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A Stronger Family in 14 Weeks

In his work “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoi noted, "All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own fashion."

It is the aim of the Strengthening Family Program (SFP) of Alexandria that family unhappiness become unfashionable. To accomplish that aim, it has just completed a 14-week program designed to improve family relationships, parenting skills, and youth social and life skills.

Alexandria's endeavor is just one element of a research partnership between the University of Utah, University of Maryland, the Metropolitan Council of Governments and jurisdictions throughout the area. It was conducted under the aegis of the City's Prevention Services Section of the Mental Health, Mental Retardation & Substance Abuse Department (MHMRSA).

"This program is designed to help families deal with conflict and to make each person in that family more aware of the needs of the other to make it a cohesive unit," explained Robert Sizemore, MHMRSA Prevention Services counseling supervisor.

Starting in early May, six families participated in the local program, which concluded on Aug. 20. Weekly sessions were conducted at Samuel Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria.

"I really learned some basics about family life," said John J. Millender of Kenmore Street. "I learned how to take it back a notch, not to think I had all the answers."

"We learned to have weekly family meetings. And I learned how to better communicate with my children," Norma Millender added. "We participated in role playing and how to reward good behavior."

THE MILLANDERS have four children. Only two, daughters Michelle and Khala, were involved in the weekly sessions. Children have to be 11 or younger to be included in the weekly sessions. But their sons, John and Christopher, reaped the benefits of the improving family life style, according to the Millanders.

Tonette Mobley of North Morgan Street, attending with her son Anthony, said," I've discovered an alternative way to discipline children and get them to do what you want. I also like the fact that this is a group setting. It gives a lot of group solutions."

Attending the sessions often turned into a mirror reflection for some of the parents and made the solutions to everyday problems more recognizable. "I'm listening to my kids more. I'm also looking at them and seeing the exact same things I did," Margiretti McDonald of Franklin Street confessed. She was there with her daughter, Andrea.

Joining Sizemore in the project were Franklin Malone and Susan Abramson, who served as trainers. Their job was to work with the families on a weekly basis one-on-one.

Designed as a family skills program, SFP focuses on reducing risk factors that destroy families. These include substance abuse and behavioral, emotional, academic and social problems that adversely impact children and increase family stress and tension.

SFP BUILDS ON protective factors by improving family relationships and parenting skills and enabling youth to handle peer pressure, according to Sizemore. It is designed for families with children 7-11 with a parent figure willing to participate in the program. It has been modified for African-American, Hispanic, early teen, and rural families, specifically.

There are three primary elements to the program:

* Parent Training — Parents learn to increase desired behavior in children by using attention and reinforcements. These include problem solving, limit setting and maintenance.

* Children's Skills Training — Children learn communication, understanding feelings, social skills, resisting peer pressure, and compliance with parental rules.

* Family Skills Training — Families practice therapeutic child-play and conduct weekly family meetings to address issues, reinforce positive behavior and plan activities together.

It is the goal of the program to (1) reduce family conflict, (2) improve family communications and organization, and (3) reduce youth conduct disorder, aggressiveness and substance abuse.

SFP IS FUNDED BY THE National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and entrance into the program has strict requirements. As incentives to encourage participation, the program offers $100 per family for groceries, catered dinners on class nights, free baby-sitting for children under 6, transportation to and from the meeting site, and prizes for both parents and children who complete their home-play activities.

Since SFP was initiated in 1999, several studies, conducted by independent evaluators, have reported significant reductions in family conflict and improvements in family communications. Because of these results NIDA selected it as the only family program to be disseminated in NIDA’s technology Transfer Program Packets on Prevention.

As stated in their promotional material, by participating in SFP, "Your family may be happier, your child may be better-behaved and do better in school." And, it may definitely be a way to change an "unhappy fashion."