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


Much of the research examining adolescent risky behaviors is centered on the factors that predict or co-vary with their occurrence. Risk factors are those variables that increase the likelihood that a certain negative outcome, in this case, risky adolescent behavior, will occur. Protective factors buffer the influence of risk factors on outcomes. The literature covers a vast array of risk factors that are thought to act as precursors to adolescent risky behavior. Examples of risk and protective factors related to the adolescent risk behaviors we examine in this report--early sex, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine initiation and delinquency--are discussed in the rest of this section. The literature is diverse in terms of the factors studied, but a consistent set of relationships emerge.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), Resnick, et al. (1997) examined the relationships of family, school, and individual risk and protective factors with the adolescent risky behaviors of suicide ideation and attempts, violence, cigarette use, alcohol use, marijuana use, age of sexual initiation, and pregnancy history. Among the many results reported, there was evidence that low grade point average and being held back a grade in school were associated with more substance use and sexual behavior. Family-related variables, such as parent or family connectedness, as well as school connectedness served as protective factors against all adolescent risk behaviors except for pregnancy. Parental attitudes also played a protective role in initiation of sex. Parents who were more disapproving of early sex initiation were more likely to have children with later age of onset of sexual behavior.

Review of the male delinquency and crime literature by Loeber and Dishion (1983) and Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1987) revealed several factors that stood out as predictors of male offending. The important variables that were linked to higher levels of male offending were poor parental child management style, childhood antisocial behavior, parental and sibling criminality, low intelligence, low educational attainment, and separation from parents.

Analysis of risk and protective factors data from the youth module of the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) showed a few factors that were particularly predictive of past-year marijuana use in adolescents (OAS, 2001). Controlling for demographic and other factors related to drug use, logistic regression analyses showed that the variables with the est relationship to past year use of marijuana were easy availability of marijuana, perceptions of close friends' more positive attitudes toward monthly marijuana use, actual marijuana use by close friends, and perceptions of low risk from marijuana use. For past-year alcohol use by 12 to 17 year olds, a slightly different set of factors arose in the final model. Past-year shoplifting, perceptions of parents' more negative attitudes toward binge drinking weekly, and anyone offering marijuana had the est relationship with alcohol use, although the predictive power of variables in this model was small in comparison with those from the final model predicting marijuana use.

Kosterman, et al. (2000) also found some similarities and some differences when comparing risk and protective factors for alcohol and marijuana initiation. Respondents in their Seattle Social Development Project were initially surveyed as fifth-graders and then again in almost every subsequent year until they were 18 years old. These researchers found that peer use of a given substance was directly predictive of initiation of that substance, for both alcohol and marijuana. For alcohol initiation, parents' alcohol use norms served as a protective factor. For marijuana initiation, parents' proactive family management was the key protective factor. Respondents own personal norms for substance use were predictive of marijuana initiation but not for alcohol initiation.

There is some evidence that the risk factors for initiation of risky behaviors may be distinct from risk factors for more regular use or abuse of these behaviors (Scheier and Newcomb, 1991). Weber, et al. (1989), for example, categorize two distinct pathways of adolescent alcohol use. In this view, normally socialized adolescents consume alcohol at a more steady pace while those who are "problem prone" show more rapid acceleration of alcohol involvement after initiation occurs. Scheier, et al. (1997) suggest that social learning factors such as peer and adult models and normative expectations are important ingredients in predicting initial stages of adolescent alcohol use. Personality components may be a key part of alcohol abuse later in young adulthood. These researchers found that several psychological factors--behavioral control, depression, anxiety, external locus of control, antisocial behavior, and low self-esteem--were significant predictors of alcohol consumption and change in drinking patterns from onset to more problematic drinking.

The Problem Behavior Theory presents one way of categorizing the risk factors predictive of adolescent risky behavior. Leading theorists, Jessor, Donovan, and Costa (1991) describe the three major systems of psychosocial risk and protective factors that are responsible for occurrence of risky behavior as the personality system, the perceived environment system, and the behavior system. When the variables in a given system are geared up for the occurrence of a problem, that system is in a state of proneness. When all three systems are in this state, then an individual shows overall psychosocial proneness toward a particular problem behavior.

This approach implies that adolescent risky behaviors such as early substance use, precocious sexual behavior, and delinquency are symptoms of an underlying trait (Jessor and Jessor, 1977). Using longitudinal data, Donovan, Jessor, and Costa (1988) concluded that a single common factor was responsible for the positive associations among a number of adolescent antisocial behaviors, including problem drinking, marijuana use, precocious sexual intercourse, and delinquency. Similarly, Patterson (1993) discusses a core antisocial trait that makes its appearance in various risk behaviors. Problem Behavior Theorists refer to these risky behaviors as a syndrome of problem behavior with a high degree of interrelatedness among the behaviors.

In their comprehensive review of the literature on predictors of adolescent drug abuse, Hawkins, et al. (1992) came up with a classification scheme that helps break down the overwhelming number of risk factors into manageable categories. They divided risk factors into two main groups: contextual and individual/interpersonal. Contextual factors include laws and norms encouraging substance use, easy availability of a substance, economic disadvantage, and neighborhood disorganization. Individual/interpersonal factors consist of: physiology, family substance use and attitudes, poor and inconsistent family management, high family conflict, low family bonding, early and persistent problem behaviors, academic failure, low commitment to school, peer rejection early in school, affiliation with substance-using peers, rebelliousness and alienation from society's values, pro-drug use attitudes, and early initiation of substance use. From their review, Hawkins, et al. drew some general conclusions about risk for drug abuse. Among their conclusions they reported that risk factors showed consistency over time. The same risk factors have been identified for different cohorts. They also determined that the greater number of risk factors, the greater the risk of drug abuse.