Family Characteristics and Adolescent Substance Use

By Stephenson, Andy L.; Henry, Carolyn S. et al. | Adolescence, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Family Characteristics and Adolescent Substance Use


Stephenson, Andy L., Henry, Carolyn S., Robinson, Linda C., Adolescence


As families progress through the life cycle, they face a variety of predicted and unpredicted stressors (Boss, 1987; McCubbin & Boss, 1980; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1987; Olson et al., 1983). The adolescent phase of the family life cycle is particularly stressful for many families (Olson et al., 1983). During this phase, some families adapt by using existing and new resources and defining stressors as manageable events. In contrast, other families who face similar challenges respond less effectively, resulting in decreased well-being of individual family members, ineffective family functioning, and difficulty in relations of the family with the broader community (McCubbin & Thompson, 1987; McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988). According to family stress theory, the extent of family adaptation is explained in part by the adaptation of individual family members including adolescents. Thus, the purpose of this study was to examine how adolescent perceptions of family characteristics predicted patterns of adolescent substance use.

Family Stress Theory and Adolescent Substance Use

Previous research on adolescent substance use and families often focused upon adolescent involvement with substances as a family stressor event (Needle, Glynn, & Needle, 1983; Percy & Nelson, 1989). Consistent with family stress theory, such an approach examines the means by which family systems respond to the problems created. In contrast, this article proposes an alternative application of family stress theory that views problems with adolescent substance use as one indicator of difficulties in adolescent adaptation to family stress. Specifically, McCubbin and Patterson (1983) posited that over time, families encounter a series of predictable and unpredictable stressor events that impact on families in a variety of ways. Based upon the combination of circumstances surrounding a stressor event, the family resources, the family perception of the situation, accumulation of stressors, community resources, redefinition of the situation, and coping styles, the level of family adaptation to stress may be examined on three levels: individual family members, the family system, and family-community fit (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983). Consequently, family factors such as parental substance use and the internal resources of a family may be expected to predict the adaptation of individual members (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983). During times of stress, families that successfully negotiate transitions are able to utilize their resources and manage stress in ways that encourage the development of individual family members. On the other hand, families that are unable to respond effectively to stress manifest symptoms in the form of lower well-being among family members. Piercy and Nelson (1989) observed that one indicator of decreased adolescent adaptation is substance use. Thus, a better understanding of the family characteristics most closely linked to substance use allows for insights into ways of strengthening families as a means of reducing adolescent vulnerability to substance use problems (Necomb & Bentler, 1988).

Beschner (1985) reported that one in 18 high school seniors reported using marijuana dally, that over half of high school seniors had experimented with marijuana, and less than 10% had never experimented with alcohol. National surveys indicate that 92% of high school seniors report having used alcohol, while between 72 and 77% of eighth graders reported experimentation (Oetting & Beauvais, 1990). Although overall adolescent substance use increased in the late 1970s and declined in the 1980s, substance use increased dramatically from 6th to 9th grade during the same period (Oetting & Beauvais, 1990). Following alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is the next most commonly used substance and has been tried by almost half of all high school seniors. Given the number of youth shown to participate in substance use, identifying family characteristics associated with adolescent substance use can provide a foundation from which to develop family-based prevention and intervention programs. …

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