Theses Doctoral

The Relationship between Distress Tolerance, Parenting, and Substance Use Among Adolescent Mothers

Im, Jennifer

Adolescent mothers are a vulnerable population for a multitude of reasons. For one, adolescent mothers concurrently undergo two significant developmental phases and transitions: adolescence and parenting. Adolescence is the psychosocial period of adjustment marked by dramatic neural, hormonal, cognitive, psychological, physical, and biological changes. While adolescence is a time of cognitive advancement, it is also a time of stress, identity development, peer pressure, mood disruptions, and emotion regulation difficulties. While parenthood presents with positive changes, it simultaneously introduces challenges, such as increases in caretaking responsibilities, time commitment, and distress. Additionally, as statistics have shown, many adolescent mothers face a host of risk factors (e.g., poverty, low socioeconomic status (SES), and low educational attainment), making these “adolescent mothers at risk (AMARs)” a highly vulnerable population. Adolescence is also a time when substance use initiation and experimentation occur. While some level of substance use is normative among adolescents, substance use is especially detrimental for adolescent mothers and their children. According to the literature, substance-using mothers differ from their non-substance-using counterparts in terms of how the former parent their children. For example, substance-using mothers tend to display decreased levels of warmth (Barnow, Schuckit, Lucht, John, & Freyberger, 2002; Gruber and Taylor, 2006; Mayes & Truman, 2002; Suchman et al., 2007) as well as extreme styles of parenting (e.g., minimal supervision and intolerant attitudes) (Suchman & Luthar, 2000).

This dissertation used archived data to examine AMARs and explore their levels of distress tolerance, substance use, and parenting attitudes and beliefs. Specifically, this dissertation sought to address the following questions: Is there an association between distress tolerance, substance use, and parenting attitudes and beliefs? Does substance use mediate the association between distress tolerance and parenting attitudes and beliefs?

Seventy-two mothers living in nine Transitional Living Programs (TLPs) across a Northeast state were interviewed. Participants were aged 16-22 years with a mean age of 19. Participants were predominantly Latino and African American, and nearly half of the participants reported having a history of living in foster care or group home with an average of five years spent in these institutions. Data were collected from the baseline interview of a pilot randomized control trial examining an intervention for increasing positive parenting among homeless AMARs. Distress tolerance was operationalized via the Distress Tolerance Scale (Simons & Gaher, 2005), and parenting attitudes and beliefs were operationalized through the Adult Adolescent Parenting Inventory-2 (Bavolek & Keene, 2010). Lifetime and recent frequency of substance use was also examined. Race/ethnicity was controlled for in all analyses because the past literature has documented racial/ethnic minority adolescent mothers experiencing more adversities and vulnerabilities compared to their White counterparts (Huang et al., 2014, 2019).

Consistent with the literature, we found an association between distress tolerance and substance use, substance use and parenting attitudes and beliefs, as well as distress tolerance and parenting attitudes and beliefs. Specifically, there was an association between low distress tolerance and high levels of substance use; high levels of substance use and poor parenting attitudes and beliefs; and low distress tolerance and poor parenting attitudes and beliefs. In terms of the mediation analysis, only substance use within the past six months mediated the relationship between distress tolerance and parenting attitudes and beliefs. In other words, low distress tolerance led to higher levels of substance use within the past six months, which in turn led to poorer parenting attitudes and beliefs.

One implication of the results is that recent substance use, rather than lifetime history, has a more salient effect on parenting attitudes and beliefs. Overall, the majority of the AMARs in the current study’s sample demonstrated resilience and had scores reflective of positive parenting attitudes and beliefs despite their notably low levels of distress tolerance. While the results of the study are promising, they should be interpreted with caution considering several limitations, including a small effect size from the mediation analysis and potential underreporting among AMARs. Future research should continue to explore various iterations of the research question (e.g., different combinations of distress tolerance, substance use, and parenting attitudes and beliefs as the independent, mediating, and outcome variables) and psychometric properties of the measures utilized.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
School Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Peverly, Stephen T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 8, 2021