Family structure and substance use problems in adolescence and early adulthood: examining explanations for the relationship


Anne E. Barrett, Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, 636 W. Call Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306–1121, USA. E-mail:


Aims  Our study has two goals: to evaluate variation in symptoms of substance abuse/dependence by family structure and to examine several potential explanations for this association, including differences in socio-economic status, social support, social stress and perceived approval and use of substances by family and friends.

Design  Ordinary least squares (OLS) regression is used to examine the association between family type and problematic substance use and to assess the hypothesized mediators.

Setting  Data were collected between 1998 and 2000 as part of a study of the prevalence and social distributions of psychiatric and substance use disorders. The study involved face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of young adults in a South Florida community.

Participants  Respondents (n = 1760) were between 18 and 23 years of age. Approximately 25% were of Cuban origin, 25% other Caribbean basin Hispanic, 25% African American and 25% non-Hispanic white.

Measurements  Four family types are examined: mother–father families, single-parent families, single-parent families that include other adult relative(s) and stepfamilies. Problematic substance use is measured by a set of 22 substance abuse/dependence symptoms.

Findings  Controlling for race–ethnicity and gender, respondents from single-parent families report a significantly higher level of problematic substance use than those from mother–father families. Although nearly all explanations receive support, we find the strongest evidence for differential association with deviant peers and exposure to stress.

Conclusions  Our findings suggest that—rather than representing a unique and independent predictor of substance use problems—family structure can be viewed as a marker of the unequal distribution of factors influencing the risk of problematic substance use.