Research: Family-focused youth prevention programs more effective

Contact Stephen Small, 608-263-5688, or Larissa Duncan,, (608) 263-4026

Programs aimed at reducing underage alcohol and drug use typically zero in on young people themselves. But positive parenting and strong relationships between parents and youth can be more effective at steering teens away from risky behaviors, research shows.

“Many prevention programs focus on youth only, and most have small effects,” says Stephen Small, Human Development and Family Relations specialist with UW-Extension and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) at UW-Madison. “Programs that change family dynamics have been found to be nine times more effective than approaches that focus on individual youth.”

Professionals who educate or deliver services to families endorse the effectiveness of family-focused approaches. And public programs and policies supporting strong family relationships provide a good return on taxpayer investment.

“It’s hard to overstate the important role that families play in raising young people who will be able to contribute to a strong society and a sound economy,” says Larissa Duncan, Healthy Minds, Children and Families specialist with UW-Extension and Associate Professor of HDFS and Family Medicine and Community Health at UW-Madison. “We have a number of programs for families with excellent evidence supporting their benefits.”

One effort that has shown positive results is the “Strengthening Families Program 10 to 14,” says Duncan.

According to Duncan, UW-Extension trains local family professionals to conduct the “Strengthening Families” program with Wisconsin families.

“Youth who participated were less likely to use alcohol and other drugs, were less aggressive, had fewer behavior problems and were better able to resist peer pressure,” says Small. “Parents who took part were more affectionate with their children and set more appropriate limits.”

What’s more, cost-benefit analysis shows that for every $1 invested in the program, nearly $10 is saved in future costs such as drug treatment, lost future earnings, and time in the juvenile justice system.

Small says that UW-Extension programs in Wisconsin are designed to strengthen families through educational programs that are tested and based on research.

To learn more about ways that UW-Extension is working for Wisconsin families, contact your local UW-Extension office.

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