Boys with Social Difficulties More Susceptible to Early Substance Use

Summary: A new study reports boys with social skill problems during sixth grade are more likely to develop substance use issues by grade eight.

Source: University of Illinois.

Boys who enter sixth-grade with co-occurring social skills, anxiety, learning and conduct problems are at the greatest risk of developing aggressive behavior and using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana by the end of eighth grade, a new study found.

“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,” said University of Illinois social work professor Kevin Tan, the principal investigator of the study.

Rather than any single factor, a combination of characteristics may predict youths’ risk of succumbing to or avoiding problem behaviors, Tan said.

Tan and his co-authors found four distinct patterns of co-occurring social-emotional learning and behavioral problems among the more than 2,600 middle-school boys in their study. The boys were students at 37 schools located in Chicago; Durham, North Carolina; Athens, Georgia; and Richmond, Virginia.

At four time points, beginning in the fall term of sixth grade and ending in the spring term of eighth grade, the students were surveyed on their verbal, relational and physical aggression and their use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana during the prior 30 days.

At each time point, a teacher also assessed each boy’s social skills development, symptoms of anxiety and learning problems. Teachers also reported on their students’ conduct, such as how frequently they skipped classes and stole from other students.

Boys who had significant problems in all four domains – social skills, anxiety, learning and conduct – were the most susceptible to engaging in aggression and substance use, the researchers found.

Although this group composed only 6.3 percent of the study population, prior research has shown that youths with these characteristics are at the greatest risk of the poorest outcomes across their lifespans, according to Tan and his co-authors.

Conversely, the researchers found that boys who scored well on social, emotional, learning and conduct – a group that composed more than 61 percent of the sample – showed only small increases in physical aggression and substance use.

The third risk pattern involved boys who had poor social skills in addition to learning and conduct problems. While these boys entered sixth grade exhibiting the most behavioral problems, their physical and relational aggression and cigarette smoking declined over time and their alcohol and marijuana use didn’t vary.

The researchers also identified a fourth distinct risk pattern previously unexamined in research pertaining to a group of boys who may be underserved by practitioners. Boys in this group, which composed about 15 percent of the sample population, had positive social skills but moderate problems with learning, anxiety and conduct.

“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 said.

boy walking on train tracks

These youths’ social skills may account for their heightened verbal aggression, the researchers hypothesized, 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.”

Alcohol and marijuana use increased among boys in this group, but at lower rates than their peers in the high-risk group. Tan and his co-authors suggested that these social boys may be more susceptible to negative peer influences that lead to experimentation with alcohol and drugs.

“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 said. “There are opportunities here for schools to provide early prevention and interventions to address any problems before they become severe.”


Funding: The data used in the study were drawn from the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, a middle-school violence prevention study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: Sharita Forrest – University of Illinois
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Patterns of Social-Emotional Needs and Trajectories of Aggression and Substance Use Among Middle School Boys” by Kevin Tan, Deborah Gorman-Smith, Michael Schoeny, Yoonsun Choi in Journal of Early Adolescence. Published November 29 2018.

University of Illinois”Boys with Social Difficulties More Susceptible to Early Substance Use.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 December 2018.


Patterns of Social-Emotional Needs and Trajectories of Aggression and Substance Use Among Middle School Boyss

Co-occurring social-emotional problems are associated with increased risk of aggression and substance use. However, few studies examine their configurational patterns. This study identifies patterns of co-occurring social skills, anxiety, learning, and conduct problems among 2,632 urban boys at entry into sixth grade, and their related aggression and substance use trajectories through eighth grade. Latent class analysis revealed four patterns at school entry: “low-all,” “poor social skills,” “positive social skills,” and “high all.” Findings point to important variation in risk. Problem behaviors increased the least through middle school for the “low-all” pattern. The “positive social skills” pattern had an average increase, while the “poor social skills” pattern had higher levels of problem behaviors in sixth and seventh grade. The “high all” showed the fastest increase in problem behaviors and the highest levels in eighth grade. Discussion focuses on implications for a multi-tiered school-based system of supports for behavioral risk management.