Children of parents who are chemically dependent are prone to developing externalizing symptoms, such as attention problems, aggression, delinquency, and/or low academic performance. Also prevalent among the children of parents who abuse drugs are manifestations of poor social and intellectual functioning. Several scholars have examined how genetic and environmental factors, such as parental attitudes, act as predictors of future drug and alcohol use in the children of substance abusing parents.
Related outcome studies have mainly focused on a child’s level of risk for becoming chemically dependent. These studies have found a significant relationship between parental alcohol/drug habits and the subsequent increase in adolescent use. Additionally, substance abuse in parents may influence the severity of drug dependence in children. However, despite the links between parental drug and/or alcohol use and children’s future use, Zucker, Wong, Putler, & Fitzgerald (2003) found that resilience in these children proved to be a protective factor that countered the risk of future drug and/or alcohol use.
Researchers have shown that the influence of parental attitudes on children’s drug seeking behaviors may be as important as current parental substance abuse. When parents discover that their children are using drugs and do not intervene, this dynamic facilitates continued drug use. These findings provide evidence that the interactions between children and their parents can impact future substance abuse. Researchers also found that the way children perceive their parents and their substance abuse may be correlated with their own future substance use.
In January 2010 a group of 5 students, 1 alum and one professor traveled to London, England for a study visit to the Marlborough Family Services, mental health agency. The thrust of the trip was to learn about the Marlborough’s theoretical approach and the logistical workings of their outreach programs in local schools. In particular, their work with families who have a child who had been identified as at risk for academic and/or behavioral issues. Instead of outsourcing mental health services that may be resisted by families and children alike, the idea is to intervene in a non-stigmatizing manner by holding family group meetings in the school. The group format lends itself to forming a community of students and parents who may be struggling with similar issues thereby creating a supportive community of peers. Goals for the groups are to utilize a systemic, group orientation to provide parenting education, psycho-education, problem solving skills, prevent escalation of behavioral and education problems, minimize suspensions; essentially to seize the opportunity of “nipping issues in the bud”.
The school based meeting are run by systemically trained therapists who work in collaboration with a school partner, usually a teacher, who champions the program to school administrators and teaching colleagues. The school partner works as a point person between the school and the agency. Once teachers understand the goal of the family groups they are encouraged to refer students and their families to the program. The in-school meetings are run similarly to the way the Marlborough’s on-site school for children aged 5 – 17 runs. Parents spend some time working with their child on some academic work and in the process obtain an understanding of the type of work being asked of their student and challenges the child faces in doing the work. Then the whole group gets together to discuss challenges they face as well as goals and strategies for obtaining these goals. The role of the therapist and the school partner is to model, guide and enhance communication, set clear expectations and parent/child collaboration.The Marlborough Model emphasizes the need to view childrens’ needs in the context of the environments at home and at school, not simply in relation to the children themselves.
The Marlborough Family Services agency is funded by the British government and is often cited for their successes in working with difficult populations. Their model is deeply systemic and collaborative. They utilize family groups in working with families entrenched in the social services system who struggle with multiple problems such a poverty, dual diagnosis, incarceration, custody disputes, domestic violence, to name a few. We were all struck by the skills and dedication of the Marlborough staff that we met, Eia Asen, Brenda McHugh, Neil Dawson, Serena Potter and Anthony Scrafton. Clinicians are supported in utilizing creative techniques to heighten awareness of and interrupt unproductive patterns of interaction and ways to manage cultural gaps in understanding. Clinicians interventions include video taping, home visits, ice breaking/team building exercises, group play, group meetings in which goal setting and strategies for success are collaboratively formulated and written on easels. Reflection is a part of all exercises. Goals are called ‘targets’ and target attainment is rated by teachers on a daily basis as a measure of progress and a means by which teachers communicate their assessment of the students work and effort each day. Target reports are sent home to parents each day and are reviewed at family meetings which take place once a week, every two weeks or once a month, depending on the school group.
All in all, the learning at the Marlborough Family Services was exciting and inspiring. I speak for myself, but I think the group would be unanimous in recommending this trip to anyone interested in working in schools. The Marlborough Model has been developed over the the course of 30 years and is based on the success of the multi-family group model that proceeded it. There is hope of making the trip an annual event and in establishing a collaborative partnership between the Fairfield University MFT program and the Marlborough Institute. If you get the opportunity, go!!
The yearly costs of chemical dependency, including medical care, premature death, unemployment, criminal justice involvement, and addiction treatment, is estimated to be over 165 billion dollars and 50,000 lives per year (Landau et al., 2000). According to national statistics, over 12 million children are currently estimated to be living in homes where at least one parent has used an illicit psychoactive substance (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, 2004). Children of parents who abuse drugs are directly impacted by the implications of parental addiction and its affects on the family environment.
According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (SAMSHA, 2004), families of substance abusing individuals have higher degrees of relational conflict. Children in these families are often exposed to chaotic environments that offer little stability or emotional support, thus rendering them more vulnerable to experiencing emotional and physical abuse or violence. Additionally, families with parents who abuse drugs show decreased family cohesion and family organization and are more likely to be isolated from their extended family and community.