Boys’ Health Risks May Be Reduced by Strengthening Father-Son Bonds
Preliminary findings of a study suggest improved communication between fathers and sons and increased healthy behaviors among the adolescents.
Many African-American boys grow up in single parent households, a situation that limits their chance of building a meaningful relationship with their biological fathers. The lack of a positive father-son relationship is believed to contribute to a predisposition in adolescence for violent behavior, early sexual encounters, substance abuse, and poor academic achievement—all of which may compromise individual and family health and well-being in the short and long term.
Flint, Michigan, an economically disadvantaged community in which the prevalence of adolescent risk behaviors is high, was chosen by the University of Michigan’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) as an intervention site. The PRC offered academic strength as well as concern and commitment to collaborate with the Genesee County Health Department, community-based organizations (CBOs), and other community representatives in addressing the health risks of youths. The community expressed concern about the problem of adolescent violence and was interested in finding ways to reduce substance abuse and early sexual behavior as well as in increasing healthy behavior among its adolescent residents.
Methods And Results
Using a community-based participatory process, a steering committee composed of PRC researchers and community representatives systematically explored potential ways to positively affect preadolescent African-American males living apart from their biological fathers. Eight focus groups (77 participants) were conducted to gather information to guide intervention development, and relevant findings from the scientific literature were reviewed. Based on these sources of information, the steering committee chose to focus on 8- to 12-year-old boys and their nonresident fathers through a program centered on effective communication, cultural awareness, and skill building. The program combined several behavioral theories: Theory of Reasoned Action, Social Cognitive Theory, Social Networks and Social Support, and Models of Racial Identity and Race Socialization.
The intervention consisted of 15 sessions, each 2 to 3 hours, held twice per week over 2 months. The sessions provided information, discussion time, and opportunities for role reversal exercises and for practicing skills, such as refusing drugs from peers (for sons) and specific parenting behaviors (for fathers). In addition, boys and their fathers worked on homework assignments together and attended community events as a pair (approximately 13 hours). One booster session was offered to graduates 4 months after they had completed the program.
The intervention was designed to provide the researchers both qualitative and quantitative outcome and process data for evaluation. A pretest and a posttest had been administered, and the results were compared with those from a similar group of nonresident fathers and sons who did not have the opportunity to participate in the program.
Participants included 186 father-son pairs, 87% (162) of which completed the program. The fathers had an average age of 36 years; 55% reported having barely enough money to get by, and 40% were unemployed. The boys had an average age of 10 years. Data collection from the nonparticipant group is nearing completion. Quantitative comparative analyses are expected to get under way once data collection and processing are complete.
Qualitative analyses are under way on measures such as attitudes and intentions toward violent behavior, substance use, and sexual initiation for sons; communication about risk behaviors, and family values and social norms regarding these behaviors; father-son closeness and frequency of contact; and racial socialization issues. In addition, aggressive behavior in sons and substance use in fathers will be assessed.
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