Academic journal article Adolescence

Social Representations Used by the Parents of Mexican Adolescent Drug Users under Treatment to Explain Their Children's Drug Use: Gender Differences in Parental Narratives

Academic journal article Adolescence

Social Representations Used by the Parents of Mexican Adolescent Drug Users under Treatment to Explain Their Children's Drug Use: Gender Differences in Parental Narratives

Article excerpt


Social representations (SRs) have been understood as social thought forms. Unlike some other theories that do not accept this kind of thinking in society, SRs are beliefs in a reflexive community that constantly communicates its thoughts in an attempt to account for its everyday problems through representations that are created and shared through interpersonal interactions (Moscovici, 1979).

In scenarios such as family life, life on the streets, meeting points, markets, street corners, and schools, people exchange ideas about their visions of the world, which in turn influence their social relationships. Moscovici (1979), who created this theory, argues that there are two knowledge universes: a reified universe and a consensual universe. Such a distinction is intended to place the type of knowledge according to the sphere where it is developed: scientific knowledge and common sense knowledge. In the reified universe, both forms of knowledge and individuals are integrated in a comprehensive, systematized, and hierarchical structure. Thought systems evolving in this universe impose truth criteria that constitute the "official reality." Because not every individual has the qualifications to be a part of the reified universe, it is an exclusive one. Individuals who have acquired certain competencies are welcomed into this universe in such a way that they can present themselves as psychologists, physicians, or researchers. They display their activities in organizations that possess their own communication channels and they share a specialized linguistic and conceptual repertoire. In other words, this knowledge universe is none other than that of science.

In contrast, the consensual universe is the sphere where common sense communications produced by the thinking society flow. An expert role is not necessary to be a part of it, because individuals who perceive themselves as equals, are free to express any thought and to construct with this their own theories. Thus, people may play the roles of amateur psychologists or physicians (Moscovici, 1979).

This study was conducted in an effort to comprehend a phenomenon that derives from common sense, where a group of parents of adolescent illegal drug users explained the onset of their children's drug use.

The literature regarding scientific explanations about the onset of adolescent drug use provides some background data. Petraitis, Flay, and Miller (1995) proposed a conceptual model to understand the etiology of drug use where they considered three types of influences: cultural and attitudinal, social, and interpersonal. In turn, these take into account three influence levels: proximal, distal, and remote. Another model included 50 onset-related factors, including the social, familial and demographic environments, the individual backgrounds, and the availability and distribution of drugs (Castro-Sarinana, 2001).

Other studies have found an association between the onset of drug use and familial substance use (Medina-Mora, Villatoro, Lopez, Berenzon, Carreno, & Juarez, 1995; Sanchez-Huezca, Guisa-Cruz, Ortiz-Encinas, & De Leon-Pantoja, 2002; Hopfer, Crowley, & Hewitt, 2003), poor and triangulated communication styles (Klein, Forehand, Armistead, & Long, 1997, family problems (Sokol, Dunham, & Zimmerman, 1997; Friedman & Glassman, 2000), marital conflicts and lack of common agreements (Klein et al., 1997), conflicts and fights between parents and offspring (Klein et al., 1997; Sokol et al., 1997), intergenerational alliances and coalitions (Graham, 1996; Straus & Kaufman, 1994; Yeh & Hedgespeth, 1995), domestic violence (Sanchez-Huezca et al., 2002; Graham, 1996; Straus & Kaufman, 1994), familial patterns that perpetuate addiction (Tomori, 1994), environment (Voelkl & Frone, 2000), family atmospheres where the members lack affection and do not express appreciation to each other (Yeh et al., 1995), unsuccessful problem-solving patterns (Klein et al., 1997; Sokol et al., 1997), low familial satisfaction (Yeh et al., 1995; Choquet, Kovess, & Poutignat, 1993), low familial cohesion and adaptability (Arellanez-Hernandez, Diaz-Negrete, Wagner-Echegaray, & Perez-Islas, 2004), family perception oriented toward negative aspects (Anderson & Henry, 1994; Denton & Kampfe, 1994; Foxcroft & Lowe, 1995), family breakup (Hagell & Newburn, 1996), religious practices (Foshee & Hollinger, 1996), poor parental monitoring of children's activities (Hawkins, Catalana, & Miller, 1992), and lack of support and affection bonds (Arellanez-Hernandez et al., 2004).

Other variables associated with drug use onset include behavior disorders (Weinberg & Glantz, 1999), psychiatric diseases (Agrawal, Gardner, Prescott, & Kendler, 2005), affective problems (Lopes & Schieri, 2002), peer influence (Friedman & Glassman, 2000; D'Amico, Phyllis, Ellickson, Collins, & David, 2005), a history of physical and sexual abuse (Turner, Russell, & Brown, 2003; Freeman, Collier, & Parillo, 2002), adverse experiences in childhood (Dube, Felitti, Dong, Chapman, Gilrd, & Anda, 2003), and low school performance and tobacco and alcohol use (Diego, Field, & Sanders, 2003).

Considering all this, how do the parents of adolescent drug users explain the situation? Are there differences between male and female adolescent users? Which SRs are involved in the explanation given by parents about the onset of drug use? The aim of this study was to identify the SRs used by a group of parents of adolescent drug users to explain the drug use onset and to establish changes in thinking when the user was male and when the user was female.


An analytic-interpretative study was designed which had three transversal phases with a quanti-qualitative analysis level (Borgatti, 1996a), and was SRS theory-oriented (Moscovici, 1979; Abric, 2001). The population under study included 60 parents (mothers: 78%; fathers: 11%; couples: 11%; median age: 42 years; average schooling: 7.8 years; all were inhabitants of marginal urban neighborhoods; family background of alcohol use in male figures: 90%, and illegal drug use: 72%), who accompanied their drug-using adolescent children (13-19 years old; median age: 16.3 years; males: 57%; females: 43%; average formal schooling: 8.7 years; cocaine users: 30%; marihuana: 25%; inhalants: 14%; tranquilizers: 5%; sedatives: 4%; and hallucinogens: 2%, during the previous month; 42% were attending school and 39% had jobs) to treatment at four ambulatory rehabilitation centers in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2004.

In the first phase there were 69 parents, but in the second phase 18 participants abandoned treatment. We were able to locate only 11 of them. However, we had to exclude two mothers, whom we referred to the psychiatry wing for severe depressive symptoms. For these reasons, only 60 parents participated in the second phase. For the third phase, a subsample of 15 parents was chosen for in-depth interviews (seven were the parents of male adolescents; eight were the parents of female adolescents). All were asked for a signed consent to safeguard participants' identities. The project was approved by a research and ethics committee from the National Institute of Social Security.

Phase I: Free Lists

A free association technique (Borgatti, 1996a; Abric, 2001) was applied with an inducting term that explored beliefs associated with the onset of drug use. The following situation was posed: Please imagine that, on leaving the rehabilitation center, you watch a group of teenagers taking drugs on the corner. As quickly as possible, tell me in a few words, why you think these teenagers started taking drugs. Answers were written down in a five-space questionnaire. A list of associated descriptors was calculated according to the order in which they were mentioned, their frequency, and cultural weight (CW) (co-relation between frequency and order of mention) (Borgatti, 1996a), using the Anthropac 4.9 software package (Borgatti, 1996b). Descriptors were classified by the participating population by dimensions. An interpretative analysis was conducted to formulate premises about how the explanative model was objectified. From this, the parents chose 12 descriptors as the most important to collect phase II data: 1. familial problems, 2. they notice the example in their family, 3. parental neglect, 4. belief that they are not considered important, 5. peer influence, 6. they see someone else doing it, 7. neighborhood atmosphere, 8. friends" pressure, 9. curiosity, 10. it is forbidden, 11. weakness of character, and 12. loneliness.

Phase II: Pile Sort

A card was created for each descriptor chosen in Phase I. The cards were shown to each participant, who was asked to choose the four forms which, according to his or her point of view, better represented why adolescents started taking drugs. These descriptors were assigned a + 2 rating. Participants were then asked to choose the four forms which, according to them, least represented why adolescents started taking drugs. These were given a -2 rating. Thus, there remained four nonchosen cards, which were placed somewhere between more or less important and were given a 0 rating. Similarity rates were calculated for the analysis (Degenne & Verges, 1984) with the SIMIL-C software package (De la Torre-Fernandez, 1999), which is expressed through distance rates. A similitude analysis enables us to understand the relationship between the elements and to generate a set organization (graph) from which to elaborate a theoretical reflection. The following formulation is used to calculate the distance rates:

D = 2(Em - Eo) - 1 / Em

where Em is the maximum expected distance and Eo is the observed distance (Degenne & Verges, 1984).

Once the explicative graphs were produced (Figures 1, 2, and 3), an interpretative analysis was applied to pose new premises as to the way these explanations were anchored in daily life and under which SRS they operated. An interview guide was elaborated with these premises for Phase III data recollection.

Even though in Phases I and II informants were asked why they thought, on the whole, adolescents started using drugs, participants answered from their own experiences because the associative techniques allowed them to learn uncensored inquiries by not focusing these directly on the informants' experience (Nuno-Gutierrez, 2004).

Phase III: In-depth Interviews

Each interview was conducted during three, 30-minute sessions. Three phases were followed: (a) Rapport, where the format of the session was explained and a written consent to an anonymous audio recording was solicited; (b) interview, through a semistructured guide that explored a two-generation family history of drug use, family problems, influences leading to drug use, and impact and responses in the family concerning the son's or daughter's drug use; and (c) cessation, where the main ideas found were exposed so participants could confirm, clarify, or deny them. Once recordings were transcribed with the Atlas Ti program (Muhr, 1998), two readings were conducted to identify thematic codes and create code families. An interpretative analysis was then undertaken.



I Free Lists

Forty-eight descriptors were associated with drug use onset. Participants organized these into four dimensions: 1. attributed to the family with a frequency of 52, a 1.042 CW, and accounted for 39% of the descriptors total; 2. individual-related, with a frequency of 46, a CW of .827, and accounted for 34%; 3. related to the influence of friends, and amounted to a frequency of 25, a CW of .414, and accounting for 19%; 4. social environment-related, amounted to a frequency of 11, a .171 CW, and accounted for 8% of the set (see Table 1).



In this initial exploration, we hypothesized that parents would objectify the drug use onset in terms of a power relation: the internal level of weakness (familial, individual) and external level influences (environments, friends). In this case, such a "weakness" would be characterized by a family that is not satisfying the adolescent's needs, which in turn would give as a result the picture of a vulnerable and disoriented person in terms of his or her relationship to peers and the social environment.

II Pile Sort

Figure I presents the model used by parents, on the whole, to explain the onset of their children's drug use. This model was organized in two blocks. Block A gathered the greatest number of elements. However, both blocks similarly explained the drug use in terms of a struggle between exogenous versus endogenous factors.

In a more detailed analysis, we then found that descriptor 10, "it is forbidden," established five connections: "they notice the example in the family," "weak character," "they feel lonely." "they see someone else doing it," and "parental neglect," were all placed in the higher block (A) with positive values. On the one hand, a numerical positive value expresses a proximity or similitude among descriptors; on the other, a negative sign value represents an estrangement or lack of similitude. (There is a distance value range from + 2, + 1, 0, -1 to -2.)

The "see someone else doing it" descriptor stood out from the others because of its high value (.42), which may be interpreted, according to parents, as meaning practically the same as "it is forbidden." We hypothesize that doing what "is forbidden" would be directly attributable to the adolescent, which in turn could be due to his or her inexperience or to being highly impressionable. In the third phase, such a reason was clarified more precisely. There was, in addition, another three-connection element: "family problems," which was associated with "feeling lonely" and "curiosity," even though the latter was placed outside the blocks.

The set was organized around the descriptors "it is forbidden," "feeling lonely," and "family problems." All three descriptors referred to endogenous factors that were related in turn to some other endogenous factors, without disregarding social influence.

Considering all this, we decided to propose the hypothesis that parents would likely explain the drug use onset through two RSs: a neglectful family and a son or daughter being different from the adult world. Both RSs would support the fact that, during his or her upbringing, the son or daughter would be exposed to failures in the familial system that would have made him or her vulnerable to the influence of the social environment and that this whole set would be reflected in the drug use onset. First, the male users' parent model (Figure 2) turned out a well-structured description. There were four remarkable elements in this: In the first place, the "they notice the example in the family," led in turn to four connections: "they feel they are not taken into account," "weak character," "neighborhood atmosphere," and "parental neglect." The last two descriptors pointed to three connections. Of the four elements, three refer to family-related matters and only one comes from an exogenous source. In fact, the descriptor, "they notice the example in the family" was related to endogenous elements; that is, family matters, and to an exogenous nonfamilial matter. Such a characterization represented an efficient description about the drug use: a family-centered description, which did not rule out environmental aspects.

Elements located in the inner part of Figure 2 block organized such a description emphasizing the family. As a consequence, descriptors that were omitted from the block may be ignored.

In brief, the parents of male drug users explained drug use through a family RS. Still, to integrate their reasoning schemes, the family was also represented as a figure acting as a mirror that reflects outside world influences.

On the other hand, Figure 3 presents the explicative model developed by the parents of female drug users. Unlike their male counterparts, this thought scheme lacks structure. In this instance, only the "they see someone else doing it" descriptor had any other connections. In the series of elements, a pair with a higher proximity rate, "having family problems" and "feeling lonely" (0.52), was also observed. That is, family matters were still relevant in explaining why daughters were taking drugs. In this instance, 'Raving family problems" and "feeling lonely" represented the same.

However, "see someone else doing it" was the only organizing element, which would point out that, according to their reasoning, they explained their drug use in terms of doing something that was forbidden, out of imitation, or learned through observation. Nevertheless, it also speaks to the image parents had about their daughters. It seemed that they considered them to be small children, as if they refused to believe they had grown up, as if they belonged to a "different world" and, as a result, they would be victims of their inexperience and immaturity. This presents an interesting point: on the whole, the group of parents' perspective involves both the representation of a "neglectful family" that of the "son or daughter as a child" (Farr, 1986) seen as a "world apart" from that of the adults.

These schemes of structured versus unstructured thought revealed by the parents of male and female drug users allowed us to advance another hypothesis: female drug use would have a higher resonance and would tend to disorganize the family more, probably because of the image that is socially constructed around the drug user and because of the social roles attributed to Mexican women.

III In-depth Interviews

At this qualitative phase, we were able to note that the "neglectful family" representation derived from two closely linked situations: on the one hand, the drug use modeling inside the family; on the other, the parents' feelings of guilt for not being able to achieve a different life for their children.

The fact that 90% of the interviewed families had a history of legal drug use and another 72% had a history of illegal drug use on the part of the male authority figures defined familial tolerance attitudes toward drug use. Still, parents believed their children would avoid repeating the same drug use pattern if they observed the associated problems. According to this train of thought, parents believed familial drug use would work in the opposite direction by setting a bad example:

   You have the hope that, on growing up, children will be productive
   people, that they're going to be honest, with values and ideals. I
   used to tell my son. Look at your father. How bad he gets, how much
   he suffers; you should not do the same. I was wrong with him., I
   didn't know how to deal with him. Now, I don't want to make the
   same mistake with my son. [Male adolescent's mother]

We were able to tell that illegal drug use was higher among the nuclear families than in the grandparents' generation, and we did not find any differences in drug use pattern between the female and male adolescents' families.

"Parental role failure" was another belief associated with adolescent drug use. This caused feelings of guilt by the parents because, from their standpoint, they were responsible for raising and looking after their children, and their drug use was thus interpreted as a challenge to the adequacy of their parental role. The "parental role failure" was more emphasized in the case of female adolescents' parents; the behavior of male drug users added the figure of a pernicious friend who induced their sons to take drugs:

   It devastated me, it utterly struck me because I'd never imagined
   some thing like this happening in my life. I could have expected
   something else, like pregnancy, but never drugs, because I've never
   myself seen any and I didn't think he would ever try such a thing.
   The castle I had constructed for her came tumbling down. No, I
   didn't expect anything like this! It might be I haven't been a good
   mother, or maybe I didn't know how to be friends with her. [Female
   adolescent's mother]

   It all started with friends, it is my belief that's the way it all
   started. Maybe I haven't been able to satisfy all of his needs.
   I've restricted him in many ways. Maybe we didn't know how to raise
   him. But, then, what about his older brothers? We didn't fail with
   them. Those friends of his are the ones who gave him the drugs.
   [Male adolescent's father]

Following are the familial environment characteristics reported by parents: conflictive marital relationship; a semiperipheral father and a mother with overprotective tendencies; parental styles with diffuse rules; distanced families; low income; parents with low schooling levels; conflictive relationship between drug-taking parents and children.

From a therapeutic point of view, the overall effect of these variables suggested to us an unstable family environment as a continuous source of stress. Parents and adolescents apparently dealt with this situation with avoidance reflected in substance abuse. This would explain why they, as a family, recognize themselves as the source of the drug taking when they speak about their sons' emotional vulnerability resulting from family tensions. Together with their own experience, sons are influenced by the social context and their so-called pernicious friends.

In the case of male adolescents' families, parents reported having looked for extracurricular or job activities for their sons to keep them busy and away from friends.

   I tell my son that he has to do something, to dedicate himself and
   keep his mind and time busy with something else. He just can't
   spend afternoons doing nothing, just thinking about drugs: He
   should find a job or practice some sport, something productive.
   There are other things in life besides friends. And these are not
   even beneficial friends! [Male adolescent's father]

More severe family problems surfaced with the families of female adolescents. These were characterized by more rejection and stigmatization on the part of parents and siblings, more disregard, and less tolerance for the adolescent to express her opinions. There were also more feelings of guilt and depressive symptoms by the mothers.

   My husband had reached the point of telling her that she's nothing
   but the scum of society, that she's the worst kind of person, that
   everybody notices she's different, as a drug addict. And sometimes,
   when she fights with her brothers, they shout at her: "Shut up,
   stupid drug addict, your opinions are worthless." I reprimand them
   and ask them not to call her that. I'm the only one who stands up
   for her. It's very burdensome and sometimes I feel I cannot stand
   it anymore. [Female adolescent's mother]

The unstructured thinking of the female adolescents' parents was anchored, as we had predicted, on the kind of impact the situation had on the family. Two ratiocinations were identified: (1) family drug taking had been eminently defined as masculine and for authority figures; thus, tolerance toward women doing the same was low; and (2) such a low tolerance derived, in turn, from two culturally constructed figures: the woman-wife and the woman-mother.

The first implies, as a prerequisite, a selection on the part of the man. In the parents' eyes, a married woman possesses a higher social status than a single one. Thus, it is very important for them that their daughters marry. On the other hand, a woman's image as a mother implies that she should develop certain abilities which, as subjective as they are, are not drug use-related, because their role involves formative, educational, and affective tasks for their own children.

As future providers, men must develop their own skills away from home; women, as future mothers, must develop them at home.

   I ask myself: What did I do to deserve this? If she were at least a
   man ... But she's going to suffer more as a woman. Who is going to
   want to marry a drug addict? I do not smoke, I do drink. I'm a
   grown man, but her ...? [Female adolescent's father]

As these cultural ratiocinations have a greater impact on the response levels of the daughters' drug use, female drug users looked for help earlier (six months on average) at health care institutions than do male adolescents (12 months on average), although this first attempt was unsuccessful.

   We went to this church where I was told therapy was given and where
   they helped people with drug and alcohol problems. I took her to a
   meeting and I started getting therapy. They put her on some
   homeopathic medicine. I thought she was improving. Then they told
   me she was smoking marihuana and she was expelled. She had a
   remission and we had to look for other treatment. [Female
   adolescent's mother]

On the other hand, "the inexperienced son as a child" representation was embodied in the fact that the drug users were adolescents, not adults, which placed them, at least in their parents' eyes, in a position closer to that of a child, as they were still growing up and were economically and emotionally dependent on their parents. Most of all, adolescents were perceived as inexperienced, which in turn gives rise to their being perceived as vulnerable and impressionable.

   How is it that a 16-year-old girl, who's still growing, developing,
   is already using drugs and living through that disgusting thing? I
   just can't get things like that into my head! [Female adolescent's

   How come he's only 12 years old and he's already taking drugs! I
   tell him such a thing is just not right. I ask him if he would like
   his kid brothers doing the same. Now I have to look more aider them
   so that they don't get hooked on the same. [Male adolescent's

In the male adolescents' fathers' way of thinking, an image prevailed of having rebellious, daring, and preposterous sons, who nevertheless had familial and emotional problems. This, together with parental neglect and familial disorientation, made them vulnerable to the influence of pernicious friends.

   My husband beat him up several times. I didn't actually defend him
   because I knew it was wrong. I told him: "Son, you asked for it.
   You're very stubborn. You have never followed my advice. [Male
   adolescent's mother]

The image parents constructed about their daughters was centered around an adolescent with emotional vacuums, such as lack of tenderness, attention, and understanding (see Table 2).

   It may be I'm much too aggressive with her because I have always
   been the same with them [with her daughter/son]. I feel I haven't
   treated her very well: on that I've been mistaken because I can't
   control my nerves. I was always mean to her. I couldn't understand
   her and it may be she's resentful because at home all she ever got
   were shouts, no caring or loving. In fact, it's not a good life we
   live at home. [Female adolescent's mother]


The overall explanation about the drug use onset was embodied in social representations: "the neglectful family" and '%he inexperienced son or daughter as a child." Such explanation synthesizes the two movements of the representational process: what is known and how it is known about a daily life phenomenon. How it is known depends on the way of thinking and on our condition as observers (Moscovici, 1979). An onlooker establishes relationships and connections, and attempts to discover the phenomena of which they are a part and, through a set of connections, advances arguments to explain their reality. In other words, the observer produces an epistemology of his or her own. In the descriptions, observers attempt to elaborate an "etiology of drug use." To perceive the family as the first cause is a reflection of the parent's cognitive effort to explain why their children take drugs.

The second cognitive effort refers to the meanings anchored in the context more immediate to the parents: representing their own family as neglected. Such a movement helped to reveal the causes and to make operable the function of the "neglectful family" representation as the root cause of the drug use. A convincing explanation of the drug use onset derived from such a process of cognitively linking what they know and how they know it. Thus, parents propose that the sons and daughters from neglectful families have reasons to take drugs because they are emotionally vulnerable.

On analyzing this explanation in the face of scientific models (Petraitis et al., 1995; Castro-Sarinana, 2001), we found similarities and differences. On the one hand, both models coincide in defining a problem with familial influences (Medina-Mora et al., 1995; Sanchez-Huesca et al., 2002; Klein et al., 1997; Sokol et al., 1997; Graham, 1996; Straus et al., 1994; Yeh et al., 1995; Tomori, 1994; Voekl et al., 2002; Choque et al., 1993; Arellanez-Hernandez et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 1994; Denton et al., 1994; Foscroft et al., 1995; Hagell et al., 1996; Foshee et al., 1996; Hawkins et al., 1992) and social ones (Petraitis et al., 1995; Castro-Sarinana, 2001).

Substantial differences were found on two aspects: first, the cognitive process characteristics (Moscovici, 1979) that are used to explain why adolescents use drugs and, second, defining the type of family that gives rise to illegal drug use.

The cognitive processes are unlike scientific processes. In using common sense, where SRs are formed, knowledge and thoughts do not need to be verified. For this group of parents, common sense established a connection between the neglectful family and the inexperienced son or daughter and the onset of drug use. In science, processes must be abstracted from their connections to transform and prove findings: the form is separated from the content. In common sense, form and content are fused and the lines between them practically disappear. Parents need not verify whether what they think is a duly justified connection, for the needs are different. Parents limit themselves to communicating their ideas and with these they organize the explanations they give about the word, their immediate environment, and everyday events. (Moscovici & Vignaux, 2001).

Regarding the second difference, the literature has pointed out the problem family (Medina-Mora et al., 1995; Sanchez-Huezca et al., 2002; Klein et al., 1997; Sokol et al., 1997; Friedman et al., 2000; Graham, 1996; Straus et al., 1994; Yeh et al., 1995; Tomori, 1994; Voekl et al., 2002; Choque et al., 1993; Arellanez-Hernandez et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 1994; Denton et al., 1994; Foxcroft et al., 1995; Hagell et al., 1996; Hawkins et al., 1992) in relation to the onset of drug use; parents who participated in the study perceived the family as neglectful.

Our findings coincide partially with these reports because parents, rather than perceiving themselves as having many problems, consider themselves as unable to guide their children. A son's or daughter's addiction seems to challenge a core element of the family function: their parental role. Parents feel there is little they can do and consider they did not know how to take care of their children well enough to stop them from taking drugs. As family heads, parents seem to have a tendency to avoid dealing with the stress that derives from internal and external sources through drug use. This might be what Tomori (1994) meant when he proposed that, within families, styles prevail that perpetuate drug addiction and that we believe are part of the knowledge that links one generation to the next. Rather than being aware of having problems in the family, parents feel they have been neglectful, which marks a second difference in the scientific model explanation about drug use.

On the other hand, behavioral differences between male and female adolescent drug users are reported in the literature. Mexican literature has pointed out that women have more associated problems (Nuno-Gutierrez, 2004) and receive more criticism and rejection, in addiction to being more stigmatized. In light of this, families tend to protect girls more than they protect boys (Lara, Stern, Santamaria, Obregon, & Sosa, 1991), which leads them to look for help at healthcare centers earlier.

From the early phases of the study, we were surprised to find more disorganized thinking on the part of the female adolescents' fathers because we expected not to find differences until the in-depth interview phase. Our findings indicate that female adolescents' drug use brings more structural and cognitive disorganization into the family, which is reflected in the parents' thinking. They are not prepared to deal with a daughter's addiction because, according to family tradition, this use should be eminently masculine and power-related. However, it is also due to the roles that are culturally invested in Mexican women. According to Flores-Palacios (2001), socialization depends not only on biological differences, but also on the culture's interpretation system, so the history and tradition that determine these constructions must be acknowledged. Thus, addiction seems to place female adolescents at risk of not being able to plan their own families and unable to reach a socially valued and desired status. This may explain why their families tolerate their drug use less and tend to protect them more (Lara et al., 1991) in such a way that it activates optimal response levels that lead to earlier visits to healthcare centers, even if such a step does not necessarily bring about an efficacious solution.

Because drug use is seen as eminently masculine, perhaps women's drug use derives from an attempt to seize the power men have traditionally held in the family. It may also derive from the absence of valued and admired female models. This hypothesis may be worth exploring in terms of power distribution in the family. Another matter worth studying in more depth is the contrast between the narratives of fathers and mothers of female adolescents. Even though the mother may have the same general views as the father, the father may add insights.

In brief, parents' explanations of adolescent drug use were defined according to two SRs: the neglectful family, which engenders emotionally vulnerable offspring, under a peer influence, and the son or daughter as an inexperienced child. Still, we consider the drug use etiology as going beyond the neglectful family representation. As Petraitis et al. (1995) suggest, many influences can be taken into account, from the individual background, which was almost ignored by these parents, to the cultural, including familial and gender issues.

All in all, this does not mean that paternal explanations are not valid--at least to the parents in question it is because precisely under these social settings that they take actions, interact with their adolescent children, and look for solutions. We think that parents who feel they are part of the problem and responsible for their children's drug use may be willing to participate in guidance and treatment groups. Despite the physical and emotional distance that adolescents feel they need to keep from their families, it is still one of the main environments of their lives, and healthcare service may have direct access to them.

In addition, we cannot continue to think that adolescents' illegal drug use has unique motivations and dynamics for boys and girls. We must understand the gender-related differences that have to be taken into account in prevention and rehabilitation.

Finally, these findings should be considered with caution, as this population was selected in drug rehabilitation centers. The SRS may explain--from the standpoint of the social actors' subjectivity--that drug use may be different in other populations.


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This study was supported by a grant from the Fondo de Fomento a la Investigacion from the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social.

Bertha Lidia Nuno-Gutierrez is a senior researcher and chief at the Unidad de Investigacion Epidemiologica y en Servicios de Salud del Adolescente from the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social and is a professor at the Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico.

Jose Alvarez-Nemegyei is an associate researcher at the Unidad de Investigacion Medica from the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social in Merida Yucatan.

Oscar Rodriguez-Cerda is a researcher and professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana Iztapalpa. Mexico, D.F.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Bertha Lidia Nuno-Gutierrez, Unidad de Investigacion Epidemiologica y en Servicios de Salud del Adolescente, IMSS, Av. Tonala No. 121. Planta alta, Tonala Jalisco, Mexico. CP 45400. E-mail:

Table 1 Descriptors associated with drug use according to the parents
of adolescent users, classified by dimensions


Descriptors                        Frequency    %    Order of   Cultural
                                                     mention     weight

Family problems                       10       19      2.1       0.208
Lack of communication                  6       12      1.9       0.111
Incomprehension                        5       10       2        0.103
Lack of attention                      5       10      2.2       0.094
Not enough love shown                  4        8       3        0.073
Familial desintegration                3        6      2.3       0.061
Parental neglect                       3        6      2.2       0.061
Parental guilt                         2        4       1        0.058
Domestic violence                      3        6      2.5       0.056
Lack of support                        2        4      2.5       0.043
Problems with parents                  2        4       2        0.038
Not having someone to look after       2        4       2        0.038
Problems with boy/girlfriend           1        2       1        0.029
Lack of family union                   1        2       1        0.029
They feel they are worthy enough       1        2       3        0.016
Notice the example in the family       2        4       4        0.016
                                      52       100     0.7       1.034
Descriptors                        Frequency    %    Order of   Cultural
                                                     mention     weight

Because of friends                    23       92      3.9       0.374
Because of the pressure                1        4       1        0.029
To do the same as the others           1        4       4        0.011
                                      25       100     0.4       0.414


Descriptors                        Frequency    %    Order of   Cultural
                                                     mention     weight

Neighborhood atmosphere                4       36      3.6       0.073
Communication media                    2       18       2        0.046
Easy access                            3       27      3.7       0.032
Economy of the country                 2       18      3.5       0.020
                                      11       100     1.2       0.171


Descriptors                        Frequency    %    Order of   Cultural
                                                     mention     weight

Curiosity                              6       13      2.3       0.182
Loneliness                             3        7      2.3       0.063
Experimentation                        7       15      3.3       0.061
Having problems                        3        7      1.7       0.060
Love deception                         2        4      1.5       0.048
They feel rejected                     2        4       2        0.046
Unemployed                             3        7      3.7       0.043
Misguided                              3        7       4        0.042
Out of sheer pleasure                  1        2       1        0.029
Laziness                               1        2       1        0.029
Weak character                         1        2       1        0.029
Having too much freedom                1        2       2        0.020
To run away from problems              1        2       2        0.020
Temptation                             1        2       2        0.020
Having money                           1        2       2        0.020
To feel important                      1        2       3        0.016
Live life quickly                      1        2       3        0.016
To feel they are the greatest          1        2       3        0.016
To feel out of touch                   1        2       3        0.016
  with reality
They feel special                      1        2       4        0.011
Frustration                            1        2       4        0.011
Wrong use of their rights              1        2       4        0.011
To show they are capable of doin       1        2       5        0.006
As a mens of escape                    1        2       5        0.006
To call attention to themselves        1        2       5        0.006
                                      46       100     1.5       0.827

Table 2 Gender differences in paternal narratives about the illegal
drug use onset from male and female adolescent offspring

Category       Total of informants                  Informants
                                                    with sons

Drug use in    Drug use by masculine                No
the family     authority figures.                   differences
               Higher use in nuclear families
               than in the grandparents'.

Family         Untied families, low income          No
               and parents' low schooling           differences
atmosphere     levels, conflictive marital
               relationships, semiperipheral
               father, mother with overprotective
               tendencies, parental style
               with diffuse rules, conflictive
               relationship between parents
               and drug using children.

Paternal       They hoped that the drug use         No
expectations   and problematic behavior from        differences
               relatives would stop adolescent
               children from taking drugs.

Etiology       Failure and neglect in their         Pernicious
expectations   parental roles.                      friends'
               Son and daughters were perceived     influences
               as having an image closer
               to that of a girl-boy given
               their emotional and economic
               dependence, and their inexpe-
               rience, which made them
               vulnerable to the influence
               of the other people.

Paternal       Emotional deception and              Search for an
response in    feeling of guilt.                    extracurricular
the face of                                         activity or job
drug use                                            for a son

Category       Informants with daughters

Drug use in    No differences
the family

Family         More severe family problems: more rejection
atmosphere     and familial stigma and higher disregard
               towards daughters.

Paternal       A daughter's coming of age as wife and
expectations   mother; drugs being an obstacle to such an

Etiology       Parents did not know how to protect and
expectations   satisfy their daughters' emotional needs.

Paternal       Lower tolerance to drug use, higher presence
response in    of feelings of guilt and depressive symptoms
the face of    in the mothers. Higher family impact from
drug use       drug use. All of this resulted in an earlier
               attendance to health care services.

Source: In-depth interviews to the mothers and fathers of male (n=7)
and female (N=8) illegal drug-taking adolescents
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