"And how many adolescents do you have?" Doug Coatsworth asks, leaning back in his chair with a knowing smile. Clearly, he can tell from my expression that I am having no problem relating to the topic at hand: emotionally charged interchanges between parents and teens. Although my three kids are over 18 and "semi-launched," those tense parenting moments from the not-very-distant past are all too memorable.
Coatsworth is co-leader of family science and intervention programs and the Program on Empathy, Awareness, and Compassion in Education (PEACE) initiative at Penn State's Prevention Research Center. He is the principal investigator for a study that uses mindfulness techniques to help parents monitor their thoughts and feelings while they're interacting with their adolescent children.
"When parents get caught up in that moment — and any parent of a pre-teen or teen knows this — they can slip into familiar patterns that lead to escalating emotions and lost tempers," he says. "Mindfulness involves training your mind in ways that allow you to step back, slow down, and be really present to what is happening — to note your thoughts and emotions with a sense of dispassion. We work with parents to get them out of their heads and into their lives."
When parents and kids can talk to each other without succumbing to escalating emotions, their relationship will benefit — and that, Coatsworth and his colleagues, Mark Greenberg, Larissa Duncan and Rob Nix, believe, can reduce the risk that adolescents will get involved in dangerous activities like drinking, drugs and sex.
Coatsworth's mindfulness study is one of many projects under way through Penn State's Prevention Research Center. Established in 1997 with an endowment by alumna Edna Bennett Pierce, the center is the largest of its kind in the nation. It also is recognized as one of the best. "What sets us apart is our broad range of focuses," says acting director Ed Smith. "While we're similar to other prevention centers in that we promote effective programs and work in communities to ensure they're being done well, we incorporate a strong research component."
At one end of the center's spectrum of activity is basic child development research — how children's brains develop, how parents, peers and teachers can influence that development, and what can derail normal growth and maturation. "This part of our work doesn't involve any programs or interventions," says Smith. "It's purely about understanding — whether it's early childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Then the other extreme is about delivery. We've applied our understanding to a program, we've tested that program and know it works, and now we want to figure out the best way to deliver it."
What happens in the middle — testing a program to find out if it works — is key to the Prevention Research Center's mission. Prevention programs are delivered on a full scale only after they've been proven effective through clinical trials and evaluation. "Whatever the objective — be it reduced substance use or reduced fighting and aggression — we keep tinkering until we think we have the right product," Smith says. "Only after we've published our findings and they've been reviewed and critically assessed do we promote our programs."
In its 15 years of existence, the Prevention Research Center has evolved along with advances in prevention science, a relatively new field that grew out of a shift in thinking about public health. The release of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that alerted the nation to the health risks of smoking was the impetus for this shift. The report suggested that, in addition to traditional public health measures — such as administering immunizations and monitoring drinking water — changing people's behavior could help them live longer and healthier lives.
"How do you push for those behavioral changes?" Smith says. "Therapy is one way, but it's costly and it's done on an individual basis. Plus you're waiting until the person develops a problem before you intervene. A growing number of professionals started seeing a common thread tying together many fields: psychology, epidemiology, psychiatry, social work. That thread is promoting well-being and preventing disorders, and this is how prevention science emerged."
With support from the National Institutes of Health and its National Institute on Drug Abuse, as well as the National Institute on Childhood Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Mental Health, the Prevention Research Center continues to expand its breadth of programs and projects. Here's a sampling:
Talking to teens about drinking
"When it comes to teen drinking, there's a traditional view that parents don't have much of an impact, but here's the deal — they do," says psychologist Rob Turrisi. "Evidence shows that when parents intervene in the right ways, they can affect their teens' decisions to drink."
Turrisi developed a program for parents on how to communicate with teenagers about dangerous drinking, with a focus on college freshmen leaving home for the first time. His research shows that a number of factors are especially relevant when parents communicate with their teens: Teens need to believe their parents are giving them good advice, and they need to believe their parents are looking out for their best interest. As well, it's important for the teen to see the parent as available and accessible. "A teenager who sees his parent as being too busy and generally unavailable won't seek out that parents' advice," Turrisi says.
Communication style matters, too. When parents talk with their kids, it's important for them to show empathy and understanding, stay calm and relaxed, and be clear, direct, responsive, and supportive. Finally, after parents convey their expectations about drinking, they need to follow up to see if those expectations are being met, and then respond in a way that keeps communication channels open.
"Other approaches simply encourage a conversation or two, but they don't show parents how to follow up," Turrisi says. "Parents who use our program learn how to 'check in' to see if what they talked about is being translated into action and then what to do after the check-in. Our approach encourages parents to be vigilant. And if they put all this into practice, their discussions with teens will be that much more effective."