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  • Rucha Kadam

The SUPPER Project

Does family meal tie help prevent teenage drug use? The SUPPER project, an intervention study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), aims to answer this question. The project observes and analyzes parent-child interactions with the aim to improve communication and warmth in family relationships and therefore prevent substance abuse in early teenage years. Studies have shown that the quality of the parent child relationship heavily influences teen decision making, especially regarding drugs, premature sexual activity, and other risky behaviors. While the meal itself may not affect the occurrence of these behaviors, what happens during the meal - the conversation and general family dynamic - is a strong indicator.

Dr. Margie Skeer, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts and the principal investigator of this study, has worked in this research area for over 10 years. Previous child-focused research literature had illustrated the association of strong familial relationships with low risk taking behaviors, but Dr. Skeer was interested in the relationship between drug use and meal time specifically. After running a pilot study of 70 participants, she was able to design an experimental program and intervention on a much bigger scale. The SUPPER project proposal was based off of this original study, and was approved by NIDA with a few tweaks. The current version of the study consists of 500 families in the Greater Boston area, with participant children ranging from the fifth to seventh grade. The families are enrolled as “dyads'', with each dyad consisting of one child and one parent whose relationship is the primary focus within the family dynamic. The study is a universal intervention, so participants do not undergo filtration by risk profile, but do undergo a round of eligibility checks and a comprehensive consent and information overview of the study. Once the families are officially eligible, they record their meals over a range of time and send back surveys (administered to both the parents and children) periodically. This data is then analysed by a team of “coders” and reported back to the families for the intervention portion of the study. Emma Ryan, a senior researcher on the team with a background in dietary diversity research and research survey design described the intervention portion as “how parents and guardians can better equip themselves to help their kids make healthy choices around substance use”. This stage of the process consists of a handbook with communication strategies that parents should begin to try and implement within the home based on their current behaviors.

The study results affirm this concept - children who have constructive, open, and warm relationships with their families (through avenues such as family meals) tend to fare better in terms of lower drug usage and sexual risk as well as mental health problems, violence and aggression, and difficulties in school. Each family is given a guidebook for improvement, and each child is impacted throughout the process. Emma Ryan talks about the rewards of working on a intervention study such as this one, “that's always gratifying to hear that, like, the work that you're doing, which can sometimes feel a little bit removed, is actually, you know, having an impact on the people that you're working with.”

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