The pressures that accompany early adolescence can be difficult for children and parents to navigate.

While the transition of growing from a child to a teenager is an exciting time, it can also be stressful for youths — and their families — as they face peer pressure while learning to become independent.

The Strengthening Families program is being offered in local school districts, in some for the first time this year, to help youths and their families build life skills and strengthen family bonds during a demanding time in their lives.

The family skills training program for youth ages 10-14 and their families is currently underway for the first time in Connellsville Area School District.

Administered by the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission, the program is operating this fall to bring positive youth development to local children.

“Adolescence can be a difficult transition for that age. We want to encourage them to deal with their anxiety in a positive, healthy way, and we teach them that in the program,” said project coordinator Lee Winterhalter.

In the sessions, conducted over seven weekly evening sessions, the youths learn about stress management, conflict resolution and communication skills through various activities and exercises with trained adult facilitators. Parents work on enhancing parenting skills and promoting effective parenting styles.

The program focuses on setting appropriate limits, protecting against substance abuse, handling peer pressure and building family communication, among other healthy behaviors.

Winterhalter said Strengthening Families is considered a universal prevention program open to any child who falls within the age range.

“Kids that age are often dealing with the same issues,” he said. “It’s a very open environment. They are able to talk about anything they’re dealing with.”

Winterhalter said the national, evidence-based program is tested to be effective in a number of outcomes.

Research shows that youth who attend Strengthening Families are less likely to use drugs and alcohol or to be persuaded by peer pressure. Parents who attend the program are more likely to involve their child in family activities and decision-making, to improve communication with their child and to manage their emotions in their parent-child relationship.

The Strengthen Families program is one component of the Opioid Misuse Prevention Project, an initiative of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency that promotes early prevention to reduce risk factors that lead to substance abuse, particularly opioids, for which the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission was awarded funding to implement.

As part of the five-year grant, students at Connellsville Area Middle School will receive lessons in substance abuse prevention through Botvin LifeSkills Training, an evidence-based substance abuse and violence prevention program, to be taught as a 15-lesson course in the school’s wellness classes.

Strengthening Families is also being offered for the first time in Albert Gallatin and Brownsville Area school districts through Penn State Extension and the Prosper program.

Previously offered jointly to Laurel Highlands and Uniontown Area school districts, as well as Mount Pleasant Area School District, the program will expand this year to include a large portion of Fayette County.

Michele George, Penn State Extension educator and Prosper team leader, knows firsthand the benefits of the program after completing it with her daughter several years ago.

“It has helped us a lot,” said George. “It’s a great tool to bring families closer and strengthen the family bond.”

Penn State Extension is in the first year of a two-year Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to offer Strengthening Families, said George.

In Connellsville, the program is held 5:30-8 p.m. on the following dates: Connellsville Area Middle School, Mondays, Sept. 9 to Oct. 21, and Wednesdays, Oct. 2 to Nov. 13; Dunbar Township Elementary School, Tuesdays, Oct. 8 to Nov. 19; Springfield Clifford N. Pritts Elementary School, Thursdays, Sept. 12 to Oct. 24.

The Strengthening Families program is free and open to any family in Fayette County. There are no income guidelines. Child care for younger siblings is also free.

For information or to register, contact Lee Winterhalter at 724-970-3487 or lwinterhalter@fcdaa.org.

Strengthening Families is underway at Mount Pleasant and Uniontown/Laurel Highlands. Sessions will be held 5:30-8 p.m. at Albert Gallatin, Tuesdays, Oct. 8 to Nov. 19; Brownsville, Wednesdays, Oct. 9 to Nov. 20.

For information or to register, contact Michele George at 724-438-0111 or mzg226@psu.edu.

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