Behavioral and mental health problems are rooted in early developmental experiences and are shaped by multiple psychological and social influences. Effective prevention and early intervention efforts can interrupt the development of problem outcomes and promote positive youth development. Psychosocial Development and Risk studies examine longitudinal pathways leading toward behavioral and emotional problems, and identify risk and protective factors that either increase or decrease risk for problem outcomes over time. These studies provide essential knowledge for informing the development and refinement of interventions to prevent problem outcomes and promote positive functioning among youth.
Cumulative Risk Study
Risk for initiating and continuing to use and misuse drugs is higher among youth who experience multiple contextual risk factors, such as birth complications and socioeconomic disadvantage, early in development. However, the reasons why this happens over time are not well understood. In this project, we conducted analyses of data from the 1986 Northern Finland Birth Cohort (NFBCS), a large-scale study of 9,432 youth followed from birth through childhood and adolescence, and into young adulthood. Our analyses showed, for example, that the higher the number of risk factors, as early as the prenatal/birth period, the more likely a child is to initiate drug use and to use drugs frequently and in larger amounts during adolescence, sixteen years later. Additional analyses addressed the reasons why cumulative contextual risk is related to problem outcomes over time. For example, cumulative contextual risk at birth was shown to be associated with increased learning difficulties and conduct problems in childhood, which were associated, in turn, with an earlier age of substance use onset; early substance use initiation further predicted academic difficulties and school misbehavior in adolescence. These results suggest that not only should we reduce children’s exposure to contextual risks, such as poverty, but also we should work to improve the educational experiences and prosocial peer relationships of vulnerable children who do experience adversities early in development, potentially as a way to direct those children away from substance use and other problems.
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Primary Investigators: W. Alex Mason, Boys Town and Jukka Savolainen, University of Michigan.
Executive Control Study
Deficits in executive control (EC), a set of cognitive abilities for directing attention and behavior, have been proposed as important and modifiable contributors to adolescent problem behaviors, including substance use as well as co-occurring externalizing and internalizing problems. This project addresses these issues by extending an ongoing study of young children and their parents followed during preschool and the elementary school years with intensive, repeated, performance-based measures of EC (along with multi-rater, multi-method assessments of a broad array of additional factors) by collecting new data at ages 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. We are examining EC in preschool, throughout childhood, and into adolescence in relation to the onset and growth of substance use and problem co-occurrence, and conducting tests of mediation via social developmental processes. The long-term goal is to guide the development and refinement of substance use preventive interventions targeting EC as a modifiable risk factor at critical points in development.
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Primary Investigators: W. Alex Mason, Boys Town and Timothy Nelson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.