The Relationship of Adolescent Perceptions of Peer Norms and Parent Involvement to Cigarette and Alcohol Use

By Olds, R. Scott; Thombs, Dennis L. | Journal of School Health, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Relationship of Adolescent Perceptions of Peer Norms and Parent Involvement to Cigarette and Alcohol Use


Olds, R. Scott, Thombs, Dennis L., Journal of School Health


Since the 1970s, a variety of psychological theories and models have been developed to explain adolescent tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use. In 1977, Jessor and Jessor[1] described Problem Behavior Theory which postulated adolescent substance abuse as one feature of underlying syndrome of problem behavior. During the same period, Zuckerman[2] drew attention to the personality trait known as sensation seeking. In the 1980s, a line of inquiry focusing on cognitive processes proposed that alcohol and other drug use result from learned outcome expectancies (ie, the anticipated reinforcement of ingesting a substance).[3,4] In more recent years, Catalano and colleagues[5] developed a complex, developmental model to explain the multiple protective and risk factors that determine antisocial behavior, including substance abuse. A number of other general theories of human behavior,[6] models of developmental psychopathology,[7] and one level of analysis explanations[8] also sought to explain tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use during adolescence.

A limiting aspect of these lines of basic research is that they generated little practical knowledge for designing population-based, preventive interventions. The reasons that these bodies of knowledge have not transformed practice are numerous. Chief among them is that most theoretical research on adolescent substance abuse has not been based on a psychology of practitioner utilization.[9] Instead, most lines of inquiry on the problem appear to be committed to testing theory with less interest in its application.

A critical need exists to develop theory that practitioners can use as a guide. Such frameworks will point to feasible delivery channels, allow for practical interventions to be delivered to specific target groups, and identify programming for specific risk factors. Above all, a need exists for applied theory that explicates the mediating mechanisms by which interventions deter drug-taking behavior.[10]

In efficacious primary prevention trials conducted to date,[11-13] some uncertainty remains about 1) how intervention activities alter risk factors for substance use, and 2) which program components are responsible for delaying onset of use or reducing substance use. Existing research suggests positive intervention effects alter perceptions of proximal environmental influences, such as parent and close friends. MacKinnon et al[10] noted that perceived norm variables (peer and parent measures) were important program mediators. Williams and Perry[14] found that positive behavior change could be attributed to peer norms, parent-child communication, perceptions of social consequences, and peer-resistance skills.

However, much remains to be known about the priority that should be assigned to programming that seeks to change peer vs. parent factors. General skepticism about the effectiveness of prevention programming, and the limited prevention resources that exist in many communities, suggest that practitioners should take efficiency and cost issues into account when planning programs. Costly preventive interventions that attempt to address all risk factors in an adolescent's social environment may produce positive outcomes in a field trial, but are unlikely to be implemented in diverse communities.[10]

This observational study sought to compare measures of parental involvement and perceived peer norms for their relative ability to explain adolescent cigarette and alcohol use at middle school and high school levels. The analytic strategy sought to determine the relative influence of peer and parent risk factors at each grade level (7-12). Such information could be useful to prevention specialists seeking to tailor programming to specific grade levels. Researchers expected to find that early onset of cigarette and alcohol use (ie, in middle school) would be most closely associated with low levels of perceived parental involvement, but that among students in higher grades a shift toward peer influence would appear, such that use of cigarettes and alcohol would become most closely linked with perceptions of smoking and drinking norms among peers. …

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