believe that nothing takes the place of good parenting,” she said.

Pioneered in 1998, the program set out to establish effective communication, cultural awareness and skill building among its original 287 participating families. (Several cycles of the study have been completed since its inauguration.)

With a population focus of African American boys, ages 10 to 14, the study encompass residential and nonresidential fathers and biological and non-biological father figures alike.

It might seem obvious that a research team would want to reduce juvenile crime rates, but in Flint, adolescent risks seem to be higher.

In 2007, more than half of middle school students surveyed reported being in a physical fight—And 25 percent reported carrying a weapon, according to Susan Morrel-Samuels, the managing director of the Youth Violence Prevention Program, which carries out the Fathers and Sons study.

The program’s goal—and it has been successful— is to decease violent behavior, early sexual encounters, substance abuse and poor academic achievement that can be a result of undeveloped father-son relationships.

“Fathers and Sons is unique because it helps fathers communicate with their sons just at the time they are becoming teenagers and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors,” Morrel-Samules said.

Once committed, families meet twice a week for multiple sessions to discuss ways to improve parenting. Topics covered include better communication about sex, attitudes and intentions toward violent behavior, substance use, social norms surrounding these activities, family values, racial socialization issues and more.

Fathers and Sons is currently being tested with a shorter version, with older boys as well as incorporating “social fathers” or non-related father figures.

The program receives funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Ford Foundation as well as the Ruth Mott Foundation.

Producing positive results

While current results cannot be quantified due to the ongoing research—expected to wrap up in 2015—past study cycles have shown positive results, Caldwell said.

According to a slew of her published research abstracts, participating boys have reported that more parental monitoring has helped them avoid violence, improved conversations and awareness about sexual consequences, masculinity ideologies, perceived discrimination and more.

On the contrary, Caldwell shares that another cycle of the study illustrates how the program did not directly reduce aggressive adolescent behavior.

Rather, “it improves the parenting behavior of the fathers, which in turn reduces aggressive behaviors of the sons,” she said.

The participating fathers or father figures have also benefited from this research, Caldwell said. Improved emotional well-being—less depressive symptoms—as well as reduced drinking behavior are some of the benefits.

“We’ve found that the fathers that have participated in this program feel closer to their sons and want to continue to support each other after the sessions end,” Morrel-Samuels said.

Once graduated from the program, there is a nonprofit continuing support group offered as a way to maintain momentum.

Looking forward

While the research focuses on African American fathers and sons, the program is already making plans to expand its cultural reach and disseminate into other communities.

“At the heart of what we do is focusing on parenting behaviors, parent-child interactions and cultural awareness as critical to health decision-making,” Caldwell said.

“We are working to replicate the program in different environments to provide strong evidence of the program’s success,” she said, planning to conduct the full program at lease one more time.

In order to do so, the team has made connections with different community organizations “to determine if and how the program will work in the identified community,” she said. Her team has secured funding for further work in Flint and has submitted proposals for expansion to other communities like Chicago in the future.

Supporting Rochester’s youth

While Fathers and Sons pinpoints the relationships of Flint families, Cathy Womack, caseworker for Rochester Area Youth Assistance (RAYA) agrees that proactive parenting programs are imperative in the community.

“There are a lot of boys growing up in single parent-households so there’s a lot of different issues—boys are trying to define who they are and develop,” she said. “It is an area that we’re aware of and that we have had some ongoing discussions about—That’s a definite topic on our agenda.”

RAYA is a nonprofit community prevention program with the goal of strengthening families through volunteering and partnerships.

Rochester does not currently offer a long-term community program like Fathers and Sons but each year the Youth Assistance networks and offers several family education events, Womack said.

Beginning Jan. 7, RAYA will present the four week-long “Girls Stand Strong” program to help female students “develop techniques to handle different adverse situations that they may go through with peers,” Womack said. It will provide strategies for handling peer pressure and will be held in Adams High School. Then on Jan. 9, “Struggling with Sons” will target similar topics for male students and their parents. For more information on either event, please call 248-656-3558.

Interested in learning more about Rochester Area Youth Assistance? Be sure to check out http://www.rochester.k12.mi.us/pages/5062/rochester-area-youth-assistance-raya.

How can communities like Rochester get involved in the Fathers and Sons program?

The first step is to contact the Prevention Research Center of Michigan to arrange a meeting, Caldwell said.

This will help identify what “your community would like to achieve and in what time frame,” she said. “A part of this process includes identifying community partners who can help us learn more about the community to determine if the curriculum would need to be modified in any significant way to be effective.”

And finally, a proposal to seek funding would be discussed if the resources were not available.

Due to the confidentiality of the ongoing research, I was unable to chat with a participatory father and son for this article.

For more information about Fathers and Sons, please visit http://prc.sph.umich.edu/ or take a peek at www.CDC.gov.

To locate the Youth Violence Prevention Center website, follow this link http://yvpc.sph.umich.edu/.

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About Jen Bucciarelli

Veggie lover and aspiring word chef, reporter Jen Bucciarelli covers all things health and medicine for Rochester Media and The Community Edge. She is always on the hunt for local experts who can help improve the lives of our readers. Send her a note at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com.

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