Boys With Social Difficulties At Much Higher Risk Of Early Substance Abuse

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Adolescent boys can be a handful; some act out with inappropriate behavior, while others may struggle to fit in socially among their peers. While most parents assume their son will grow out of such behavior as they mature, a new set of research suggests that social and behavioral difficulties in adolescent boys may act as a precursor to aggressive actions and drug abuse a few years later.

Boys entering the sixth grade with simultaneously occurring social skill, anxiety, conduct, and learning problems are at the greatest risk of developing more aggressive behavior and becoming regular users of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana by the end of eighth grade, a study by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign finds.

“While substance use among all boys in the study population increased over time, it increased the fastest among boys who had the greatest social skills needs,” says University of Illinois social work professor Kevin Tan, the principal investigator of the study, in a university release.

According to the research, it’s a combination of characteristics, not just one, that seems to predict a youth’s risk of developing or avoiding problem behaviors.

Tan and his team found four patterns of co-occurring social-emotional learning and behavior problems in the 2,600+ middle school boys involved in the study. The students came from 37 schools located in Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.

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Researchers surveyed the students four different times between the beginning fall term of sixth grade and the final spring term of eighth grade. The surveys were meant to assess verbal, relational, and physical aggression, and determine each boy’s level of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.

Each study participant’s teacher was also asked to rate their student’s social skills development, symptoms of anxiety, and learning problems. Additionally, teachers weighed in on each boy’s academic conduct, such as how often they skipped class or neglected their homework.

Adolescent males who had serious problems in all four domains; social skills, anxiety, learning, and conduct, were found to be the most likely to engage in aggressive behaviors and substance abuse by the end of eighth grade. This group comprised 6.3% of the total study population sample.

On the other hand, males who scored well on social, learning, conduct, and emotional tests, a group that comprised 61% of the sample, exhibited only small increases in physical aggression and substance abuse.

The third behavioral pattern group, boys with poor social skills combined with learning and conduct problems, entered the sixth grade with the most behavioral problems. However, their physical and relational aggression, along with their cigarette smoking, actually declined by the eighth grade. Their alcohol and marijuana use didn’t change.

Finally, researchers identified another at-risk group that has largely been ignored up until now: boys with positive social skills but moderate issues with learning, anxiety, and conduct. This group made up 15% of the participants in this study.

“Although these boys may be socially skilled, their other problems can lead to increased aggression and substance use as they progress through middle school,” Tan says.

This group’s social skills explain their verbal aggression, because “these boys are more attuned to how to utilize indirect forms of aggression as a means of harming others and, over time, become more accustomed to dealing with interpersonal matters through non-physical means,” the study reads.

Males in this group also saw their alcohol and marijuana use increase, but at lower rates than those with problems across all four studied categories. Tan believes this is because these adolescents may be more susceptible to peer pressure and influence, ultimately resulting in increased drug use.

“Understanding these configurations of social-emotional, learning and conduct problems can help us understand how they elevate or decrease students’ risks for different outcomes,” Tan concludes. “There are opportunities here for schools to provide early prevention and interventions to address any problems before they become severe.”

The study is published in the Journal of Early Adolescence.

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