Promoting parenting prowess

  • Jessica Borelli

Jessica Borelli leads research of an innovative program for improving parent-child bonds.

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Brillante (brilliant). Sensacional (sensational). Excepcional (exceptional). Puedes hacerlo (you can do it). Te amo (I love you).

Such words can supercharge your kids and lets them know how much you support them and can change your relationships, Araceli Robles tells a room full of Santa Ana moms in Spanish.

It helps make your connection stronger, the mothers agree.

“Our words pack power,” says Robles, who leads the weekly Madres group component of the Confia en Mi, Confio en Ti  program at Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization dedicated to disease prevention and health promotion in underserved communities of Orange County. “We should celebrate and enjoy our kids and tell them how much they mean to us. Our kids remember how we treat them and we need to communicate with them.”

While the Madres program takes place, the mothers’ children take part in a Youth Engaged for Action (YEA) program, where they, too, are learning to express their frustrations and better communicate with their parents.

By getting the mothers and children to value the connection they have with one another and to express their mutual needs for emotional closeness, the program developers hope to help prevent the children from coping with their distress in less appropriate ways, such as by lashing out against others, joining gangs, using substances and engaging in self-harming behavior.

Jessica Borelli

Jessica BorelliThe mothers and their children are part of an eight-week counseling program aimed at strengthening their ties to each other. The program, supported by a $1 million Centers for Disease Control grant, is being offered through a partnership between UCI’s School of Social Ecology and Latino Health Access.

“We are implementing and evaluating an engagement program, focused on adolescents and their caregivers to strengthen relationships,” says Jessica Borelli, associate professor of psychological science.

The program is part of a larger effort to prevent youth violence among Latino boys and girls from low-income families in the most violent neighborhoods of Santa Ana.

Through the school’s long-standing collaboration with Latino Health Access, Borelli explains, “we are expanding their youth promotoras (lay health workers) network into a comprehensive YEA program, and extending our effective Madres a Madres promotora-led family engagement program to focus on adolescents and their caregivers.”

As part of the grant, Borelli and her team of student researchers are conducting a randomized controlled trial of the integrated YEA/Madres program embedded in a larger 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative, funded by a $1 million California Endowment (2010-2020) in six Santa Ana neighborhoods where violence rates are about six times the national average.

Borelli, her research team, which includes fellow School of Social Ecology faculty members Kirk Williams, John Hipp and Dean Nancy Guerra, and Latino Health Access are delivering the YEA/Madres program in three of the neighborhoods and the other three neighborhoods are serving as comparison sites. “In this manner, we can evaluate empirically the impact of the YEA/Madres program on individual and neighborhood-level outcomes,” Borelli says.

Participating families report that they love the program and have expressed a desire to continue attending the sessions beyond the eight weeks.

Says one mom: "Me pareció muy bien porque aprendí mucho de mis compañeras y las experiencias que han vivido y también porque a mi hijo también le gusta venir. Poco a poco mi hijo esta agarrando más confianza en comunicarse conmigo. Si habido un cambio. (I learned a lot from my peers and the experiences they have lived and shared. I also enjoy this program because my son likes coming here. Little, by little, my son is gaining more confidence in communicating with me. There has definitely been a change.)"

Healthier parent-child relationships are associated with a host of better outcomes, including less anxiety, depression, aggression, and substance use in children and adolescents, Borelli stresses. “The bottom line is when youth feel that they can turn to their parents in times of need, they are less likely to turn elsewhere.”