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Risk Behaviors of Adolescents
It is useful to consider substance use during adolescence within the context of the more general spectrum of risk behaviors that mark this developmental period. Problem behavior theory provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding risk behaviors during the adolescent period. Problem behavior theory defines risk behavior as behavior that can interfere with successful psychosocial development (e.g., having deviant peers), whereas problem behaviors are risk behaviors that lead to either formal or informal social responses designed to control them (e.g., substance use) (Jessor and Jessor, 1977). In other words, risk behaviors increase the adolescent's vulnerability to a problem, whereas problem behaviors incur consequences, such as discipline at home or school. As Jessor and his colleagues observed in several investigations, problem behaviors tend to cluster in an individual; for example, those who experiment with substance use also tend to engage in risky sexual practices and illegal behavior (Jessor, 1991).
Risk behaviors can become a "risk behavior syndrome" (DuRant et al., 1995a, 1995b) in that problem behaviors serve a common social or psychological developmental goal, such as separating from parents, achieving adult status, or gaining peer acceptance. These behaviors may also help an adolescent cope with failure, boredom, social anxiety or isolation, unhappiness, rejection, and low self-esteem. One example of a risk behavior syndrome is an adolescent's reported use of substances as a means of gaining social status and acceptance from peers and, at the same time, counteracting dysphoria and feelings of low self-worth.
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