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Kelley Leads Team in $1.6 Million Project for National Institute on Drug Abuse

Michelle L. Kelley, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, leads a research team that has won a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to examine trickle-down benefits to children when parents are treated for drug abuse.

Matthew Henson, assistant professor of psychology at ODU, and two professors at the University of Rochester, William Fals-Stewart and K.K. Lam, are other members of the research team. The grant extends from July 2009 to June 2014 and is titled "Secondary Effects of Parent Treatment for Drug Abuse on Children." It was awarded under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Grant Program known as RO1.

According to Kelley (who is pictured), more than 6 million children in the United States are estimated to live with an alcohol- or drug-abusing parent. As might be expected, these children often suffer short- and long-term effects of living in these homes. Although directly treating these children may be ideal, many parents who enter treatment for alcohol or drug abuse are very reluctant to allow their children to take part in mental health treatment.

"To combat this problem, we have been developing and researching the effectiveness of different forms of couple-based treatments in which both parents attend treatment together," Kelley said. "Couples-based treatments work to reduce a parent's alcohol or drug use while at the same time helping couples learn to communicate more effectively, reduce their fighting, and help the non-substance-abusing parent learn how to support the substance-abusing parent's attempts to stop using alcohol and drugs. This type of approach seems to have a greater benefit on all members of the family and improve the larger family unit."

She said the new grant will allow the researchers to continue their preliminary work by following children over time. "We will be able to see whether children whose parents take part in this type treatment experience greater benefits than children whose parents take part in a more traditional treatment in which the substance-abusing parents attend treatment by themselves and the treatment focuses on the reduction of drug use only," Kelley said.

Kelley has broad research experience in the area of at-risk families. Focuses include the effects of parent alcohol and drug abuse and related family violence and parenting problems. She also has conducted research on Navy families and the impact of parents' deployment on their children.

In 2007, Kelley and Fals-Stewart published research results showing that a treatment program that provides individual sobriety counseling for the husband as well as couple counseling for the husband and his wife can provide significant secondary psychological benefits to the couple's preadolescent children.

The research indicated, however, that the behavior of an adolescent child in the home may not be as likely to improve with reductions in the father's alcohol use and improvements in marital functioning.

The research focused on the behavior of preadolescents (8-12 years) and adolescents (13-16 years) whose fathers cease to abuse alcohol and whose fathers and mothers have a more peaceful relationship following their participation in the treatment program called Learning Sobriety Together.

Preadolescents exhibited fewer symptoms of sadness and anxiety, as well as less aggressive and non-compliant behaviors, as the family conditions improved. But the same was not true for adolescents in the same households. The researchers speculate that children who have reached their teens may have behavior that is less likely to be linked to changes in the family environment.

"Our findings have important implications for treatment providers," the authors wrote at the time. "Interventions designed to reduce paternal drinking and improve couple functioning may be viable preventative interventions for preadolescents in these homes and a way to benefit children without identifying or treating children directly. This is important because many parents entering substance abuse treatment are reluctant to allow their children to participate in treatment.

"In contrast to younger children, even in families of remitted fathers, adolescents who exhibit behavioral difficulties may need direct intervention to address problem behaviors."

This article was posted on: April 17, 2009

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