Family System Characteristics and Parental Behaviors as Predictors of Adolescent Substance Use

By Anderson, Allan R.; Henry, Carolyn S. | Adolescence, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Family System Characteristics and Parental Behaviors as Predictors of Adolescent Substance Use


Anderson, Allan R., Henry, Carolyn S., Adolescence


In recent years the role of family factors in adolescent substance use has received increased attention (Barnes, 1990). Much of this concern emphasizes the relationship between parental and adolescent substance use (Levine, 1985). Recent studies (Barnes, Farrell, & Cairns, 1986; Simons & Robertson, 1989) indicate that while parental use places adolescents at greater risk for problems related to substance use, adolescent perceptions of family interactions are also related to variation in adolescent substance use. Research has begun to address the role of family system characteristics (Volk, Edwards, Lewis, & Sprenkle, 1989) and parental behaviors (Simons & Robertson, 1989) in adolescent substance use (Nelson, Rosenthal, Harrington, & Michelson, 1986). However, these two issues have not been examined within the same study. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine how adolescents' perceptions of selected family system characteristics and parental behaviors predict adolescent substance use.

Family System Characteristics and Adolescent Substance Use

Although theoretical works promote the examination of family system characteristics as predictors of adolescent substance use, there is a sparsity of research relating family systems theory to adolescent substance use (Barnes, 1990; Steinglass, 1984); Volk et al., 1989). Using a systems perspective, the behavior of family members is viewed as intertwined. Thus, individual behavior, such as adolescent substance use, is best understood in the family context (Becvar & Becvar, 1982; Levine, 1985). Within family systems, patterns of interaction regularities or redundancies may be identified that are often described in terms of family system characteristics or specific parenting behaviors (Becvar & Becvar, 1982). Since family systems develop qualities that may encourage or support substance use among adolescents, there is an interrelation between the qualities of family systems and adolescent substance use. Such family system characteristics serve as important variables in understanding the initiation, maintenance, cessation, and prevention of substance use by adolescents (Needle et al., 1986).

Several overall family system qualities appear to be related to adolescent substance use. Previous work on this relationship emphasized the level of family bonding as a critical element in the adaptation of adolescents. Family bonding refers to the extent to which families emotionally join together into a meaningful and integrated unit, combined with the degree to which the family interacts with each other or outsiders (McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988). Volk et al. (1989) identified two prevailing hypotheses regarding the role of family bonding in adolescent substance use. First, the overinvolvement hypothesis suggests that the families of adolescent substance abusers are frequently characterized by one parent who is overly involved in the adolescent's life and the other who is uninvolved. Second, the functional hypothesis proposes that adolescent substance users serve a function for their families. Specifically, the youths stabilize the family by drawing the members together to focus on the substance use, freeing them from focusing on other family problems such as marital conflict.

Evident within each of these hypotheses is an emphasis upon a positive relationship between highly bonded family systems and adolescent substance use. Yet, previous research presents conflicting results regarding the role of family bonding in such cases. While some studies (Steinglass, 1984; Volk et al., 1989) indicate that strong emotional bonds among family members may reduce the risk for adolescent substance use, others (particularly by clinicians) report the overinvolvement of family members in the lives of adolescents increases the risk (Levine, 1985; Stanton, 1985). Such theoretical works propose that extremely high levels of bonding increase the risk of adolescent substance use due to the struggle between adolescents' needs for autonomy and family system needs for connection (Weidman, 1983).

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Family System Characteristics and Parental Behaviors as Predictors of Adolescent Substance Use
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