The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. B. Does Adolescent Family Structure Affect the Pathways of Early Initiators?


In this section we examine family structure as a measure of family environment. Other literature has examined how family structure may influence the choices made by these youths. However, as before, we take as given the point at which youths initiate into a risky behavior. We frame the question of interest around early initiators. Specifically, does adolescent family structure affect the outcomes for early initiators into risky behaviors? Although certain family types may have reduced the likelihood of initiating a certain behavior, nevertheless some adolescents will choose to do so. If those family types did not prevent the behavior from beginning, can they still help guide the adolescent to avoid deleterious long-term effects from engaging in the behavior? It is possible that certain family types help late initiators, but do not help early initiators. We limit our analysis specifically to address whether family type matters for those who have taken a "wrong" fork in the path.

The full set of regressions is found in Appendix D. A summary table isolating the family structure relationships precedes the full set of regression tables. It is not possible to discuss all results, but certain patterns emerge regarding early initiators as a whole. For nearly any adolescent risky behavior, living in an intact family reduces the likelihood of a bad adult economic outcome for an early initiator. In 19 of the 24 behavior-outcome pairs examined in the economic domain, those living with both biological parents at age 14 have the least, or nearly least, likely bad outcomes of any family type. They also generally have among the lowest probabilities for spending time in jail.

As we saw in the previous section, two biological parent families are not the best for preventing adult alcohol and drug problems, though they are not much different from other family types except fathers with stepmothers. Remarried fathers are generally best for minimizing the likelihood of a bad health outcome. Adolescents in single father families also again have lower probabilities of adult drug usage, though no real difference on adult alcohol problems. Taking these together, it once again appears that fathers are important for reducing the probability of an adult substance abuse problem, even for those at most risk due to early initiation.

Adolescents living in single mother households at age 14 generally fare worse in economic outcomes than do those in intact families, but better than those living in other family situations. Similarly they fare among the best at keeping out of jail. As seen before, single mothers actually do better than two biological parents at reducing the probability of an adult alcohol or drug problem, particularly alcohol abuse or dependence, given early initiation.

Marriage rates are lowest among those who were living with only one parent, while fairly similar across other family types. Adolescents living with only one parent at age 14 are also the most likely to be never married with children. On the other hand, conditional upon having married, divorce rates are highest among those who were living with their mother and a stepfather (35 percent) or with no biological parent (37 percent). Rates for other family types are consistently lower (22-27 percent).

While the direction of effects of adolescent family structure for early initiators is similar to those found for the sample as a whole, many magnitudes are different. Because there are so many comparisons one could make and this is not our focus, we simply note that adolescent family structure is associated with adult outcomes for adolescents who engage in risky behaviors at early ages. The extent to which these relationships are similar to, or different from, those that would be found for late (or non-) initiators is not critical. It is important to know that there are family forces that can influence the pathways of these early initiators such that the likelihood of bad outcomes can be reduced.

Section Summary

  • Relationships between family structure and adult outcomes for early initiators are similar to those for the whole sample.
  • For nearly any of the adolescent risky behaviors studied, early initiators living in intact families at age 14 have lower likelihood of a bad adult economic or incarceration outcome, but have a neutral association with adult alcohol and drug problems.
  • Early initiators living in single mother families at age 14 have worse adult economic outcomes than those in intact families, but better than those in other family situations. They also have less likelihood of an adult substance use problem.
  • Presence of a biological father in the family at age 14 is associated with fewer adult substance abuse problems for early initiators.
  • Early initiators living with only one parent at age 14 is associated with the lowest levels of marriage and the highest levels of never having been married but having a child by age 33.