Insights from our work

Since 1985, the Center for Family Research has explored innovative and dynamic ways of examining family life. In recent years, CFR has worked to identify and track the contextual factors that promote healthy development in rural, African American families.

“Skin-deep” resilience

Although individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds can and do overcome the odds to succeed in many ways, there is growing evidence that this resilience may be only “skin deep”. That is, the success can come at a cost to one’s physical health. CFR work continues to examine how such resilience can negatively affects multiple body systems. Read our Research Digest on this topic.

Substance use prevention

CFR researchers have developed a suite of three contextually-specific, developmentally-appropriate drug use prevention programs for African American families that have received national recognition. In randomized control trials, each of these programs have proven effective in deterring substance use onset and/or escalation, with effects on delaying substance use documented up to five years following program completion.

Brain development, poverty, and families

The brain demonstrates heightened neuroplasticity for more than the first two decades of life.  Work by CFR researchers has illuminated multiple ways that experiences in one’s environment–including poverty, supportive parenting, and family-based prevention programming–can shape the developing brain. This research has also highlights unique associations between brain connectivity and other body systems, such as inflammation.

The power of parents and families

Among African American families, CFR research has highlighted the benefits of “no nonsense” and “involved-vigilant” approaches to parenting that shape children’s development. These parenting styles not only deter youths’ substance use and promote positive mental health, but also appear to be a key protective factors buffering children’s socioemotional well-being and even physical health from the risks posed by discrimination and other stressors in the environment.  See our Research Digest for more information on the role of parents in protecting children’s physical health from the negative effects of stress.

The Importance of Racial Identity

CFR research was among the first to document that affirmation of Black identity is a key protective response by Black families. We found that Black parents who talked with their children about well-known and widely admired African Americans, and about Black culture and Black history were less likely to have children who used substances or engaged in delinquent behavior.  Likewise, we found that racial pride and identity had many positive effects for Black youth. It was associated with better academic performance, more education, stronger social networks, and less delinquent behavior.

Social determinants of health

Emerging evidence suggests that many chronic diseases of aging that emerge later life have their origins much earlier in development. From contextual stressors such as poverty and discrimination to experiences inside of the home, CFR studies have been advancing research on the ways in which stress gets ‘under the skin’ to affect underlying biological aging, cardiometabolic health, and other factors linked to chronic diseases of aging.

Healthy infants and toddlers

CFR researchers are actively conducting basic and applied research with African American parents and children at the earliest stages of development. These studies are identifying ways to promote healthy sleep and feeding patterns with newborns as well as investigating the ways in which father involvement fosters healthy development in toddlers.

Resilience in Couples and Families

CFR researchers continue work to identify factors that help families develop resiliency to financial strain, racial discrimination, and other types of stressors.  Targeting two-parent households with pre-adolescent and early adolescent youth, CFR created programming to help families develop resiliency to external stress. In a randomized trial, this program was found to strengthen couples’ communication; enhance co-parenting and parent-child relationships; and protect families from the negative effects of financial stress and racial discrimination.

Stress is cumulative

Rural African American men who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences such as interpersonal racism or abusive/neglectful home environments are more likely to experience exposure to even more stressors during emerging adulthood, and this accumulation of stressors negatively affects their ability to develop supportive, social ties. This puts them at risk for depression and substance abuse. Protective parenting can shield them from these outcomes.

Learn more about our current and past research projects on our research projects page, how our work leads to prevention solutions, and a summary of What Strong African American Families Do.