The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. A. Introduction


In the previous chapter, we have shown that in general, adolescent risk taking is associated with diminished adult outcomes. In particular, the earlier one initiates into a risky behavior, the worse the outcomes will be. However, not all youths engaging in risky behaviors fare poorly. Two youths both choosing to initiate early into a risky behavior may have different outcomes as adults. The divergent pathways may be the result of many factors. To understand why these outcomes may differ requires examining the pathways followed from adolescence to adulthood. Among the factors that may influence these pathways is the environment within the family. We have seen relationships between adolescent family structure and parents' education and adult outcomes. Yet these likely proxy for additional processes occurring within the family.

This chapter seeks to lay the groundwork for future research into the transition from adolescence to adulthood, focusing on one point along the path. We have not modeled the choice of when to engage in a risky behavior; instead we begin at a fork in the path where the adolescent has made that choice. Those choosing early initiation are taking themselves down a path with an increased likelihood of bad outcomes. Given that they have chosen this fork in the path, what factors can help prevent them from facing bad outcomes? What factors will return them to the "right" path?

To address this question, we limit our sample to "early initiators" within the various adolescent risky behaviors, i.e. those who have chosen the "bad" fork in the path. We estimate a set of regressions similar to those in Chapter V and continue our focus on family structure and parents' education. For this analysis, we address whether adolescent family structure and parents' education can help early initiators avoid bad outcomes.20 Specifically, we examine the relationship between adolescent family structure and parents' education and long-term adult outcomes for early initiators.21

It is possible that the impact of family structure and parents' education is the same for early initiators and late initiators, or the effect could be in the same direction but of a higher or lower magnitude. While the relative importance of these variables between early and late initiators would be interesting, we do not compare them here. We want to know exclusively about early initiators. In particular, it is quite possible that family structure and parents' education have no impact on early initiators. As noted above, if they didn't prevent the early initiation, maybe they can't help after the fact. That is the question we address in this chapter, whether family structure and parents' education have an impact on the adult outcomes of adolescents who choose to initiate early into one or more risky behaviors.

In this analysis, we estimate a unique regression for each behavior-outcome pair. For example, there is a regression for the outcome "ever been in poverty between ages 25-29" for early initiators into alcohol use, another for early initiators into marijuana use, yet another for early sex initiators, and so on. The definition of an early initiator varies by both the behavior and the outcome being studied and is determined empirically from the regressions in Chapter V. For each behavior-outcome pair, we define early initiators by starting with the earliest age group (11-15) and then combining with any age groups for which there was no significant difference in the association of the behavior and the outcome. The combined group is then referred to in this context as "early initiators." The age groups that are not included are deleted from the analysis.22 This means that the definition of "early initiator" will be different for each behavior-outcome pair. For example, early initiators into alcohol use are defined as ages 11-17 when examining the outcome of adult alcohol abuse or dependency, but are ages 11-19 when examining adult drug usage.

No significant difference across the four age groups implies that early initiation into the behavior is not different than late initiation with regard to that particular outcome. Since we are concentrating on the "bad" paths chosen by early initiators, these behavior-outcome pairs were dropped from the analysis. For example, the age of alcohol initiation was not associated with any economic outcomes except ever being on welfare. Therefore, for the other five economic outcomes, we do not examine further the relationship between alcohol initiation and those outcomes.

Although delinquency is not measured by age of initiation, but rather by the number of delinquent or criminal acts in 1980, we refer for convenience to those who engaged in greater numbers of such acts as "early initiators." In this case, we begin with those who committed nine or more delinquent or criminal acts, then combine with lesser numbers of acts if there is no significant difference in the relationship of that number of acts and the outcome being studied. Appendix C shows the ages used to define "early initiators" for each analyzed behavior-outcome pair.