Some of these problems begin as early as age 2. However, the few prevention programs that exist for children of alcoholic parents are typically aimed at students in middle school or older.
Andrea Hussong, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes to change that.
Along with her colleagues in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences’ psychology department, Hussong is developing an early prevention program called Families First, designed for families of preschool-age children who are living with a parent with a drinking problem.
The preschool years are an ideal developmental period for intervention because risk behaviors such as aggression may become more difficult to change if they are not addressed before children enter elementary school, Hussong said.
“Many of the young children with whom I have worked in community mental health care were struggling to find ways to cope with parent alcoholism and problem drinking before they entered school,” Hussong said.
“Our goal is to work with families one on one to address issues common to healthy family development for all of us — promoting positive relationships with children, effective discipline practices, and healthy emotional and social development.”
Hussong has spent nearly 20 years working in the areas of substance use research and treatment. She is co-principal investigator, along with UNC psychology professor Patrick Curran, of a study that examines the developmental pathways that lead to substance use. The study was recently extended with a $1.3 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health
“We know that signs of emotional distress in early childhood predict greater risk for substance use in adolescence and young adulthood,” Hussong said. “My work has been aimed at connecting the dots along this developmental pathway to identify and evaluate whether there is an ‘internalizing pathway’ to substance use disorders.”
The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) estimates that 11 percent of all children live in families where one or more parents abuse alcohol or drugs. Children of alcoholic parents are often over-represented in welfare, mental health and special education services, according to the CWLA. But children of parents with drinking problems are a “hidden” population — and thus difficult to recruit into prevention programs, Hussong said.
Through Families First, Hussong and colleagues hope to identify community resources to reach and recruit high-risk families into a prevention program. They are seeking input from parents who are struggling with drinking problems or from spouses of problem drinkers to help inform the design of the program.