A disturbing number of youth suffer from psychological and psychiatric problems ranging from depression to substance abuse. And although highly effective, science-based intervention programs do exist for troubled young people and their families, there are not nearly enough of these services, and resources should be aimed at wider implementation.

This is the overall consensus of 12 groups of researchers whose articles on interventions for at-risk youth and families appear in a special section in the latest online issue of the journal Child Development.

The collection of articles was compiled and edited by Arizona State University (ASU) Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar and ASU Regents Professor Nancy Eisenberg, both of the psychology department.

According to the contributors, current science-based intervention programs could go a long way toward ameliorating the situation. For example, there are a variety of tried and true intervention programs designed to help young people in trouble. There are also programs to help guide adults on how to properly nurture and support their children’s growth, even under highly stressful conditions.

“We do know what helps kids and what hurts them, and how best to intervene,” Luthar said. “The problem is that at a national level we have not, in parallel, directed resources toward taking these evidence-based interventions to large scale.”

“This must change. If we are to truly help today’s vulnerable children and families, there has to be greater commitment of resources to ensure that promising programs are readily accessible to those most in need, and that these programs are implemented with high quality and fidelity to treatment procedures.”

“Too many children continue to suffer greatly despite all we have learned about resilience and prevention,” Luthar said.

Luthar lists three top priorities in terms of what should be targeted. First and foremost, interventions need to address ongoing social support for mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers.

“Children spend the bulk of their waking hours with their primary parents, and any parent who is psychologically depleted herself/himself cannot sustain ‘good parenting’ across time,” said Luthar. “Thus, our first line of action must be to ensure that the primary caregivers are themselves tended, with ongoing support in their everyday lives.”

A secondary goal is to minimize harsh, insensitive parenting while simultaneously enhancing nurturing, loving interactions.

“We need to do all we can to curtail maltreatment because chronic abuse has multiple, serious repercussions for children that become hard to reverse,” said Luthar. “We must help vulnerable parents move away from responding to children’s behaviors with harshness or anger, instead, responding with sensitivity and nurturance as much as they are able.”

Luthar said maltreating parents, many of whom grew up with abuse, must be encouraged to develop a “new way of being,” where their perception of the world is not inevitably hostile, but rather one that has support, empathy and concern for their welfare.

“Gaining some equanimity of spirit is essential for them to be able to sustain ‘good parenting behaviors,'” she said. “As parents themselves come to feel cared for and tended, they become much better able to offer this kind of gentle (and firm) care to their children.”

A third theme is to encourage emotional regulation among parents and children, as well as among teachers and students in school settings, and to teach strategies to help manage difficult emotions such as anger and fearfulness.

“When either parent or child tend to fly off the handle, each one negatively affects the other,” explained ASU’s Nancy Eisenberg. “It is important to get both generations to develop self-regulation skills to use at times when they experience difficult emotions such as anger. In some instances children who are in high self-regulation are buffered, at least to some degree, from the negative effects of some environmental or familial stressors.”

Source: Arizona State University