The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. Main Findings


There is a fairly consistent pattern that engaging in risky behaviors as a teenager is associated with less successful adult outcomes. In most cases, the earlier one engages in the behavior, the more likely one faces a bad outcome as an adult. The most consistent predictor of a bad adult outcome is age of initiation into sexual activity. Alcohol usage, on the other hand, is perhaps the one teenage behavior least associated with bad adult outcomes. Age of initiation into alcohol usage is, however, associated with adult alcohol abuse or dependence. None of our results, including these findings for sex and alcohol initiation should be interpreted as causing the adult outcomes. These are statistical associations, not causal relationships. Age of initiation into any particular risky behavior may be associated with unmeasured adolescent characteristics or circumstances that are related to the transition into adulthood. In other words, there may be a personal or family characteristic which influences both early sex initiation (for example) and a bad adult outcome. By not having measured this relevant characteristic, we would incorrectly attribute the cause of the bad adult outcome to early sex initiation.

Our findings indicate that family structure effects differ by outcome domain measured. Adolescents who reside in intact families at age 14 clearly have the least likelihood of a bad economic outcome and are less likely to spend time in jail. This is less clear for health and family formation outcomes. Adolescents living in single mother headed households at age 14 do not fare as well as those in intact families in economic outcomes, but compare favorably along other domains. Interestingly, the presence of a biological father in the household at age 14 is associated with lower levels of adult alcohol disorders or drug usage. Adolescents living with a single mother or single father at age 14 are less likely to have married by age 33 compared with those who lived in either intact or re-married families.

We found similar associations when examining the relationship of parents' education to long-term adult outcomes. Having more educated parents is associated with better economic outcomes and less likelihood of going to jail. However, there are contradictory results for the health domains where mothers' education is associated with lower likelihood of adult alcohol problems, but greater likelihood of adult drug usage. Fathers' education had exactly the opposite associations across the two outcomes. These family structure and parents' education relationships generally held even when restricting the sample to those who initiated early into risky behaviors. The results for parents' education held even when further restricting the sample to either intact families or single mother households. There is a sense that although the family may not have prevented the youth from starting down a "wrong" path, it can help them from having that choice lead to bad consequences.

Our results suggest that the ways in which parents help prevent bad outcomes for their children differ across different domains. For economic outcomes, parents can use their resources (financial, networks, etc.) to send their children to college, help them get jobs, and serve as a fallback to prevent financial problems. There is probably a similar mechanism for keeping their children out of jail. However, for non-economic domains, particularly those of substance abuse, a different set of family processes contributes to an eventual healthy adulthood.